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.
Mark Leibovich in the NY Times Magazine has found something fascinating and more frightening about the Trump candidacy. "But what was more compelling to me about both the speech and the spirit of the room was how nonideological it all was. Other than undocumented immigrants, who represent a go-to boogeyman for the right, Trump's targets consisted of a bipartisan assembly of the 'permanent political class' that Joan Didion described in her book 'Political Fictions': that incestuous band of TV talkers, campaign strategists and candidates that had 'rigged the game' and perpetuated the scripted awfulness of our politics. 'Everyone knows that what you see in politics is fake or confected,' Didion wrote. 'But everyone's O.K. with that, because it's all been focus-grouped.' Resentment of this class has built over several years. It has been expressed on both sides, by the rise of insurgent movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (Trump's railing against fund-raiser 'blood money,' 'bloodsucker' lobbyists and Wall Street 'paper pushers' would play well across the board). As a reporter in Washington, I, too, have grown exceedingly weary of this world--the familiar faces, recycled tropes and politics as usual--and here was none other than Donald J. Trump, the billionaire blowhard whom I had resisted as a cartoonish demagogue, defiling it with resonance. He tacked not to the left or to the right, but against the 'losers' and 'scumbags' in the various chapters of the club: the pundits who 'wear heavy glasses' and 'sit around the table,' the 'political hacks' selling out American interests overseas. Karl Rove 'is a totally incompetent jerk,' Trump told the crowd in Dallas, referring to the Fox News commentator and chief Republican strategist of the George W. Bush years. The crowd went nuts at the Rove put-down, which in itself is remarkable--the 'architect' of Bush's political ride being abused by a right-leaning crowd in Bush's home state. It was at this point that I began to feel glad I decided to write about Trump, who seemed to have clearly seized on some profound exhaustion with our politics. There's very little difference between Trump when he's not running for president and Trump now that he is running for president, except that he makes more public appearances. Trump is the same boorish, brash and grandiose showman we've known across many realms. And for some reason, that character has proved an incendiary match with this political moment. It was a repeat of what I saw that night of the first debate, when the whole room abandoned the professional campaign surrogates in favor of the blazing chaos of Trump himself. Was Trump the logical byproduct of a cancerous system in which American democracy has mutated into a gold rush of cheap celebrity, wealth creation and narcissistic branding madness? Or has he merely wielded the tools of this transformation--his money, celebrity and dominance of the media--against the forces that have engendered this disgust in the system to begin with?" Leibovich has an answer to that question, and it is as depressing as it is worth pondering.
James Wood has a remarkable testament to the author, Auschwitz survivor, and chemist Primo Levi in this week's New Yorker. Wood touches upon so many facets of Levi's prose and humanity, as well as the uniqueness of his particular witnessing of the Holocaust. "There is a Talmudic commentary that argues that 'Job never existed and was just a parable.' The Israeli poet and concentration-camp survivor Dan Pagis replies to this easy erasure in his poem 'Homily.' Despite the obvious inequality of the theological contest, Pagis says, Job passed God's test without even realizing it. He defeated Satan with his very silence. We might imagine, Pagis continues, that the most terrible thing about the story is that Job didn't understand whom he had defeated, or that he had even won the battle. Not true. For then comes an extraordinary final line: 'But in fact, the most terrible thing of all is that Job never existed and is just a parable.' Pagis's poem means: 'Job did exist, because Job was in the death camps. Suffering is not the most terrible thing; worse is to have the reality of one's suffering erased.' In just this way, Levi's writing insists that Job existed and was not a parable. His clarity is ontological and moral: these things happened, a victim witnessed them, and they must never be erased or forgotten. There are many such facts in Levi's books of testament. The reader is quickly introduced to the principle of scarcity, in which everything--every detail, object, and fact--becomes essential, for everything will be stolen: wire, rags, paper, bowl, a spoon, bread. The prisoners learn to hold their bowls under their chins so as not to lose the crumbs. They shorten their nails with their teeth. 'Death begins with the shoes.' Infection enters through wounds in the feet, swollen by edema; ill-fitting shoes can be catastrophic. Hunger is perpetual, overwhelming, and fatal for most: 'The Lager is hunger.' In their sleep, many of the prisoners lick their lips and move their jaws, dreaming of food. Reveille is brutally early, before dawn. As the prisoners trudge off to work, sadistic, infernal music accompanies them: a band of prisoners is forced to play marches and popular tunes; Levi says that the pounding of the bass drum and the clashing of the cymbals is 'the voice of the Lager' and the last thing about it he will forget. And present everywhere is what he called the 'useless violence' of the camp: the screaming and beatings and humiliations, the enforced nakedness, the absurdist regulatory regimen, with its sadism of paradox--the fact, say, that every prisoner needed a spoon but was not issued one and had to find it himself on the black market (when the camp was liberated, Levi writes, a huge stash of brand-new plastic spoons was discovered), or the fanatically prolonged daily roll call, which took place in all weathers, and which required militaristic precision from wraiths in rags, already half dead."
