A businessman pauses to check his phone outside the Bank of England. Photograph: Bloomberg
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The Age of Entitlement

The new super-rich have no allegiance, obligation or connection to wider society. They live in a mirror-lined bubble – and a legally entitled one. Can anything beyond another crash change things?

Nobody loved Bowater House in Knightsbridge. The demolition of this late-1950s, modernist mess in 2006 was greeted with general relief. Yet it did have one virtue. Through its core was cut a wide opening for a roadway that gave us all a view of Hyde Park and of a sinewy, thrilling Epstein sculpture of a family group, urged on by the god Pan and racing on to the green sward.

There is no such large opening in One Hyde Park, the building that replaced Bowater House. Instead, Pan has been relegated to the end of a much smaller public road that has been intimidatingly designed to look private. The great people’s invitation into the park has been lost. The public realm has not been abandoned altogether, however. At ground level there are shops, punctuated by some very limited planting. So, if the people care to struggle across the hellish confluence of roads that forms the heart of Knightsbridge, they can peer through the windows to see Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, Rolex watches or McLaren cars. Things they cannot have.

One Hyde Park was developed by the Candy brothers and the Qataris and was designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, the current incarnation of the once-idealistic Richard Rogers practice. The 86 flats start at £20m; a penthouse sold in 2010 for £140m. The building is an aesthetic, planning and social catastrophe. An inaccessible, menacing fortress looming over Knightsbridge, it symbolises the dark wealth of the entitled elite who have claimed the boroughs of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea as their own. But it is just one big sign of a ruthless landgrab among many little ones.

Staff at the Kensington High Street branch of Carluccio’s – a pleasant, neighbourhood place – dread being sent over to South Ken. That’s banksterland. Mothers disrupt service with their giant baby buggies, the children are rude and even the toddlers snap their fingers at the waiters. Then there are the shops. In Knightsbridge’s “golden triangle” of streets and around Brompton Cross are all the “flagship stores” of the highest of high-end retailers. I used to like going there to watch and marvel at the very rich and to see the beauty that money could buy. Once in a while, feeling a bit flush, I might buy something. Not any longer.

Recently, in an idle moment, I wandered in - to the Ralph Lauren shop at Brompton Cross. I noticed a pair of shoes, quite nice, about £300, I reckoned, allowing for the location and the general flagshipness of the place. The shoes were £750, a price that bore no possible relation to either the cost of manufacture or the quality of the design. These people, I realised, don’t care about only fairly affluent me or my class any more. They’d rather I left, because they can sell all their stuff at any price, in effect, to the bonus boys and girls.

“Almost by definition, these things aren’t for you,” John Lanchester tells me on the phone. He is the author of Capital, the 2012 novel that defined the moral climate that led to the last financial crash. “The whole thing about luxury goods is that they’re an inter - national language. The prices don’t track the middle-class, aspirational market; they’re for the super-rich, who don’t really care what things cost. In fact, they want them to cost more, because the price signifies only that most people can’t afford them.” (Lanchester captured entitlement in the character of Arabella in Capital, a woman so ignorant, vain and greedy, she did not even understand the possibility of being unable to afford something. Now I see and hear Arabellas all around me when lunching in central London.)

Perhaps it was ever thus: the rich have always been different. But that’s not true. Some - thing big, something moral, has changed. Driving through Knightsbridge (occasionally one must) I noticed a huge, absurd, orange and, in London, practically undriveable Lamborghini illegally parked. Once, I would have been amused, but now I feel angry because I know – we all know – it was probably bought with stolen money.

“Shocking” is too soft a word to describe the crimes of the financial sector. They are almost thrilling in their creative abundance – laundering money for drugs cartels; defrauding old people, small businesses, investors and shareholders; rigging markets; sugarcoating dud loans to look like good ones; loading the world economy with ever greater levels of risk and throwing millions of people out of work. And so on. All the time, they were enriching nobody but themselves. The banks and their buddies have been on a crime spree that would have glazed over the eyes of Al Capone.

Yet here they still are, with their undriveable orange cars, their buggies, their dark fort - resses and their rancid sense of entitlement because, in short, they don’t get it. Apparently the bonus boys see “casino banking” as a flattering term rather than the insult intended. Furthermore, the use of vast sums taxpayers’ money to save the banks is seen as no more than their God-given right.

“I live near Wall Street,” the economist Jeffrey Sachs said at an event. “The sense of entitlement is beyond quantification. They could not figure out why anyone might be mad at them for having nearly destroyed the world economy, taken home $30bn a year of bonuses, gotten bailed out to the tune of another trillion dollars and then lobbied for no regulation afterwards . . . I don’t think they were kidding anyone except themselves. I think they don’t get it.”

