Friday, July 25, 2008

Book Review: Envisioning Power

I would first like to thank my friend and occasional Fannie's Room commenter Vieve for recommending anthropologist Eric Wolf's book Envisioning Power. She recommended it to me awhile ago, but I finally got around to finding a cheap copy, ordering it, and reading it.

The general purpose of this book is to examine the role of culture, ideas, and power by examining case studies of three societies characterized by strong ideologies and power imbalances. Now, since anthropology is not my area of expertise, I will save the "deep" anthropological analyses for actual anthropologists. Rather, I want to focus on Wolf's chapter examining the conditions and interplay of ideas surrounding Nazi Germany.

See, it is an unfortunate fact of internet life that over-the-top Hitler/Nazi analogies are overused. The true purpose of the Hitler/Nazi analogy is often to invoke guilt by association. Because Hitler/Nazis are so thoroughly discredited, linking a person's idea with Hitler/Nazis supposedly discredits that idea and/or person. Yet, those who make such analogies usually lack a thorough, nuanced, and complex understanding of Nazi Germany. Unsurprisingly, these analogies usually fail because they are so over-simplified, which makes them ludicrous. What ends up happening is that the mere existence of the analogy automatically discredits the person making the analogy. Yet, perhaps more importantly, these faulty and exaggerated Hitler/Nazi analogies rob valid comparisons of their impact. I know, I know. Everyone thinks that their analogy is valid. Chances are, however, it's not. Especially if you're talking about something not even remotely close to the horror that was the Holocaust. Deal with it. Buck up and at least try to craft a legitimate argument.

1. National Socialism

First off, although it was called National Socialism, the Nazi movement was not actually rooted in the ideology of socialism. The Third Reich "did not alter the capitalist relations that had guided the country's mobilization of social labor throughout its forward thrust into industrial capitalism after the mid-nineteenth century" (278- all numbered citations are from Envisioning Power)

Taking this overview from Wikipedia for ease of reference "Nazism is generally considered by scholars to be a form of fascism. While not directly linked to any school of western conservative thought, like all strains of fascism, it drew many elements from and formed solid alliances with the political right." In other words, although National Socialism has the word "socialism" in its name, it is more associated with the Rightist movements than with Leftist movements. Because of the "Socialism" label, Nazi analogies are sometimes inaccurately used to try to discredit all forms of socialist/leftist thought.

2. Culture, Language, and Power

To put it broadly, the three societal case studies presented in Wolf's book are observations in how culture, language, and power inter-relate. Again, the book is pretty dense and any book review could take a variety of directions. So, if you're really interested in these topics, I urge you to read the book itself. My review is but one way of looking at these concepts.

Generally, I tend to agree with Pierre Boudieu that "language is not only an instrument of communication or even of knowledge, but also an instrument of power. One seeks not only to be understood but also to be believed, obeyed, respected, distinguished" (55). Wolf presents how this concept played out in Germany during the rise of National Socialism.

The rise of National Socialism, of course, implicates broader German history. Germany's defeat in World War I led to inflation, hunger, crisis, territorial losses, and exactions of reparations to be paid on the victorious Allies (221). During a time of upheaval and crisis, "National Socialism projected the imagery of a new society, a 'community of the Volk'" (235). In short, Hitler's message was that Nazism-National Socialism- would restore national pride to Germany and to the Volk.

The concept of Volk is roughly translated as "people" or "nation" but as Wolf explains "it stands for far more than that" (Ibid.). It was a "social entity rooted in space and time and characterized by an enduring inner essence" (Ibid.). Using the authority and power of the National Socialist party, Hitler promoted his vision of the Volk-community as a "project to be realized" by "purifying its racial composition" (236). In other words, in order restore Germany and the Volk, Hitler created and promoted the message that racial purification was necessary.

By building upon already-existing anti-Semitic ideas, Hitler used the message that Jews and other "undesirables" were the cause of nearly every social ill facing Germany. Citing Mein Kampf, Wolf describes how Hitler framed the "Aryan race" as those who create culture whereas he framed "the Jews" as those who destroy culture (237). The general idea was that Germany and the Volk could not be restored so as long as Jews, those "culture-destroyers," were around.

This message of racial purification combined with another message that the National Socialist party seized upon: That a post World War I Germany was reeling from its embarrassing loss and subsequent "world turned upside down" (270). Hitler "forged an ideology" out of these ideas and presented the National Socialist party as one involved in a "heroic effort" to restore society and, of course, the Volk. Thus, the state became an instrument for destroying the "weakness" and the "enemies within" Germany- "socialists, communists, Jews, and Gypsies" (271). And others, of course. Through the interaction of German culture, crisis, and Nazi power, Hitler's ideology was believed, obeyed, respected, and distinguished.

3. "The Orchestration of Brutality"

It is often asked how normal, everyday people could have gone along with and carried out such a brutal ideology. How and why could human beings have committed these atrocities? Wolf, citing social psychologist Herbert Kelman gives us a framework for understanding this. Promoting the Volk/racial purity ideology and using the power of his office, Hitler created the conditions required to "remove the customary restraints on open violence against individuals and groups" (253). First, the state- via its power and authority as such- authorized violence (254). Violence was legal, official, and encouraged. Secondly, a state bureaucracy was developed and perfected to "deploy violence 'by the book'" (Ibid.) Officers were "merely" following orders and doing their jobs. Third, the victims were dehumanized (Ibid.). Conceptualizing human beings as "others," "disease organisms," or "evil becomes abstract and powerful enough to justify not merely severance but destruction" (Ibid.).

To end, I want to acknowledge that various theories and explanations regarding the rise of Nazism exist. I'm not claiming to be a historian or an anthropologist, but rather, a student of history searching with an open mind for legitimate explanations for past atrocities. That being said, it should never be denied that the circumstances leading up to the rise of Nazism and the carrying out of a state-sanctioned system of "racial purification" involved a complex interplay of culture, power, crisis, and communication. Analogies to this scenario should not be made lightly, cheaply, or without adequate historical knowledge.

We should all be wary of and object to ludicrous Hitler/Nazi analogies made by ignorant people for mere hyperbolic political purposes rather than genuine concern that the past is repeating itself.

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