Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Born of Necessity, Blindness, or Strategy: On Greece and the Bureaucratically Divine

greece austerity

By Jennifer M. Hudson

“The force of the machinery in which the K. of The Trial is caught lies precisely in this appearance of necessity on the one hand, and in the admiration of the people for necessity on the other. Lying for the sake of necessity appears as something sublime; and a man who does not submit to the machinery, though submission may mean his death, is regarded as a sinner against some kind of divine order.… It has been characteristic of our history conscious century that its worst crimes have been committed in the name of some kind of necessity or in the name--and this amounts to the same thing--of the ‘wave of the future.’”

-- Arendt, “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation (On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his death)”, Partisan Review

Necessity signifies the absence of choice; therefore, freedom and necessity, as principles, are logically opposed. Enlarging the concept of simple necessity, imagining it as a type of perpetual motion “machinery” or “the ‘wave of the future’ amplifies this opposition. Necessity as “progress,” or providence, becomes a deterministic force that would take away our capacity to shape our human world and future. Arendt’s concern in this passage is not, however, the myriad ways in which real human needs restrict sovereign human action. Instead, she points to an ideology of necessity--“the admiration of the people for necessity”--through which human beings abdicate responsibility for their common world by way of false beliefs in their own helplessness in an uncertain world and, simultaneously, their power to control this world using artificial means. Bureaucracy, both symbolically in Kafka’s novels and in Arendt’s appraisal of actually existing configurations, is the tangible manifestation of this ideology.

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.

Amor Mundi 6/21/15


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upThinkable, Speakable Things

charleston shootingCharles P. Pierce suggests that those who are calling the fatal shooting of churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina earlier this week unthinkable or unspeakable are engaging in wishful thinking, assiduously avoiding the fact that fear is a reality of daily life for a certain percentage of Americans: "What happened in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it's not is 'unthinkable.' Somebody thought long and hard about it. Somebody thought to load the weapon. Somebody thought to pick the church. Somebody thought to sit, quietly, through some of Wednesday night bible study. Somebody thought to stand up and open fire, killing nine people, including the pastor. Somebody reportedly thought to leave one woman alive so she could tell his story to the world. Somebody thought enough to flee. What happened in that church was a lot of things, but unthinkable is not one of them. What happened in a Charleston church on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it's not is 'unspeakable.' We should speak of it often. We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which is what it was. We should speak of it as racial violence, which is what it was... There is a timidity that the country can no longer afford. This was not an unthinkable act. A man may have had a rat's nest for a mind, but it was well thought out. It was a cool, considered crime, as well planned as any bank robbery or any computer fraud. If people do not want to speak of it, or think about it, it's because they do not want to follow the story where it inevitably leads. It's because they do not want to follow this crime all the way back to the mother of all American crimes, the one that Denmark Vesey gave his life to avenge. What happened on Wednesday night was a lot of things. A massacre was only one of them."

The Pope's Green Robes

pope francisEmma Green considers Pope Francis's recent exhortation about climate change, noting his particular angle and how it is tied to Catholic morality. "The pope uses different language than a climate activist might. Throughout the encyclical, he refers to the modern world's 'throwaway culture.' This includes literal trash--'hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources,' he writes. But it also encompasses a mentality of excessive consumption and an orientation toward profit maximization, especially in the 'global north.' People in the developed world are morally obligated to those in developing countries, he says, because when they buy things, it's at the direct expense of the labor, health, and, sometimes, lives of the poor. As Benedict wrote in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, 'It is good for people to realize that purchasing is always a moral--and not simply economic--act...' In making this comment, he's taking aim at a whole swath of the development and environmentalist community, including aid organizations and governments. Throughout the encyclical, he slams what could roughly be called 'technological solutionism,' when 'life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence.' It's a somewhat obtuse reminder that the pope is neither a liberal activist nor a technocrat intent on finding simple solutions. His encyclical is a sermon, not a white paper, and he's comfortable criticizing do-gooders and multinational corporations in the same breath."

The Struggle Over Omnisurveillance

facial recognition techThe Financial Times reports that a coalition of privacy advocates in the United States have withdrawn from talks with the government and technology firms designed to develop a "voluntary code of conduct for the use of facial recognition technology." According to the article: "The nine groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union and Consumer Federation of America, said that 16 months of negotiation with tech industry representatives and others had failed to bring agreement on even the most basic privacy issues raised by software that can identify people from images of their face.... In a joint statement, the privacy advocates blamed companies that hope to use the technology for refusing to give ground in the discussions. 'The position that companies never need to ask permission to use biometric identification is at odds with consumer expectations, current industry practices, as well as existing state law,' they said. They added: 'At a base minimum, people should be able to walk down a public street without fear that companies they've never heard of are tracking their every movement--and identifying them by name--using facial recognition technology.'"

Metaphors for Sale

metaphorFor Hannah Arendt, metaphors are the source of all thinking and speaking since thinking is a metaphorical transformation of the visible into the invisible. Arendt argues that metaphor is the lifeblood of poets and thinkers. Now Michael Erard writes about the life of a metaphor designer: "Consider the thing to be communicated--a business strategy, a discovery, a new look at a familiar social problem--and then make a pseudo-mistake. Actually, create a lot of pseudo-mistakes, and test each one. At the end, the floor will be covered with the blood of failed comparisons. One way to create these mistakes is to deliberately miscategorise the thing you are trying to explain. What do paintbrushes have to do with pumps? Ah, they all move liquid. You choose the pump because it's the most prototypical member of the things-that-move-liquid category. Another way to create the mistake is to break the thing you want to explain into its components, then connect them to some other idea or domain of life. Say there's a city department that's in charge of lots of different programmes, all of them related to health. The department plays a centralising function for various programmes funded by multiple sources, operating over several jurisdictions. That diversity confuses audiences. Also, the programmes are often for vulnerable populations--the elderly, immigrants, people with addictions: people for whom the average taxpayer's sympathies are not necessarily assured. So the right metaphor must speak to inclusion and community, and suggest some benefit, such as health or opportunity, that's more widely shared. I tried 'bridge' and 'platform', but ultimately went with 'key ring': the department holds the keys for unlocking health."

amor_mundi_sign-upOur Puritan Future

puritansAt a moment when so many decry the problems with liberal democracy at home and abroad, Jim Sleeper suggests we can find hope and rejuvenation from an old American source, the Puritans. "The Puritans were America's first Very Serious People.... What were they about? First, in attempting to emulate the earliest Christian communities, they turned their backs on the golden thrones of popes and kings and countenanced neither aristocracy nor destitution--a revolutionary innovation in the early seventeenth century. Although they were often shrewd businessmen, they never argued openly that prosperity brings freedom and dignity, preaching instead that it carried communal obligations. Second, they weren't out to 'make history,' as we try to, through scientific planning or by discerning great movements of Hegelian Reason in our strivings, but by fulfilling the pre-established biblical typology of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt on a sacred mission to a Promised Land. (Hence their naming some New England towns Salem, Goshen, Bethlehem, Sharon, and Lebanon; hence the Hebrew on the seals of Yale and Dartmouth.) What might seem a worldly enterprise financed by English entrepreneurs was, in the Puritan reality, a mission for 'The General Restoration of Mankind from the Curse of the Fall' that would bring a blessing upon all the nations of the Earth. Third, the Puritans' biblically covenanted, congregational communities combined public purpose with personal integrity in ways that survive in our understandings of the interplay between individual conscience and rights on the one hand and civic obligation on the other." To revivify the American moral spirit, Sleeper writes, we cannot rely on a non-judgmental liberal state or on neo-liberal market values. The Puritans, all their limitations notwithstanding, offer insights into a "new cosmology" that we can hope to use to address our spiritual needs "in ways that a liberal capitalist republic no longer can."

