Always Question: Never Simply Function and Obey

The brilliance that is Hannah Arendt. She wanted to look deep in what made Adolph Eichmann tick – the proverbial scheduler of trains from – was it Budapest? – to the death camps during World War II. But first you have to bring it into a human focus. You collect people from their homes (imagine the horror), put them on trucks (smell it, hear it), hold them somewhere, take them to the rail yards (again the trucks), and then you put a frail little old lady into a cattle wagon (how is she ‘put’?). And a mother with a swaddled baby in her arms. Imagine it’s winter. The cattle wagons are packed tight. There is a bucket in the corner, and a small speck of light above their heads. The trip will take many days. If there are delays, weeks. Many will die. The baby perhaps. The frail elderly grandmother.

What do the officers and guards feel?

How could people do this? Arendt referred to “the banality of evil.” Collective action by people who are not necessarily even antisemitic.  Ordinary folk.  Cliche spouting, not too bright, unquestioning group thinkers (that is, non-thinkers).

And then think about today and our current blindness and cliches – the market will provide, there is no alternative, it will all trickle own, we live in a meritocracy, the private sector does it better, John Key knows what he’s doing, Labour taxes and spends, the Greens are a bunch of fruit loops (JK said so).  Arendt is highly, highly relevant today.

This is what she wrote about collective action. The unthinking mob. The technocratic madmen and women who simply function without deep thought.

“I want to talk about Eichmann. Collective action, where many act together – generates power. You are never powerful when you act alone, no matter how strong you are. The feeling of power generated by acting together is in and of itself absolutely not evil. It’s a normal human trait. But it’s not good, either. It’s simply neutral, something that is simply a phenomenon, a phenomenon of being human that must be described as such. There is a pronounced feeling of pleasure involved in such action. I’m not going to start quoting you examples – I could go on for hours just with examples from the American Revolution. And I would now say that the *real perversion of action is functioning*; that the feeling of pleasure is still present in such functioning; but that everything that is present in action – namely, we confer with one another; we arrive at certain decisions, we accept responsibility, we think about what we’re doing – *that is switched off in functioning*.

You have here [with Eichmann] a pure function without a goal, a running in neutral. And the pleasure in pure function – that pleasure was quite evident in the case of Eichmann.”

Quoted in Marie Luise Knott (translation 2013) Unlearning with Hannah Arendt p7.


This ‘functioning’ – becoming a functionary – is a human trait, not particular to any one people.  We have it.  How do we avoid it other than by recognising it, and setting up strong cultural institutions that identify it in the thoughts and actions of others, and when it is without moral compass, temper and shape it to do good? It is why so many of us talk about being outcome-focused, not – ever – simply task-focused. “Doing my job,” is not a reason for anything. The broader purpose is the reason.This dangerous cult of functioning is tied up with another human trait of our age – Peguy called “the family man” “the grand adventurier du 20e siecle … an involuntary adventurer, who … for wife and children … was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honour, and his human dignity.”  Ibid p27.

Arendt was deeply uneasy about one question: Could it be that there were people who had never had any convictions, honour, or human dignity in the first place?And that question is more and more relevant today as Neoliberalism raises to powerful positions the unethical, self centred, and avaricious personas at the expense of those with honour.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. 


Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


This entry was posted in Thought Pieces. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Always Question: Never Simply Function and Obey

  1. Clive Anstey says:

    Wonderful as usual. But I’m not sure there is ‘pleasure’ in simply functioning. Just a numbness. The movie was fantastic and had clips of film from the original trial. Eichmann was just banal, one of the biblical ‘walking dead’. Have you read John Gray’s ‘The Myth of Progress’ yet? The Trump phenomenon- everyone caught up in an emotional wave of promises; improvement and a better tomorrow. In truth more of the same, more of the worst attempts at improvement. The ridiculous saviour phenomenon. Here we go again. The creation of orthodoxy replicated in witless functionaries. What ever happened to individualism and personal identity? Swallowed up in the ‘free market’ of course. We live between a rock and a hard place’ huddled together trying to spot someone worthy in the centre of the mob.

    • cjkperley says:

      Thanks Clive. Yes, it is harder and harder to not conform nowadays. And we had some wonderful characters working with us in the past (don’t I sound like an old man). Is that Gray’s latest. I’m still to read Black Mass!

  2. John Purey-Cust says:

    In the midst of a spell of reformist zeal in the correspondence section of the Southland Times (Get rid of the Treaty. Maori were cannibals etc) I chanced to read a book revue in the Economist magazine – “Thicker than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt” by Cal Flyn.

    Cal wanted to find out more about an ancestor from Skye who emigrated to Australia in 1837 and become locally famous for his role in the ‘discovery’ and development of Gippsland. Pursuing her enquiry she discovered that he was also known as “the butcher of Gippsland” for his part in leading a vigilante group to clear out the locals, one mentioned raid claiming a bag of about 200.

    His diary relates how he resolved to “work for the good and advantage of mankind…. (to be) sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceably contented…. charitable even to aliens”. Another similar group, prosecuted for a similar massacre, argued that they hadn’t realised that killing an Aboriginal man was a crime.

    The author spends time trying to work out how her ancestor and others reconciled their conflicting ambitions. My immediate thought was that it was fortunate that in the face of such barbarity the Maori of that time did have the reputation for cannibalism. It saved them from worse horrors.

    By all accounts Eichmann was a functionary – it was important that the trains ran on time and fulfilled their ordained function. If there was any guilt, others would bear it but he had no part of it. He probably never understood why he was hanged other than as vengeance for being on the losing side.

    But he had a choice, to change employment to another part of the Nazi machine. Others did not, other than by effectively committing suicide by refusing to do their job, gassed themselves or transferred to the horrors of the front.

    We haven’t had to make that decision, and I suspect we would all fail the test.

  3. jmcveagh says:

    This reminds me of a scene in the book (and film) The Reader, where the young illiterate German woman, who is being read to by the young boy, later turns up on trial for war crimes. The boy is now a lawyer. When asked why she left the Jews in her charge locked in a building so they could not escape being bombed, she said simply: “But then they might escape.” She was just doing her job.
    I’ve seen a comment lately where Trump has in fact been compared to Hitler by a History professor, so with supporting material – but is Hillary actually all that preferable? She might not seem as mad as he, but she is still very much part of the American war machine.

    • cjkperley says:

      I remember that. And her refusal to defend herself because of her shame at her illiteracy. Profoundly moving. The same unwillingness to be seen as different?

  4. FHW says:

    ‘The unthinking mob’….a great clip if you are interested on Democracy with Amy Goodman interviewing Egyptian cardiologist, Bassam Youssef.
    If this sounds unlikely…it is! Quite the serious comedian with a mission to discover democracy in the US.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.