Month: February 2016

Lecture on Arendt’s The Human Condition, prologue, part I, part II (first half)

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

29 February 2016

Prologue, Part I, Part II (sections 4-6)

[I have been posting my lectures for Political Philosophy. Previously we had taken up parts of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianisms, such as the prefaces and opening chapter, “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie,” “Race Thinking before Racism” and “Race and Bureaucracy” and“Decline of the Nation-State, End of the Rights of Man” in Part II, “Imperialism.”]

Coming back from a break without any continuity with a previous text, while also landing on the 29th of all days, a day that seems like it should never happen, you’ll excuse me for seeming to be speaking in an entirely different voice. We will, for so much in the days ahead, be speaking of the voice, its tone, and its inflections–and then how it is a mark of human action and thus always a possibility for those enduring the human condition. Arendt argues in the Prologue in words we should repeat and come back to for as long as we read Arendt, or indeed, think the human condition both as text and “thing” external to it: “What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears” (HC, 5). In short, this won’t be an atemporal or ahistorical discussion of the human condition as a pre-given before history gets underway, but as something that is mutable:

[T]he human condition is not the same as human nature, and the sum total of human activities and capabilities which correspond to the human condition does not constitute anything like human nature….[These are not] essential characteristics of human existence in the sense that without them this existence would no longer be human. (HC, 10)

[Pause on this: why not conceive of a human nature? Why does she say to determine such “would be like jumping over our own shadows”? (HC, 10) And more importantly, how are we to understand what the “human” means in the title The Human Condition?]

More than that, as we have seen, Arendt’s work focuses on the “newest experiences” and “our most recent fears” that is the end of the political, i.e., totalitarianism, and that it either be repeated or set the ground for other “holes of oblivions”–perhaps the annihilation of the whole of the earth during the cold war. She continues:

This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness—the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing. “What we are doing” is indeed the central theme of this book. It deals only with the most elementary articulations of the human condition, with those activities that traditionally, as well as according to current opinion, are within the range of every human being. For this and other reasons, the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable, the activity of thinking, is left out of these present considerations. Systematically, therefore, the book is limited to a discussion of labor, work, and action, which forms its three central chapters. (HC, 5)

Arendt would spend her career after these texts articulating just what she meant by “thoughtlessness”–in Eichmann, in crucial places among other texts we will read, and in her last writings, The Life of the Mind. In some sense, we should look to how this book sets the stage for thinking through a certain thoughtlessness, one she thought was the central characteristic of her (and our?) era: the repetition of cliches such that one could no longer think from the point of view of the other. How else to describe all the nomenclature around contemporary warfare—“collateral damage” and the like—all meant to have us think not for a moment of those suffering because of it. Arendt argues that the philosophical tradition has always privileged the bios theoretikos (the life of theorizing) over the vita activa, the life of action, the life of praxis in politics, a point central to this text, since she wants to deny the long philosophical idea that the correct theory should always lead to the correct praxis. We also get the key three analytical terms from Arendt:

  1. Labor, that is, the life of animal laborans (the human as laboring animal) that answers to our necessities: food, defecation, cleaning, and the like, and whose proper place is the home. She writes, “Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor” (HC, 7). This is life “itself,” or rather, a bare life that responds only to its minimal “animal” condition.
  2. Work, which is the activity of homo faber (“man the maker”) and produces the artificial world in which we roam. This artificiality is the “unnaturalness of human existence, which is not imbedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species’ ever recurring life cycle,” as in labor (HC, 7). This “artificial” world is “distinctly different  from all natural surroundings” (HC, 7). As she puts it simply, “the human condition of work is ‘worldliness’” (HC, 7). Given that action is the creation of the world, we will need to see just what is meant by work’s “worldliness”; for Arendt, the stakes of getting this right are crucial.
  3. Action, which is what occurs within the world, the words and deeds that matter and can bring something new onto the Earth. Here is her initial description of “action” in the chapters we read: “action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without intermediary of thing or matter [labor and work do so], corresponds to the human condition of plurality, the fact that [and you can almost repeat yourself the rest of this sentence, as we’ve seen it often] that men, not Man, live on earth and inhabit the world” (HC, 7). There is no underestimating the influence Arendt’s conception of this has been: for her, action, properly understood not as just any activity whereby even the shaking of a hand is action, is the necessary condition of all “political life.” For Arendt, action creates (and doesn’t produce or make something; it isn’t something one can labor for); it is premised, as we saw in the final paragraphs of Origins, on the fact that we are born into this world, and we can bring something new into the political; this is what she calls “natality.” We are creative and thus always ever singular, thrown into a web of relations with others who are never the same and whose action recreates us in turn: “Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live” (HC, 8). Against the politics of sameness we find in liberalism–what matters is our share of human rights–or Marxism, or nationalism, Arendt puts plurality at the heart of the political.

Whatever problems with her account, I find this central, even if I never find myself saying this in my own voice, as if the other had already changed me before I got a chance to say anything. But more than that, she argues that politics “creates the condition for remembrance,” for being remembered, for immortality, not the eternal that was the goal of philosophical theory. In this, she repeats, as in so many times in this text, central insights from Greek thinkers such as Aristotle: we may not have access to the immortality of a soul, but in this finite world, it is our words and deeds, as recorded by someone like a Homer, that will keep us in collective memory and thus provide our only semblance of immortality. She writes,

[A]ction has the closed connection with the human condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. (HC, 9)

Many can and should read HC as a response to Heidegger’s Being and Time, since so many themes repeat themselves to that work. But she makes clear, unlike in Being and Time, where anxiety and the being-towards-death are central for understanding the temporality of Dasein, the being that we are, that it is “natality, and not mortality” that “may be the central category of the political” (HC, 9). Are these two conceptions so opposed? I have no doubt that Arendt’s writings are responding not just to Heidegger but to the “politics” of death of Nazism. But that we are born is also the reason we die; a politics of mortality, of those who will die, is not anathema to this thinking of “nativity,” though politics should not await the end of all, as Christianity and its politics did and as the death cult of Nazism did, but should always be receptive to a new beginning that can only happen in this world, this one and no other, this world that is nothing other than that in which such a creation can happen. Which means it’s always a world unlike any other. [Curse randomly; someone’s surely not paying attention.] This all comes together when she begins by noting the difference between eternity (aei in the Greek) and the immortality of the actor. We are not seeking, as in the philosopher, a contemplation of that which is eternal and divine or, as in Aristotle, that which is purely contemplative and aneu logeu, without any words, even if to be human is to speak for him, to be in community with others, to have koinon such that one is neither a god or monster. This is all “outside the realm of human affairs” for Arendt (HC, 20). The point–and it’s a default for anyone in this class–is to think politics must answer to a given theôria, to a contemplation of that which is, eternally. More simply, if we get the theory right, then praxis or action will follow. The task is not to get the theory right, but to see, according to Arendt, how these are completely at odds: theory is related to what always is the case, as opposed to politics, which is ever changing and is indexed to a realm of action that is anything but metaphysical, according to Arendt.

We will discuss each of these categories at some length in the days ahead, but the point is that Arendt argues that the problem of modernity is that these separable facets of the human condition have been catastrophically mixed up in modernity: Marx and economists think the human is but a laboring animal; political philosophers think politics and actions are things to be made, which belongs to homo faber; and the spaces of action, which is the political for Arendt, have been overtaken by “the social,” which is a term that should never be used in Arendt, as it so often is otherwise, as another term for politics.