But we get it and we don’t like the rich any more because they all seem tainted. Lanchester points out that real business people – those who do useful things – are as angry as we are, accusing the bankers of wrecking and discrediting capitalism. (I sympathise. I have always regarded myself as a conservative and still do, but these shenanigans have tainted even that gentle world. Like most true conservatives I know, I regard the failure forcibly to end these abuses as a disgrace and a grave threat to the social peace we crave.)

Certainly people’s attitudes to companies in general has changed. Energy suppliers, telcos, retailers are all treated with a grim, resigned mistrust. To be allowed to participate in the society of entitlement, you have to agree to be ripped off. In spite of this, globally, politicians have decided to ignore the insights and sense of justice of their electorates and shown no desire to restructure a failed and still dangerous system, not even to imprison the most egregious wrongdoers. So the Age of Entitlement endures. What does this mean for society as a whole?

First, it is necessary to understand the origins of this psychology of entitlement. Economically, it can be said to be neoliberalism, the cult of free markets and deregulation that swept the world from the 1970s onwards. In neoliberal thought, expressed most trenchantly by Milton Friedman, the job of a company was to obey the law and reward its shareholders; it was not obliged to take on the wider ethical and moral concerns of society. In the 1980s, this became “greed is good”, certainly not what Friedman meant. I witnessed the cult’s apotheosis at the World Economic Forum in Davos in the early 1990s – I sat in on a meeting at which sharky young businessmen more or less said they would trample on their grandmothers for the sake of the bottom line. Viciousness had been validated. That is the enduring view in the financial sector.

“There is no incentive in the financial world,” a very prominent insider told me, “to be moral.” The point is that society rewards company directors with the enormous blessing of limited liability and, in return, should expect them to behave not just technically within the law but responsibly as persons. Failing – or refusing – to understand this underpins the sense of entitlement. Because much of what they did was not tech - nically illegal, the bankers feel that they did nothing wrong. Yet, in our own lives, we know perfectly well that some of the worst things we can do are not illegal. The financiers’ defence is made even more hopeless by the banks having been anything but good neoliberal institutions. Far from believing in free markets, they acted like a cartel and did everything in their power to rig the markets in which they operated.

Coupled with this was a generational change, identified by Jean Twenge and W Keith Campbell in their book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. From the late 1970s onwards, they detected a rise in narcissism among the young. Unlike the generation of the 1960s and early 1970s, these young people did not identify their goals as social or political but solely as personal. “There was a big shift in the 1980s away from the 1960s and 1970s,” Twenge told me, “. . . making a lot of money was no longer suspect. In the 1960s and 1970s it was not cool, but that flipped around.”

So, in the 1990s, a socially and politically quietist, narcissistic and self-seeking generation was well prepared to take advantage of the progressive deregulation of the financial system, primarily orchestrated by the then chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, a card-carrying believer in the doctrines of the hyper-libertarian fruitcake Ayn Rand. After 1997, the British Labour Party drank disgracefully deeply of this toxic, superstitious cocktail. Peter Mandelson declared that he was “intensely relaxed” about people getting “filthy” rich. In the midst of what turned out to be one of the most lethal (and preventable) bubbles in financial history, this was one complacency too far.

Both psychologically and theoretically, therefore, the Age of Entitlement was firmly established by the mid-1990s; indeed, so firmly established was it that it was imper - vious even to the overwhelming evidence of its fragile foundations. The collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management in 1998 nearly brought the US economy to its knees – even though it had Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, creators of the critical equations on which financial neoliberalism was based, on its board. The neolibs sailed on regardless.

And still they sail on. Throughout the crisis, the beneficiaries of the criminality and rigged markets into which neoliberalism had descended continued to enrich themselves. In 2012 the 100 richest people across the world grew $241bn richer, taking their total net wealth to $1.9trn. The poor and the middle classes, naturally, got poorer. Levels of inequality of a kind that threaten the social fabric – especially in the US and the UK – are one of the most alarming legacies of the Age of Entitlement. The crisis is not over; in fact, it may hardly have begun.

Part of the problem is the way the wealthy entitled have managed to make their world so easily selfsustaining. They are certainly good at outsmarting our elected leaders. “George Osborne and his friends go down to the City with some idea,” one hugely rich but very politically aware financier told me, “and the bankers blind them with science – saying, ‘Well, you could try that, but we wouldn’t be responsible for the consequences’ – so, nothing happens.”

The new entitled live in a mirror-lined bubble. Also a legally protected one. I was told of a hedge-fund boss so vile that investors withdrew their money but did not sue, because other hedge funds would then refuse to do business with them. On top of that, they are protected in Britain by libel laws and a tax system that, as John Lanchester points out, not only shields our own entitled from scrutiny but also encourages equally entitled foreigners to come here.