Pulling Themselves Up By Their Commencement Robes

college eliteAndrew Delbanco quotes Horace Mann to express the democratic hope that Americans have always placed upon education: "Death may be the great equalizer, but Americans have long believed that during this life 'the spread of education would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.'" Writing in the New York Review of Books, Delbanco shows how the once vibrant connection between higher education and equality has been stalled. "At the top of the prestige pyramid, in highly selective colleges like those of the Ivy League, students from the bottom income quartile in our society make up around 5 percent of the enrollments." There are huge numbers of highly qualified students from poor families that don't attend elite colleges largely because they don't apply, "in part because most such students get little if any counseling in high school about the intricate process of applying to a selective college--so they rarely do." And even when one gets into college, universities seem to be failing the poorest students. "Critics like Bennett are right, however, to decry what's happening--or not happening--to many students who do get to college. Too few are challenged or given guidance and encouragement. Cheating is common, including at elite private colleges and the so-called public flagships. In a widely noted 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa gave a grim account of college as a place where students are held to low standards in an atmosphere of wasteful frivolity. In their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, they stress that the likeliest victims of 'late adolescent meandering' are students from low-income backgrounds who come out of college aimless, demoralized, and with fewer chances than their more affluent peers to recoup lost opportunities. In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton speak of 'an implicit agreement between the university and students to demand little of each other.' And they, too, make the case that students with the fewest family resources have the lowest post-college prospects." Delbanco concludes with a sad but too-often true complaint: "Perhaps concern for the poor has shriveled not only among policymakers but in the broader public. Perhaps in our time of focus on the wealthy elite and the shrinking middle class, there is a diminished general will to regard poor Americans as worthy of what are sometimes called 'the blessings of American life'--among which the right to education has always been high if not paramount."


OrbánColin Woodard checks in on the situation in Hungary: "Orbán has declared that he is building a new state in Hungary, 'an illiberal state' capable of guiding the Hungarian nation to victory 'in the great global race for decades to come.' Inspired by the alleged successes of illiberal states like Russia, China, Turkey and Singapore, Orbán promises a new order that puts the collective goals of the Hungarian people--including the more than two million of them living in neighboring countries that were once part of the Hungarian Kingdom--ahead of the liberal goal of maximizing individual liberty. Throughout his tenure, Orbán has slapped down EU criticisms of his policies with nationalist rhetoric, saying Hungary 'will not be a colony' and won't 'live according to the commands of foreign powers.' ... Orbán, a youthful anti-communist dissident when Hungarian communism fell in 1989, has spent the past two decades transforming a libertarian-minded youth group into an immensely powerful national conservative political machine. When he swept into power in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 global financial meltdown (during which Hungary accepted a $26 billion rescue package to avoid bankruptcy), Orbán's Alliance of Young Democrats (or Fidesz) and their loyal coalition partners used their two-thirds majority in parliament to rewrite the constitution and pass hundreds of new laws during their first year and a half in power. The combined effect: an erosion of the independence of the judiciary, the packing of courts with political loyalists, a wholesale political purge of the civil service and the chief prosecutor's office, new election rules that advantage the governing coalition and the intimidation of the news organizations (who can be issued crippling fines for content deemed 'not politically balanced' by a government-appointed panel.) When laws criminalizing homelessness, curtailing political advertizing, foreclosing the possibility of gay marriage and restricting judicial review were found unconstitutional, Orbán used his parliamentary supermajority to simply add the measures to the new constitution."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #10

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

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

Friday, July 10, 2015

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



why privacy mattersSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Anabella Di Pego discusses Hannah Arendt's call to a mode of thinking that leaves behind the notion of the ivory tower at the end of "The Human Condition" in the Quote of the Week. Famed American inventor Thomas Edison reflects on the quality of thinking done in solitude as compared to that which is done turmoil in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, one of our followers on Twitter reveals how it is possible to expand one's mind by reading Arendt in this week's Library feature.

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.

The Bureaucracy of Sandy

The after effects of Super-storm Sandy are felt from the beaches to the statehouses. First of all, let’s realize it was not a hurricane, but a freakish combination of storm systems. Super-storm is more truthful than hurricane. Whatever it was, it has upended lives, and politics.

The Financial Times reports today that Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has now joined NY Governor Andrew Cuomo in requesting not only emergency aid to repair the damage caused by the storm, but also preventative money to build dunes, use eminent domain to purchase property, and generally re-engineer the New Jersey coastline.

The political transformation here is lost on few. As the FT writes:

Mr. Christie, a Republican, has previously sounded more skeptical than Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, about using state powers to dictate how the state was rebuilt. But he said on Wednesday he might take away local towns’ power to grant “easements” to homeowners objecting to new dunes blocking their sea views and would not rule out using government powers to purchase properties it believed were in the wrong place.

“I have to protect the Jersey shore, both as an economic engine and as a cultural engine,” Mr. Christie said.

The desire to take away local powers and give them to states and to take away state powers and give them to the federal government is neither a democratic nor a republican idea anymore. While the party of the elephant may give lip service to local governance, it has rarely, if ever, backed that up with action. As is now well known, the federal government has grown as fast if not faster under Republican Presidents than it has under democratic.

Hannah Arendt argued that the greatest danger to freedom in the United States was the rise of a large and bureaucratic government. She worried, as she once wrote, that the true threat to freedom was the sheer size of America alongside the rise of a technocracy. The sheer size of the country combined with the rising bureaucracy threatened to swallow the love for freedom she saw as the potent core of American civic life.

Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo may well be their respective parties’ nominees for President in 2016. They are both deeply popular and have taken a pragmatic and largely centrist approach to governing at a time of financial crisis and natural disaster. And yet, from an Arendtian angle, it is striking that both governors have so internalized the view that problems are to be solved by bureaucrats and technocrats rather than on a local level.

That the bureaucratic approach is so entrenched should not be a surprise. It is both a consequence of a further spur to the retreat from politics that Hannah Arendt describes. Even Christie’s insistence that he must save the Jersey shore as an economic engine shows the near complete victory of economic thinking over politics.


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.

The Fecundity of the Unexpected

Readers of the Hannah Arendt Center blog are well acquainted with the pension train wreck that is heading our way.  It is not only public union pensions but also those corporate pensions that still guarantee defined benefits that are radically underfunded. And what hides the immensity of the problem is continued unrealistic assumptions about long-term future returns.

As was reported recently, Maryland—to take just one example—continues to assume a 7.75% annual return on its public pensions, which is even higher than the 6.6% 100 year historical average on stock returns.

While there is blame to go around—including feckless politicians and Wall Street hucksterism—the root of the problem may be a general unwillingness on all sides to realize that the last 100 years may have been an aberration. This is the argument that legendary investor Bill Gross makes in a report he sent to PIMCO clients this week.

Gross takes aim at the oft-repeated "truth" that over time stocks will return a real return of 6.6%. He argues that the returns over the last century were predicated on a Ponzi scheme, giving extra returns to shareholders at the expense of laborers (declining real wages) and government (declining real taxes). As those trends reach their limits, it is inevitable, Gross writes, that real returns must decline as well:

The legitimate question that market analysts, government forecasters and pension consultants should answer is how that 6.6% real return can possibly be duplicated in the future given today’s initial conditions which historically have never been more favorable for corporate profits. If labor and indeed government must demand some recompense for the four decade’s long downward tilting teeter-totter of wealth creation, and if GDP growth itself is slowing significantly due to deleveraging in a New Normal economy, then how can stocks appreciate at 6.6% real? They cannot, absent a productivity miracle that resembles Apple’s wizardry.