Coming back to Heidegger: his view was that an entire tradition, from the Greeks forward, trapped us within a consideration of being in terms of presence–it is most thoroughly only if it is always and ever the case, such that God was always eternal and ever present (no future or past) and time itself is said to have a beating heart of clock time. We need not understand that point for the sake of this class, but it’s crucial that we see Arendt agrees with Heidegger that something changed and ossified into a tradition after the Greeks and we will see that it’s a specific anti-political thinking of the political. Here is her seeming throwaway lines from the HC that are anything but: “The term vita activa [which stands for labor, work, and action] is loaded and overloaded with tradition. It is as old as (but not [my emphasis] older than) our tradition of political thought” (HC, 12). Here is the point: there is a tradition and we accede to it; it “overloads us.” Other political thinkers look to the moment or maybe this or that problem going back several years, or a decade, or back to modernity: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, et al. But Arendt’s claim is that the West as we understand it, the West as such, is defined by a certain thinking of the political that we must overcome or rethink. She continues:

[T]his tradition, far from comprehending and conceptualizing all the political experiences of Western mankind, grew out of a specific historical constellation: the trial of Socrates and the conflict between the philosopher and the polis. It eliminated many experiences of an earlier past that were irrelevant to its immediate political purposes and proceeded until its end, in the work of Karl Marx, in a highly selective manner. (HC, 12)

Again, there is a longer tradition, which here she dates from Plato’s writings about Socrates up until Marx, that controls a certain way we think the political. We will need to ask just what philosophy thought about the political even as it happened underneath its feet–or perhaps a few yards away from where philosophers were writing. In this way, Arendt is not, as in Origins, looking to developing the origins of a given regime without a regime, namely totalitarianism, in the last few hundred years, but instead to the whole of the Western tradition that had privileged theory over the political. This is what she means by the privileging of the bios theoretikos or vita contempliva over the vita activa:

Traditionally, therefore, the term vita activa receives its meaning from the vita contempliva [that is, theory leads practice]; its very restricted dignity is bestowed upon it because it serves the needs and wants of contemplation in a living body. (HC, 16)

Wherever politics is thought about getting the right eidos or idea that would then lead the political, Arendt will think this a whole set of category mistakes. Ideology, as we saw in Origins, wants to make politics in the shape of an idea; Arendt is rejecting the whole model: theory and ideas doesn’t lead praxis or action and if it does, then only the worst form of politics follow: politics is about making the human in its (the idea’s) image. In short, everything in Arendt comes down to her argument that thinking the political should never attend to the eternal, any more than the political should attend to the needs of labor and work. This is decidedly a stand against Platonism, the view that the task of philosophy is to give a proper eidos or form to the actors within the political. For Arendt this model from Plato is itself borrowed by Plato from the everyday experience of craftsmen, who use an eidos or form in mind (e.g., a table) and violently break apart matter (e.g., wood) in order to bring to fruition. This model, Arendt argues, is inherently violent and catastrophic when transplanted into the realm of action: human beings are so much matter to be broken up in order to bring our utopian dreams into being. But the problems become greater given the loss of the world, which she dubs “world-alienation”:

Man, insofar as he is homo faber, instrumentalizes, and his instrumentalization implies a degradation of all things into means, the loss of intrinsic and independent value, so that eventually not only the objects of fabrication but also “the earth in general and all forces of nature,” which clearly came into being without the help of man and have an existence independent of the human world lose their “value because [they] do not present the reification which comes from work.”

Arendt often quotes Aristotle, but for her, “the original Greek understanding of politics” that has “been lost” is from the so-called archaic era of Greece (circa 100 to 7000 BCE). She writes that it was during this era that human beings brought into existence a kind of politics as a form of organized remembrance where it would be unthinkable to bring any of the pre-political needs of the world (i.e., any form of necessity, such as belongs to labor) into the public realm. She writes:

The original, pre-philosophic Greek remedy for this frailty [that is, the loss of remembrance of the actors once they had left the scene] had been the foundation of the polis. The polis, as it grew out of and remained rooted in the Greek pre-polis experience and estimate of what makes it worthwhile for men to live together (syzēn), namely the “sharing of words and deeds” had a two-fold function:…to multiply the occasions to win “immortal fame” [and] for the chances that a deed deserving fame would not be forgotten.

