Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 7/12/15


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.

amor_mundi_sign-upThe Blessings of the Black Church

obama eulogyWalter Russell Mead, a son of South Carolina, argues that one lesson of the response to the Dylann Roof shooting is how the black church holds an exceptional place in American culture. "But beyond all the yapping and the buzzing about gun control, the Confederate flag, and whether Dylann Roof was a terrorist or not, a very powerful truth emerged from the horror in Charleston: that the African-American church remains one of America's great national blessings. Yet again the African American church in the United States bore steadfast witness to the boundless, the infinite, the compassionate love of God. When the families of the murdered, martyred saints told Dylann Roof that they forgave him, when they prayed that he in his darkness might somehow find the light and the love of God, they reminded us what heroism truly is, and they showed us all what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Too often the worst people in the religious world dominate the headlines: hucksters and hustlers, money-grubbing televangelists, preacher-politicians, judgmental hypocrites, and sanctimonious snake oil peddlers. But every now and then something happens to show us what Christianity really is, and when it does the world stops in awe. President Obama was right to make grace the focus of his riveting eulogy; grace is always amazing, and without it no person, no family, and no nation can stand. Watching the news from Berlin, I was reminded yet again that if the United States can be said to be an exceptional nation, it is the black church that has helped to make us one. Beginning in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, blacks (often after suffering rejection by white churches) organized their own congregations and denominations. Black churches were the first serious social institutions that African Americans were free to shape and control in their own way, and the spiritual and cultural blessings that have come to Americans of all races and indeed to the whole world from the witness and work of the black church are greater than most of us have ever understood."

Whose Dream?

ta-nehisi coatesIn an essay formed as a letter to his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes on an American rhetoric on race derived from a certain very famous speech about a dream: "That Sunday, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an 11-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about 'hope.' And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you."

Whose Keys Are Under the Doormat?

encryptionGovernments around the world insist on the need and the right to read and listen to what potential terrorists or enemies write and say. To balance security with privacy, there is a demand that governments have the right to subpoena records from internet and telephony providers. And governments--worried that new encryption technology will make such practices impossible--are considering legislation that would essentially mandate the keys to the internet. But a fascinating report by leading encryption experts argues that such a move would be disruptive and dangerous. "The goal of this report is to similarly analyze the newly proposed requirement of exceptional access to communications in today's more complex, global information infrastructure. We find that it would pose far more grave security risks, imperil innovation, and raise thorny issues for human rights and international relations.... The greatest impediment to exceptional access may be jurisdiction. Building in exceptional access would be risky enough even if only one law enforcement agency in the world had it. But this is not only a US issue. The UK government promises legislation this fall to compel communications service providers, including US-based corporations, to grant access to UK law enforcement agencies, and other countries would certainly follow suit. China has already intimated that it may require exceptional access. If a British-based developer deploys a messaging application used by citizens of China, must it provide exceptional access to Chinese law enforcement? Which countries have sufficient respect for the rule of law to participate in an international exceptional access framework? How would such determinations be made? How would timely approvals be given for the millions of new products with communications capabilities? And how would this new surveillance ecosystem be funded and supervised? The US and UK governments have fought long and hard to keep the governance of the Internet open, in the face of demands from authoritarian countries that it be brought under state control. Does not the push for exceptional access represent a breathtaking policy reversal? The need to grapple with these legal and policy concerns could move the Internet overnight from its current open and entrepreneurial model to becoming a highly regulated industry. Tackling these questions requires more than our technical expertise as computer scientists, but they must be answered before anyone can embark on the technical design of an exceptional access system."