Ira Katznelson has an essay in Boston Review on the historical return of the worry that liberal democracies are failing. He worries that around the world liberal representative democracies are experiencing a "profound crisis of moral legitimacy, practical capacity, and institutional sustainability." And he reminds us that it is not the first time this has happened. Worries about the exhaustion and limits of representative democracies were widespread in the 1930s when "Many Americans embraced these views. In Reflections on the End of an Era (1934), Reinhold Niebuhr offered 'the basic conviction . . . that the liberal culture of modernity is quite unable to give guidance and direction to a confused generation which faces the disintegration of a social system and the task of building a new one.' Looking across the sea at fascist ascendance and communist assertiveness, he warned, 'a dying social order hastens its death in the frantic effort to avoid or postpone it.' The following year, philosopher William Ernest Hocking declared that the time for liberal democracy 'has already passed,' for it is 'incapable of achieving social unity.' Such government, he predicted, 'has no future. . . . Its once negligible weaknesses have developed into menacing evils.' Even the relatively optimistic political scientist Lindsay Rogers believed, in 1934, that representative institutions 'must reconcile themselves to laying down general principles within the limits of which they will give executives free hands.' Such 'considerable revamping of the machinery of representative government [that] will come quickly is greatly to be desired,' he wrote in Crisis Government. The era's democratic governments looked vastly inferior to the instruments of mass mobilization and problem solving fashioned by the dictatorships. The pressures on all the democracies were intense. Writing in 1932 about 'the breakdown of the old order,' 'the immediate economic and social needs of labor,' and 'the exploitation of the farmers,' economist and future U.S. Senator Paul Douglas exhorted fellow advocates of peaceful and democratic change that all had not yet been lost. But he thought he was pushing against the odds. Mussolini's confident assertion in 1932 that 'liberalism is preparing to close the doors of its temples' has been proved wrong. Dictatorships in Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain, and Argentina have given way to entrenched democracy. Even an increasingly authoritarian Russia embraces democratic forms. With the exceptions of China's large-scale experiment in autocratic capitalism and the surprising surge of theocracy in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, liberal democracy based on the rule of law, government by consent, individual rights, and political representation presently has no effective normative or institutional challengers in most of the world, and no effective contenders in countries with long-standing democratic regimes. What saved democracy? Much credit goes to the New Deal." The Boston Review collects a number of responses to Katznelson, and one particularly noteworthy is by Nadia Urbanati, who writes: "Thus, one novel aspect of the present crisis of legitimacy of parliamentary democracy is a revolt against the intermediary bodies that made it possible--political parties and professional journalism."
In reviewing Sherry Turkle's new book "Reclaiming Conversation" in the New York Times, Jonathan Franzen highlights the nexus between conversation and solitude. "Conversation is Turkle's organizing principle because so much of what constitutes humanity is threatened when we replace it with electronic communication. Conversation presupposes solitude, for example, because it's in solitude that we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are. (If we're unable to be separated from our smartphones, Turkle says, we consume other people 'in bits and pieces; it is as though we use them as spare parts to support our fragile selves.') Through the conversational attention of parents, children acquire a sense of enduring connectedness and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them. (Turkle believes that regular family conversations help 'inoculate' children against bullying.) When you speak to people in person, you're forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins. (A recent study shows a steep decline in empathy, as measured by standard psychological tests, among college students of the smartphone generation.) And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed."
