Artificial Intelligence and Society: Philosophy of Fallibility
Part 6: Totalitarianism as a Pathological Manifestation of Reason

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

Hannah Arendt analyzed a strange pathological mechanism of reason that was observed under a totalitarian system based on the descriptions of purge trials spearheaded by the Soviet secret police under Stalin's autocratic regime (Arendt, 2017). In the Stalin-era Soviet Union, nearly one million people were purged (executed) on false charges. Among the victims of the purge were many people from crackdown enforcement organs, including senior officials of the Communist Party and the secret police. According to Arendt, opening up senior party and police posts through periodic purges became a routine tactic for the Stalin regime to promise prosperous careers to younger generations.

Many party members that were accused of and urged to confess to crimes chose to make (false) confessions and accept execution without protest. Arendt pointed out that this strange phenomenon of willingness to sacrifice one's own life among senior party members originated in their belief in the "consistency of reasoning" as the ultimate foundation of their identity. People clinging to their belief in the party's infallibility—that "the party never makes a mistake"—were forced by the "consistency of reasoning " into a situation where there was no choice but to make false confessions. According to Arendt, when party members hurling false accusations at innocent comrades attempted to wring out confessions from the accused, they would resort to the following line of logic. "You admit the fact that the Party never makes a mistake. The Party is accusing you of being the perpetrator of a certain political crime. If you have committed the crime, you must be punished. If you insisted that you had not committed that crime and plead innocence, by pleading innocence, you would commit the crime of denying the fact that the Party never makes a mistake."

If party members who accepted the party's infallibility as the foundation of their total existence had rejected the charges brought by the party against them, that would have amounted to the denial of the foundation of their existence. Conversely, their thinking went, accepting false charges would be the greatest heroic contribution that they could make to the party. In this way, innocent party members made false confessions en masse and were executed on that basis. Those party members believed that denying the party's infallibility was a situation that had to be avoided, even by sacrificing their own lives. "This logic's binding power rests in the principle that 'you must not contradict yourself.' The binding power of this strange usage of the law of non-contradiction rests in the assumptions that contradiction renders everything meaningless and that meaning is the same thing as consistency" (Arendt, 2017).

The reason why people living under a totalitarian regime gave precedence to the consistency of reasoning over their own lives was exactly the same reason why totalitarianism spread in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. "The fundamental experience … that is politically acquired under the totalitarian rule is the experience of being abandoned. It is obvious that politically, this strange link between the ideology's forcible and coercive deduction and Verlassenheit (the state of being abandoned) was discovered for the first time by the totalitarian system of rule and was utilized for the system's objectives" (Arendt, 2017).

The state of being abandoned mentioned above is the same as the sense of being lonely or useless experienced by modern people. Many modern people who have lost their place of belonging due to the collapse of traditional religious beliefs and communities experience a feeling of loneliness. More specifically, they feel that they have been abandoned, are useless for society and have nowhere that they belong. Lonely, abandoned people who can no longer rely on a traditional community or religion as the foundation of their identity find the foundation of their own existence exclusively in the "consistency of reasoning." In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt presented her finding that this nature of modern people allows totalitarian rule to be realized. It may be surprising to hear that the absence of self-contradiction, that is, the consistency of reasoning, in itself can be the foundation of human beings' existence. People who have been abandoned and have nowhere they belong have nothing in which they can believe as being the foundation of their existence, and so they cling to anything in which they can believe. In modern society, where nothing is definite, the consistency of deductive reasoning, such as mathematical equations, is the only thing on which people can ultimately rely as something secure. Therefore, modern people, particularly those living under a totalitarian regime, accept the absence of self-contradiction, the consistency of reasoning, and infallibility as the guiding principles that precede everything else. That is the only way that they can escape the real world where nothing is definite and live safely in a "secure" world. For people who feel that they have been abandoned, the consistency of reasoning is itself the foundation of existence, and therefore, it makes no difference on which ideology the reasoning is based. If a totalitarian regime provides people who have experienced abandonment with an ideology centering on a racial or class struggle, and that struggle is used as a starting point for the reasoning behind the support for the regime, those people decide what will happen (what should happen) purely through deductive reasoning from that starting point and implement decisions based on that reasoning. If a racial struggle ideology is provided as a starting point, deductive reasoning arrives at the conclusion that inferior races must be wiped out. To stick to the consistency of reasoning, people under a totalitarian regime have no option but to implement the policy of systematically sending “inferior races” to extinction in the real world.

The very nature of totalitarianism is to transform reality so that it fits with the conclusion arrived at as a result of deductive reasoning, in order to escape the reality where nothing is secure, and to live in a "secure world" that is governed by the "consistency of logic." Reason runs out of control, creating a situation similar to the myth of the Procrustean bed, which describes the atrocity of a thief cutting off the legs of his victims to fit the bodies to the size of the bed on which they lay.

April 25, 2022

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