Hannah Arendt's Cosmopolitanism

hannah arendtJames McAuley has an essay holding up Arendt's idea of the conscious pariah as a model for a 21st century cosmopolitanism. "[T]here is more to Arendt's unsettled legacy than glamour, controversy and a provocative set of historical and philosophical interpretations. Forty years after her death, perhaps the most enduring contribution of this decidedly 20th-century thinker is her thinking about a cosmopolitanism suited to the challenges of the 21st century she'd never see.... Hannah Arendt never wrote explicitly on cosmopolitanism, or indeed even used the term, but she was a model cosmopolitan. She loved her adopted US, but never effaced her past to fabricate a new present. Her understanding of Jewish history and her experience of her own Jewishness remained central to her life and to her work, helping to illuminate a disparate, difficult whole. Arendt was fascinated by the concept of 'the pariah', the outcast, which in her mind conveyed the Jewish experience in Europe. As she wrote in Origins of Totalitarianism, Jews 'always had to pay with political misery for social glory and with social insult for political success'. For Arendt, being a pariah was not an inherently negative position; it could also bring a certain value. In a series of essays written in the 1940s, she referred to the poets and writers Heinrich Heine, Rahel Varnhagen, Bernard Lazare, and Franz Kafka as conscious pariahs. By this, she meant they never escaped their Jewishness but also used their difference 'to transcend the bounds of nationality and to weave the strands of their Jewish genius into the general texture of European life', who administered 'the admission of Jews as Jews into the ranks of humanity'. In other words, who did not efface their particularity but celebrated it, finding within it a world of substance on a universal scale. This was the crux of her cosmopolitanism."

amor_mundi_sign-upPolitics and Technocracy

greece bailoutSlavoj Zizek argues that Greece and its debtors aren't talking in the same language, and then he picks a side: "That a compromise formula always eludes at the last moment in the ongoing negotiations between Greece and the EU administrators is in itself deeply symptomatic, since it doesn't really concern actual financial issues--at this level, the difference is minimal. The EU usually accuses Greeks of talking only in general terms, making vague promises without specific details, while Greeks accuse the EU of trying to control even the tiniest details and imposing on Greece conditions that are harsher than those imposed on the previous government. But what lurks behind these reproaches is another, much deeper conflict. The Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, recently remarked that if he were to meet alone with Angela Merkel for dinner, they would find a formula in two hours. His point was that he and Merkel, the two politicians, would treat the disagreement as a political one, in contrast to technocratic administrators such as the Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem. If there is an emblematic bad guy in this whole story, it is Dijsselbloem, whose motto is: 'If I get into the ideological side of things, I won't achieve anything.' This brings us to the crux of the matter: Tsipras and the former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who resigned on 6 July, talk as if they are part of an open political process where decisions are ultimately 'ideological' (based on normative preferences), while the EU technocrats talk as if it is all a matter of detailed regulatory measures. When the Greeks reject this approach and raise more fundamental political issues, they are accused of lying, of avoiding concrete solutions, and so on. It is clear that the truth here is on the Greek side: the denial of 'the ideological side' advocated by Dijsselbloem is ideology at its purest. It masks (falsely presents) as purely expert regulatory measures that are effectively grounded in politico-ideological decisions."

Three Cheers For Post-Humanity

space earthMartin Rees makes the optimist's case for the human capacity to evolve past our human limitations. "The far future will bear traces of humanity, just as our own age retains influences of ancient civilisations. Humans and all they have thought might be a transient precursor to the deeper cogitations of another culture--one dominated by machines, extending deep into the future and spreading far beyond earth. Not everyone considers this an uplifting scenario. There are those who fear that artificial intelligence will supplant us, taking our jobs and living beyond the writ of human laws. Others regard such scenarios as too futuristic to be worth fretting over. But the disagreements are about the rate of travel, not the direction. Few doubt that machines will one day surpass more of our distinctively human capabilities. It may take centuries but, compared to the aeons of evolution that led to humanity's emergence, even that is a mere bat of the eye. This is not a fatalistic projection. It is cause for optimism. The civilisation that supplants us could accomplish unimaginable advances--feats, perhaps, that we cannot even understand."