“You might as well say, ‘Bond villains, come and live here,’ ” he says. “Our libel laws don’t help. There are a lot of zillionaires about whom we are going to read the truth uncensored only when they are dead. It’s an astonishing situation, when we have such a proliferation of incredibly rich criminals.”

If that is the tragedy, the comedy is almost as alarming. Even the Financial Times last month was stunned to discover that bankers have been invited into schools to teach our children about money. The Royal Bank of Scotland, our most thoroughly disgraced financial institution, was, of course, represented. I can think of many people I could ask for advice about money. None of them is a banker.

Or there is the way the incontinent vanity of the newly entitled spills over into insults directed at their closest political allies. Towards the end of last year, Kevin Maguire reported in the New Statesman that members of the Bullingdon – the clownish club for the cream of Oxford society (the rich and thick) of which Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson were once members – had taken to burning £50 notes in front of beggars.

Most comical, but also most sad, are the attempts by the entitled to fit in with and compromise with the ordinary lives of others. In a remarkable piece for the Sunday Times Style magazine published in December, Kate Spicer interviewed members of the entitled generation that will reap the rewards of the wave of criminality that engulfed our financial system.

Goldman Sachs, Spicer reported, runs a course for partners on “how not to f*** up your kids” which encourages them to take the bewildered brats to the supermarket occasionally. (A friend of mine whom Goldman Sachs attempted to recruit in the 1990s was struck by the way, late at night, there were cars waiting to take the employees home, so that they need never see any street life.)

Unfortunately, the lesson “be nice, be normal” often fails to sink it. Spicer wrote of how Nell, the twentysomething daughter of the strikingly unpleasant former boss of Barclays Bob Diamond, defended her dad on Twitter by suggesting that Osborne and Ed Miliband should “go ahead and #hmd” – “hold my dick”.

Spicer also quoted Alexa, aged 17, who thought it “quite funny – people have no understanding, interest or involvement in something and then suddenly get all het up about it. I went on a drama course. I was one of very few private-school kids. This guy said, ‘Your dad f***** up the country,’ but he had a complete lack of understanding of the situation.”

Sorry, Alexa, but that guy was spot on.

The kids are worried about discrimination. Bankers’ brats now account for between 30 and 50 per cent of the intake of private schools, but they run into trouble when they have to talk to egalitarian-minded university interviewers and tell them that Mummy and Daddy paid for their gap-year adventures.

What is striking, reading Spicer’s interviews and copious other evidence, is that the narcissism Jean Twenge identified as having blossomed in the 1980s is still rampant. The children of the bankers do think they are better than the rest of us and that making money is what matters most.

“You commonly hear from companies now,” Twenge says, “that this generation really have new social goals, helping people and so on. Unfortunately, that is not backed up by the evidence from what the young people actually say. There is no resurgence in the idea that we really want companies to be responsible.”

One final feature of the Age of Entitlement must be mentioned. It is the viciously reductionist mindset behind what now happens in finance. In part, this derives from machines. Computers are like alcohol to Homer Simpson: the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. Computers made the bubble possible and the 2007 crash (and the next one) inevitable. They created high-speed, mechanised trading and enabled the application of mathematics to the markets – bad maths, as it happened, given that the primary equations were derived from physics that dees not apply to human affairs.

But more important is the reductionism that was implicit in neoliberalism as it became in the hands of the entitled. Money, in this view, is the measure of all things. An angry and very serious financial player told me how he had spent 20 years helping build a company; then the private-equity people moved in and told him he wouldn’t get a penny because he had put no money in. “They were saying all you need to make money is money – you can forget about the decades of work that went in before they even joined the party. They were arrogant beyond belief.”

This reductionism is perhaps the most dangerous assumption of the Age of Entitlement. Money, as Bob Dylan sagely observed, doesn’t talk, it swears, and for this swearing to be effective it must be embodied in an ethical, moral, political and social realm that cannot, in and of itself, be reduced to money. That realm is being eroded rapidly, not only by the entitled, but also by the craven worship of cash that now suffuses the culture. It is this that is successfully disseminating the depraved idea that merely to be rich is to be entitled. To sample the idea, go to the Rich Kids of Instagram tumblr, a website of images of the young wealthy swigging from magnums of champagne and posing next to private jets. The site’s tagline is, “They have more money than you and this is what they do.”

Taxation cannot change this, as the French are learning. The next crash might and several hundred – or several thousand – bankers in prison would help, as would the demolition of One Hyde Park to give us all a view of the green sward. What would definitely change the climate of entitlement would be a dismantling of its psychological basis, the mindset that has created a super-rich class with no allegiance, obligation or connection to wider society. The ears of the entitled need to be unstopped so that we can whisper to them, ever so gently, “If you’re rich be grateful and, here’s another great idea, earn it.”

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism