Why “Banality” of Capitalism

Someone asked me why I used the word “banality” in the title of my previous post, as the usual dictionary definition of banal is “common” or “ordinary,” and the content of what followed the title didn’t seem to wholly align with that definition.

In fact, I am intentionally referencing the famous phrase used by Hannah Arendt to describe her impression of the Nazi bureaucracy that managed the logistics of deporting millions of geographically dispersed people to death camps. She concluded that the death bureaucracy, separated from its evil objective, seemed to be populated by people just doing their jobs. Notwithstanding the aims of the work that they were doing, they otherwise seemed to be common and ordinary, almost unthinking in the execution of their duties, and therefore not unlike people engaged in more benign work.

Arendt derived her perspective while reporting for The New Yorker on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. The articles she wrote were published in a book in 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem, with the subtitle A Report on the Banality of Evil. While Arendt later expressed regret at using the phrase—critics pointed to it to accuse her of diminishing the deaths of millions of people—her intent was to summarize how ordinary the Nazi bureaucrats seemed to be. According to Arendt, half a dozen psychiatrists certified Eichmann as normal; one even allegedly said, “More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him.”

By observing the trial of this one person, and listening to the accused’s testimony and analyzing his thinking, Arendt derived insight into the mindset that allowed a human being to do his job even though the successful outcome of that job would be the death of millions of people. Her work was a study in how one can focus on being a good worker while divorced from judgement about what would be the result of being such a good worker.

Interestingly, Eichmann entered a plea of “not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” Arendt observed that not once during the trial did anyone ask about the unusual addition of “in the sense of the indictment.” His attorney commented outside the courtroom that “Eichmann feels guilty before God, not before the law.” If true, Eichmann is admitting that he knows his actions were wrong, but he acted anyway because it was expected of him by the structure of which he was a part.

In the context of capitalist organizations and this writing project, the idea of banality allowing people to act in ways that advance their careers despite misgivings of the conscience is relevant to understanding how totalitarian attributes can emerge and proliferate in a business environment.

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