And it is not only stocks that will suffer. With treasuries yielding 2.55% (less than inflation), it is increasingly unlikely that long term bonds will provide meaningful returns.  The sad result:

Together then, a presumed 2% return for bonds and an historically low percentage nominal return for stocks – call it 4%, when combined in a diversified portfolio produce a nominal return of 3% and an expected inflation adjusted return near zero. The Siegel constant of 6.6% real appreciation, therefore, is an historical freak, a mutation likely never to be seen again as far as we mortals are concerned.

The consequence of these reduced expectations for public and private pension funds (and also for retirees with 401k plans that assume healthy investment returns) are dire. Simply put, throughout society, we are living beyond our means. We are in denial and continuing to make unrealistic investment assumptions. Gross draws the inevitable lesson for pension plans:

Private pension funds, government budgets and household savings balances have in many cases been predicated and justified on the basis of 7–8% minimum asset appreciation annually. One of the country’s largest state pension funds for instance recently assumed that its diversified portfolio would appreciate at a real rate of 4.75%. Assuming a goodly portion of that is in bonds yielding at 1–2% real, then stocks must do some very heavy lifting at 7–8% after adjusting for inflation. That is unlikely. If/when that does not happen, then the economy’s wheels start spinning like a two-wheel-drive sedan on a sandy beach. Instead of thrusting forward, spending patterns flatline or reverse; instead of thriving, a growing number of households and corporations experience a haircut of wealth and/or default; instead of returning to old norms, economies begin to resemble the lost decades of Japan.

We should applaud Gross for saying what many of us suspect: that the efforts of technocrats who populate pension plans to predict future returns is unpredictable at best and more likely subject to rosy biases. And yet even Gross then goes on to assume the tone of an all-knowing sage, something that seems de rigueur for public commentators today. We will solve the problem, Gross assures us, by turning to inflation.

Maybe Gross is right. But whatever the future holds, we must first confront the fact that as things now stand, we face a collective reduction in our wealth. How we respond to the reality of that threat will define the United States in coming generations. Either we can continue to insist that we are a wealthy nation and go on spending and living as if nothing had changed, or we can adjust our expectations downward.

Or we can somehow seek to unleash new forces of wealth creation that would generate the kind of economic growth and social and economic change that will lead to unexpected transformations in who we are.

We should neither take Bill Gross' prognostications as prophecy nor deny the reality he describes. Gross offers merely a hypothesis about the future, something far different from a fact. We do not have an adequate understanding of human nature and human economy to predict the GDP for this year, let alone for 2030. Human spontaneity, chance, and freedom mean that predictions of the future are simply calculations based upon the assumption that such and such will happen if men act rationally and nothing unexpected happens. In such cases it is helpful to recall Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's remark (loved by Hannah Arendt) that "the fecundity of the unexpected far exceeds the statesman's prudence."

Read more from Bill Gross here. You can also read more on Pensions as Ponzi schemes here and here.


*This post originally appeared yesterday on Via Media.

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.

Saving Pensions: “Technocrats, Not Grandstanding Idealists”

Public pensions are a mess. Ok, where is the hope? Yesterday Gillian Tett offered a rare glimmer of good news in a story about Rhode Island treasurer Gina Raimondo. But the good news comes with a bitter aftertaste.

Rhode Island is a small state, but it had one of the worst public pension deficits in the country. Forced to act, it has cut pensions for its workers, raised the retirement age from 62 to 67, and replaced the defined benefits pension (which guarantees a certain amount every year) with a partial defined contribution scheme (which pays out a pension based on how much the retiree has saved). These actions have angered many workers and unions, who are suing the state, but they have also saved the state pension system; one result is that the workers will be receiving some pension, even if it is less than they were promised.

The solution, as Raimondo articulates it, is above all to focus ruthlessly “on the math and facts, to come up with a solution.” Technocrats, not grandstanding idealists, are required.

The preference for technocrats over idealists illustrates a common approach to our extraordinary economic problems around the country: to hand over difficult political judgments to technicians. The same approach is leading the people to hand over the levels of government to technocrats in Greece, Italy, Suffolk County, and now Detroit. Dissatisfied with democratically elected leaders, the people are increasingly craving a government run by businessmen and accountants. It seems that the ruthless calculation of profit and loss is the last refuge of truth in our age.

