Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 1/26/14


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Expansive Writing

Flickr - Manky M.

Flickr - Manky M.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asks after the “elements” of totalitarianism, those fundamental building blocks that made possible an altogether new and horrific form of government. The two structural elements she locates are the emergence of a new ideological form of Antisemitism and the rise of transnational imperialist movements, which gives the structure to Part One (Antisemitism) and Part Two (Imperialism) of her book. Underlying both Antisemitism and Imperialism, however, is what Arendt calls “metaphysical loneliness.” Totalitarian government, Arendt writes, “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” In a world of individualism in which the human bonds of religion, family, clan, and nation are increasingly seen as arbitrary, tenuous, and weak, so that individuals people find themselves uprooted, redundant, and superfluous. “Metaphysical loneliness,” Arendt writes, is the “basic experience” of modern society that is “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims, is closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.” The question underlying so much of Arendt’s work is how to respond to what she calls “the break in tradition,” the fact that the political, social, and intellectual traditions that bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks have frayed beyond repair. The customs and traditions that for millennia were the unspoken common sense of peoples can no longer be presumed. How to make life meaningful, how to inure individuals from the seduction of ideological movements that lend weight to their meaningless lives? If metaphysical loneliness is the basic experiences of modern life, then it is not surprising that great modern literature would struggle with the agony of such disconnection and seek to articulate paths of reconnection. That, indeed, is the thesis of Wyatt Mason’s essay “Make This Not True,” in this week’s New York Review of Books. Modern fiction, Mason argues, struggles to answer the question: How can we live and die and not be alone? There are, he writes, at least three paradigmatic answers, represented alternatively by three of the greatest contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and George Saunders. Reviewing Saunders Tenth of September (a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award), Mason writes suggests an important link between Saunder’s Buddhism and his writing:  “In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice. … [I]f fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.”

Second Life

aiAi Weiwei describes what he thinks Internet access has done for his home country: "the Internet is the best thing that ever happened to China.” If Mason and Saunders (see above) worry that technology magnifies the loneliness of modern mass society, Ai Weiwei argues that the World Wide Web “turns us into individuals and also enables us to share our perceptions and feelings. It creates a culture of individualism and exchange even though the real society doesn't promote it. There isn't a single Chinese university that can invite me to give a talk. Even though I know there are many students who would like to hear what I have to say."

Bringing Power to the People

poetIn an interview about art, politics, and the intersection between the two, Sudanese poet Mamoun Eltlib describes a revolution for those who have rejected the political: "When you come to politicians now, people don’t really care about them, because they find out it’s just a chair or election problem between them. It’s not about them as Sudanese. So when you do something for the people without asking them to vote for you or elect you or to do anything, just to make a very beautiful, attractive program, they respond. I was in Doha for a conference for three days, to solve the problem in Sudan. They brought all the intellectuals and the writers and the thinkers from the political parties and from the rebel groups and from the government itself, as well as independent writers like me and Faisal, and they made this paper called, ‘Loving Your Enemy Through Culture,’ because I was saying that we don’t just need to change the people, we need to change the politicians. If we really want to fight now, we have just one way, the cultural way."

Losing Our Religion

saintIn Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the American brand of religion—strong on morality while permissive on rituals and dogma—is deeply important to liberal democracy. While democracy imagines political and civil liberties, religion maintains a “civic religion” that privileges moral consensus over dogmatism provides a common core of moral belief even amongst a plurality of faiths and sects. Under this view, the continued religiosity of Americans especially in comparison to the irreligiosity of Europeans is an important part ingredient in the American experience of democracy. With this in mind, consider this snippet from Megan Hustad’s memoir More Than Conquerors. Hustad talks about growing up in a missionary household, and how her father is coping with changes he sees happening around him: "Thanks be to God, my parents would say. Thanks to my ability to take care of myself, I would say. My father knows I choose to fill my time with people for whom Christianity is an outmoded concept, a vestigial cultural tail humanity would be better off losing. He knows most of my friends are of the opinion that the country would be better off without people who think like he does. His new status as cultural relic bothers him. He finds it ironic that moral relativists temporarily misplace their relativism when talk turns to Jesus. He doesn’t like how “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are so often conflated in news reports and in opinion pieces, as if there were no shadows between them. It seems to him more evidence that the United States is becoming a post-Christian society like England and much of Europe before it. Used to be, he remembers, one didn’t have to explain the contours of faith. Billy Graham appeared on prime-time television. Everyone in this country, he remembered, knew what faith was for."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Roger Berkowitz explores the literary responses to loneliness in the writing of George Saunders via Wyatt Mason. Jeffrey Champlin discusses how Arendt read Adam Smith.


