Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
3Jul/140

Video Archives – Panel One of “The Burden of Our Times” (2009)

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A new weekly feature on the Blog, the Arendt Center uses its video archives to remember all of the exciting events it has hosted over the years. This week, it revisits the first panel of its second annual fall conference, "The Burden of Our Times."

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.
24Jan/143

Loneliness and Expansive Writing

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In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asks after the “elements” of totalitarianism, those fundamental building blocks that made possible an altogether new and horrific form of government. The two structural elements she locates are the emergence of a new ideological form of Antisemitism and the rise of transnational imperialist movements, which gives the structure to her book: Part One (Antisemitism) and Part Two (Imperialism) lead into Part Three (Totalitarianism). Underlying both Antisemitism and Imperialism is what Arendt calls metaphysical rootlessness and metaphysical loneliness.

origins

Totalitarian government, Arendt writes, “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” The loneliness of modern humanity is multifaceted. It is “closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.” The image of the factory worker laboring repetitively on a conveyor belt is forever associated with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman describes how middle class Americans had lost their meaningful connections to religion, to class, and to family. They take their values increasingly from a mass culture and they become malleable and subject to the influence of propaganda and advertising.

“Metaphysical rootlessness,” Arendt argues, is both the “basic experience” of modern society and also the generative impulse behind ideological racisms (which Arendt distinguishes from older non-scientific versions of racism). Without a core of personal and collective identity, the lonely mass man is “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims.” Racism is based in hatred of a world in which lonely and rootless people are confronted with their meaninglessness, their belonging to no place, and their superfluousness. It is these masses that seek to build an imaginary and coherent togetherness based on race. Thus is rootlessness characteristic of all racism and all totalitarianism.

In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, Arendt writes: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals.” Totalitarianism depends upon “the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.” Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”

The question underlying so much of Arendt’s work is how to respond to what she calls “the break in tradition,” the fact that the political, social, and intellectual traditions that bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks have frayed beyond repair. The customs and traditions that for millennia were the unspoken common sense of peoples can no longer be presumed. Stripped of these meaningful institutions of transcendence, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. Arendt ask repeatedly, how are we to make life meaningful, how are we to inure individuals from the seduction of ideological movements that lend weight to their meaningless lives?

If metaphysical loneliness is the basic experiences of modern life, then it is not surprising that great modern literature would struggle with the agony of such disconnection and seek to articulate paths of reconnection. That, indeed, is the thesis of Wyatt Mason’s essay “Make This Not True,” in this week’s New York Review of Books. Modern fiction, Mason argues, struggles to answer the question: How can we live and die and not be alone?

In the guise of a review of George Saunders Tenth of September (a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award), Mason suggests at least three paradigmatic answers to this question “How do I die?” The answers are represented alternatively by three of the greatest contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Saunders. In brief, Wallace combats the loneliness and inattention of the distracted masses by writing prose that is so seductively difficult that it demands attentiveness and thus membership in a community of readers. Franzen seeks the antidote to loneliness in palpable scenes of connection amidst the wreckages of modern relationships. For both Wallace and Franzen, connection is to be found in the cultivation of quintessentially modern relationships.

Flickr - Manky M.

Flickr - Manky M.

Saunders is notable for pursing a different path through the wilderness of contemporary isolation. Instead of external connections, Saunders is a master of the inward journey we must make alone. For Mason, there is an important link between Saunder’s Buddhism and his writing:

In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice. … [I]f fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.

Mason’s essay is subtle and profound. It is your weekend read. And if you have the time, read Saunders’ masterful short story, "The Falls", which Mason discusses at length in his essay. Best of all, order Tenth of December. I spent a few rapturous days reading Saunders’ stories this summer. They can warm your January as well.

-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.
5Feb/130

Geography is not Destiny

How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.

As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).

Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.

Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.

Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.

There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.

He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.

Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.

Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.

-Jeffrey Jurgens

 

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.
1Jun/121

The Euro-Crisis, Seyla Benhabib’s Cosmopolitanism, and Arendt’s Defense of Politics

From Athens to Madrid, the European crisis has entered yet another of its "decisive" phases —how many decisive phases can one crisis have?  Reflecting on Europe has brought to mind Seyla Benhabib's 2004 Tanner Lectures on cosmopolitan universalism, which itself was inspired by Hannah Arendt's comments on international law in the epilogue and postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe might seem to have little to do with Benhabib's discourse ethics or Arendt's affirmation of the limits of international law, but it does. Let me explain.

