New Book from the Hannah Arendt Center

The Hannah Arendt Center’s latest book, The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis, is now shipping. We had forty advance copies at the conference last weekend and they all were sold. As the financial crisis lumbers into its fifth year, this book looks at the deeper cultural, philosophical and moral foundations for the crisis.

Here is a short excerpt from Roger Berkowitz’s Introduction:

When this crisis hit, I happened to be teaching Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Two of Arendt’s insights struck me as having particular relevance to our present situation. First, Arendt confronted a similar phenomenon in which the crisis of totalitarianism was being normalized. The world has long known dictators. Hitler and Stalin, so it was said, were proof positive of the continuity of human frailty. Against this view, Hannah Arendt argued that it was mistaken to understand totalitarianism as simply the latest form of tyranny. Indeed, one should not understand totalitarianism, for to understand it is to normalize it and to desensitize ourselves to the fact of its extraordinary evil.

Against the effort to understand, Arendt counsels comprehension. By comprehension, she means, “the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.” The factual reality of totalitarianism, as Arendt comprehended it, was that in our world today any and every evil is possible and can even be rationally justified by otherwise well-meaning people. What is needed, she argued, was that we face up to the fact that totalitarianism, genocide, and administrative massacres were now ever-present dangers in our times. Originally titled “The Burden of Our Times,” Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism seeks not to explain totalitarianism but to face up to its singular actuality. Arendt’s passion was, as she later wrote, “to think what we are doing.”

Crises offer particularly good opportunities to think what we are doing. A crisis “tears away façades and obliterates prejudices” and thus allows us “to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter.” When she discusses the crisis of education, Arendt affirms that the essence of education is natality—the fact that, born into a preexisting world, human beings must be educated both to fit into and also to remake that world. What we need to ask amid our contemporary crisis is: What is the essence of economics today that the crisis lays bare?

Surprisingly, since she is rarely cited as an authority on economic affairs, Arendt offers an original and thoughtful road map to think through the financial crisis, one that begins with the insight that the essence of economics is unlimited growth. In her telling, the seeds of the financial crisis are not in economics itself, but in the importation of economics into politics, or rather the dominance of infinite growth—an economic principle—in the realm of politics, where it does not belong.

Arendt develops her thesis about the dangerous subordination of politics to economics in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She argues that imperialism is the most important intellectual foundation of totalitarianism. At the root of imperialism is the transfer of the economic principle of unlimited growth to politics. Imperialism has its economic roots in the “realm of business speculation”—specifically the bursting of an investment bubble in the 1870s. As national entrepreneurs sought new markets, they enlisted state support for economic expansion. “Expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics is the central idea of imperialism.” The rise of imperialism, Arendt argues, means that politics becomes subservient to economics.

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

The book contains essays by Tracy Strong, Jerome Kohn, Antonia Grunenberg, David Callahan, Alex Bazelow, Sanjay Reddy, Hunter Lewis, Dimitri Papadimitriou, David Matias, Sophia Burress, Liah Greenfeld, Robyn Marasco, Olivia Custer, Miguel De Beistegui, Drucilla Cornell, Taun Toay, and Roger Berkowitz, as well as fascinating interviews with Paul Levy, Vincent Mai, and Raymondo Magliano Filho.