The Unproductive Labor of Politics: Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith


Richard Halpern, “Eclipse of Action: Hamlet and the Political Economy of Playing,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 4, Winter 2008, pp. 450-482

As he formulates an original response to the classic problem of Hamlet’s non-action, Halpern offers one of the few critical analyses of Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith in The Human Condition. He shows how Arendt draws on Smith’s concepts of productive and unproductive labor to articulate her key concepts of work and labor. Moreover, his close reading draws our attention to an intriguing paradox in the temporality of action that may indicate a corrective—albeit a difficult one—to the current demand for instant gratification that often leads to cynicism in the face of great political challenges.

Halpern reminds us that Aristotle separates action from labor; Smith replaces action with production; and Arendt seeks to restore action to a place of prominence in the political realm. Arendt explicitly says that “the distinction between productive and unproductive labor contains, albeit in a prejudicial manner, the more fundamental distinction between work and labor” (HC 87). She does not simply take over Smith’s idea, but wishes to transfer his distinction from his own economic system (the “prejudice” of his own thought) to her own thinking of labor and work.  Halpern’s analysis of Arendt’s move helps us start to think about her surprising appeal to 18th century economic theory. Moreover, it her discussion of Smith (and better known critique of Marx), I see her posing an even broader question: what does it mean to be productive and what are the appropriate spheres of different types of productivity?


Within the realm of production, Halpern looks at how Smith offers a further distinction in Book 2, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, under the heading “Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labor”:

There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing. (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976), 351.)

Smith draws a distinction between labor that holds or builds value (say the manufacture of a chair), and labor that evaporates the moment the worker completes it (such as cleaning the house or washing clothes). Classical political economists of the 18th and 19th century engaged in wide ranging debates over what should “count” as value before capitalist countries agreed on the ratio of labour to output or per capita GDP as the standard; socialist countries, following the USSR, adopted an alternative “material product system” that prioritized the amount of goods. In a time of environmental change, this glimpse into the history of economic theory may offer a helpful reminder that society can decide to change the standard of economic success.

According to Halpern, Arendt draws from Smith not to rehabilitate an outmoded aspect of economic theory, but to draw inspiration for her creation of distinct conceptual spaces for labor, work, and action. Specifically, she aligns Smith’s “unproductive labor” with her circular conception of labor and “productive labor” with her linear conception of work. This does not mean that labor is unproductive but it does require a clarification of different types of productivity. I see it as useful to keep the discussion on productivity since these spheres of private life and cultural and industrial economy then offer a contrast to the political sphere where action can happen. Action is neither circular like labor, nor linear like work, but has its own peculiar directionality and temporality. Halpern’s analysis helpfully zeroes in on the perplexing relation between the ephemerality of labor and action and action’s desire for permanence:

The temporal paradox of the political is that while it aims at immortality, action and speech are, in themselves, evanescent: “Left to themselves, they lack not only the tangibility of other things, but are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption” (HC 95). Like Smith’s unproductive labor, action disappears in the moment of its occurrence because it leaves no material trace behind. (Halpern, 457)

Politics demands an extraordinary effort. It asks that one expend energy indefinitely for an uncertain reward. Discussion and debate goes on and on, only occasionally clicking with spectacular agreement or deflationary compromise. Arendt’s analysis can help us perceive the difficulty of contemporary politics that attempts to fit into consumer culture that preserves, and thus remembers, nothing.

Arendt’s attention to the aspects of debate and negotiation that might be seen as unproductive (a dimension that in other parts of the Human Condition she relates to menial work, again often in relation to Smith) offers a corrective to a misguided understanding of politics that leads to frustration and despair.Even if we are not at the extreme level of the menial functioning of a New England town hall meeting debating the budget for potholes or an Occupy Wall Street discussion that requires unanimous consensus for closure, politics works in a different temporality. Rather than the fever pitched accusations of crisis that in the U.S. actually covers up rather than encourage political risk, a more humble sense of public debate as requiring something like the patience of the menial task may be a corrective.

Political action in Arendt’s sense differs from work in being freed from a fixed goal. She links this freedom, which for her is based on self-referentiality, to drama:

Arendt’s discomfort with the economic dimension of theater reveals itself when she criticizes Adam Smith for grouping actors, along with churchmen, lawyers, musicians, and others, as unproductive laborers and hence as lowly cousins of the menial servant (HC 207). Arendt would distinguish all of these activities from labor in that they “do not pursue an end . . . and leave no work behind . . . , but exhaust their full meaning in the performance itself ” (206). Smith’s inclusion of these autotelic activities under the category of labor is for Arendt a sign of the degradation that human activity had already undergone by the early days of the modern era. By contrast, “It was precisely these occupations—healing, flute-playing, play-acting—which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man” (207–21). What Arendt overlooks is that—already in the ancient world—healing, flute playing, and playacting became remunerated professions and differed in this respect from politics, which was not the work of a professional class of politicians. (Halpern 458)

Arendt agrees that actors on the stage perform fleeting scenes, but wishes to link this to “the highest and greatest activities of man,” ie. those of politics. Halpern argues that in fact, actors in ancient times already worked for wages and were thus not independent like citizens in their roles as politicians. Nonetheless, Arendt shows us that in the modern period we can learn something about acting in politics from acting in the arts. The key point for Halpern is that drama, etc. are “autotelic activities.” They do not even keep up the house like menial work; they have their own end and really evaporate in reaching this end. Political action works along an undecidable edge: even less productive than labor but at any moment potentially the most lasting. Against the odds, politics holds open the space in which something new can begin and thus renew the human world against the circular forces of nature.

One could reasonably argue that in his focus on the connection between labor and action, Halpern fails to adequately emphasize the importance of work. In a world of labor and the victory of animal laborans, there is no work to preserve action and no polis/world to give action memorialization. Indeed, we face the danger of the collapse of the world into the “waste economy” (HC 134) and the seductions to action disappear. However, Halpern does not say that play is action for Arendt but rather, as I understand his argument, that it there is an aspect of action that is like play. Action requires debate that may seem to be going nowhere, or just be undertaken for its own sake up to the moment that it takes a risk. When it dares to venture into the public realm, action clearly very different from play as a hobby.

Labor is both constant and fleeting. On the one hand, the demands of the body never end, nor do the cycles of nature. On the other hand, labor is also fleeting in that its mode of production only temporarily maintains life. Action is also fleeting from the perspective that the risk it takes often evaporates but has the utmost political constancy when one considers those actions that succeed in forming the power of a new beginning.


In the remainder of the article, Halpern moves from The Human Condition to Hamlet, arguing that Shakespeare replaces action on the classical model of tragedy with the ceaseless activity of Hamlet’s thoughts. This activity runs in circles like unproductive labor in Smith and labor in Arendt rather than the action of Aristotle’s aesthetic and Arendt’s political ideal. From an Arendtian point of view, the modernity of the drama reveals a challenge to politics, the challenge of a time out of joint that action has to face again and again.

-Jeffrey Champlin


The Burqa and the Political Realm

“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”

-Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition

Over the past decade, European public opinion has roiled with controversy over the full face covering – the niqab or burqa - of Muslim women. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, conducted between April 7th and May 8th 2010, the majority of citizens in France, Germany, Britain, and Spain approve of banning veils that cover the whole face. Subsequently, France and Belgium have implemented national laws that ban the full veil in public places.

Municipal bans are sprinkled across Europe as a whole. Is there an Arendtian angle on the discomfiture that one finds in Europe over the niqab and the burqa (hereafter N/B), a properly political angle that avoids pathologizing the response as simply Islamophobic or xenophobic?

Arendt claimed that the word public evokes two “interrelated phenomena”. First:

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life – the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses – lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance…The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves…

The second referent of public is “the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.”

