Liberals used to think that “civil society” would flourish thanks to the development of free enterprise, and the function of the state would correspondingly be reduced until it was merely supervising humanity’s spontaneous evolution. Marxists more optimistically thought the century that saw the rise of socialism would also see the withering-away of the state.
These hopes and prophecies have evaporated. The 20th-century state has proved itself a force more powerful than the ancient empires and a master more terrible than the old tyrants and despots: a faceless, inhuman master who functions not like a demon but like a machine. Theologians and moralists had conceived of evil as an exception and a transgression, a blot on the universality and transparency of Being. Except for Manichaean tendencies, in the philosophic tradition of the West evil lacked substance and could be defined only as an absence, that is to say, a lack of Being. Strictly speaking, evil did not exist, only evil men, exceptions, special cases. The 20th-century state inverts the proposition: evil ultimately conquers universality and presents itself wearing the mask of Being. Except that, as evil grows larger, evil-doers grow proportionally smaller. They are no longer exceptional beings, only mirrors of normalcy. A Hitler or a Stalin, a Himmler or a Yezhov astonish us by their mediocrity as well as by their crimes. Their intellectual insignificance confirms Hannah Arendt’s verdict on “the banality of evil.”...
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