Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
15Sep/141

Walter Benjamin and “Drilling” for Pearls

walter_benjamin

“Walter Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past. In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by the citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of ‘peace of mind,’ the mindless peace of complacency.”

–Hannah Arendt, “Introduction” to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations

Hannah Arendt was a great thinker. She tackled immense topics such as totalitarianism in Fascist and Stalinist forms, the tradition of Western political philosophy, the human condition, international law and human rights, and the destruction of the world in an atomic age. Moreover, as her former students and current readers can attest, her range of knowledge was daunting as she could easily move among languages, time periods, historical detail and philosophical abstraction with ease. Yet Arendt was also intensely invested in fragments, moments, poetry, individuals. One place where this is best represented is in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations.

Laurie Naranch
Laurie Naranch is Associate Professor of Political Science and director of the Women’s Studies Minor at Siena College, NY. She has published in the areas of democratic theory, gender theory, and popular culture. Her current research is on debt and citizenship along with the work of the Greek-French thinker Cornelius Castoriadis and democracy.
12May/1464

Violence, Hypocrisy, and Scientific-Administrative “Laws”

Arendtquote

“Moreover, if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy. … To tear the mask of hypocrisy from the face of the enemy, to unmask him and the devious machinations and manipulations that permit him to rule without using violent means, that is, to provoke action even at the risk of annihilation so that the truth may come out—these are still among the strongest motives in today’s violence on the campuses and in the streets.  And this violence again is not irrational.  Since men live in a world of appearances and, in their dealing with it, depend on manifestation, hypocrisy’s conceits—as distinguished from expedient ruses, followed by disclosure in due time—cannot be met by so-called reasonable behavior.  Words can be relied on only if one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal.  It is the semblance of rationality, much more than the interests behind it, that provokes rage.”

--On Violence (65-66)

In On Violence (1970), Arendt argues for political action and power as opposed to violence.  According to her conception, power is political, and it is an end in itself.  It is brought into being through the political and public “acting in concert” of a plurality of human beings.  Violence, on the other hand, is instrumental in two senses of the word:  it can only be carried out through the use of external instruments, and it is a means that cannot supply its own end.   Rule by violence becomes a possibility wherever real power is being lost, and while violence may destroy power, it can never produce it.  Violence relies on goals external to itself for its justification, yet it is also a means that can devour its own ends.

More particularly, and to place the passage in the proper late-1960s context, she is interested, on the one hand, in the extreme potential for violence produced through twentieth century technological developments and, on the other, the question of violence perpetrated by and against oppositional student groups in the western world.  The two are, of course, related in complex ways.  Arendt is worried about the unleashing of a vicious cycle of violence, in which students actively seek to provoke the police with the express purpose of bringing an underlying “fascism” or naked state violence to the fore.  Similarly, she writes, in the 1930s, fascism’s opponents had at times even celebrated its victory because it would reveal the internal contradictions of a “civilized society” that held violence and repression at its core.  “We saw how that turned out,” is the implied conclusion.

What is at the root of this cycle of violence?  From the outset, Arendt rejects biological explanations based on some innate human aggressiveness emerging from our animal selves.  According to the bio-psychological line of analysis, human impulses towards violence can be so dangerous because they have been blocked and severed from their original “natural” purpose of species preservation.  They have become redirected in a way that makes them irrational.  Arendt rejects this characterization and instead seeks to identify the rationale behind violence.  She finds it partially by examining rage against injustice, which arises “only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not…” (63).  She goes so far as to recognize that “… under certain circumstances violence—acting without argument or speech and without counting the consequences—is the only way to set the scales of justice right again.” (64)