Arendt captures an idea prominent in Western traditions: the notion, both intuitive and articulated, that being visible to one another is an integral part of politics. This expectation is registered in theories of judgment (consider the role played by the “spectator” in Adam Smith and Kant’s theories of judgment) and in some of our most potent democratic metaphors: enlightenment, openness, transparency, illumination, recognition, social legibility, accountability, “publicity” and, not least, public. Liberals trumpet the virtue of the Open Society and liberalized Marxists idealize the translucent speech-situation. Socialists and radicals extol debunking, the heir of Rousseau’s crusade to remove the “deceitful veil of politeness” which conceals “fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud”. Negating these images are opacity, the Dark Ages, the dark arts, dark times, heart of darkness, artifice, living in the closet, a shadowy realm, cave-like illusion,  Stygian gloom, moral blindness, the id, concealment, inscrutability, subterfuge, murkiness, obscurantism, and backroom deals - notions which variously imply various states of ignorance, menace and deceit. True, prominent French intellectuals of the last century sought to demote vision’s status in the pantheon of sensibility, while conservatives still remain attached to the “decent drapery of life” (Burke). Yet these perspectives have done little to impede the centrality of seeing within the Western, Apollonian political aesthetic.

This formulation suggests what is discordant about the N/B’s existence in the Western political space. While for its bearer the N/B may be understood as a badge of tradition and piety, from the standpoint of a constitutional pluralist citizenry it is a mode of concealment incompatible with public recognition in which visibility of face is central. The N/B denudes facial and, to a degree, vocal recognition. It standardizes human features and hence contributes to the very stereotyping that N/B wearers themselves deplore.  Faces and voices are all different, evidence of human plurality. The N/B literally effaces these variations, with the partial exception of the eyes that may sometimes be seen. The N/B also symbolically ruptures the bond of citizenship reciprocity because while its wearer can see her real or potential interlocutor, can take advantage of the visibility of others, non-wearers are denied such access.

Consider two objections to this line of reasoning.

Users of the Internet are often obscured from view and no one assumes that their being invisible is uncitizenly.  Indeed, under some definitions of politics, the internet might be considered the quintessentially modern medium of political life: informing the public of political events, orchestrating voting, requesting or inciting people to participate in demonstrations, directing attention to abuses of rule, mobilizing citizens for collective action.  Search engines like Google ever more assume traditional government functions. Its engineers claim that the company’s predictions of flu epidemics and employment trends are already more accurate than those of the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even so, in Western societies the Internet is an ancillary to public display not a substitute for it, a tool to expand communication, rather than an obstacle to constrict it. Computer webcams are employed between interactants and in web chat rooms; interviews of foreign job applicants conducted via Skype grow daily in popularity. And it is no coincidence that the world’s most prominent social networking site is called Facebook. Moreover, where Internet use takes place without face recognition (as with email or instant messaging) it typically does so reciprocally: both users are in the same position and hence issues of visibility imbalance and citizen asymmetry do not arise.

A second objection to the claim that N/B attire in public places is uncitizenly turns the tables on the author: it draws on the Graeco-Roman tradition itself, the origins of Western notions of citizenship. In that tradition, being a public person was considered a kind of theatricality in which an agent adopts a persona, a mask. But the comparison between the N/B and the persona is superficial and not only because one mask is made of cloth while another is a metaphor. In antiquity, the function of persona was not to conceal public visibility but precisely to do the opposite: to shine the light of the ­polis on the political actor, to dramatize the fact that the individual had entered the public stage and that, as such, had left the private world of intimacy so as to consort freely with his peers and deliberate on political affairs. The political persona was, then, an addition to, or rather a rupture with, private life, not a replication or extension of it, a vehicle of distinction, not a mantle contrived to expunge from public view the unique personality of the woman beneath its folds. Politics, in Western traditions, entails a split within the being that engages in it, the construction of a second self: as an equal of others who are familial strangers bound together by the common tie of citizenship; a self able to cooperate with these strangers, to “see” things from multiple points of view and be seen seeing.

The N/B, however, is not a fictive mask designed to open up its wearer to the public recognition of peers acting in concert or in conflict; it is a carapace projected into the public space, a material mask that signals exclusivity, an emblem of segmental occlusion, of what Durkheim, discussing the primacy of resemblance in tribal societies, called the politico-familial.

Nor is the N/B artificial or dualistic. On the contrary, it signifies Sharia’s total claim on the individual in all her activities, the type of claim that the public-private distinction expressly repudiates. It transpires that the classical concept of the mask and the N/B have nothing substantively in common.