Gayatri Devi wants us to embrace boredom: "So lean in to boredom, into that intense experience of time untouched by beauty, pleasure, comfort and all other temporal salubrious sensations. Observe it, how your mind responds to boredom, what you feel and think when you get bored. This form of metathinking can help you overcome your boredom, and learn about yourself and the world in the process. If meditating on nothing is too hard at the outset, at the very least you can imitate William Wordsworth and let that host of golden daffodils flash upon your inward eye: emotions recollected in tranquility--that is, reflection--can fill empty hours while teaching you, slowly, how to sit and just be in the present. Don't replace boredom with work or fun or habits. Don't pull out a screen at every idle moment. Boredom is the last privilege of a free mind. The currency with which you barter with folks who will sell you their 'habit,' 'fun' or 'work' is your clear right to practice judgment, discernment and taste. In other words, always trust when boredom speaks to you. Instead of avoiding it, heed its messages, because they'll keep you true to yourself."
Ann Friedman tried, like we all must now, to build a personal brand and was not exactly sold on the process of the personal elevator pitch: "I don't want to live in a world in which everyone must be able to summarize and publicize their work in order to be professionally successful. I think those journalists in Alaska should have decent salaries and job security just because they report the news well, not because they have a lot of Twitter followers and a flashy personal web site. The same goes for janitors and call-center employees and anyone else who doesn't have a branding-friendly job. It's ridiculous to think that, even in the age of widespread access to social media, everyone has the freedom and time to brand themselves. Peters saw personal branding as a way for average workers to become something more than corporate drones. But in reality, that's still a luxury reserved for the privileged. There's also something inherently fake about having a carefully constructed identity. The more we think of ourselves as brands, the less personal everything becomes. Instead of the real you, with all your quirks and shortcomings, we get a polished YOU™, the version that is marketed to the world. Maybe, if you're making a CEO-level salary, the trade-off is worth it. Maybe, if you're naturally outgoing and find yourself in the right industry, it doesn't feel like a trade-off at all. But it seems wrong to extol the virtues of personal branding without at least acknowledging this disconnect. Anything less would be inauthentic."
Hugh Eakin sees the roots of Europe's refugee crisis, a crisis that extends beyond the fleeing Syrians we've come to associate with it in recent days and weeks, as a simple fact: "there are virtually no legal ways for a refugee to travel to Europe. You can only apply for asylum once you arrive in a European country, and since the EU imposes strict visa requirements on most non-EU nationals, and since it is often impossible to get a European visa in a Middle Eastern or African country torn apart by war, the rules virtually require those seeking protection to take a clandestine journey, which for most would be impossible without recourse to smugglers. This situation has led to a vast, shadowy human-smuggling industry, based in Turkey, the Balkans, and North Africa, which European officials have recently estimated to be worth as much as $1 billion per year. Just months before the current refugee crisis erupted this summer, European leaders launched a 'war on smugglers,' a controversial plan to crack down on criminal networks in Libya that control what European officials call the 'Central Mediterranean' migration route. As Libya descended into growing instability and violence following the 2011 revolution, it became a haven for human smugglers, who specialize in ferrying asylum seekers to Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily. The smugglers are paid upfront and do not themselves navigate the boats; they have every incentive to put as many people as they can onto small, wooden crafts, leaving it to Italian and European naval forces to rescue them when they flounder. (According to European security experts, the smugglers offer a 'menu' of different levels of service for these terrifying journeys, charging more if you want to have a lifejacket, or to sit near the center of the boat, where you are less likely to wash overboard.) This is not a new phenomenon: the Missing Migrants Project, a database run by the International Organization of Migration in Switzerland, has recorded more than 22,000 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean since the year 2000. But over the past eighteen months, as demand has gone up and smugglers have grown more reckless, the number of fatalities has increased dramatically, with more than five thousand deaths since the beginning of 2014. This year, in the month of April alone, a record 1,200 people are believed to have drowned off the coast of Libya. 'How many more deaths will it take for us to call these guys [i.e., the smugglers] mass murderers?' a migration official for a Northern European government told me. In late September, the UN Security Council was to vote on a draft resolution authorizing European forces to seize and even destroy smugglers' boats off the coast of Libya."