Read more about what is going on in Detroit here. Read more about the pension crisis here and here.

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

Pensions: The Unraveling Fiction

How big is the pension crisis in the United States? As I wrote last week, The Pew Charitable Trust has issued a report that there is a whopping $1 trillion dollar gap between the pensions promised to state public employees and the money that has been set aside to pay those pensions. But I also said that many people think that gap is actually much bigger.

The states' calculations assume a rosy 8% or even 10% return on their investments. The Pew report shows that even with those unrealistic assumptions, there will be a $1 trillion gap, since the states are underfunding their pension funds even based on optimistic returns.

Recently, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times talked to a few academics about the question and learned why the gap is actually $3-5 trillion dollars, and not simply $1 trillion. The basic problem is that low interest rates (now around 2%) mean that the investment on pension funds is not returning close to the hoped for amount. As Tett reports:

Thus academics, such as Joshua Rauh of Northwestern University, think that if a more realistic rate of return were used, this would reveal that state pension funds are now underfunded to the tune of $3tn-$4tn. Other observers are even gloomier. “This $4tn figure is a lower bound,” argues Robert Merton, economics professor at MIT. “Liabilities as reported by state and local governments seem to creep steadily up with each report due to ‘actuarial losses’ or overly generous assumptions about mortality and worker behaviour. In recent years, these have added growth of about 4-5 per cent per year to total liabilities.” And, of course, the longer that US interest rates – and bond yields – remain ultra low, the worse this underfunding gap becomes.

Tett's essay makes for a sobering read. As she rightly points out, this problem cannot be ducked forever. Remember, the 2009 bailout that President Obama pushed through was $900 billion, slightly under $1 trillion. We are talking about a shortfall in state budgets of $3-5 trillion in coming years. This is enormous and the effect on state governments and public services will be disastrous. But the very worst effect will be on all of those public employees who have been counting on contractually guaranteed pensions who will, I fear, learn what workers in Rhode Island and Alabama recently learned: such contractual guarantees don't mean much.

What does it mean to have a fact-based politics? This is a question that Hannah Arendt struggled with. First in her writings on totalitarianism, she saw that at the core of totalitarian regimes was the need to keep alive a coherent fantasy that motivated the mass movements supporting the regimes. When inconvenient facts appeared, they simply had to be eradicated.

Later, writing during the Vietnam war and in response to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt argued that lies came to serve not totalitarian movements, but well-meaning idealists and technocrats who convinced not only others but even themselves that their lies were in the service of a winnable and noble cause.

Today we face the unraveling of a huge fiction. While the United States is still a wealthy country, we are not as wealthy as we have pretended to be over the last 15 years. But instead of addressing this self-deception, we are continuing to demand higher pensions and better medical care without actually asking who is going to pay for such services. It is a nice slogan to say that pensions and healthcare are human rights. But the current way we are achieving such human rights is by lying to ourselves, and, most pointedly, to the public employees who will see their promised pensions and healthcare evaporate during their retirement.

It would be nice if one of the Presidential candidates in either party would actually discuss the crisis in state pensions. But that would require courage and leadership, not to mention a willingness to have an honest conversation about the fact that this country continues to live beyond its means and promise benefits it cannot afford.


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.

In This Political Year in Which We Will Elect a New President

Just yesterday Republican Candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich began running a television ad called "Timid or Bold."  The point is to contrast his own apparently bold leadership with Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's supposedly timid style—a style and substance the ad compares with that of Barack Obama. Only Gingrich, so the ad implies, has the courage and daring to take the steps need to right the ship of state.