These brief reflections, prompted by my reading of Arendt, are not a rationale for banning the full veil but they do allow us to think of the European response to it in a political way. Readers who are interested in the more extensive argument that Dan Gordon (UMass Amherst) and I have developed on this topic, contrasting American and European legal regimes, may wish to read our “On the Edge of Solidarity: The Burqa and Public Life,” and “From the headscarf to the burqa: the role of social theorists in shaping laws against the veil,” Economy and Society 2012 (forthcoming).

-Peter Baehr, Lingnan University Hong Kong


Are American Prisons Totalitarian?

This question may appear curious if not ill-formed. Many of us certainly associate prisons with the minute and pervasive exercise of power over the inmates who inhabit them, but we are also more accustomed to using “totalitarian” to describe dictatorial governmental regimes and sociopolitical movements. As a result, we may be inclined to think that the term is not of the same category as the institutions that, in this instance, it purports to describe.

At the height of the Cold War, however, a number of scholars posed the question of prisons’ totalitarian character in all seriousness and with considerable urgency. And not uncommonly they answered it in the affirmative. One of these was the Princeton sociologist Gresham Sykes, who conducted archival and field research at the New Jersey State Maximum Security Prison in Trenton in the early and mid 1950s. The book that resulted, The Society of Captives (1958), is one of the classics of modern criminology.

Sykes has the following to say about prisons near the beginning of his treatise:

The detailed regulations extending into every area of the individual’s life, the constant surveillance, the concentration of power in the hands of a ruling few, the wide gulf between the rulers and the ruled—all are elements of what we would usually call a totalitarian regime. The threat of force lies close beneath the surface of the custodial institution and it is the invisible fist rather than Adam Smith’s invisible hand which regulates much of the prisoner’s activity. The prison official is a bureaucrat, but he is a bureaucrat with a gun.

The combination is a fearful one, for it is the basis of the calculated atrocities of the concentration camp and the ruthless exploitation of the Soviet lager. It is true that the American maximum security prison is different from these in terms of the nature of the tasks which the prison seeks to perform, the characteristics of the officials who direct these tasks, and the matrix of the democratic community in which the prison is embedded. The prison is not planned with an eye to annihilating its captive population—either physically or psychologically—nor is it designed to wring the last ounce of effort from an expendable labor force. Instead, it pursues an odd combination of confinement, internal order, self-maintenance, punishment, and reformation, all within a framework of means sharply limited by law, public opinion, and the attitudes of the custodians themselves. None the less, attempts to exercise total social control through the use of a bureaucratically organized administrative staff would all seem to be cut on much the same pattern and the prison appears to offer many clues to the structure and functioning of the new leviathan (pp. xiv-xv).

In formulating his argument in this manner, Sykes takes a stance on prisons that resonates with the ideas of another noted sociologist, Erving Goffman. Goffman’s work on “total institutions,” much of it collected in his 1961 book Asylums, also likens psychiatric hospitals, boot camps, and prisons to Nazi concentration camps.

Significantly, Sykes bases his characterization of totalitarianism on articles by Norman Polanski and David Riesman as well as the 1954 volume Totalitarianism edited by Carl Friedrich. He also makes reference to Bruno Bettelheim’s work on the social psychology of the concentration camp. Yet in the entirety of his book, Sykes never refers explicitly to Arendt, although his comparisons practically beg for some consideration of her writing. This omission is telling, for Arendt was deeply skeptical of any effort to apply the concept of totalitarianism to superficially similar practices and institutions in other historical contexts. By her lights, such extrapolation denied the distinctive, indeed unprecedented nature of concentration camps under the Nazi and Soviet regimes, just as it banalized totalitarianism’s departure from other modes of tyrannical and authoritarian rule. Sykes’ qualifications (“It is true that…”) were not minor caveats that could be quickly passed over (“None the less…”), but fundamental objections that vitiated his argument. It was precisely this kind of conceptual and historical imprecision that, for Arendt, fatally compromised the bulk of social science scholarship. (For more on Arendt’s objections, see my post on Peter Baehr’s book Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences here.)

