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 Rage of Corruption Unveiled"
Uriel Abulof argues that we are witnessing the retreat of the liberal project of individual individualism in the face of a more fundamental and more powerful human need for collectivist tribalism. The drive for tribalism is real; but to understand why it has emerged so vigorously, we need to comprehend how tribalism is a response to what Hannah Arendt calls “the rage of corruption unveiled.”
“Sartre, an ardent atheist, believed there was “no exit” from this hell here on earth. More than 70 years later, a plurality of voting Britons and Americans begged to differ. Brexit and the election of Trump have all the markers of our age: social media spats, clashes of civilizations and generations, urban cosmopolitans voting against rural nationalists. But underneath the apparent divisions, a deeper divergence lurks, a mismatch between philosophies of life — actual existential anxieties. When existentialism goes political, hell is not merely other people; hell is also other peoples. Populist leaders — like Recep Erdoğan, Nigel Farage, Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump – get it. We cannot stop these pied pipers without first listening to their tune, and grasping its appeal.
In 1941, German-born Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt fled to New York from Vichy, France.. Twenty years later she arrived in Jerusalem to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann. In her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” she depicts the Nazi officer as a thoughtless groupie, a man who sought refuge from critical thinking by joining social groups whose clichés he mindlessly practiced. The Nazi party just happened to be the deadliest one.
A more accurate subtitle to Arendt’s treatise, and to her lifework, might have been “the evil of banality” (that is, of thoughtlessness), but she preferred the reverse, which was enough for many to level against her the accusation of blaming the Jewish victims. One such accuser was her friend Gershom Scholem, a scholar of Jewish mysticism. In his letter to Arendt, Scholem deplored her “heartless” tone and denounced her for lacking “Ahabath Israel: ‘Love of the Jewish people.’” Arendt replied: “You are quite right… I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective… I indeed love ‘ ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.” Scholem subsequently severed his relations with Arendt.
Arendt’s answer is a staple of late liberal thought. We should love people and loathe peoples. Collectives beget hate, not love, and love, we know, is what it’s all about. And so, as Aretha Franklin once said : “It’s not cool to be Negro or Jewish or Italian or anything else. It’s just cool to be alive, to be around. You don’t have to be black to have soul,” and Franklin knew a thing or two about soul. Still, though universal coolness might work poetically, can we have politics (or even just political philosophy) without particular identities?
Thus begins the liberal journey to square the circle. After using God as scaffolding to construct equal human rights, liberalism turned to imagine politicized people without “a people” and yet with groups in between. It’s almost as dim as it sounds. Just think of Hillary Clinton’s duo of slogans during the 2016 presidential campaign: the official “stronger together” and the popular “love trumps hate.” Who exactly will be “stronger” by being “together” remains opaque, lest it resonate explicitly with “America,” on whose behalf a claim for greatness seems like a fascist call for “hate” against all others — those who “love” people rather than peoples. Ultimately, for liberalism, it is in rational individuals, not the mindless collectives, that we should anchor our search for a healthy, wealthy, happy life.”
Abulof rightly opposes Arendt and Rousseau as the thinkers underlying the opposed camps of cosmopolitanism and collectivist nativism. Rousseau was a thinker of “the will of the people.” The search for a “General Will” is a search for that collective will which all the people in a nation must share; it is the rational truth, the necessary shared opinions and worldviews that unite a people. The problem Rousseau saw was that not every person would embrace the general will over his or her particular will. Which is why Rousseau famously concluded that freedom could only be secured when we forced the people to be free, when we coerced individuals to embrace the truth of the general will. Rousseau, for all his liberal dreams of protecting and legitimating individual freedom, imagined that true freedom could only exist in a collectivist fantasy united by either a lawgiver, a civil religion, or a demagogue.
Arendt recoiled at Rousseau’s collectivism, his justification of force as a means to ensure the free submission to a general will. But this does not mean, as Abulof writes, that Arendt turned to love to save us. While she valued love deeply, Arendt thought that love had no place in politics. Love erases the distance between people that respects their boundaries and their uniqueness. If politics is about unity, it is about a unity of people that preserves and respects their plurality.
Arendt also rejected the idea that freedom was founded upon free will, whether that will was collective or individual. To find freedom in the will is to equate freedom with self-control and thus with sovereignty, which means rule. Arendt rebelled against the traditional Christian and Western idea of freedom as sovereign rule. Instead, she argues that freedom is based in action—”to be free and to act are the same.” Since action is unpredictable and spontaneous, it evades all sovereign control. And since action is something that one only can do with and amongst others, action and freedom only emerge through acting in concert with others. Freedom is not found simply in the act of a sovereign individual; it comes to be when we act together with others.
Arendt surely saw that our modern politics was too fully influence by Rousseau’s collectivist and tribal political instincts. But she also saw that to oppose tribalism with a universal cosmopolitanism—to call for a world government or for a human tribe—was even more dangerous as long as we still imagine freedom as sovereignty.
Abulof ends his essay with a turn toward a kind of cosmopolitan universalism:
“But meaningful coexistence is not about toleration or about turning the other cheek; it is about looking deep into each other’s eyes, seeking interpersonal intimacy and intercommunal solidarity. Only by knowing the other can we transcend, if momentarily, the transient individuals that we are, and start living up to our humanity — making humanity our tribe.”
Arendt, however, was deeply suspicious of building a politics on “interpersonal intimacy and intercommunal solidarity,” on some universal ideas of what unites the human tribe. Politics, a human politics, is about plurality and difference. To establish one super-powerful sovereign to limit and bridle the various tribes risks having that super-sovereign dominate the world without opposition. A world government was, Arendt argues, even more dangerous because there would be no lesser governments to band together and oppose it.
Against Rousseau’s elevation of the sovereign and collective will of the nation as the solution to the problem of political unity, Arendt imagines a decentralized politics, a federalist politics, one in which many factions, many groups, and many institutions each pursue their own version of a meaningful life. Her politics does not set individualism against tribalism; Arendt seeks to empower constitutional and institutional traditions that allow tribalism and plurality to co-exist.
The modern version of tribalism has its root in the political claim of the “will of the people” that in turn has its origins with Rousseau. When the people appear in the streets and demand to rule as the people, they are rebelling against the hypocrisy of the elite. The people demand that we tear off the masks of those who falsely claim to rule in their interests. What drives the people is the claim of hypocrisy and the rage at corruption unveiled, the dawning realization that the powers that be have lied, cheated, and stolen. The problem with the drive to undo hypocrisy is that there is no one who doesn’t wear a mask. Which is why the political ambition to unmask hypocrisy so quickly can descend into terror and chaos, as happened in the French Revolution.
“When this force [hypocrisy] was let loose, when everybody had become convinced that only naked need and interest were without hypocrisy, the malheureux changed into the enragés, for rage is indeed the only form in which misfortune can become active. Thus, after hypocrisy had been unmasked and suffering been exposed, it was rage and not virtue that appeared—the “rage of corruption unveiled on one side, the rage of misfortune on the other.”