Dark Horse

bernie sandersJill Lepore profiles Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders: "Sanders ran for office four times--twice each for governor of Vermont and the U.S. Senate--before running for mayor of Burlington and winning by ten votes. In 1981, he took office in Burlington; Reagan took office in Washington. Sanders isn't a Debsian socialist; he's a socialist in the sense that Reagan used that word to describe L.B.J. 'He campaigned on the promise of a better life for the working man,' Alan Richman wrote in the Boston Globe. 'Nobody seemed to mind that the dream Sanders believes in is called socialism.' He drew the attention of the national press when he ran for reelection, in 1983. In the Wall Street Journal, for instance, Jane Mayer (who is now at The New Yorker) reported that Sanders began a speech at a fundraiser for the United Way by saying, 'I don't believe in charities.' (He later explained by pointing at the donors: 'Most of them were conservative Republicans busy cutting services to low-income people. Then they go collect nickels and dimes, mostly from working people, and congratulate each other on their generosity. I find that hypocritical.') The head of the Burlington United Way told Mayer, 'His speech was, uh, a little longer than we expected.' He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990, as Vermont's only congressman. He told Elizabeth Kolbert, then a political reporter for the Times, that there were perks to being the only socialist in Congress. 'I can't get punished,' Sanders said. 'What are they going to do? Kick me out of the party?' At the time, the most notable way in which he had bucked the Democratic Party had to do with gun control: Sanders opposed the Brady Bill, which placed regulations on the purchase of handguns, a position that's come up, lately, now that the press is taking him a bit more seriously. (Sanders said then that he did not believe gun control was a federal matter; more lately, he has said that, as a man who holds a middle ground on the issue, he can broker a compromise. Many critics are unpersuaded.) After serving eight terms in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 2006. He is the longest-serving independent in the history of Congress."

The Power of the Line

tove janssonIn an appreciation of Finnish author and cartoonist Tove Jansson, Sheila Heti relates the moment when she discovered the power of the line: "One day my mother--who immigrated from Hungary forty years ago--was visiting my apartment. She noticed that on the fridge my boyfriend and I had taped a large picture of Charlie Brown, which we had torn from the pages of The New Yorker. It was just Charlie Brown standing there with his hands at his sides. Upon seeing the picture she stopped and said, 'What a nice boy! Who is it?' The remarkable thing wasn't only discovering that my mother had strangely never encountered Charlie Brown, but that upon seeing him for the first time, she immediately liked him, felt sympathy and tenderness. Until that moment, I had not fully understood the power of comics: I had never witnessed so starkly what a perfect line can summon. A line drawn with love can make us as vulnerable as what the line depicts. Whatever cynicism I had about how commerce creates familiarity creates conditioned responses creates 'love,' it crumbled in that instant. An artist's love for what they create is what creates love. The first time I encountered Tove Jansson's Moomin strips, I had the same feeling as my mother: what a nice boy! (Or whatever sort of creature Moomin is--a creature from a tender dream.) There is such vulnerability in his eyebrows, in his little round tummy, in the way he doesn't have a mouth, in the babyish slope of the bottom of his face. It was strange, then, to learn that Jansson's first drawing of Moomin was an attempt to draw 'the ugliest creature imaginable' after a fight with her brother about Immanuel Kant."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #11

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm



why privacy mattersSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Hans Teerds discusses how Arendt reveals that by having an interest in local issues, people can band together, create shared initiatives, and thereby disclose the promise of action in the Quote of the Week. Henry David Thoreau reflects on how continuous thought helps to create a deep mental path that will shape our lives in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we are pleased to share an image of a personal Arendt library sent along by Natasha Saunders, a student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, in this week's Library feature.

HAC Virtual Reading Group #10 - The Human Conditon: Chapters 27-30
HAC Virtual Reading Group #10 - The Human Conditon: Chapters 27-30

This past Friday, July 10th, the Hannah Arendt Center hosted the tenth session of its Virtual Reading Group. We discussed Chapters 27-30 of The Human Condition.

As a special treat, we have decided to make the recording of this meeting available to all of our Amor Mundi subscribers for the next week. Afterwards, the video will once again be available only to members and virtual reading group participants.

You can access the recording here. If you would like to learn more about our virtual reading group, including how you can become a regular participant and gain access to all of our recordings, please click here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Undodged Bullets and Broken Eggs


By Ian Storey

“The trouble begins whenever one comes to the conclusion that no other ‘lesser’ evil is worth fighting…all historical and political evidence clearly points to the more-than-intimate connection between the lesser and the greater evil…with the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy today to formulate what Stalin actually did: he changed…the proverb ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ into a veritable dogma: ‘You can’t break eggs without making an omelette.’”

– Hannah Arendt, “The Eggs Speak Up”

Recently, there was a moment that struck me; it literally made me dizzy with how perfectly it encapsulated a political problem that was, at that particular moment at least, also personal.

Ian Storey
Ian Storey (B.A., Dartmouth College; Ph.D., University of Chicago) is a political theorist who teaches at Harvard University and is an associate fellow of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Some of his research interests include the political and artistic history of interwar Europe, democratic theory, and concepts of social embeddedness.

