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.
A Better Way To Hear People
Jo Guldi argues that the Brexit vote and similar anti-elitist political movements need to be understood as more than simply a form of economic populism. While it is true that many Brexit and Trump voters are part of a working class milieu that has been excluded from the benefits of a global cosmopolitan society, these voters are motivated by more than economics. Guldi rightly sees that the rise of the anti-intellectual and anti-elite voting blocs is rooted in an ancient discord between the elites’ claim to justified mastery over the masses.
“Brexit in fact belongs to a centuries-old contest between expert rule and participatory democracy. In order to make sense of the possible directions that overall policies might turn, we need a longer history that puts into perspective the notion of an underclass exacting revenge against an elite. The story of that contest in Britain, stretching back to the eighteenth century, provides a corrective to both the enthusiasts and the cynics. It shows the deeply entrenched impediments to greater local control even within a national tradition at the same time that it furnishes models for new forms of participatory engagement.”
Teaching Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus this week, I was struck by the powerful sympathy the bard finds in his hero’s extraordinary elitism. He has contempt for the people. He refuses to flatter them, to say they deserve grain won in conquest, to even profess to love and value them. Yes, Coriolanus goes too far, he lacks discipline, and he does not understand that a statesman must moderate his extreme character. But his claim that the best should rule and the best should rule for the good of the commonwealth resonate in the tragedy. Should not those who sacrifice the most for the public good receive the largest shares? Coriolanus is a tragic hero for Shakespeare because that unfiltered claim for nobility is both recognized as a virtue and piteously taken too far.
The play is popular today because of the obvious parallels with present politics. Many see the rise of authoritarian figures like Donald Trump in Coriolanus. But actually, Trump is closer to a Sicinus and Brutus, the cynical and power hungry Tribunes of the people. Where the play reflects politics today is in the extremity of the positions taken by both sides, Coriolanus who refuses to respect the people and the people who react with blood in their eyes. What both sides forgot is that the side also is comprised of good people seeking the common good. This is a lesson that Thomas Jefferson knew well, as he wrote to Abigail Adams in 1804:
“Both of our political parties, at least the honest portion of them, agree conscientiously in the same object: the public good; but they differ essentially in what they deem the means of promoting that good. One side believes it best done by one composition of the governing powers, the other by a different one. One fears most the ignorance of the people; the other the selfishness of rulers independent of them. Which is right, time and experience will prove.”
What statesmanship and politics require is to understand that the other side – at least the honest portion of them – are also good people who simply disagree about the path to the good of the public. The other side is not simply a “basket of deplorables” or a bunch of effeminate elites. What Shakespeare teaches is that amidst the eternal political divisions of the elites and the masses, there is above a need to discipline our feelings and learn to see our political adversaries as also our political allies in a common struggle.
Guldi’s essay is insightful in reminding us that the revolt of the masses is not simply a call for better jobs, although it is surely that in part. It is also a call for respect and participation in the democratic practice of self-government. After fifty years of an extreme rise in elite governance and bureaucratized rule, large majorities of people in Europe and the United States are concluding that the global and cosmopolitan world is not one that values them. To respond that all they want is better jobs is to refuse to listen to what they are saying, all of which is made easier by the charge that they are racist and xenophobic.
It is easy to advocate democracy in the abstract. When the people actually seek to claim what they want is when democracy becomes challenging. The hard work is to truly listen to the so-called deplorables, to work with them, to seek to forge a common good that allows all sides to thrive in accord with their visions of the good. This happens best when there are multiple and active institutional means for the people to voice their opinion in public. But with the nationalization of power in the United States and the rise of multi-national governance in Europe, there are increasingly few such means. As the elites govern in bureaucratic castles, the danger is the rise of tribunes of the people who trumpet the most dangerous populist fantasies.
Guldi writes that the past offers a helpful path forward:
“A proliferation of new models for democratic participation thus appeared throughout the twentieth century, many linked to the rethinking of expert rule and bureaucracy itself. Patrick Geddes criticized the bureaucrat as well as the university-based book learning that formed a part of the professional economist’s education. Through the 1960s, student and worker movements protested for greater inclusion of their agendas into politics, and British radicals such as Colin Ward theorized what self-government on the local level might look like, drawing inspiration from worker-owned cooperatives and the self-built public housing schemes of Sweden. But only a limited number of these ideas actually received the state support necessary to see them replace an expert-run welfare state with a welfare state run by neighbors. The Mass Observation movement of wartime Britain used mass participation, rather than expert bureaucracy, as a model of anti-spy surveillance. From the 1980s forward, Britons experimented with participatory mapping as a means of performing regional planning where everyone could take part, but their results were mostly limited and trivial.
Brexit is a recrudescence of this ongoing struggle between experts and citizens—a showdown between the ideal of state and capitalism forged in the eighteenth century and ideas of participatory democracy articulated in the early nineteenth century, fought for in the twentieth century, and still unrealized at present.”