That rage and violence against injustice can be rational, though, in no way makes them political.  Indeed, they are “without argument or speech,” and she explicitly characterizes them as “antipolitical.”  What Arendt describes, then, is an unpolitical cycle of violence, which forms a synthetic dialectic.  She additionally reveals that, despite themselves, the two parties to the dialectic are, by essence, largely the same.  The students rebel against the Establishment and the System, but they fail to recognize what these have become or their own role in their operation.  They romantically cling to the Marxist notion of a bourgeois-proletarian dialectic of class conflict when 1) the embourgeoisement of the post-war working class had stymied its revolutionary potential, and 2) this was in no small part due to scientific advances that made the intellectuals and the scientists the new mandarins, over and above the class warriors of the bourgeoisie.  And who are the future intellectuals and scientists if not the students, themselves?  The students are raging against the machine of technical conquest that produced the bomb and napalm, but they are simultaneously reproducing the machine, through their very being.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Violence emerges when political power is lost, and political power dissipates when there is no space for human action in which power can be renewed.  Arendt writes:

I am inclined to think that much of the present glorification of violence is caused by severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world.  It is simply true that riots in the ghettos and rebellions on the campuses make ‘people feel like they are acting together in a way that they rarely can.’ (83)

Violence is, then, a false politics that serves to placate the frustrated political actor.  It becomes an outlet for a political impulse that has been blocked, according to Arendt, especially by our belief in modern progress.  Progress as “growth, the relentless process of more and more, of bigger and bigger” increases demand for administration.  Bureaucratization, in turn, increases the appeal of violence precisely because it is unpolitical:

In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted.  Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.  The crucial feature in the student rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy.

Bureaucratization and the ideal of progress block politics because the idea of politics, the notion that human beings might initiate the radically new and unexpected in the world, is fundamentally alien to them.  They are, instead, built upon the idea that everything can be accounted for and made predictable through the universal dictates of objective science and technique.

Bureaucracy is also a key source of the very hypocrisy Arendt identifies above as a catalyst of rage and violence.  It presents itself as the impartial bearer of technical truths, but bureaucracy is instrumental just like violence, which means it relies on external, political ends to provide its operating justification.  Despite claims to neutrality, it must, by definition, serve political ends.   Though also like violence, it constantly threatens to overflow its own bounds, overwhelming the ends with meaningless means.

Bureaucracy

The current dialectic in Europe, between a sometimes-violent populist revival and a technocracy claiming only to implement neutral economic truths, illustrates anew the dynamic Arendt identified in 1969-1970.  The populist aims to reveal the hypocrisy of the technocrat by existing as the technocrat’s opposite, by declaring himself the true representative of the people’s good.  But in being his opposite, he reproduces the same problem in mirror image.  Both deny politics and attempt to substitute some form of absolute reason in its place.  Thus, we ‘deal with’ our freedom by simultaneously declaring absolute control—via either technique or rule by populist incarnation—and giving up control absolutely—to the self-contained system of scientific principles or the populist leader.  In Arendt’s examples, the enraged reaction against hypocrisy ends up producing the very violence against which it fights, most obviously when students force the government to react with open violence in order to prove that the violence had been there all along.  Similarly, contemporary populism produces the negation of politics while fighting against the same negation of politics in another form.  Technocracy completes and perpetuates the cycle as it explicitly aims to combat populism and discipline the popular will in favor of "impartial truths."

In this context, the popular explosion of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is interesting in (at least) two ways: 1) Piketty justifies and provides fuel for populist rage against inequality.  He demonstrates the magnitude of current gross disparities in wealth and shows them to be the result of policies that have been presented as the only sound technical reactions to contemporary economic truths.  2) He also dethrones the notion of the economic law.  He reveals the fallacies of the postwar technocrats who believed their economic situation had been the natural result of the unfolding of “natural” economic developmental laws.  Instead, we now know that their unprecedented situation, characterized by high levels of growth and employment along with historically low levels of inequality, came as a result of historical contingency mixed with deliberate and free political action.  Their mistake was to reify their circumstances and then try and understand this “given” and “natural” phenomenon via scientific theory.