But Sykes’ argument can be questioned not merely on these broad theoretical grounds, for his own empirical material and close analysis challenge the notion that prisons wield “totalitarian” power. First, the efforts of prison staff to exercise control are undermined by the contradictory imperatives to which they must respond. Penal institutions are commonly justified on the basis that they punish convicted offenders and (ostensibly) deter potential criminals, but since the nineteenth century they are also supposed to rehabilitate inmates so that they forego crime and productively rejoin society at large. These tasks, as Sykes notes, are “not easily balanced in a coherent policy” (p. 12), and they tend to result in inconsistent procedures and practices.

Second, prisons are simply unable to discipline inmates in any exhaustive way, even as they impose heavy restrictions and deprivations on the people subject to their regulation. On the one hand, prisoners do not typically regard prison guards and other staff members as figures of legitimate authority, and the staff members lack an effective system of rewards and punishments that might encourage inmates’ conformity in the absence of a felt duty to obey. On the other hand, the very conditions of prison life—the severe limitations on inmates’ autonomy, the absence of physical security, the material impoverishment, the curtailment of heterosexual relations—tend ironically to encourage behavior that defies institutional rules and norms. As a result, “the prison official…is caught up in a vicious circle where he must suppress the very activity that he helps cause” (p. 22).

And third, prison guards in particular are in close contact with the inmates they supervise, and they are subject to a variety of pressures that inhibit their ability and willingness to exercise power as fully as they might. In order to manage their everyday duties, Sykes finds, they commonly refrain from reporting infractions they have witnessed, neglect basic security requirements, and even pass forbidden information to inmates (about, say, upcoming searches for contraband). In the end, most corrections officers can “insure their dominance only by allowing it to be corrupted. Only by tolerating violations of ‘minor’ rules and regulations can the guard secure compliance in the ‘major’ areas of the custodial regime” (p. 58).

Based on my admittedly limited insights as a Bard Prison Initiative faculty member, I find much to commend in Sykes’ analysis of the structural tensions that define American penal institutions. Judging from my interactions with incarcerated students, many of his observations remain relevant to present-day correctional facilities in New York State. But it is precisely Sykes’ insights on these matters that lead me to doubt the notion that American prisons represent total(itarian) domination. As his detailed analysis of “prison argot” indicates, prisons do not destroy inmates’ sense of personhood, spontaneity, and collective solidarity, and his closing account of rioting highlights how they can mount serious opposition to prison authorities.

All of this might lead us to wonder why Sykes and other social scientists even entertained the question of prisons’ potentially totalitarian character. What were the circumstances that made such an inquiry intelligible? On this count, we would do well to recall the Cold War context in which Sykes’ book was written. For many Euro-American commentators in the 1950s and ‘60s, totalitarianism was the overriding problem of their time, and one that was all the more disturbing because it had seemed to emerge so abruptly and unexpectedly. There was thus a keen interest in attempting to comprehend what totalitarianism was or at least might be. This interest led a fair number of scholars to seek out cases that could illuminate the concept, including ones that ranged beyond the paradigmatic instances of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

At the same time, totalitarianism was widely perceived as a mortal hazard to Euro-American liberal democracy and Western civilization as a whole. As Carl Friedrich suggests in his introduction to Totalitarianism (1954), however, the perceived threat could come not merely “from without,” but also “from within” (p. 3). His implication was that the U.S. and other “free” societies could harbor their own forms of brutality and terror—and that the line separating them from “totalitarian” states was not as bright as often presumed.

I would suggest that Sykes turned to the concept of totalitarianism, in no small part, to lend moral and rhetorical force to his critical analysis of American penal institutions. Even as he professed that he sought to avoid value judgments, he also admitted that like other skeptics, “I too believe that attempting to reform criminals by placing them in prison is based on a fallacy” (p. vii). We might therefore read his recourse to totalitarianism in the light of the subversive questioning of American ascendancy that was beginning to coalesce in the U.S. in the late 1950s. Such recourse is all the more striking given that “totalitarianism” became one of the chief weapons that conservatives used to denounce leftists and other critics as “pro-Soviet” sympathizers. In the end, then, Sykes’ book speaks not only (and directly) to the nature of prison as a modern institution, but also (and more obliquely) to the wider cultural and political ferment that defined Cold War America.         

-Jeff Jurgens