The debt crisis in Europe is not an economic crisis. It is a political crisis. The Euro-zone created a common currency without a common political system. This worked great for a while as countries benefitted from integration and stability of the Euro. But now that debt and recession plague Europe, indebted countries like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are losing control of their politics.

The typical response to over-indebtedness in democratic countries is to devalue one's currency. This causes massive inflation, allowing the debts to be paid. It is painful in the short term and everyone's buying power decreases and the standard of living suffers. But devaluation resets the economy and allows for growth free from the straight-jacket of debt.

It is of course possible to achieve the same effect of devaluation within the Euro zone. The Euro zone could issue Euro bonds, which would be inflationary and allow the indebted countries to pay off their Euro-debts with plentiful and cheap Euros. This is the solution that French President Francois Hollande and others are pushing.

The problem in the Euro-zone is that countries without debt problems don't want to devalue the Euro and thus lower their purchasing power. Without the political sense of a common fate, Germans do not want to suffer for the sake of the Greeks. What is more, the Germans have no faith that if they bail the Greeks out now, the Greeks will reform their profligate ways and not come back for another bailout in a few years. The result is the current crisis of austerity. Or so it seems.

Behind the scenes there is another debate that few are paying attention to. Amidst the repeated rejection of Euro bonds by Germany's leaders is the insertion of a caveat. Euro bonds would be possible if they came with treaty reform, say Germans like Joshcka Fisher and economic leaders like European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. In essence, Germany is willing to bail out Europe, but only if the countries in the Euro zone agree to give up a substantial amount of their sovereignty over economic policy. What Germany wants is for decisions about budgets and deficits and tax policy to be set by European bureaucrats not by democratically elected leaders. If the struggling Euro zone countries agree to those conditions, there is a good chance Germany will agree to bail them out with Euro bonds. And Europe will move closer to a United States of Europe, but one dominated by economic bureaucrats rather than a democratic legislature.

The connection between European politics and Hannah Arendt is important. What Germany is demanding is that Europe abandon its decentralized political control over economic matters and cede decision-making to an apolitical centralized European bureaucracy.  Behind such a desire is the subordination of politics to economics that Hannah Arendt saw as one of the defining features of the modern age.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argued that the transfer of the economic principle of unlimited growth to politics underlies imperialism. Imperialism has its economic roots in the “realm of business speculation”-specifically the bursting of an investment bubble in the 1870s. As national entrepreneurs sought new markets, they enlisted state support for economic expansion. “Expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics is the central idea of imperialism.” The rise of imperialism and the spread of economic thinking in the political sphere means, Arendt argues, that politics becomes subservient to economics.

Arendt fears the confusion of economics and politics and especially the elevation of economics over politics. Since politics demands the imposition of limits and “stabilizing forces that stand in the way of constant transformation and expansion,” she argues that imperialist expansion brought with it a grave and destabilizing threat to the political order. When politics under the sway of economic imperatives is forced to expand on the world stage, political leaders must offer ideologies that give meaning to an ever-larger, undefined, disconnected, and homeless mass, a population that replaces a citizenry. Under the economic imperatives of growth, politics becomes world politics. 

It is an open question today whether politics can return to a political activity that sets moral, ethical, and economic limits on human action. The reason is that we are increasingly suspicious of action, which is, by its nature, free, spontaneous, surprising and unpredictable. Whether we are Germans seeking economic stability, Americans demanding that the Federal government limit the states in their right to deliver (or not deliver) education or healthcare, or human rights activists insisting that individual states conform to international cosmopolitan norms of behavior, the liberal and centralizing demand that people behave well according to cosmopolitan standards rubs against Arendt's democratic insistence that politics must leave space for local, bounded, and undisciplined action.

And here we can return to Seyla Benhabib's call in her Tanner lectures for a new cosmopolitan universalism. Benhabib has initiated an important engagement with Arendt and human rights, one that embraces Arendt's formulation of a "right to have rights" but also resists Arendt's efforts to limit the scope of that universal right. We should all be grateful for the clear-sighted way Benhabib raises this crucial question.

