Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism might very well be the first "great" book of the 21st Century, since it's probably the first book that really captures what the 20th Century was about, and what we have carried over into the 21st as unfinished business. But the book may not get the attention it deserves, because it isn't a very scholarly work. It manages to discuss totalitarianism without referencing Hannah Arendt even once, and it doesn't have so much as a minimal Index. What it has, instead, is a coherent thesis. Consider the following passage:
He [Albert Camus] had noticed a modern impulse to rebel, which had come out of the French Revolution and the nineteenth century and had very quickly, in the name of an ideal, mutated into a cult of death. And the ideal was always the same, though each movement gave it a different name. It was not skepticism and doubt. It was the ideal of submission. (p. 46)
This is an enormous insight, and to be frank it does not appear with such clarity in Arendt's work. Toward the end of her massive treatise, The Origins of Totalitarianism, she writes:
What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the evergrowing masses of our century. The merciless process into which totalitarianism derives and organizes the masses looks like a suicidal escape from this reality. The "ice-cold reasoning" and the "mighty tentacle" of dialectics which "seizes you as in a vise" appears like a last support in a world where nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon. It is the inner coercion whose only content is the strict avoidance of contradictions that seems to confirm a man's identity outside all relationships with others. It fits him into the iron band of terror even when he is alone, and totalitarian domination tries never to leave him alone except in the extreme situation of solitary confinement. By destroying all space between men and pressing men against each other, even the productive potentialities of isolation are annihilated; by teaching and glorifying the logical reasoning of loneliness where man knows that he will be utterly lost if ever he lets go of the first premise from which the whole process is being started, even the slim chances that loneliness may be transformed into solitude and logic into thought are obliterated. If this practice is compared with that of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth.
But this explanation seems grossly inadequate coming at the end of nearly 500 pages that recount the crimes of Nazism and Stalinism. Surely the notion that it's all a matter of loneliness appeals to a sense of profound irony, but couldn't we all just get a puppy? Even though, as I read this passage some 25 years ago, I was inclined to intone it with reverence it still rang a bit hollow. This was the payoff for all that scholarly zeal and industry? This? Somehow I didn't feel that she had quite "got it."
Moreover, Arendt never makes the connection between terror as an organizing principle for a 20th Century form of government, and terrorism as a strategy of totalitarian movements that happen to be out of power. And so she did, in fact, miss a big piece of the puzzle. While it is true that lonely people might be more likely to adopt an ideology of submission, it's a bit thin as an explanation for Auschwitz.
And of course even if Arendt had not completely missed the seeding of the Middle East with the totalitarian ideas of the Nazis and the Stalinists, she still would never have guessed that Islam itself could become the excuse for such a movement. She, herself, had been a product of the German Counter-enlightenment. Her mentor, Martin Heidegger, made a vain bid to become the philosopher of National Socialism, and would have succeeded had not the Nazis been too clever. So the common thread that runs through the writings of the Ba'ath founder, Michael Aflaq, and the Islamist founder, Sayyid Qutb, ought to have been well known to her, and yet she never seems to have perceived the role that this movement played in nearly all manifestations of totalitarianism.
So if Berman lacks some background, he yet manages to perceive a common thread that others missed. And he stands as the first to make this leap. Well, perhaps not the first because I haven't yet read Daniel Pipes. But even today people don't appear to see the connection between Jurgen Habermas' "Lifeworld vs. System World" typology, inherited from Husserl and Heidegger, and the philosophy of Qutb, which simply maps the same concepts into the religious framework of Islam. Like Arendt the philosophers argue that man has become alienated from his own nature, whether through the "false consciousness" of Karl Marx or by our "deluded faith in the power of reason," producing the "tyranny of technology over life." So it doesn't seem strange for Arendt to see totalitarianism as caused by the same sort of malady that Qutb frets over, and to identify loneliness or alienation as the culprit. Of course, it had to be.
There is not such a great distance, philosophically, between Qutb's "hideous schizophrenia" of modern life, and the nostalgic longing for the "Lebenswelt" that drives much of modern European philosophy. The real difference lies mostly in the object of submission, and a certain adolescent permissiveness in the modern European model.
But Liberalism did not evolve as a cure for the condition of mankind. It evolved as a cure for the tendency of mankind to become dogmatic. Hence it looks nothing like a cure for our deepest longings. It is not a way to perfect humanity. One side sees the human condition as tragically fragmented, and seeks a remedy in unity by merging with some transcendent principle or authority. The other sees the remedy as the problem, and seeks to balance the fragments into relatively stable spheres of influence. So ultimately any perspective that sees unity as inherently plural (and minimally "two") must be more or less liberal, while any perspective that can't tolerate the two-ness of unity is probably more or less anti-liberal. Totalitarian ideologies, for all their talk of dialectics, are rooted in a static view of nature and mankind. Liberalism allows that duality must be essential, and natural, and therefore not a source of existential consternation.
Berman reflects this simple insight in his critique of Noam Chomsky, whom he views as "the last of the 19th Century rationalists." But this analysis, though informative, doesn't quite capture the slipperiness of Chomsky, whose philosophy is ultimately counter-rational. While Chomsky does, in fact, tend to see the world in the simplistic terms of a "greed vs. freedom" dialectic, his real problem is that he simply has no response to calamity. To him it's a struggle between good and evil, but the evil is just everyday greed. And, of course, the greedy don't deserve a hearing. Liberalism allows for the fact that humans harbor conflicting impulses within the same individual at the same time. If there were no internal conflicts choice would be unproblematic, and life would be pretty bland.
Berman is probably more clear about totalitarianism than liberalism, which may be why his great book ultimately reaches a sort of impasse.
The whole of the Muslim world has been overwhelmed by German philosophies from long ago--the philosophies of revolutionary nationalism and totalitarianism, cannily translated into Muslim dialects. Let the Germans go door to door throughout the region, issuing a product recall.(p. 208)
But it's not clear that the Germans are even aware of the problem, let alone that they caused the trouble themselves. It isn't the Germans, but the Americans, who recognize the necessity. It's the American faith that the sovereignty of others means security for themselves that's exceptional. And it's their willingness to fight for that principle, that makes a future without either totalitarianism or terrorism even conceivable. And perhaps we need to be as canny as those Germans were, about communicating the antidote.
Ultimately the problem lies in the habit of wishful thinking that afflicts most of America's historical allies, and some of its own deluded clan. Without any capacity to confront calamity the natural tendency is to deny it. Pretend it doesn't exist, or is an exaggeration, and you need not change your worldview, or your mind. (But you may be obligated to hate the bearer of bad tidings.) Thus we find Chomsky's obsessive unwillingness to be impressed by 9/11, an attitude also affected by Michael Moore and even Derrida and Habermas, recently. It's a sort of false bravado that takes refuge in subtly deceptive hermeneutic constructions, or outright lies, and insists that the analysis of text is indistinguishable from the analysis of reality. And it's only this reluctance to lock the horns of the dilemma that represents the impasse. How could there be any problem that can't be resolved by a trick of the tongue, or the eye? Oh, I mean by revealing the tricks, of course. It was all just a trick of the eye that day in early September. Don't be alarmed.
But thanks to Berman's eloquence we are able to see beyond such pretense. We are at last able to perceive clearly the continuity of the monster that replaced chattel slavery as the world's consummate evil, and is destined to one day join it at the top of the ash heap. It is alarming. But not beyond us.