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Thomas Piketty

Arendt’s analysis of this very same time period, however, suggests that the human activity Piketty highlights was anything but “political action.”  To caricature and simplify, efforts directed towards material well-being cannot constitute politically free action, according to her, because they are determined by the objective circumstance of human need.  One could argue, though, that, in this, she may have fallen for the technocrats’ reification of political choices about material well-being into deterministic laws—even while she denounced their attempts to collapse human experience into behaviorist systems.  The question then becomes whether an Arendtian politics is possible that is nevertheless directed towards the maintenance of the living organism in some way.  In fact, both Arendt and Marx condemned inequality reduction as strictly unpolitical.  Despite extreme differences in their notions of politics, for both of them politics is about human freedom, not life or living.  It is a common misconception that Marx was arguing for the elimination of inequality.  In fact, he denounced all attempts to do so as weakly reformist.  The root of the problem was, rather, lack of freedom in a republican sense:  It does not matter how well or equally you are treated if you are nevertheless a slave.

The characterization of inequality concerns as “unpolitical” seems to go too far, though, if we consider the idea that people cannot act politically and freely if they lack basic security and trust in the world.  This is a point that Arendt makes in On Revolution, among other works, in which she writes that desperation can only produce violence and not politics.  (This point could also work towards providing an Arendtian explanation for populist violence à la Golden Dawn, etc.)  With this in mind, our fight against inequality could actually be understood as political action in the service of political action as an end in itself.

What Piketty has in common with Arendt is the condemnation of social “science” masquerading as natural science.  Arendt shows how this can be a hindrance to freedom, and she understands it as something that is also fundamentally unworkable.  The belief in its predictive power can only exist in denial of the unpredictable results of human action that will always undo the projected image of organized harmony.  Piketty is criticizing the economic establishment on these same grounds, which is why his crusade against inequality challenges Arendt’s sharp dividing line between politics and mere life.  While his data analysis shows that our world will tend towards more and more extreme inequality, Piketty emphasizes the fact that this tendency has been undone before, which implies that we can politically undo it again.  Insofar as they both believe in and endorse the possibility and power of political action, it seems reasonable to assume that Piketty would also endorse Arendt’s important claim that,

If we look on history in terms of a continuous chronological process, whose progress, moreover, is inevitable, violence in the shape of war and revolution may appear to constitute the only possible interruption.  If this were true, if only the practice of violence would make it possible to interrupt automatic processes in the realm of human affairs, the preachers of violence would have won an important point. … It is the function, however, of all action, as distinguished from mere behavior, to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably. (30-31)

--Jennifer M. Hudson

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.
22Oct/120

The Rise of the Golden Dawn

Golden Dawn, the far-Right fascist party in Greece continues to grow in popularity and violence, according to the Wall Street Journal. Last week the Journal reports:

In a rundown, immigrant-filled neighborhood here, Ilias Panagiotaros, a member of Parliament from Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party, used a megaphone Friday night to exhort an angry crowd to "fight against foreign invaders."

A family watching from a second-floor balcony scrambled for cover as demonstrators hurled bottles and stones at them. "We're going to spill your blood, you Albanian pigs," a man in the flag-waving throng screamed.

Hundreds of protesters marched through the narrow streets—some spraying nationalist graffiti on building facades, others shouting obscene taunts at immigrants. Mr. Panagiotaros, a heavyset man with a shaved head, led them in a resounding chant: "Foreigners out. Greece for the Greeks."

Now this weekend the Washington Post has a follow up (as Walter Russell Mead writes). The Post describes a Greek army surplus store that proudly displays a sticker that carries a favorite party slogan: “Get the Stench out of Greece.” The Post continues:

By “stench,” the Golden Dawn — which won its first-ever seats in the Greek Parliament this spring and whose popularity has soared ever since — means immigrants, broadly defined as anyone not of Greek ancestry. In the country at the epicenter of Europe’s debt crisis, and where poverty and unemployment are spiking, the surplus shop doubles as one of the party’s dozens of new “help bureaus.” Hundreds of calls a day come in from desperate families seeking food, clothing and jobs, all of which the Golden Dawn is endeavoring to provide, with one major caveat: for Greeks only.