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who himself once was conned out of a significant sum trying to get smuggled out of Iraq, tracks the routes that migrants take to get from the Mediterranean Coast through Greece or Turkey and into Europe: "Following the route laid out by my Facebook friend, most of these migrants would stop briefly in Athens and then travel on to Thessaloniki. It's a six-hour walk from the train station there to the Macedonian border. Next to a deserted petrol station--used by no one, since fuel is cheaper on the other side of the border--is a two-storey motel, a place to rest, buy provisions and charge up your phone. Presumably, this place was once as deserted as the petrol station but now it was a modern-day caravanserai, the lobby stacked high with overpriced canned food, trainers, backpacks and bottled water. Two elderly Greek cooks were ladling out beans and rice for €10 a plate. Every table, chair and corner was occupied. A group of Syrians sat smoking and nattering away; next to them a table full of Eritreans drank beer in silence. The patron of the motel was charging round in a rage shouting orders, behaving as if his fine establishment had been invaded by vermin rather than clients. Business was so good that neighbouring tavernas and places with rooms to let had all hung out signs in misspelled Arabic in the hope of luring in some of the new clientele. Most of the migrants had money to spend and didn't mind the prices. They had come with a few thousand euros, cash from houses and cars sold back home to fund the journey to Europe. Being charged €5 for a can of Coke was a trivial exploitation compared to the thousand or so euros each had had to pay for a trip on an inflatable dinghy that would have cost €15 on a ferry."
The European Parliament has released a study "Big Data, Smart Devices, and their Impact on Privacy" that concludes, "the data-driven economy poses significant challenges to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, notably in the fields of privacy and personal data protection." The study is overly bureaucratic but is worth slogging through. Here are the key findings: "Big Data can be broadly depicted as the massive and rapid processing of data (through modern data analytics) in the search for information (including unforeseen information). The practice of data mining poses a significant challenge due to the degree of opacity characterising many contemporary data processing activities. Envisioned through the lens of Big Data, smart devices are singled out for their ability to further extend data mining practices. The production of data by smart devices can be quite varied (such as sensors planned for data capture); the pervasive and extensive routine data production of smart devices might not be fully grasped by individuals. Data mining practices may result in 'behavioural targeting' and further encourage a 'datafication' of society that poses significant challenges for privacy and digital rights in general. Due to such risks as statistical discrimination, there are calls for up-to-date regulations."
Charles P. Pierce takes stock of American football in the week after a high school player "took a hard hit" and died: "Let us be plain. For the moment, anybody who writes about sports who chooses to boycott American football because of the inherent and inevitable damage it does to the individuals who play the game is doing only half of their job. American football is the great, gravitational force at the center of the universe in which our spectacle sports operate. It is fine to operate from the moral high ground, but the fact remains that the existential crisis of physical destruction in American football is an existential crisis at the heart of American sports. It requires a serious moral calculation on the part of everyone who makes a living within the game, who makes a living transmitting the game out there to all the Evan Murrays watching at home, who involves him or herself vicariously through fantasy leagues, and who works at covering the complex at any level of journalism. Too much of American journalism--and, therefore, too much of what Americans think they know about their country--is corrupted by a kind of anesthetic generality. To cover American sports while boycotting football is to make a conscious choice to ignore the most garish form of the basic commodification of human beings that is fundamental to all of the games. At the same time, that same moral calculation requires an acknowledgement that the essence of American football is the destruction of the human body and that it alone among the institutions of sports spectacles involves the death of children"
Marcus Llanque engages with Arendt's original intention, which was not to criticize the idea of human rights as such but the specific concept of that idea that prevailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which dominates human rights discourse in our times. In Arendt's view, human rights can only guide actions, but they cannot replace them. Historically, human rights were most successful when they were linked to the foundation of a polity guided by the principles that human rights stand for. Her argument reflects a classical republican position by emphasizing that norms are nothing without actors and that it is the purpose of human beings, not just to enjoy as many rights as possible but to also be able to act in the first place.
Marcus Llanque is Professor for Political Theory at University of Augsburg/ Germany. He's published several books on the theory of democracy, republicanism, and the history of political ideas. He is the editor of Hannah Arendt's "What is Politics?" within the upcoming critical edition of Arendt's complete works.
Free and Open to the Public
Monday, October 5, 2015
Room 203, Olin Hall, Bard College, 5:00 pm
Please join us at The Hannah Arendt Center for the first Democratic Debate on Tuesday October 13th.
Light refreshments will be served.
Space is limited, so please R.S.V.P. to firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, Time TBA
Resolved: "National security is more important than the individual right to privacy."
Please join us for an exciting public debate inspired by the topic of this year's Hannah Arendt Center Conference, "Why Privacy Matters." The debate will feature Bard Debate Union members, Bard College faculty, and cadets and faculty from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Free and Open to the Public
Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is NOW CLOSED except for on-site registration, which is subject to availability and will cost $45 for ALL interested parties except those of the Bard community.
We will be offering a live webcast to individuals who are interested in watching one or both days of the conference. To learn more, please click here.
Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
Hannah Arendt always returned to poetry and kept the language of German poems in her hinterkopf. For Arendt, poetry is the closest form we have to thought itself, bearing the burden of language and memory. It should then be no surprise that Arendt herself wrote poems.
The poems now appear in translation for the first time, edited and translated into English by Samantha Hill and into French by Karin Biro. Biro and Hill join us to read from their translations and discuss Arendt's poetry, the work of translation, and the place of poetry across Arendt's political and philosophical works.
Free and Open to the Public, but space is limited. Please RSVP to email@example.com
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm
National Endowment for the Humanities/Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Visiting Fellow DAVID BRIN is a scientist who has served as a NASA visiting scholar in exobiology. As a writer of science fiction, he has received the Nebula award, two Hugo awards, and four Locus awards, and has published books including Earth and The Postman. He is also the author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?
Free and Open to the Public
Thursday, October 22, 2015
Bard Hall, Bard College, Time TBA
The special event will take place in Manhattan on Oct. 26, 2015, 6.30pm, at the Bard Graduate Center at 38. West 86th Street, New York, NY, in conjunction with The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The Introductory Presentation will be by Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the acclaimed, new book, KL: A History of the Concentration Camps.
Honoree Albert Knoll, b. 1958, has served the mission of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Museum since 1997. In addition to maintaining and expanding its archival work and databases, he has been instrumental in assisting relatives of former inmates as well as guiding researchers, scholars and authors around the world - including Awards Event speaker Nickolaus Wachsmann. Knoll has written articles on illegal photos, homosexual prisoners, contemporary Nazi press coverage of Dachau, etc, and contributed to the International Tracing Service's first scholarly yearbook. He has also organized international workshops on the gathering of data on all categories of National Socialist victims.
Invitation Only. RSVP Required. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, October 26, 2015
Bard College Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY, 6:30 pm
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 email@example.com.
Friday, November 6, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Ian Storey discusses how the modern Chinese state under President Xi Jinping is an exceedingly different beast than the regimes Arendt understood as inaugurating totalitarianism in the Quote of the Week. Peter Drucker offers his views on asking the wrong questions in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Peter Baehr analyzes "Stalinism in Retrospect", Arendt's contribution to Columbia's Seminar on Communism, with respect to her theories on totalitarianism. Finally, we appreciate the various annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of "The Will of Zeus" in this week's Library feature.
“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 capacious thinker. She tackled 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 is daunting as she moves with ease among languages, time periods, historical detail, and philosophical abstraction. Yet Arendt was also invested in fragments, moments, poetry, and individuals as a way to remember the past and speak to present political needs. One place where this is well-represented is in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations.
“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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.