Arendt seeks her bearings in reformulating human rights from her experiences of the Jews and other minority peoples during and preceding the holocaust. The true “calamity of the rightless” in the middle of the 20th century, Arendt writes, is “not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion... but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever.”  Human rights reflect the legalized exclusion of human beings from civilized communities and these human rights are “much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are the rights of citizens.” The rights of man, in other words, are not revealed by the deprivation of specific rights, but by the plight of those who are expelled from all rights; the truly rightless are those who are so oppressed that they are deprived of legal status so that no one will even oppress them. It is this total deprivation of rights that makes manifest the one truly human right, what Arendt calls the “right to have rights.”

In thinking about Arendt's enigmatic formula, Benhabib has worried that Arendt simply does not offer a full and philosophical elucidation of the right to have rights. The "right to have rights" partakes of a "philosophical perplexity"; to invoke the "right to have rights" is to give certain rights "a binding power over and beyond the moral obligation that they impose on moral agents." The rights in the "right to have rights" are not mere "oughts," but are universal, cosmopolitan norms. Or at least that is what Benhabib wants to argue, with and against Arendt.

If Arendt remained suspicious of international norms that would be applied in international courts, Benhabib argues that the last 50 years have witnessed an "evolution of global civil society that is characterized by a transition from international to cosmopolitan norms of justice." She embraces the term "cosmopolitanism," which she argues has rightly become one of the key words of our time. What cosmopolitanism means, for Benhabib, is the "carrying of universalistic norms" of a common truth that is inter-subjective rather than metaphysical. In short, Benhabib argues that cosmopolitan norms are emerging in our times that give basic human rights to individuals and can even bind state actors.

Benhabib’s interpretation of the "right to have rights" is appealing, especially in the face of, for example, the ongoing inhumane treatment of Shiites in Syria. Yet, as Benhabib herself recognizes, her reading complicates Arendt’s hard-minded characterization of the right to have rights as “a right to belong to some kind of community.” Arendt means the right “to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions.” In doing so, Arendt excludes the traditional civil rights of life and liberty that Benhabib wants to read into Arendt’s formula. Arendt is careful to distinguish human rights to the rights to be treated humanely that Benhabib seeks to encode in a newly emerging cosmopolitan institutionalization of human rights.  For reasons at the core of Arendt’s thinking, Arendt clearly limits the right to have rights and thus human rights to only two rights, the right to act and the right to speak.

The only truly human rights, for Arendt, are the rights to act and speak in public. The roots for this Arendtian claim are only fully developed five years later with the publication of The Human Condition. Acting and speaking, she argues, are essential attributes of being human. The human right to speak has, since Aristotle defined man as a being with the capacity to speak and think, been seen to be a “general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.”  Similarly, the human right to act in public has been at the essence of human being since Aristotle defined man as a political animal who lives, by definition, in a community with others. It is these rights to speak and act—to be effectual and meaningful in a public world—that, when taken away, threaten the humanity of persons.

Benhabib has good reasons to want to expand the cosmopolitan basis of Arendt's "right to have rights." It is important to see, however, that the desire to strengthen a cosmopolitan foundation for human rights places stability and security above action in much the same as the present German desire to subordinate Greeks and Spaniards to a pan-European regime of responsible citizenship. Both are motivated by a desire for security, stability, and standards. And both elevate the institutional application of cosmopolitan universal norms (economic norms in Europe, human rights norms internationally) over the messiness of local political action.

At a time of economic crisis and humanitarian crises, the great uncertainty of our world will militate toward ever more centralization and thus ever less space for action. Benhabib is certainly alive to these tensions and has answers to many of them. You can read her account here. It 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".
20Jul/110

Roger Berkowitz on Arendt’s Reading of Imperialism

Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, lectures to the National Endowment of the Humanities Seminar on Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism. Specifically, his lecture focuses on the first chapter of the Imperialism section of Arendt's inquiry into the "Burden of Our Times," as she originally titled the book.

The talk moves from Arendt's discussion of Cecil Rhodes's quotation, "Expansion is everything,"--which Arendt argues defines the character of Imperialism, the explosion of limits and the breach of the nation-state--to Thomas Hobbes' claims that "Reason is reckoning" and that man is a "power-thirsty" being--which Arendt sees as the bursting of human limits that underlies the appearance of totalitarianism.

You can hear some of the Questions and Answers session addressing Arendt's discussion of Hobbes here:

You can hear some of the Questions and Answers session addressing Arendt's discussion of the birth of racism here: