Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
3Mar/141

Amor Mundi 3/2/14

Arendtamormundi

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.

The End of Hide and Go Seek

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Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

David Cole wonders if we've reached the point of no return on the issue of privacy: “Reviewing seven years of the NSA amassing comprehensive records on every American’s every phone call, the board identified only one case in which the program actually identified an unknown terrorist suspect. And that case involved not an act or even an attempted act of terrorism, but merely a young man who was trying to send money to Al-Shabaab, an organization in Somalia. If that’s all the NSA can show for a program that requires all of us to turn over to the government the records of our every phone call, is it really worth it?” Everyone speaks about the need for a National Security State and the necessary trade-offs involved in living in a dangerous world. What is often forgotten is that most people simply don’t care that much about privacy. Whether snoopers promise security or better-targeted advertisements, we are willing to open up our inner worlds for the price of convenience. If we are to save privacy, the first step is articulating what it is about privacy that makes it worth saving. You can read more on an Arendtian defense of privacy in Roger Berkowitz’s Weekend Read.

The Mindfulness Racket

Illustration by Jessica Fortner

Illustration by Jessica Fortner

In the New Republic, Evgeny Morozov questions the newly trendy rhetoric of “mindfulness” and “digital detox” that has been adopted by a variety of celebrities and public figures, from Deepak Chopra to Google chairman Eric Schmidt to Arianna Huffington. In response to technology critic Alexis Madrigal, who has argued in The Atlantic that the desire to unplug and live free of stress and distractions amounts to little more than “post-modern technoanxiety”—akin to the whole foods movement in its dream of “stripping away all the trappings of modern life”—Morozov contends that there are legitimate reasons for wanting to disconnect, though they might not be what we think. “With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural,” he writes. “In other words, why we disconnect matters: We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas—and not just the subject of hand-wringing by the Davos-based spirituality brigades.”

"Evil is unspectacular and always human"

audenEdward Mendelsohn has a moving and powerful portrait of W.H. Auden in the New York Review of Books, including this discussion of Auden’s account of evil: “He observed to friends how common it was to find a dedicated anti-fascist who conducted his erotic life as if he were invading Poland. Like everyone who thought more or less as he did, Auden didn’t mean that erotic greeds were morally equivalent to mass murder or that there was no difference between himself and Hitler. He was less interested in the obvious distinction between a responsible citizen and an evil dictator than he was in the more difficult question of what the citizen and dictator had in common, how the citizen’s moral and psychological failures helped the dictator to succeed. Those who hold the opposite view, the view that the citizen and dictator have nothing in common, tend to hold many corollary views. One such corollary is that a suitable response to the vast evil of Nazi genocide is wordless, uncomprehending awe—because citizen and dictator are different species with no language they can share. Another corollary view is that Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), was offensively wrong about the “banality of evil,” because evil is something monstrous, exotic, and inhuman. The acts and thoughts of a good citizen, in this view, can be banal, not those of a dictator or his agents. Auden stated a view like Arendt’s as early as 1939, in his poem “Herman Melville”:

"Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table.”

Looking Intensely

sunYiyun Li tells why, if you were to run into her on the subway, you might find her staring at you: "Writing fiction is this kind of staring, too. You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on the train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you. This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away. I believe all characters try to trick us. They lie to us. It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world—no one’s going to be 100 percent honest. They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are. There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people. People don’t want to tell you their secrets. Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you."

Through a Veteran's Eyes

ptsdIn an interview, writer Jennifer Percy discusses rethinking how we talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: "I wanted to more fully imagine the homecoming experience of soldiers and their time at war. The language we use to talk about PTSD has historically been determined by political and economic factors. It’s attached to a vocabulary that intentionally limits our ability to imagine atrocity because it’s protective and reductive. It benefits the perpetrators but dehumanizes the other. It’s a process of rationalization. But what happens when that vocabulary is discarded, and we partake in an effort to fully imagine the experience of soldiers and veterans? This is the space I hoped to inhabit. We might refuse to imagine wartime experience because it’s outside the realm of the ordinary; or maybe it feels unnecessary, or is too demanding on our psyches. But when we do imagine it, what we find is often the familiar. It’s ourselves. And that might also be a reason we turn away."

So You Want to Be a Writer

bookEmily Gould, who once sold a book for a big payday, only to find that her book sold just a few thousand copies, writes about what happened after the money ran out and she found she couldn't write anything else: "With the exception of yoga earnings and freelance assignments, I mostly lived on money I borrowed from my boyfriend, Keith. (We’d moved in together in fall 2010, in part because we liked each other and in larger part because I couldn’t afford to pay rent.) We kept track of what I owed him at first, but at some point we stopped writing down the amounts; it was clear the total was greater than I could hope to repay anytime soon. He paid off one credit card so that I wouldn’t have to keep paying the monthly penalty. When I wanted to cancel my health insurance he insisted I keep it, and paid for it. He was patient when my attempts to get a job more remunerative than teaching yoga failed; he didn’t call me out on how much harder I could have tried. Without questioning my choices, he supported me, emotionally, creatively, and financially. I hated that he had to. At times he was stretched thin financially himself and I knew that our precarious money situation weighed heavily on his mind, even though he never complained. 'You’ll sell your book for a million dollars,' he said, over and over again."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Michiel Bot discusses Étienne Balibar’s interpretation of Arendt’s work, Jeffrey Champlin considers whether Arendt's celebration of the council system, as discussed in On Revolution, can be applied to feminism, and Roger Berkowitz examines the promise and peril present in today's Ukraine.  And  in the Weekend Read, Berkowitz argues the importance of the private realm for the political world.

Upcoming Events

blogBlogging and the New Public Intellectual - A Discussion with Tom Goldstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014 , 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Bard Graduate Center, NYC
Learn more here.

R.S.V.P. to arendt@bard.edu

 

on"Colors Through the Darkness: Three Generations Paint and Write for Justice"
Monday, March 10, 2013, 1:30  pm
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Zito '60 Auditorium (RKC 103)
Learn more here.

26Feb/140

Politics Beyond Councils: Arendt, Recognition, and Feminism

Arendtiana

Marieke Borren, “Feminism as Revolutionary Practice: From Justice and the Politics of Recognition to Freedom”

Hypatia vol. 28, no. 1 (Winter 2013)

One of the broader appeals of feminism for critical thinking today derives from its focus on specificity. In their focus on embodiment, in the narrower and wider sense, the best feminist writers offer a productive complement to postmodern critiques of subjectivity based on the power of superstructures. The relationship is rarely peaceful, and, in its essentialist guise, insistence on identity of any kind seems to merely push back against the power of structures rather than engaging it. Borren turns to Arendt to propose a definition of freedom and action that may assist minority political movements such as feminism reach specific goals related to identity, but does not require a agreement on the commonalities of the actors.

Borren's article has two main proposals. First, against the general trend of feminist criticism, she defends Arendt's division between the social and the political. Second, she identifies aspects of Arendt's celebration of the council system in On Revolution that she sees as having a wider application.

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If first wave feminism focused on gender equality (in terms of equal rights), second wave feminism emphasized difference, not only between genders, but within feminism itself. Borren highlights the importance of recognition for this group, which she specifies as the need to be acknowledged as one of a group that a person self-identifies. In response to this idea, she reminds us that Arendt was not concerned with “what” people are as (essentialist) groups, but “who” they are individuals. In defining justice not in terms of recognition, but freedom, she sees a feminist contribution from Arendt. To this extent she defends the separation of the realm of the social from the realm of action as far as the definition of politics is concerned, since the social stands for “behavior guided by rules and norms” as opposed to unexpected action. Still, Borren argues that action can nonetheless act on social questions such as the economy or discrimination. The important point is that for Arendt “difference is not opposed to equality but […] they mutually presuppose each other” (203). Equality in this sense is not the presupposition of action but arises only upon entrance to a group that will act.

In her analysis of Arendt's writing on the councils, Borren highlights that the councils acted directly (without structures of parliamentary representation), for concrete goals, and for short periods of time. She sees these aspects of the council system as illustrative for action by what she calls “extra-parliamentary” groups and “voluntary associations,” by which she means activist and civic organizations. They approach a common problem in a limited frame of space and time, and this action is itself the focus rather than the search for a basis of common qualities for the group. Although questions of identity may be at stake, the focus is on “the world to which we relate from plural perspectives” (202).

This description of action help Borren describe the early stages of first wave (equality) and second wave (difference) feminism in terms of “spontaneous emergence” and “associative action” (207). She even points to a possible “third wave feminism” in the culture movements around 1990s - ”Riot Grrrl” punk. Toward the end of the article, Borren pushes hard on the fact that “freedom in the Arendtian sense does not refer to freedom of choice or freedom of will, but to contingency, to the inherent spontaneity and unpredictability of action and speech and to newness” (210). Her formulation here is accurate, but at this point the connection to feminism as such falters.

-Jeffrey Champlin

14Jan/140

Well-loved Books

ArendtLibrary

Thanks to William Novak for sending us this image.

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7Nov/130

Arendt on the Declaration of Independence

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"Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic"
Bonnie Honig
The American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 97-113

Arendt often emphasizes the ramifications of the modern loss of authority for politics. Without faith in traditions or gods, humanity now continually faces the problem of legitimacy in government. To put it more concretely, in the modern age: “[t]hose who get together to constitute a new government are themselves unconstitutional, that is, they have no authority to do what they set out to achieve” (Arendt, On Revolution, quoted in Honig 98). In this article Bonnie Honig, professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, argues that in her work on the American Revolution Arendt goes beyond pessimism to recast the question of founding the state by distancing it from higher powers.

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Arendt points out that the Enlightenment thinkers of the American Revolution were surprised by the novelty of their actions, which quickly outstripped their conception of political reform as restoration (the classical definition of revolution). As they sought to theoretically ground their deeds, they faltered at the ramifications of their radically secular act and inserted references to essentialist elements such as “self evidence” and a higher power. Arendt regrets this because she sees the true advance of the American Revolution as the insight into the role of argument and persuasion between people in the absence of a higher standard of truth.

Using the terminology of speech act theorist J.L. Austin, Honig argues that for Arendt the Declaration of Independence succeeds as a “performative” act that creates a new institution that does not rely on the “constative” truths of gods or tradition. In the text of the Declaration, Honig places particular emphasis on Arendt analysis of the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Using the term “we hold” indicates a creative moment very different from a simple statement of fact along the lines of “these truths are self-evident.” Through this creative priority, the American Revolution changes the very conception of revolution. It does not simply seek to refound authority in the classical sense, which would be impossible in this age. Indeed, trying to go back to tradition at gods is in Arendt’s view the cause of the failure of so many 19th and 20th century revolutions. Honig writes that:

Only the modern conception of authority is viable for modernity because it requires for its sustenance not a shared belief in particular deities or myths but a common subscription to the authoritative linguistic practice of promising (102).

People choose to accept the promise of the new social contract when writing the constitution and this shared orientation alone grounds the government. Honig notes though that Arendt does not sufficiently discuss the hidden commonalities that allow people to make such promises. In other words: the promise is a structure, even a ritual, that one must be trained to rely on. She turns to Derrida’s article "Declarations of Independence" to look at this precondition of the promise. While Arendt focuses on the “we hold,” Derrida focuses on the “we” of “we the people. Rather than accepting the promise as an answer to the problem of founding, he sees it as a moment of a leap in which the community of the “we” itself first comes into being. In its rhetorical form though, this “we” also seems like it must have already been there and therefore creates an undecidable moment between the constative and performative.

From the point of view of Derrida’s analysis, Honig sees Arendt as unjustifiably longing for a “pure performative” that would start the new state. Her point is complex and surprising, since Honig in effect accuses Arendt of going too far away from reality and reference. Derrida, who is more often associated with the supposedly relativistic meme “there is nothing outside the text” actually insists in this essay that there has to be an obscure moment in which the “we” both preexisists the Declaration and comes into being with it.

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As strict as Honig’s opposition between Derrida and Arendt is at this point, at the end of the article she notes that Arendt’s “we hold” also has a constative moment that should be acknowledged. In this context, and in the broader scope of Arendt’s challenge to metaphysical ideas such as God, natural law, etc., she proposes the concept of “resistibility” as an Arendtian way of approaching Derrida’s concept of “intervention.” For Honig, both thinkers work within a challenge to authority rather than simply seeking to escape it.

While Honig stays with the difficult structure of the founding moment of modern politics, from a narrative perspective her article also suggests that the confusing undecidability of the “we” might also offer a way to perceive a change in the status of “the people” over the course of the founding of the state. To this extent, the “we hold” that Arendt discusses could actually work just as well, since it indicates a new subjective orientation of the framers: with this formulation they virtualize, in other words put some distance, between themselves and truth. This distance, perhaps no less mysterious than God or truth, but more open to debate, ‘grounds’ the modern state.

-Jeffrey Champlin

30Oct/130

Arendt versus Occupy

ArendtBookreview1

Review of:  Danny Michelsen and Franz Walter, Unpolitical Democracy: On the Crisis of Representation  [Unpolitische Demokratie: Zur Krise der Repräsentation (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2013)]

In this new study, Danny Michelsen and Franz Walter of the Institute of Democracy Research at Göttingen University examine the problem of democratic representation in terms of a paradox: democracy wishes to include everyone, but as its scope expands it requires ever more mediation. While Athens flourished with direct democracy, its modern forms require representatives since everyone can no longer "fit in the same room."

Walter is one of the most prolific scholars of political parties in Germany and the book connects and Arendtian focus on politics with practical concerns of how parties acquire legitimacy and reach agreement through negotiation. The reference to the "political" in the title indicates the authors' debt to Arendt’s conception of the term. They orient their investigation in the first chapter in terms of her “refreshing contrast to output oriented theories of democracy, which neglect political participation in favor of efficiency criteria.” (28) From On Revolution, they speak of specifically of “how to conserve and stabilize the republican moment of founding, while at the same time renewing it and continuing it.” (27)  They also draw on her work to set out a broad range of challenges to politics, such as increased emphasis on the private realm, expansion of the sphere of the economy, and the increased role of experts. Most pointedly, the authors speak of a "spectator democracy" that threatens the essence of politics in Arendt's sense since it does without action.

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When people believe they can save the environment by buying certain products rather than engaging in political initiatives and turn to anonymous internet forums rather than signed pronouncements in the public sphere, democracies lose their constitutive power.

Yet the authors do not merely address and illustrate these threats, but deepen their inquiry by critiquing the most popular responses to the crisis in politics in recent years. These responses mainly fall under the category of the wish for greater transparency and direct democracy. In other words, the hope of quickly cutting through the many obstacles to the true wishes of the people. Their discussions of the German Pirate Party and the Occupy Movement are particularly illuminating.

The German Pirate Party entered the Berlin parliament in 2011 when they crossed the threshold of 5% of votes. It began as a group that sought to defend privacy rights in the digital age but developed to advocate bringing horizontal structures and open source models to government. One of their key concepts is "liquid democracy," in which party members can follow debate over bills in the parliament in real time through special software. Many elected officials then said they would vote exactly as the members wished on each bill. Michelsen and Walter argue that such a stance would make them delegates rather than representatives. While acknowledging the growing power of experts in the government and the problems they can cause, the authors ask if each individual voter can really be expected to understand the complicated technological and economic issues of the day such that they can wisely vote directly on the issues at hand.

 Michelsen and Walter call Occupy Wall Street "anarchist" in its explicit rejection of political representation and calls for direct democracy. In a subtlety argued analysis though, they praise the movement’s attempt to rejuvenate politics by focusing on new forms of public deliberation, and even accord value to political experiments that set themselves off from the broader norms of national discourse. Like others, the authors criticize the failure of this group to put forth concrete demands that could then be debated in the public realm. However they do not simply discount the movement for this reason but helpfully figure their objection in terms of an inability to link the moment of political experiment with a later moment of integration into public discourse. From an Arendtian perspective, one might see this in terms of enthusiasm for emphasis on fundamental idea of politics as action but as disappointing in terms of the concrete requirements of power.

In their conclusion, the authors return to Arendt's ideas of local participation. At higher levels of government through, they defend Social Democracy in the German tradition as a way of integrating society and politics – against proponents of anarchism, communism, and free market capitalism. The breadth of their inquiry is refreshing, as is their careful work in distinguishing movements that have left wing components that U.S. commentators often blur. The book largely consists of condensed assessments of academic papers on recent debates over political representation but is written in an accessible style that explicates and digs deeper into recent key terms in political culture. At over 400 pages, it provides a comprehensive overview not only of challenges to political participation, but of proposed answers to current challenges as well.

The authors ultimately argue for a more modest conception of democracy that admits the need for negotiation between representatives and a large role for expert opinion. Indeed, they go so far as to claim that inflated rhetoric around the ideal of democracy provides cover for those who wish to undermine its actual strength. This position will be hard to accept for advocates of radical democracy as defended, for example, by Rancière and Derrida. In a broader sense though, Michelsen and Walter offer a probing critique of the idea that we could do without representation in politics and challenge us to think of how to renew politics within the  demands of mediation that its current scope requires.

-Jeffrey Champlin

28Oct/130

Amor Mundi 10/27/13

Arendtamormundi

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.

Seeing Like a Drone

droneDrones are simply one weapon in a large arsenal with which we fight the war on terror. Even targeted killings, the signature drone capability, are nothing new. The U.S. and other countries have targeted and killed individual leaders for decades if not centuries, using snipers, poisons, bombs, and many other technologies. To take a historical perspective, drones don’t change much. Nor is the airborne capacity of drones to deliver devastation from afar anything new, having as its predecessors the catapult, the long bow, the bomber, and the cruise missile. And yet, there is seemingly something new about the way drones change the feel and reality of warfare. On one side, drones sanitize the battlefield from a space of blood, fear, and heroic fortitude into a video game played on consoles. On the other side, drones dominate life, creating a low pitched humming sound that reminds inhabitants that at any moment a missile might pierce their daily routines. The two sides of this phenomenology of drones is the topic of an essay by Nasser Hussain in The Boston Review: “In order to widen our vision, I provide a phenomenology of drone strikes, examining both how the world appears through the lens of a drone camera and the experience of the people on the ground. What is it like to watch a drone’s footage, or to wait below for it to strike? What does the drone’s camera capture, and what does it occlude?” You can also read Roger Berkowitz’s weekend read on seeing through drones.

The Loss of the Christian Tradition

marilynneMarilynne Robinson, speaking to the American Conservative about her faith, elaborates on what she sees as the central flaws in contemporary American Christianity: "Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat. I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them. And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations. These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past. At present there is much praying on street corners. There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value. The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture."

The Artist Unknown to Himself

shakesIs poetry going the way of the Dodo bird? Vanessa Place makes this argument in a recent essay “Poetry is Dead. I Killed It,” on the Poetry Foundation website. And Kenneth Goldsmith, in the New Yorker, asks whether Place is right. The internet, he suggests, has killed or at least so rethought poetry that it may be unrecognizable. "Quality is beside the point—this type of content is about the quantity of language that surrounds us, and about how difficult it is to render meaning from such excesses. In the past decade, writers have been culling the Internet for material, making books that are more focussed [sic] on collecting than on reading. These ways of writing—word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriating, intentionally plagiarizing, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few—have traditionally been considered outside the scope of literary practice."

The Cartoonist Speaks

calvinIn a rare interview, famously reclusive Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson prognosticates on the future of the comics: "Personally, I like paper and ink better than glowing pixels, but to each his own. Obviously the role of comics is changing very fast. On the one hand, I don’t think comics have ever been more widely accepted or taken as seriously as they are now. On the other hand, the mass media is disintegrating, and audiences are atomizing. I suspect comics will have less widespread cultural impact and make a lot less money. I’m old enough to find all this unsettling, but the world moves on. All the new media will inevitably change the look, function, and maybe even the purpose of comics, but comics are vibrant and versatile, so I think they’ll continue to find relevance one way or another. But they definitely won’t be the same as what I grew up with."

Crafting Evidence

Cambodian director Rithy Panh's new movie, The Missing Picture is about the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In making the film, he had to confront the challenge of making a movie about atrocities that are famously without explicit visual records, and he hit upon a unique solution: clay dolls. Although these figures "are necessarily silent, immobile, and therefore devoid of the intensity of those moments in other Panh films where his camera bores in on the face of a witness and lingers there as he remembers what happened, or what he did," Richard Bernstein suggests that they give the movie a unique power.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Ian Storey revisits George Orwell's prescient essay, "Politics and the English Language." Jeffrey Champlin looks at James Muldoon's essay about Arendt's writngs on the advocacy of council systems in On Revolution. And your weekend read looks at the cultural impact of drones on the nations and groups that are employing them.

28Oct/130

Revolutions

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“When the Revolution [sic] devoured its own children like Saturn and was like a gigantic Lava [sic] stream on whose surface the actors were born [sic] along for a while, only to be sucked away by the undertow of an undercurrent mightier than they themselves.”

-Hannah Arendt, "Revolutions - Spurious and Genuine" (unpublished)

This quote, whose telling typos will be addressed below, is from an unpublished typescript by Hannah Arendt, written for a lecture in Chicago in May 1964, titled “Revolutions – Spurious and Genuine”. The first lines read: “Not my title. I would hesitate to distinguish.” While Arendt rejects the suggested binary definition, her talk offers different sets of distinctions:

First, modern revolutions like the French or the American Revolution imply a change that is radical enough to be experienced as an entirely new beginning. A new beginning that no one can escape, because it affects “the whole fabric of government and/or society.” This call for radical change doesn’t just protest bad government. Citizens who are in the streets for a revolution don’t limit themselves to complaining, “We are badly ruled,” but they claim, “We wish to rule ourselves.” The revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990, and most recently the revolutionary events in Egypt and other countries of the Middle East are probably the most prominent events of this kind in contemporary history. At the time of Arendt’s talk, the Cuban Revolution was the most recent example: she thought it was primarily a coup d’état, yet “most certainly” a revolution.

revolution

Second, Arendt distinguishes between social and political upheavals – a distinction we know from her book “On Revolution,” published one year before the lecture in Chicago. Revolutions like those in France in 1789, or Russia in 1905, came to be primarily about the abolition of social misery and inequality, while the American Revolution, for instance, was about building political liberty, according to Arendt. This section of the paper is one of the rare occasions in Arendt’s work where she also addresses America’s “hidden social question,” i.e. the “institution of slavery” and its aftermath. Arendt is puzzled that America’s extremely mobile society and economy resisted change, keeping African-Americans stuck at the bottom of society while many – often poor – immigrants were easily absorbed. Does the civil rights movement call for a revolution in response to this turmoil? No, Arendt says, for it doesn’t claim to change the whole fabric of the society; rather, it is fighting for access to this society. There is a revolutionary aspect to the movement’s political fight “against those laws and ordinances of states which are openly discriminatory,” Arendt remarks, but changing the “whole fabric” isn’t on this agenda either, for the civil rights movement had the Federal government on its side.

In the final section of her talk, Arendt returns to the initially rejected distinction between spurious and genuine – because she does think it is productive when we ask, “Who are the revolutionists?”

On the one hand, there is the concept of a founder, originating in the American Revolution: “a kind of architect” who builds a house that provides stability because those who inhabit it are fleeting, they come and go. “Freedom needs a space to be manifest,” Arendt notes, continuing: the “more stable a body politic is, the more freedom will be possible within it.” Whether the process of life housed by this founder is ruled by the law of progress or not, is secondary.

Yet the concept of progress is still central to how we usually conceive of politics. The conservatives tend to be against it, the liberals tend to be for it up to a certain degree. The revolutionists, however, believe in it, and they believe that true progress requires violence. They’ve been holding this belief with and since Marx, Arendt recalls, with whom she competes for the metaphor of “birth.” Whereas for Marx the pangs of birth must accompany every meaningful political development, for Arendt birth manifests the human capacity for a totally new beginning.

The metaphors of infinite progress as an infinite process “were all born … during the French Revolution,” Arendt notes. They were born, when not only the Jacobins around Robespierre, who represents the cruelties of the rule of “terreur,” but also the slightly more moderate Girondists around Danton had lost control:

“When the Revolution [sic] devoured its own children like Saturn and was like a gigantic Lava [sic] stream on whose surface the actors were born[e] [sic] along for a while, only to be sucked away by the undertow of an undercurrent mightier than they themselves.”

The typos in this passage are maybe the most telling signs of Arendt’s deep struggle with this concept of progress. By having the actors being “born” instead of “borne” on the stream of revolution, she not only conflates the two Marxian ideas of unstoppable progress that necessarily comes with the pangs of birth, but also inscribes her critique into Marx’s concept by allowing the possible reading of actors being born – in Arendt’s sense of an individual new beginning within plurality – upon this process. Marx’s idea of the swimmer “controlling” the stream of history in Arendt’s eyes is an illusion, as she noted in her Thinking Diary. In the face of the atrocities of the 20th century the question would rather be “how to avoid swimming in the stream at all.”

The undercurrents of Arendt’s typos reveal that her debate with Marx, despite the fact that the lecture is written in English, is simultaneously pursued in German – their shared native language. Arendt capitalizes “Revolution” like a German noun; she did the same earlier in the paragraph with “Progress,” and she does it again with the gigantic stream of “Lava.” (I’ve outlined the significance of the “plurality of languages” in Arendt’s political writing and thinking in a different “Quote of the Week” you can read here.)

Here, I’d like to show in conclusion how Arendt through the German resonances in her talk subtly invites a poet into her conversation on revolution. “The revolution devours its own children” has become a common expression, but the way in which Arendt quotes it “like Saturn” translates exactly the wording from Georg Büchner’s pivotal play Danton’s Death. Arendt’s private German copy of the play is marked up in interesting ways. Among the sentences she underlined is for example Danton’s “We didn’t make the revolution, the revolution made us,” which reflects upon the intricacies of agency and intellectual leadership in political turmoil. A sentence many intellectuals — even some of Arendt’s friends — were painfully oblivious to during the “National Revolution” of 1933, which troubled her for decades.

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We revolutionaries are “no more cruel than nature, or the age we live in,” says St. Just, Robespierre’s hitman, whose name literally means Saint Justice, in a passage from Danton’s Death that Arendt also marked: “Nature follows her own laws, calmly, irresistibly; man is destroyed wherever he comes into conflict with them.”

Büchner’s dialogs are largely based on historical sources from the French Revolution. They flesh out Arendt’s fine allusions e.g. to the fatal might of tropes like “the stream.” “Is it so surprising,” St. Just asks in the same passage Arendt marked, “that at each new turn the raging torrent of the revolution disgorges its quantum of corpses?” Echoing Marx’ metaphor of the irresistible stream of history and progress, Arendt is mindful of the date where these thoughts found their form.

Speaking of being mindful of dates – only a few days ago, on October 18th, Georg Büchner’s 200th anniversary was celebrated.

(The full document of Arendt’s lecture in Chicago will soon be published on www.hannaharendt.net)

-Thomas Wild

22Oct/131

“The Lost Treasure of Arendt’s Council System”

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"The Lost Treasure of Arendt's Council System"

James Muldoon, Critical Horizons 12.3 (2011)

Muldoon sees Arendt's advocacy of the council system at the end of On Revolution as a challenge to the excessive individualism enshrined in current structures of liberal representative government. He positions his argument between critics such as Margaret Canovan, who see Arendt's proposal as an impractical and nostalgic "embarrassment" and Jeffrey Issac's proposal that Arendt's ideas can be simply grafted on to current democratic structures to improve civic participation. Instead, Muldoon sees Arendt proposing a "blending together of constituent power and constitutional form" (398). Here something of the initiatory spring of action (the "lost treasure" of the title) that founds government would be maintained in their later operation.

The standard view of On Revolution among political theorists in the United States is that, against the Marxist revolutionary tradition, it praises the American Revolution for the stability of institutional freedom that it institutes while criticizing the French Revolution for opening the way to impossible political demands for the social needs of the body such as food and shelter. Less often do critics acknowledge that Arendt's reevaluation of the American Revolution concludes with the criticism that it failed to preserve a space for direct citizen participation. In framing his argument in terms of the "post-Cold War return to Arendt," Muldoon offers a productive way to address a range of second-wave interest in her thought.

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Against charges of the danger of elitism that could arise through direct democracy which have their source in passages from Arendt that harshly critical of the current representative system, Muldoon refers to other passages that testify to her support of the Constitution and thus its defense of fundamental rights. With a council system, those who are interested in politics would have more power than those who refuse to participate, but Muldoon does not see this as a major drawback. After all, most people do not vote in the current U.S. system so there is little to lose in this regard. This move exemplifies Muldoon's general approach of offering resolutions to apparently contradictory passages in Arendt by limiting their scope and then proposing ways they might instead complement each other.

Muldoon also addresses another important objection of many readers of On Revolution: the council system would merely step away from the larger state to smaller sites of representation. Instead, he rephrases the question of lower / higher steps of governance in terms of a spatial model. For Arendt "[p]olitics is not concerned with 'ruling,' but rather the creation of a public space between plural human beings where they can act in concert" (403). While acknowledging that the specifics of Arendt's plan are sparse, Muldoon sees the proposal of spontaneous local councils as a way of creating new public space in which people then agree through discussion on one member to send to the next level of councils. Here we can recall that for all its radical affirmation of councils in Jefferson and the Paris Commune, strong explicit statements in On Revolution admit that in a large country the council can only work at the local level. This does not mean that we just fall back to standard political representation at the national level though, and Arendt's at time vague suggestions call for closer examination and reflective investigation.

In another striking aspect of this article, Muldoon moves on to consider a group of writers who critique liberal democracy. Importantly, he offers the thesis that authors including Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, and Antonio Negri, owe a debt to Arendt in their broader approach to sovereignty that has so far been obscured by their criticism of specific aspect of her thought. More work needs to be done to back up this claim. Of the three, Muldoon only details Negri's priority of constituent power over constitutional form and suggests that Arendt's term "council-state" (412) could keep some of the energy of the origins of political action while not giving way fully to revolutionary impulses that threaten all order.

Muldoon has a clear sense of the most pressing question in On Revolution in a time of  intense debate in the U.S. regarding the influence of lobbying and the related issue of gerrymandering in politics (to say nothing of the electoral college that at the start of the 21st century decisively affected the presidential election). For Arendt: "the question which has plagued all modern revolutions is this: how does one found a free state and commence a cycle of ordinary/instituted politics without the extraordinary moment of political freedom inherent in the founding at disappearing in the process?" (p.411). In other words, how can citizens continue to see themselves not only as defenders of the Constitution, but as actively authorized to address pressing economic, social, and ecological problems that Congress refuses to confront?

-Jeffrey Champlin

8Oct/130

Arendt, Rousseau, and Human Plurality in Politics

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Arendt, Rousseau, and Human Plurality in Politics
Margaret Canovan
The Journal of Politics, Vol. 45, No. 2 (May, 1983), pp. 286-302

Readers of Arendt's On Revolution have long remarked on her valorization of the American over the French Revolution. In this context, Margaret Canovan's article offers a nuanced analysis of an unexpected topic: Arendt's relation to one of the philosophical heroes of the French Revolution, Rousseau. While Canovan does expand on Arendt's objection to Rousseau along the lines one would expect from On Revolution, she also notes a number of positive connections that contribute to our understanding of Arendt and 20th century political thought.

Canovan begins by situating Arendt's thought in the rational 18th century tradition of the Enlightenment rather than social and historical convictions of the 19th century. Most importantly, in her work on political beginnings, Arendt was drawn to Rousseau for his contribution to social contract theory. Within this focus on initiating moments:  "[b]oth writers believed that contingent human actions, not inevitable historical processes, lie at the heart of politics; and neither believed that rules for establishing good states were revealed to men by God or Nature" (288). In other words, Arendt goes back to the Enlightenment as a period that tries to hold off metaphysical influence in politics, an influence that can be seen to return in the belief in history and progress in the 19th century. Indeed, Canovan highlights Rousseau's distinction between the natural "man" and artificial "citizen." From this perspective, Arendt's emphasis on citizenship also leads to a concern for the fragility of the state that cannot rely on an external guarantor.

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The major difference that Canovan sees between Arendt and Rousseau concerns Rousseau's conception of the citizens ruling themselves through the general will in the sovereign. Here the citizen gives up his private will for the general will and the unity of the this general will has priority in all cases. Rousseau emphasizes that the general will has to be carefully tended: people have to be more or less equal in income and rights and undergo stringent education if one hopes to promote a perspective beyond the private will. Canovan also notes that when it seems that the citizens simply give up their rights to the sovereign after they establish a general will, Rousseau's point is that the sovereign will apply the same principles of reason to a problem as the individual and thus reach the same conclusion if all citizens had addressed it individually.

Taking Arendt's perspective, Canovan writes that: "Rousseau makes heroic but unavailing efforts to render ineffective the fact that there are more of us than one and that we are all unique, each of us having his own standpoint from which to view the world, each his own mind which is capable of in-dependent thought, each his own self which can disclose itself in unexpected action." (292) In other words, on Canovan's reading, Rousseau replaces the dictator with the people who are the origin of the general will, but in giving up the power of this will they end up authorizing another form of dictatorship.

Toward the end of the article, Canovan leaves behind her sharp descriptions of similarities and differences to return to points where Arendt and Rousseau agree to a point. For example, she helpfully describes both Arendt and Rousseau as emphasizing promises and agreements. The difference is that for Arendt, they are offer only provisional stability, rather than the 'once and for all' of the social contract. Humans will not agree on the ultimate aim of their action but "they can concur in loyalty to a common set of worldly institutions" (297). In this schema, public deliberations are needed because each person has the use of reason but reason has to come out in the speech of individuals rather in the assumption of the general will.

In conclusion, Canovan writes that in light of Arendt's political thinking: "[t]he task of the political theorist cannot be to describe an ideal state or to lay down principles of justice for implementation" (300). Her contrast with Rousseau helps understand why this is so: Arendt's conception of plurality removes the single philosopher's claim to political truth. Yet Canovan's article implies that although Arendt warns against a common end she defends of different idealism, one not concerned with the end but the begging of the state and the idea of starting something new that one then defends as a common institution.

-Jeffrey Champlin

8Jul/130

On Revolution

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“The sad truth of the matter is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.”

-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

Last week brought two events into focus: the annual July 4th celebration commemorating the American Revolution of 1776 preceded one day before by the overthrow of the first freely elected President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Although on the surface there seems little connecting these events, thinking about Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the former may bring forth some interesting points about revolutions and the foundation of modern democracy to light, which may be relevant to the evolving situation in Egypt.

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In On Revolution, Arendt put forth a controversial interpretation of revolution and its relationship to violence, a theory that, contra popular opinion, lauded the success of the American while decrying the French Revolution’s legacy that “a revolution must devour its own children” as if terror were its inevitable course. The success of the American Revolution for Arendt resulted from its “deep concern with forms of government,” a concern she saw equally in the “initial stages of the French Revolution.” But when the concern with political solutions to the problem of tyranny was, in her assessment, overwhelmed by “the social question”—the problems of necessity, of abject need, confronting the “multitude of the poor—the French Revolution abandoned the task of “building a new body politic” in favor of searching for a more immediate, and, in her view, less political solution to the problem of poverty. “It was necessity, the urgent needs of the people, that unleashed the terror and sent the Revolution to its doom,” Arendt wrote. Yet, she emphasized, there was nothing inevitable about this change of course.

To Arendt, any suggestion that a revolution would, and presumably must, take a predictable course was an example of ideological thinking that masked the genuine meaning of revolution. As she wrote, “Violence is no more adequate to describe the phenomenon of revolution than change; only where change occurs in the sense of a new beginning, where violence is used to constitute an altogether different form of government, to bring about the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at least at the constitution of freedom can we speak of revolution.”

By every aspect of this definition, the Arab Spring uprising that sparked Egypt into full-scale protests and regime change to remove an autocratic ruler two years ago, and embark on an unpredictable path to “bring about the formation of a new body politic” constitutes a revolution in the Arendtian sense. But what matters is not whether the extraordinary events in Egypt fit her definition, but what Arendt’s exercise in thinking about revolutions, their successes and failures, can tell us about the great difficulties, challenges, and opportunities involved in Egyptians’ struggle to “build a new house where freedom can dwell.”

Modern revolutionaries face the enormous task of bringing into the public realm those who have been excluded from participation in it and, if they are to avoid a state of permanent war and violence, simultaneously creating a relatively stable set of institutions to organize and enable the expression of different points of view. A few days ago, the New York Times trumpeted the current crisis in Egypt under a headline proclaiming there were “two Egypts” locked in a raging conflict with each other over legitimate rulership of the country. Both Pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi forces claim to embody the demand for representation for “all Egypt.” Representing the point of view of the anti-Morsi forces, a participant in the renewed protests justified the removal of Morsi: “They tried to rule the whole country for themselves...But if you want to rule Egypt, you have to rule for everyone or the people will stand against you.” (NYT July 6, 2013) In fact, pro-Morsi factions echoed similar sentiments by contending not only that there had been a military coup overthrowing a legitimately elected leader, but also that the removal of Morsi was designed to push them out of the political process. And this morning, the ultra-Conservative Al Nour party announced its decision to withdraw from further participation in efforts to form an interim government.

Whether the election of Morsi itself had been premature—he was brought to power with the support of only 24% of the voting electorate and pushed through a constitution largely created by the Muslim Brotherhood—its aftermath suggests that the process of creating a new form of government was far from complete. Soon after he took power, many different groups complained that Morsi appeared to have set himself up as a dictator in the mere five months he’d been in power. Clearly, in Arendtian terms, the rebellion started in 2011 had not yet resulted in the “truly revolutionary element” in constitution-making, which lies not in the creation of limited government, but in the act of a people (here Arendt quotes Thomas Paine) “constituting a government.”

There is an enormous difference, Arendt wrote, “in power and authority between a constitution imposed by a government upon a people and the constitution by which a people constitutes its own government.” But “the people”, for Arendt, implied all factions, all parts of the polity, had to be involved in the process; a government not only “for” the people, but also “of” and “by” it. The current conflagrations in Egypt represent yet another stage of opportunity in the effort to revolutionize the Egyptian polity in this direction, a stage which had harbingers of its arrival, but no predictable outcome.

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The great difficulty Egypt faces is not only the vast gap in different groups’ understandings of who “the people” are, and the different degrees of organized mobilization of those groups, but also derives from the fundamentally opposed interpretations of which appropriate principles—Islamist, moderate or more conservative; non-Islamist; pluralist?—should legitimate a new polity in Egypt. And this difficulty is only compounded by an expressed urgency to find solutions to a deteriorating economy.  Arendt would have hoped that the urgency of immediate needs would not overwhelm the revolutionary process of “constituting a government.”

It turns out, Arendt argued, that once “the source of authority had been severed from the colonial body politic in the New World,” the key problem confronting the American Revolution “turned out to be the establishment not of power but of authority.” How this authority (not to be confused with either power or violence) will be established in Egypt depends in the long run on all sides being able both to engage in discussions of principle, and not only contests over power or need, as well as participate in the search for institutionalized mechanisms to stabilize what Arendt called “the tremendous strength inherent in mutual promises.” If specific parties withdraw from this process, or persist in vilifying one group of the other, the violence that is now occurring may not yet be stemmed.

-Kathleen B. Jones

15Apr/130

The Impact of Modern Warfare on Power and Politics

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No government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which, as previously mentioned, would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a push button to destroy whomever he pleased, could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence.
—Hannah Arendt, “On Violence.”

Hannah Arendt wrote these lines in the midst of the United States’ defeat in Vietnam. Her argument was that as long as robot soldiers were a thing of the future, brute violence and force like that unleashed by the United States would always succumb to collective power, of the kind exhibited by the Vietcong. Hers was, at least in part, a hopeful voice, praising the impotence of violence in the face of power.

To read Arendt’s lines today, amidst the rise of drone warfare, alters the valence of her remarks. Drones are increasingly prototypes and even embodiments of the “robot soldiers” that Arendt worried would dehumanize war and elevate violence over power. If we draw out the consequences from Arendt’s logic, then drone soldiers might displace the traditional limits that politics places on violence; drones, in other words, make possible unprecedented levels of unlimited violence.

The rise of drones matters, Arendt suggests, in ways that are not currently being seen. Her worry has little to do with assassination, the concern of most opponents of drones today. Nor is she specifically concerned with surveillance. Instead, against those, like General Stanley McChrystal, who argue that drones are simply new tools in an old activity of war, Arendt’s warning is that drones and robot soldiers may change the very dynamic of war and politics.

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To see how drones change the calculus of violence in politics, we need to understand Arendt’s thesis about the traditional political superiority of power over violence. The priority of power over violence is based on the idea that power is “inherent in the very existence of political communities.” Power, Arendt writes, “corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert.” It “springs up whenever people get together and act in concert.” All government, and this is central to Arendt’s thesis, needs power in order to act.

This need for popular support is true even for totalitarian governments, which also depend on the power of people—at least a select group of them like the secret police and their informers—continuing to act together. It is thus a myth that totalitarian rule can exist without the support of the people. Whether in Nazi Germany or contemporary Syria, totalitarian or tyrannical governments still are predicated on power that comes from support of key segments of the population.

Even if all government is predicated on some power, governments also employ violence—but that violence is held in check by political limits. As a government loses its popular support, it finds itself tempted to “substitute violence for power.” The problem is that when governments give in to the temptation to use violence to shore up slackening of popular power, their use of violence diminishes further their power and results in impotence. The more violence a government needs to rely upon, the less power it has at its disposal. There is thus a political limit on how much violence any government can employ before it brings about the loss of its own power.

As much as she respects the claims for power over violence, Arendt is clear-eyed about the damage violence can wield. In a direct confrontation between power and violence, violence will win—at least in the short term. Arendt writes that if Gandhi’s “enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance” had met a different enemy—a Stalin or Bashar al-Assad instead of a Churchill or Mubarek—“the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.” Sheer violence can bring victory. But the price for such a triumph is high, not only for the losers, but also for the victors.

We see this exemplified in Middle East over the last few years. In those countries like Bahrain and Syria where governments did not shy from unlimited violence to repress popular revolts, the governments have maintained themselves and the Arab Spring has turned into a long and frigid winter. Assad has been able to maintain power; but his power is irreparably diminished. In the end, there is a limit to the viability and effectiveness of relying on mere violence at the expense of power. This is even more true in a constitutional democracy, where support of the people is a political necessity.

As confident as Arendt is that violence is limited in politics by the need for power, she worries that the coming age of “robot soldiers” might bring about the end of the political advantage power has over violence. Robot soldiers can be controlled absent of consent or political support. With the push of a button or a simple command, a tyrant or totalitarian ruler can exert nearly unlimited violence and destruction, even without the support a massive secret police or a network of informers. Drones threaten the time-immemorial dependence of even the most lonely tyrant on others who will support him and do his bidding.

Of course drones must be built, programmed, and maintained. No tyrant is fully autonomous. Yet building, programming, and maintaining machinery are fundamentally different jobs than arresting and killing dissenters. It is far easier for programmers and electricians to justify doing their jobs in a powerless yet violent state than for soldiers and secret agents to justify theirs.

In a drone-led war, men will rarely need to go into action as soldiers. That is of course one reputed advantage of drones, that they make war less dangerous and more technically predictable. But it also means that as modern warfare becomes safer and more humane, it also excludes without human soldiers and risks stripping war of its human and active character. This helps to explain an enigmatic passage of Arendt’s in The Human Condition, where she offers modern war as an example of when action “loses its specific character” as human action and “becomes one form of achievement among others.” The degradation of human action in modern war, she writes,

happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed ‘mere talk,’ simply one more means toward the end….

Arendt is here thinking of the anonymity of the modern soldier epitomized by the monuments to the unknown soldiers—the mute mass of humanity who fight and die without the “still existing need for glorification” that makes war a human instead of a merely mechanical activity.

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Her modern warfare in its inhumanity and technological capacity abandons the togetherness that has traditionally made war a prime example of human political togetherness.

In the technological advances of modern warfare that made war so awful and so mechanical, Arendt actually found a glimmer of hope: that war’s rabid violence was compensated by neither political advantage nor personal glory. In On Revolution, she dared hope that the fact that technology had reached the stage “where the means of destruction were such as to exclude their rational use” might lead to a “disappearance of war from the scene of politics….” It was possible, she thought, that the threat of total war and total destruction that accompanies war in the modern era might actually lead to the disappearance of war.

Clearly such a hope has not come to pass. One reason for the continuation of war, however, is that the horrors of war are made ever more palatable and silent—at least to the victors—by the use of technology that exerts violence without the need for political power and participation. The drone wars of the early 21st century are in this respect notable for the unprecedented silence that accompanies violence. Since U.S. soldiers are rarely injured or killed and since the strikes are classified and the damage remote, we have indeed entered an era where we can fight wars absent the speech, glory, and “human togetherness” that has traditionally marked both the comradeship of soldiers and the patriotic sacrifice of a nation at war. It is in this extraordinary capacity of mute violence to substitute for power in which we can glimpse both the promise and the peril of drones.

-Roger Berkowitz

5Nov/120

The Election: What’s Freedom Got to do with it?

“…the enormous pathos which we find in both the American and French Revolutions, this ever-repeated insistence that nothing comparable in grandeur and significance had every happened in the whole recorded history of mankind…”

-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

Although my political memory is admittedly brief, I cannot remember an American presidential election day that was anticipated with less enthusiasm than the one that looms this week, particularly among the generation who are now my students.  It is an unfortunate sign when you overhear conversations in the lounge expressing a wistfulness for the halcyon days of Clinton v. Dole.  This is not to say that there are no strong emotions about the election – lots of umbrage weekly-renewed, considerable dread and anxiety, even a dash of hope and an occasional twist of satisfaction – but enthusiasm does not seem to be among them.  Though this blog tends to dwell more on the political world with a touch of remove from its everyday hurly-burly, as Arendt did, given the proximity of the election it seems worth it to linger for a moment on the particular phenomenon those in this country face tomorrow: a moment of decision that no one seems particularly eager to reach.

Plenty has already been said about why this might be, and there is much more to be said than can be said in this space.  I want to dwell on one particularly Arendtian concern that I have heard expressed and worried over more and more during the last few months, the simple question that a student last week pithily expressed as “what’s freedom got to do with it?” Asking the question in that way may nudge us in advance into hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth.  But I want to argue something that may seem counter-intuitive, at least to the sensibilities that I hear advanced daily: that in fact the certain grimness or reticence with which many face the impending election is not a sign of the decay of the fabric of American polity, or the slow collapse of the meaningfulness of citizenship, but a sign that the events of the opening years of this millennium have brought us into a new kind of health.  That health is precisely in the realm of freedom, a health increasingly robust even as we face terrible sickness and disrepair in other aspects of our political, economic, and cultural systems.

The great diagnostic temptation at this political moment, which one hears espoused often enough, is to say that Americans have forgotten how to experience freedom in our political process at all (if indeed it was ever there), and so we trudge towards Nov. 6 having thoroughly accepted that, whatever particular material interests we might have at stake, “freedom is not even the nonpolitical aim of politics, but a marginal phenomenon."  And there is, of course, something to this worry, as there was when Arendt wrote it; a potent part of the  dissatisfaction that so many feel and express is the sense that whoever is elected, it will make little difference in the end.  There are lots of extremely portentous “minutae” of politics to counterpose to this sense – the composition of the courts, the reversal of pre-existing condition restrictions, reproductive and marriage rights, the bearing of the federal tax structure on nation’s titanic income inequality – but if these kinds of issues could disrupt the sense that they’re taken to address, the national media would have dispelled any concern of the sort long ago.  What is at stake cannot be the literal question of whether or not there is anything at stake – otherwise the answer would be trivially obvious, that there is – but that there is a rich sense that, as Arendt puts it repeatedly, the experience of an inexorability to our political economy (to call a spade a spade) has thoroughly overwhelmed our hope for novelty, our belief in the possibility of new beginnings, of revolutionary change.

But there is something to this peculiar kind of despair, itself so different from the form of despair that dominated the part of our society in which I grew up – the sense of not only a crushing personal irrelevance but the fundamental impossibility of escaping a desperate struggle for livelihood – that actually bespeaks something promising for our political culture.  The despair of change, which in fact now unites the two ideological poles of American politics, bespeaks a renewed sensitivity to freedom, freedom in the specifically Arendtian sense that space remains in which what is might be radically replaced with what might begin tomorrow.  It is a sensitivity to freedom that can only exist in a polity that remembers what it is to feel and desire it.

Jason E. Rist/Flickr

On the contrary, anyone who doubts that Americans yet feel a sense of Arendtian freedom need only take a glance at the documentary currently making the rounds, 'PressPausePlay', to see that we have in fact again become so suffused with what Arendt called “the specific revolutionary pathos of the absolutely new, of a beginning which would justify starting to count time in the year of the revolutionary event,” that it has leapt out of the political realm and now structures our relationship to technology, to culture, and to education as well.  Where once we had to worry that the political had become inextricably reduced to the social, now it seems that we may rather be faced with the universalization of the specifically political, with the preeminence of action and spectatorship in every sphere of the human condition.  It’s not at all clear to me that that would be a terrible thing, but the point remains.

One might be inclined to blame the candidates themselves for the lack of enthusiasm, and again it would be hard to deny that there’s something to that.  But what is it, exactly, that we find worth blaming?  Certainly, those who supported him might have a number of particular political gripes with the way that President Obama executed his term in office, but I also think that most in practice most understand that Obama could never in the American political system have lived up to the messianic fervor surrounding him, and that this is not the true source of disconsolation.  I will confess to a certain lack of sympathy for feeling betrayed by Obama’s positions.  Likewise, it is hard to fault those who oppose President Obama for being unenthusiastic, to put it mildly, with having Mitt Romney as their only meaningfully available avatar, given that that concept itself entails the expectation that something is being represented.  But here, too, I think there is a perfectly resilient awareness among those who will vote for Romney that the man is in fact quite good for the role for which he has been groomed and in which he has placed himself: the consummate manager, the guarantor of the kind of freedom-as-security Arendt worried might wholly replace our sense of freedom-as-possibility, “not the security against ‘violent death,’ as in Hobbes…but a security which should permit an undisturbed development of the life process of the society as a whole.”

No, the difficulty that Americans face is neither that we have lost our “revolutionary pathos” that makes us believe in the promise of something truly new, nor that we have candidates who cannot fulfill our rather extraordinary expectations, but that we have once again come into our desire for both the senses of freedom that Arendt diagnoses, and they are senses of freedom that do not sit easily together.  The ambivalence and strain that comes with holding desires for competing freedoms is not something to be bemoaned, but celebrated, and converted into cause for engaging the immense barriers the current configuration of our political system has thrown up against those desires.  We desire both the promise of change that holds fast our belief, and the promise of a managerial excellence in navigating the quotidian ho-hummery of administration.  And this is simply the reality of, not the American political system, but political system as such: these two forms of promise are inextricably bound to each other, and though it is a tense and at time openly antagonistic partnership, it is nevertheless one that polity, at least in its Modern sense, can’t do without.  Political ambivalence, and even pessimism, is not a sign of the decay of our political capacities, but of their renewal by a decade of protest and struggle and failure on both sides of the political spectrum.  Our senses of freedom are in rude health…whether our politics can bear it is another question.

-Ian Storey

30Jul/121

The Highest Law of the Land

“The highest laws of the land (America) are not only the constitution and constitutional laws, but also contracts.”

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, p. 131

Having published The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt turned her attention  to the country around her.  In a sequence of entries in her Denktagebuch for September 1951, she starts by referring to America as “the politically new” – these are thoughts that will eventually result in her argument in On Revolution .  Her analysis has often been criticized from an historical point of view, especially as she refers to the Constitution as being the first to be established “without force, without ruling (archein) and being ruled (archesthai). “  Whatever the validity of these criticisms, they strike me as missing an essential point of her concerns.  Arendt is trying to work out what she a few pages later calls “the central question of the coming (künftigen) politics,” a problem she sees as lodged in “the problem of the giving of laws.” (ibid, 141). Her aim is to describe a political (i.e. humanly appropriate) system that would not rest upon will and in particular on the will of the sovereign.  “That I must have power (Macht) to be able to will, makes the problem of power into the central political fact of all politics that are grounded on sovereignty – all, that is, with the exception of the American.” (idem)

Her concern in these pages (130-143) centers around what a human society would be that was truly political.  Her version of America is her entry into this question.  What is striking about her discussion in the intervening (and other) pages is that she approaches this question explicitly through the lens of European philosophy.  Thus she is attempting an answer to the question of “can we determine the particular excellence of the American polity by viewing it through the lenses of European thought?”  The point is not to Europeanize America: it is to see if America does not in some manner constitute a potential instantiation of what has been thought in Europe over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The sequence of European thinkers she invokes is important. She first mentions Marx and then Nietzsche, each of whom she sees as part of and as makers of the “end of Western philosophy.”  Marx is held to have inverted Hegel, Nietzsche the same for Plato. The point of her analysis of Marx and Nietzsche is to assert that they released thought from its bond to the “Absolute.”  Indeed:  to hold to the idea of an Absolute is to “make possible in the present unjust and bestial behavior.” (ibid, 133).  As we know, this will be an ever-returning theme in her work.  She expects to find in America the elements of the political that does not rest on an “absolute.”