Attacks have not stopped at foreigners. One Golden Dawn legislator slapped a left-wing female politician on national television. Party supporters have attempted to shut down performances of progressive theater. Activists see the party’s hand behind three recent beatings of gay men. The Golden Dawn has also begun engaging left-wing anarchy groups in street battles — more evidence, observers say, of a societal breakdown that some here fear could slide into a civil war if Greece is forced out of the euro and into an even deeper crisis.

But perhaps more worrisome, critics say, are signs that the Golden Dawn is establishing itself as an alternative authority in a country crippled by the harsh austerity imposed by its international lenders. It has set up its own “pure” blood bank, providing and accepting donations to and from Greeks only, in a nation of 11 million that is also home to roughly 1.5 million refugees and migrants, many of them from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. As the party attempts to place a swelling number of unemployed in jobs, its officials say they have persuaded a major restaurant chain to begin replacing immigrants with Greek workers.

The Arendt Center is keeping a close eye on Golden Dawn. The increasing popularity of the party in Greece, which currently polls at over 20% of the Greek population, is a reminder that real economic crises rarely limit themselves to economic upheaval. Many names and words will be bandied about in and with regard to Greece. People will talk about fascism, racism, and totalitarianism. The point is to keep our eyes open to what is happening, which at this point is ugly political nativism along with racialized violence that is gaining enough popular appeal so that it is not being confronted and stopped by legal authorities. It is partly a result of racism, but also a consequence of the utter loss of power and legitimacy on behalf of the Greek elite and the Greek government that has abandoned Greek self-rule to a technocratic European elite. When people feel totally helpless and out of control, as Greeks do today, they will unfortunately seek out scapegoats and victims. The last thing they want to admit is that it is the Greek people themselves and their leaders who are to blame for their predicament.

Golden Dawn members giving a raised-fist salute as they are being sworn into Parliament 6/12

One key step in any move towards totalitarianism is the erasure of legal citizenship or legal protections for a defined minority. Legal and illegal immigrants are already vulnerable groups even in good times. The danger is that immigrants lose even the basic legal protections and rights that they currently have and, once they do, become superfluous people, the kind of people who simply can be rounded up, imprisoned, expelled, or killed without any legal notice or response—or even according to the law. That of course is not happening in Greece. Let's hope it does not.

-RB

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.
1Oct/121

The Dark Days of the Golden Dawn

Fascism is making a mainstream comeback. That is fascism in the sense of a nationalist and nativist movement, to be distinguished from totalitarianism, which is an internationalist and imperialist movement. The scene for the return of fascism is Greece. In the birthplace of democracy, the failure of the European Union has combined with the utter impotency of mainstream Greek politicians to  offer an opening for Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi and anti-immigrant party that is openly and violently taking the law into its own hands. The New York Times writes:

The video, which went viral in Greece last month, shows about 40 burly men, led by Giorgos Germenis, a lawmaker with the right-wing Golden Dawn party, marching through a night market in the town of Rafina demanding that dark-skinned merchants show permits.

The video is harrowing. It is racist and rightly condemned by legitimate parties. But no one, it seems, is willing to do more than to condemn Golden Dawn. Article after article speaks of the close relationship between Golden Dawn and the Greek police. They appear to act with impunity.

The real danger is only in part the destruction of shops and stands owned by brown people who don't have documentation; it is the shock, passivity, and even the support of the people and the police. Greek society is, as The Guardian reports, making media darlings of Golden Dawn. Multiple reports suggest that Golden Dawn has support of more than 20% of the Greek people.

The problems Greece faces are extreme. Overly indebted, the Greeks have not been able to choose a coherent response. They have refused to leave the Euro or nationalize their banks and their debt. But nor have they willingly embraced the kind of severe austerity that would allow them to return to good economic standing. The sad result is enforced and partial austerity at the barrel of an economic pistol. It is a painful and humiliating submission to international bureaucrats.

At the same time, the broken immigration politics of the European Union puts an impossible burden on Greece to police its huge and porous borders. Since illegal immigrants can travel freely in the EU once inside Greece, it has become an easy port of entry to the whole of the EU. There are now, according to the NY Times, more than 1.5 Million immigrants in a country of 11 million people. Other sources put the number lower at 850,000. Whichever is correct, the politics of immigration are underwriting Golden Dawn's popular vigilantism.

The combination of a broken political system, economic austerity, and growing illegal immigration is, as the video and the increasingly mainstream popularity of Golden Dawn show, a dangerous mix. This is a mass movement that is filling a vacuum of legitimate leadership. It is a sign of what happens when the political system refuses to honestly address the reality of the problems a nation faces; the complete breakdown in legitimacy and the turn to extremism.

Read more about Golden Dawn in the Times article.

-RB

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.
8Jun/121

Fascism in Latin America

Amidst the crises that are engulfing Europe, Syria, and Afghanistan and our own problems at home, it is easy to overlook disturbing developments to our south. While some countries in South and Central America are thriving, others are experiencing authoritarian and fascist rule. Venezuela and Cuba are well-known examples of this trend, but Bolivia is often overlooked.

Many on the left had great hopes for Bolivia when Evo Morales was elected President in 2005. But the Morales administration has forged a “proceso de cambio” featuring a new constitution that opens the way for endless re-election, the restriction of press freedom, and a unlimited industrialization that includes building massive dams and development of oil, gas, and lithium. Morales has also ignored indigenous eco-reserves and violently repressed protests.

Las máscaras del fascismo: Castro, Chávez, Morales (in Spanish) is a new book by the Bolivian fiction writer Juan Claudio Lechín. Lechin, the son of a renowned union activist, "audaciously compares the laws and political strategies that Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and Morales himself have employed to congeal power with those of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco."

While Lechin originally supported Morales, he went on a hunger strike in 2006 to protest Morale's consolidation of power. After the strikers were harassed and threatened, Lechin "realized that there could be a correlation between what was unfolding in Bolivian and European fascism, so I studied fascism for four and a half years."

Lechin's book is both an account of Bolivian authoritarianism and also a comparative history of fascism in 21st century Latin American and 20th century Europe. He develops a schema of fascism: 

 I see it as a product of the clash between the onrush of modernity and the familiarity of feudalism. I believe that, over the last four centuries, two political philosophies have been at battle. One is monarchy, whether it’s feudal, absolutist, or whatever; the other is liberalism that can be constitutional, presidential, etc. These two systems have been waging a constant war, on the one side for the centralization of power, and on the other, for redistribution of power. The rest, like communism or fascism, are in-between forms that some societies acquire in the transition between these two. The moment in which fascism appears is when the values and institutions of liberal society have not yet been fully installed and there exist masses boasting a traditional mindset. Fascism emerges from a social unconscious intent on re-establishing mentalities that people are familiar with—and this installation carries the novelty of being realized by a caudillo and leaders from the common people using a revolutionary discourse.

For those interested in Hannah Arendt's thinking about revolution, totalitarianism and fascism, there is much to be gained from Lechin's ruminations. He does not address the distinction of totalitarianism, and probably for the good reason that the Latin American variety of authoritarianism is far different from mid-20th century totalitarianism. This too is instructive.

One fault line that runs through Lechin's book is his ambivalence about liberalism as the primary opposition to one-person rule.

Liberalism is a complex system. It has its political side, with its emphasis on liberties and deconstruction of power. But then there is the economic side: capitalism with its two opposing faces, the small owner and the transnational. Liberalism has its failures, of course. I am not a liberal! But, from my position living inside dictatorships and military juntas in Latin America, I have witnessed that liberalism offers a better chance for people to succeed at protest than this shell of feudalism called fascism or communism. In it, nothing is possible. Too, liberalism is a young system; it’s still being created. One can intervene, propose, make it happen.

In the wake of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, such clear-sighted ambivalence about liberalism is welcome. It is often forgotten by critics of liberalism that the Arab Spring, for all of its newness and radicalism, is above all motivated by a desire for liberal freedom. While Arendt saw that revolutions are about freedom that means more than simply liberty, liberty is a necessary first foundation for freedom.

If you read Spanish, order the book; but even if you don't you can get much from reading Chellis Glendinning's fascinating interview with Lechin in Guernica.

-RB

 

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".