John Adams on Education

One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.

In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.

Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”

For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?

Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?

The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”

Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.

The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.

To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.

John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.


The HAC blog covers the humanities, politics, and education extensively. For more, click here to read "The Humanities and Common Sense,"  and click here to read "The Progeny of Teachers."

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

Roberto Unger: A Wartime Economy Without a War


With that simple yet evocative Facebook status update, I was led this week on a journey into my intellectual past.

The link attached to the painful interjection led to a video by Roberto Mangabeira Unger. It is a provocative video titled "Beyond Obama." It calls for progressives to work for the defeat of Presidential Barack Obama in the 2012 election. Some will welcome this and others will decry it. Today, I want to understand where Unger's call comes from.

Unger is one of those renaissance men who continually pop up in the most unexpected and extraordinary places. He has been, for many years, a professor of law at Harvard Law School. While there he taught anHarvard wrote widely on law, politics, and philosophy. His book Knowledge and Politics called to me and inspired me to dream of the possibility of a better world. Unger was also the intellectual godfather of the school of critical legal studies. When I was studying law and philosophy with Austin Sarat in the 1980s, Unger was one of my intellectual heroes.

The premise of critical legal studies is that law and legal concepts like rights or constitutions are neither natural nor scientific, but expressly political. Unger sought a political-legal approach that permits the "loosening of the fixed order of society." If legal rights were once seen as objective and neutral, Unger sought to employ law as a tool to transform society. What is needed, he writes, is a "deviationist doctrine" that employs law to "disrupt established institutions and forms of social practice that have achieved the insulation and have encouraged the retrenchment of social hierarchy and division that the entire constitution wants to avoid."

In other words, rights and laws must be mobilized to upset outmoded institutions; what makes Unger different is that he is not an anarchist or opposed to law and government. On the contrary, he imagines his program a "superliberalism."

Tied to his legal work, Unger's general philosophy speaks the language of the imagination. Life, Unger affirms, is always fleeting, and yet is "always something higher than it was before." His work sought to "establish a new system of thought that sweeps away the difficulties" of the present. Against theoretical critiques that muster partial assaults on liberal ideas, Unger demands that we comprehend and replace the entirety of liberalism as a psychological, economic, and political system.  He thinks big and paints in broad strokes.

As ambitious as Unger is, he never loses himself in abstract theory. Thus it was not a surprise when he took leave from Harvard and became a minister of strategic affairs in Brazil. Serving under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Unger was styled a "minister of ideas." He described his role as transforming  “imagination into the possible.”

Unger is now back at Harvard Law School, but he is still engaged with politics. His mystique and renown are so great on the left in the U.S. that the fact that he had taught Barack Obama when the future was a Harvard Law student, lent imaginative left-wing credibility to the pragmatic Illinois Senator.

It thus came as a shock—to some—when a video by Unger flashed around the Internet last week, in which Unger calmly and yet mercilessly criticized President Obama. For the future of the United States, Unger argues, President Obama must be defeated. He says this starkly:

President Obama must be defeated in the coming election. He has failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States.

And he continues raising the stakes:

Unless [President Obama] is defeated, there cannot be a context for the reorientation of the Democratic party as the vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country.

Most on the left will ignore Unger's warning. That would be a mistake.

Unger argues that President Obama and the left (and also the right) have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the current financial and political crisis. The left and the president see the crisis as a typical recession; their doctrinaire answer is Keynsianism, stimulus to get us over the hump and return the economy to health. But the truth is very different. Here is Unger's analysis:

The country stopped producing at competitive prices enough goods and services that the rest of the world wants.  It then tried to escape the consequences of this failure by living as if the failure had not occurred. It put a fake credit democracy in place of the property owning democracy that it turned into an ever more distant ideal. The government bribed, placated, and finally abandoned the people, instead of equipping them.

Governments at all levels in the United States and also in Europe and Japan have basically told their citizens that everything will be alright. They kept borrowing and spending to support an unsustainable standard of living without ever insisting that the money be used to make goods and services that other people actually would buy. The result is that we have an economic system that simply cannot continue without government stimulus in the form of debt.  And that cannot continue indefinitely.

In three lectures on Keynsianism, Unger argues that both right and left economists have adopted a vulgar Keynsianism, which holds that,

A crisis brought on by too much confidence, too much credit, and too much spending requires for a fix more confidence, more credit, and more spending.

In his critique of Keynsianism, Unger sounds a bit like Hunter Lewis who gave the keynote lecture to the Arendt Center's 2009 Conference on The Intellectual Origins of the Financial Crisis. In his talk, which will soon be published in September in the forthcoming volume of the same name, Lewis argued:

The policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have come directly out of Keynes’s playbook. Consequently they have that paradoxical, stand common sense on its head, flavor. For example, we are told that: The Crash of '08 was caused by too much debt. We will therefore solve it by adding more debt.

But where Lewis argues for a certain austerity, Unger's critique of Keynsianism leads in a different direction. What is needed is not mere stimulus, he argues, but massive institutional experiments in the widening of educational and economic opportunity.

The basic insight is simple. It is a mistake to think that Keynsian stimulus got us out of the Great Depression. Stimulus failed throughout the 1930s. What got us out of the Great Depression in the 1940s was a bold, broad-based, and massive deployment of resources in the association of governments with private producers to fight WWII.

The question Unger forces us to ask today is: How can we have a wartime economy without a war?

President Obama has not asked such a question. Instead, he has simplified his economic program into a vulgar Keynsian support for stimulus. In Unger's words, President Obama has done the following:

He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices.

He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of health care.

He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice.

He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money.

He has reduced justice to charity.

His policy is financial confidence and food stamps.

He has evoked politics of handholding, but no one changes the world without a struggle.

Unless he is defeated, there cannot be a context for the reorientation of the Democratic party as the vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country.

This is a damning critique. While Unger admits that there will be costs and consequences for progressive from a Republican presidency, he calculates that those costs are worth the risk if they might lead to a truly innovative and bold rethinking of politics.

Outside the progressive and conservative calculus, what is important in Unger's message is his analysis of the cowardly approaches of both parties today as well as his call for a bold and new way forward. What Unger wants is to "broaden the gateways of access to the vanguards of innovative knowledge-based production." He argues that we must "disseminate advanced experimental productive practices among the small and medium sized business that form the backbone of the real economy." Above all, we must seek not just stimulus, but renewal.

In other words, what Unger is calling for is a President with vision and character to lead us to a new place. The way out of our crisis is neither stimulus nor austerity, but a war economy without a war, an economy driven by the collective pursuit of commonly agreed upon ideas and actions. Against the false debate between austerity and stimulus, what is needed is courage and risk, the willingness to aim high, and most importantly the preparedness to suffer and struggle in the collective effort to bring a new economy and a new nation into being.

Artist: Jacek Yerka

Such an effort to re-imagine and rebuild the nation requires a leader or leaders. It will not happen on its own through the consensus politics of Occupy Wall Street. Nor will it come from the cowardly austerity of the Tea Party or from the stand-pat conventionalism of liberal Keynsianism.

One wonders where real, unifying leaders might come from — leaders, in the words of David Foster Wallace, who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” Such leaders seem unlikely to develop under the current system where candidates utter consultant-tested platitudes designed to offend no one. The question is: How can our overly cautious and hyper-critical age encourage the kind of bold action that Arendt saw was necessary in politics?

The Arendt Center's Fall 2012 Conference is titled "Does the  President Matter?" The title does not ask the conventional question: does it matter if a Republican or a Democrat is elected? Of course it matters, in some ways, and not in others.

Rather, the conference title is meant to provoke the Arendtian question: What would a human politics look like in the 21st century?

Hannah Arendt believed that freedom requires courage. Political leaders, she argued, are those who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire citizens to re-imagine a common purpose. Active leadership is unpredictable; since a leader inserts a new idea into the world, no one can predict or control how that idea will change the world. Leadership is therefore as risky as it is rare. For Arendt, freedom demands such leadership if life is to remain surprising, new, and human.

Leadership can of course be dangerous, but politics is, for Arendt, always a risky and uncertain endeavor. The great virtue of Robert Unger's recent call to turn away from President Obama's conventional politics is that he asks and challenges us to conceive and actualize a politics that is bold rather than cowardly. Given our current predicaments, that may be our only hope.

As the heat oppresses our bodies on this summer weekend, free your soul and spend 8 minutes watching Robert Mangabeira Unger's essay: Beyond Obama.  His video is your weekend "read."


Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".