At what might one look to find this vision of a non-absolute political? Nietzsche provides the opening to an answer.  We are to look not to his doctrine of the revaluation of values but to his discussion of promising in the second essay of the Genealogy of Morals.  She quotes: “To breed an animal with the right to make promises – is that not …  the real problem of humans?” For Arendt, the foundation of a new “morality” lies in the right to make a promise; the promise makes possible human relations based on contract.  And the grounding on contract, as she writes in the Denktagebuch, was for her the particular excellence of the American polity.

What is the implication of Arendt's claim that contract is the “highest law” and particular excellence of America? One answer is revealed by the end of extended quotation of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals where he indicates that the person who has the right to make promises can “ für sich als Zukunft gut sagen zu können,”a phrase that might be rendered as “able to give himself as answer for the future.” In Arendt’s gloss, this means that if in making a contract (which is what a promise is) one pledges that each will remain true to him-or herself as the person making the contract, then each has made his or her own being the foundation for a political space.

Such a grounding or foundation is not based either on will or on any external absolute.  It is a matter, as the signers of the Declaration made clear, that we “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Temporally speaking, this means that what one did in the past remains alive as the present.   Our political present will thereby be tied to the historical, although not, she notes, in a “weltgeschichtliche” [world-historical: i.e. transcendental] manner.

To make the implications of this clearer, she immediately turns to a consideration of Max Weber’s distinction between the “ethic of responsibility” (which she holds to be the foundation of the pragmatism and genius of American politics) as opposed to the “ethic of conviction,” which, she says, allows for anything as we cannot know “until the day of the Last Judgment” if our conviction be correct. The implication here is that if we base our polity on the conviction of the supposed correctness of our moral judgments (as opposed to our ability to be responsible to ourselves) we will be able to justify anything, as the validation for our claim can be infinitely postponed. (One has but to look at the claims made about bringing democracy to Iraq).  Indeed, Arendt sees “central question of our time” to be a change in our ability to make valid moral judgments, that is ones the correctness of which is not postponed indefinitely. (ibid 138).   She now turns to an examination of how various thinkers have dealt with the problem of moral judgment.  After she worked her way through a partial rejection of the manners in which Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Kant of the Critique of Practical Reason respond to this main question, she turns to the Critique of the Power of Judgment.  Those thoughts are not developed at this time in the Denktagebuch -- but they will concern her for the rest of her life.

What is striking here is how the approach from European philosophy brings out the importance of what is new in the American experiment.  As Hamilton wrote in the first Federalist:

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

To which, in our present day, one may only wonder if at some point a “wrong election“ has not been made.

-Tracy B. Strong (UCSD)

9Jul/120

To Deliberate Upon the Public Affairs

“‘[T]he revolution was effected before the war commenced,’ not because of any specifically revolutionary or rebellious spirit but because the inhabitants of the colonies were ‘formed by law into corporations, or bodies politic,’ and possessed ‘the right to assemble … in their town halls, there to deliberate upon the public affairs."

—Hannah Arendt, quoting John Adams, in On Revolution

These remarks represent casual, back-of-the-envelope thoughts. The question they pose is: what would the Occupy movement, or something like it, have to look like in order to succeed in altering the structure of American governance? This assumes that the goal of Occupy is, or should be, to change the structure of American governance, and it assumes an idea of what “the structure of American governance” means, which I will try to explain. My answer to that question—what would Occupy have to look like—can be summed up in a few words: it would have to stop being a movement of the left. As a thought experiment, I propose to imagine an Occupy movement without leftism, and with the goal of changing the structure of governance.

The first thing to work out is wherein the leftism of Occupy actually consists. It does not consist in espousing the interests of the poor—or attacking the interests of the rich. Wealth is neither liberal nor conservative by nature, and wealth in today’s America flows alternately to Republicans and Democrats. Right-wing movements can be populist as well, and garner the support of the economically marginal. Wealth looks after its own interests and treats politics as secondary—which is why the catchphrase of the Occupy movement, “the 99 percent,” theoretically constitutes an appeal to both left and right. It is supposed to be a call to unite along economic rather than political lines. This—“Forget politics and unite for your common economic interest!”—is what I take to be the intended message of Occupy. Those who primarily hear this intended message thus think that Occupy is a new kind of populist movement, having left behind the identity politics of liberalism for a unifying, class-based cause.

Photo by Giles Clarke

But whatever you make of this intended message, there is also an effective message of Occupy, somewhat different from its intended one. The effective message of Occupy proceeds, inevitably, from the demographic composition of the movement. Is it plain for anyone beholding an Occupy rally to see that its membership is drawn from the educated, bourgeois, liberal left; that other contingents (sympathetic Ron Paulites, unionists, etc.) are essentially tokens; and that the members of the real economic underclass are present only on the other side of the fast food counter, selling burritos to hungry protestors. At a march I attended in Chicago, I could stand in one spot and see signs proclaiming dozens of demands: that we go green, withdraw from foreign wars, respect women and minorities, legalize gay marriage, realize that “we are one with the cosmos”—and, oh yes, punish the banks while we’re at it. I happen to agree, at least in some sense, with most of these demands (oneness with the cosmos being one that I would have to find out more about before deciding on), but I was puzzled by their presence. I asked myself: are these particular demands separable from the core economic message? It seems they ought to be, and in theory they are, but here the concrete trumps the theoretical. Get rid of all the people holding those “Regulate x and “Legalize y” signs at the Occupy rally, and you will have gotten rid of most of the movement. Occupy pursues its universalism as a process of expansion from a preexisting social base. It is like a Facebook group that keeps adding members (in fact, it is that, literally). But this process has natural limits, which Occupy has probably already reached.

So Occupy has its economic message (“the 99 percent”), and it has its social message. The social message is: “Join the left! We liberals have everybody’s best interests at heart, and our concern is with economic justice for the 99 percent.

All you have to do to be part of our movement is to drop your uneducated prejudices—your racism, xenophobia, homophobia, chauvinism, et cetera. Then, once you have become educated liberals, we can move beyond liberalism and fight together for our economic interests!” In the very act of asserting its universalist economic agenda, Occupy reinscribes the particularist demands of the liberal left as prerequisites for participation.

Better than trying to cleanse the economic message of those distracting particularist agendas would be instead to think beyond the economic message itself. What would it mean for Occupy to think at the level of the political? The question of defining the political as such is a point that risks involving Arendt scholars, somewhat uncharacteristically, in long, subtle, almost scholastic discussions; but for our purposes, the answer is easy enough. It would mean to think about constitutions.

A constitution can be a written document embodying the “higher law of the land”—but it need not be. A constitution can just as well consist in an unwritten tradition (as in Great Britain), or, as Arendt reminds us, in an institution such as the Roman senate (or perhaps, in our day, the loya jirga)—a political body that lasts just as long as it is cared for and maintained. (Similarly, a written constitution lasts only as long as people choose to obey it.) A successful revolution—this is the thrust of Arendt’s On Revolution—is one which does not stop at the point of liberating people from oppression, which might be of an economic or a political kind. Occupy aims at economic liberation. A successful revolution, on the other hand, puts its main energy into constitution-making, and results in the creation of lasting institutions, bodies politic that function and endure.

Founding, constituting, instituting: this would be the business of a truly political and, I think, a truly successful Occupy movement. These activities are by nature genuinely public and open to all comers without prerequisite. They might take various concrete forms. Lawrence Lessig advocates holding mock constitutional conventions across the country, with the eventual aim of demonstrating the effectiveness of the process as carried out by ordinary citizens and encouraging state legislatures to invoke Article V of the U.S. constitution and call a new federal convention. Another model would be to simply begin holding unconditional open meetings, publicized and accessible to all, neighborhood by neighborhood, “to deliberate upon the public affairs” until some structure of governance begins to emerge, good leaders come forward, actions are taken. While both these models have their idealistic aspects, both have some realistic aspects as well. We have barely begun to think through the possibilities, but we will eventually need to do the patient work of reconstituting the republic.

-Stephen Haswell Todd