Sunday, May 1, 2011

Slightly Tempering a Love for Hannah

There is an Arendtian moment of sorts a-flutter. Hannah Arendt's work is extremely popular in political science, political theory, and rhetoric, to name just a few disciplines. The appeal of Arendt's work is obvious: she produces, as Bonnie Honig has noted, a theory of the political that claims to be able to produce a kind of political space that is made without the failures and violences that have attached to previously constructed political space (the concept of natality). This, combined with what some have called her notion of the "portable polis," the idea that people through acting and speaking together can constitute the political, have made her work, especially the The Human Condition, particularly salient. Her essay on "statelessness" in The Origins of Totalitarianism provides an insightful and key summary of the problem of compatibility between liberal regimes of rights and the nation state, work incredibly important for the work of thinkers like Giorgio Agamben. And On Revolution remains a key text for political thinkers interested in translation and comparative work between American and European politics.

So this blog post will signal something of a break, both with these wider trends, and with my own internal love for Arendt's work. I want to make one brief argument, utilizing mostly The Human Condition and On Revolution. My thesis is that Hannah Arendt at times cedes the space of the political to the market, and her work, while a stunning and soaring rebuke to the state-sanctioned totalitarianism of the 20th century, nevertheless should be approached with some caution as the locus of the kinds of power that generates violence today may be located more and more outside the strictly understood boundaries of sovereign state power.

I will make two warrants to sustain the claim. The first is taken from The Human Condition, where Arendt avers that politics occurs whenever speaking beings share space. The production of the political testifies to difference, and difference itself is the irrevocable mark of the fact of humanity's political existence, that there is something more, beyond the oikos of the Greeks. Arendt breaks from the darker side of the Frankfurt school (a H/T to Joan Faber McAlister on this point) by turning to her idea of natality as the key concept for how politics builds in the possibility of hope: what comes of politics is never reducible to the politics that has come before, so long as differentiated humans participate in the construction of the shared space. However, the driving force behind this is the desire for immortality, a hope that the works that one does might not be lost to history. There is then, somewhere, a tempered appreciation for the good of competition that lurks in Arend't work. This in and of itself does not invalidate her approach; one my invalidate capitalist arrangements and still believe that competition is good. But such a claim would require that competition results in the production of a better shared space, not one that is less diverse.

Second warrant: Arendt's account of the history of democracy, "the people," and republicanism in On Revolution (brilliant explicated by Andreas Kalyvas in a book called Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary that I greatly recommend) is a stunning account of how the system of American government produces the tools for citizens to understand themselves ironically with respect to the formulation of collective identity. Such humility would seem an utter necessity in the light of the state sponsored fascism of Nazi's, Stalinist's and others (Arendt herself a Jewish German). So Arend't love letter to the American founders comes as no surprise: the American system of government breaks up "the people," eradicating their momentum to become calcified in unreflexive cycles of self-congratulation that turn national identity from a contingent functionary into an essential or natural piece of identity that can then authorize violence. Such a function, however, strikes me as potentially problematic if we find ourselves contesting neoliberalism, which I understand to be a variant of capitalism wherein functions of the state once thought to be essential to its calling are now outsourced to private enterprise, and the space of politics (and the construction of a commons, in terms of humanity, the environment, etc.) is restricted more and more to politics in the sense of a negative liberty, one that authorizes the free exercise of reason by Lockean subjects and little else.

In this case, the tendency of government (and of republican institutions) to break up "the people" is more troubling: the typical response to neoliberal discourses and procedures is to erect a commons that testifies to the necessity of government intervention, and helps to make the case that some goods cannot be trusted to the private. However, in the Arendtian model, there are not only incentives to challenge the construction of a commons ("politics is everywhere"), but also few if any "common goods" can long be sustained as publicly held because the political context of America breaks up people's own relationships to collective identity. The welfare state, it seems, might founder on the inability for the articulation of a shared sustainable future.

A few possible rebuttals: one might note, with queer theorist Lee Edelman, that a common future is regularly constructed, and it just happens to be done more effectively by a right-situated set of political actors. One might easily rebut that the success of such discourses is found in part in their ability to segregate and disavow the republican tradition in America: by insisting repeatedly on the "wholeness" and "futurity" of the American family, space for an ironic or tempered relationship to the fantasies they advance is eradicated.

One might also object that Arendt herself in the mid-century declared that the great "Spirit of Revolution" that the Founders possessed had been lost, and that The Human Condition's final great missives against the mass society of consumerism and so forth indicate that Arendt herself was well aware that the problem of mass society was rooted in the production of utilitarian ends/means mechanisms of thought intimately familiar to capitalist logics. As far as it goes I think this is correct. But this does not respond to the charge: if The Human Condition understands utility calculations the proceed unthought as a problem, this only demonstrates that the potential for a reflexivity about what "needs" are under late capitalism is more urgent, and that the need for a shared commons is greater than ever.

There are a number of problems with engaging in rank populism: xenophobia, declines in the quality of social service, and other attendant dangers present themselves. Nevertheless, a common language of needs is a necessary language in a world where neoliberalism is on the march. And Arendt's brilliant success in providing normative support for projects that fragment and break up "the people," preventing their aggregation, are something of an obstacle. So take note, scholars: Arendt's responses to the problems of state-based violence may suffer a bit in translation where the market is an increasingly important source of violence today.

1 comment:

  1. Paul, thanks for making an initial contribution to the deflation of the speculative Arendt-bubble in political theory and comm. studies. The fact is Arendt is clueless when it comes to understanding the logic of social domination within capitalist societies, and I have similar deep reservations about her theoretical adequacy for the present historical conjuncture. We should grab a beer and discuss this more next time you're in Chicago.

    Hope the 'burgh treats you well!