Whatever one makes of their diverse policies, the spat between Gingrich and Romney highlights a basic ambivalence about leadership in modern politics. On the one hand, we crave a bold and brash leader—look at the groundswell of support for first Hermann Cain, then Newt Gingrich, and then Ron Paul.  On the other hand, we are quick to abandon such leaders as soon as their foibles, eccentricities, infidelities, and crimes are brought into the light of day. We demand of leaders today a moral probity that would have toppled giants like Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. This is of course not to compare the current Republican candidates to these leaders, but merely to point out that there is today a deep desire for a leader who can break out of the mold of technocratic political hack and, at the same time, a fear of those who shoot from the hip, take chances, and make mistakes.

The political consultant and pollster Frank Luntz writes that,

Successful leaders establish [their] persona not by describing their attributes and values to us, but by simply living them.

Leaders are like "superstars," those who connect viscerally with their people. They do so, via authenticity. Leaders must be unhesitating, direct, and assured. They must "show" their decisiveness, and not simply tell it. The best politicians are "always true to themselves." As Luntz puts it, "You cannot get away with acting in politics for too long."

Luntz is right, which is why what he says so terrifies me. For as we demand of our politicians ever more authentic leadership at the very moment when the politicians themselves have retreated behind the opacity of spin, counter-spin, and double-speak. At no time have politicians been such consummate actors; or, at the very least, at no other time have they been so clearly seen to be so. We live in a moment of unparalleled transparency coupled with an unspeakable fear of revelation. The result is that the American people vacillate between an impossible hope for a political superstar and the unyielding despair that such leadership is no longer possible.

Few people have thought so deeply about the activity of politics as Hannah Arendt. One who did, however, was Max Weber.  In 1918 Weber delivered his lecture "Politics as a Vocation" at the invitation of a group of radicalized students. Weber's lecture famously draws a distinction between two motives of political leadership, an ethic conviction and an ethic of responsibility.

Weber’s ethic of responsibility holds that while a responsible politician takes both ends and means into account, he must be willing to employ violence to fight for the good. On the other hand, Weber’s ethic of conviction is best exemplified by religious actors: “A Christian does what is right and leaves the outcome to God.”  With Thoreau, the adherent of the ethics of conviction says: let the world be damned so long as I am saved. Fiat Justitia, pereat mundus.  It is just such an absolutist ethic of conviction that Arendt condemns in her essay Truth and Politics.

Weber affirms the necessary opposition between these two ethics. “It is not possible,” he writes, “to reconcile an ethics of conviction with an ethics of responsibility.” Nevertheless, after twice reaffirming the fundamental antagonism between the two ethics, Weber qualifies his distinction. While politicians must act responsibly according to the rational dictates of the head, there is as well a need for heartfelt conviction. Weber remains skeptical of political appeals to the heart; most politicians who do so are sentimental and manipulative “windbags.  And yet, Weber writes:

I find it immeasurably moving when a mature human being—whether young or old in actual years is immaterial—who feels the responsibility he bears for the consequences of his own actions with his entire soul and who acts in harmony with an ethics of responsibility reaches the point where he says, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’

When a responsible politician, aware of the consequences of his actions, decides to rationally take an unbending stand, then, Weber argues, he acts both as a politician and as a human being. Such an act “is authentically human and cannot fail to move us.” There is, in the action of a fully human politician, the recognition of the tragic nature of political action. The politician takes his ethical stand fully aware of the foreseeable and even the potentially unforeseeable consequences that may follow.  In this sense, then, “an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility are not absolute antitheses but are mutually complementary, and only when taken together do they constitute the authentic human being who is capable of having a ‘vocation for politics.’”  

The point is that politics is a difficult calling, one that requires both mature responsibility and also brash and bold decisiveness—and also the judgment to know when each is called for. And at certain times, any great politician must be willing to throw away success and popularity for a cause he believes in. Thus:

Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.

Which brings us to my favorite lines from the end of Politics as a Vocation:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. [A]ll historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word.

We would do well to have some politicians meditate on Weber's account of the political calling. But if they won't, you should. Weber's essay is here for you to read over this first weekend of this critical election year.


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".