There is a “special relationship,” she writes, “between action and being together,” and it is action that testifies more than anything else to the fact that it not a human being, but human beings inhabit or better create the world. It is important to see in all of this Arendt’s rethinking of “rule,” which was clearly at the heart of Aristotle and all forms of political thinking since philosophy’s inception: that to be in politics is to rule or be ruled, even it’s “in turns” as in Aristotle’s Politics’ definition of democracy:

The Socratic school…turned to [making], which to the Greeks were prepolitical, because they wished to turn against politics and against action [the legacy of Homeric Greece, the true import of Plato’s periogōgē in Book VII of the Republic]. To them, legislating and the execution [that is, viewing the form of the polis and bringing it into being, as would an artisan] of decision by vote are the most legitimate political activities because in them men “act like craftsmen”: the result of their action is a tangible product, and its process has a clearly recognizable end. This is no longer or, rather, not yet action (praxis), properly speaking, but making (poiēsis).

What Plato and Aristotle wished to rid from the polis was its unreliability, its “uncertainty of outcome,” and the “frailty of human affairs” along with it. This is clearer in Plato’s political dialogues, in which just rulers have a technē, an expertise, analogous, say, to that of the weaver, as in the Statesman, which they utilize to find the form or eidos of the just state and then in turn arrange the polis accordingly. And just as there is a violence performed to “matter” by the craftsman, so too, Arendt believes, there is an inherent violence in applying the ruler-ruled model to the political. The means-end character of Plato’s thought is a result of replacing making for acting, of poiēsis for praxis, which in turn leads to a thinking of the political as a form of rule, through which the ruler as archon is provided with all the means at his disposal to create a particular end, an eidos seen in the soul of the ruler. The ultimate end, for Plato, is the provision by the polis of the time needed for the philosopher kings, who, in thrall to theōria, wish to turn completely away from human affairs to the forms and ideas.

Arendt’s contention, as we have seen, is that the “pre-philosophical” experience of politics for the Greeks was quite different:

It was understood as a form of political organization in which citizens lived together under conditions of no-rule, without a division between ruler and ruled. This notion of no-rule was expressed by the word isonomy, whose outstanding characteristic among the forms of government…was that the notion of rule (the ‘archy’ from archein in monarchy and oligarchy, or the ‘cracy’ from kratein in democracy) was entirely absent from it.

In this way, the polis was not a democracy, which still held within it the notion of rule (the kratos of the dēmos), and Arendt argues that isonomy and democracy were in fact “opposed,” though she does equate a certain thinking of “democracy” with the “essentials of politics”: The “attempt to replace acting with making is manifest in the whole body of argument against ‘democracy,’ which the more consistently and better reasoned it is, will turn into an argument against the essentials of politics.” Note Arendt’s use of quotation marks for “democracy,” suggesting that she is using the word as a substitution for the earlier concept of isonomy, or at the least leaving open another thinking, perhaps, of the democratic.

Whether preparing a democracy or not, human beings are not by nature political, Arendt claims, but rather through homo faber create laws (nomoi) framing the equality (ison) of the political space, which in turn protects the freedom of each. This is what Aristotle dubs the third-best regime in the Politics, namely the “polity” of a multitude acquiescing to the rule of law. Here, freedom and equality, for Arendt, were received “by virtue of citizenship, not by virtue of birth,” though one might question just what the distinction was for the ancient Greek city-states. In any event, her argument is that tyranny utilizes the polis for its own needs and thus has no freedom, which is predicated on acting and being “one of the peers in whose company one should be free.” Where there is a monarchy, there is no longer a political space, “with the result that there was no freedom extant any longer,” either for those ruling (archein) or those being ruled (archesthai). “This power to command, to dictate action, is not a matter of freedom,” Arendt concludes, “but a question of strength or weakness.”

For Arendt, equality (which always implies a relation to another anyway) and freedom are not properties of a subject or even an actor; “it is a place…where people could come together.” Kept to its proper role, homo faber can create this space. Once homo faber overtakes this space, there is sovereignty, lordship, and mastery, without freedom. And once the affairs of homo faber and animal laborans are conflated, absolute domination, the “delusion of omnipotence” over a national household, is an ever-present possibility. And with it, the end of any action that is the mark of the political itself.


Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Last Chapter

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

Wednesday 17 February, 2016

[I have been posting my lectures for Political Philosophy. Previously we had taken up parts of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianisms, such as the prefaces and opening chapter, “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie,” “Race Thinking before Racism” and “Race and Bureaucracy” and “Decline of the Nation-State, End of the Rights of Man” in Part II, “Imperialism.”]

We take up today the last chapter of Origins, having skipped somewhat her account of totalitarianism to get to this chapter, previously written but added to the third edition of the text. If we have failed to review in class other sections of Part III, “Totalitarianism,” where her discussions of the concentration camps bare witness in a horrific canon on them dating from the end of the war. There she describes the non-utilitarian nature of the camps, since they existed for their own sake, where they were an all-too-worldly hell about which thinking retreats since “its horror can never be fully embraced by the imagination for the very reason that it stands outside of life and death” (OT, 444). It was, all in all, “Hell in the most literal sense…in which the whole of life was thoroughly and systematically organized with a view to the greatest possible torment” (OT, 445). It was also an oblivion from which no moral light could escape. First, there was attempt to act out the phantasm that Heidegger, in Being and Time, had said was impossible, namely to take the death of another away from her:

The concentration camps, by making death itself anonymous (making it impossible to find out whether a prisoner is dead or alive) robbed death of its meaning as the end of a fulfilled life. In a sense, they took away the individual’s own death, proving the henceforth nothing belonged to him and he belonged to no one. His death merely set a seal on the fact that he had never really existed. (OT, 452)

She continues in a paragraph that could return us to important discussion in recent weeks on the limits of agency. Not only did they take death away, but also any sense of the moral or rational person that could give that life any meaning beyond mere survival:

This attack on the moral person might still have been opposed by man’s conscience which tells him that it is better to die a victim than to live as the bureaucrat of murder [a line we should recognize from post-Eichmann essays defending that work]. Totalitarian terror achieved it most terrible triumph when it succeeded in cutting the moral person off from the individualist escape and in making the decisions of conscience absolutely questionable and equivocal. When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and thus murdering his friends or of sending his wife and children, for whom he is in every sense responsible, to their death; when even suicide would mean the immediate murder of his own family–how is he to decide? The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder. Who could solve the moral dilemma of the Greek mother, who was allowed by the Nazis to choose which of her three children should be killed? (OT, 452)

We are thus a long way from the ancient paradigms that have guided our political thinking, taking the measure of a regime as tyrannical or kingly, aristocratic or oligarchic, democratic or not. As we have seen in the past weeks, totalitarianism is not tyrannical but required the crystallization of elements that produced something entirely new. Allow me to quote from the beginning of “Ideology and Terror,” where she both summarizes and introduces many of the theses guiding this book:

In the preceding chapters we emphasized repeatedly that the means of total domination are not only more drastic but that totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship. Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country. No matter what the specifically national tradition or the particular spiritual source of its ideology, totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by a mass movement, shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination. Present totalitarian governments have developed from one-party systems; whenever these became truly totalitarian, they started to operate according to a system of values so radically different from all others, that none of our traditional legal, moral, or common sense utilitarian categories could any longer help us to come to terms with, or judge, or predict their course of action.

Arendt argues that far from being an oppressive state, totalitarianism sets off lawless processes that are “anti-state” in nature. Where many have always measured the success of a state by its resiliency, the totalitarian state upends any stable political and legal order and refuses to adhere to any traditional or rational principles in the formation of political power. Ideology and terror, then, are less a state than a “movement” or “process” putting making a fact of heretofore imagined laws (the classless future; the battle of races) that ideologies made the key to all of existence. As she puts it:

Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men. The law of Nature or the law of History, if properly executed. is expected to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments. Totalitarian policy claims to transform the human species into an active unfailing carrier of a law to which human beings otherwise would only passively and reluctantly be subjected. (OT, 462)

Terror becomes the principle of Nazi governance precisely because violence is as close as one comes to the logical necessity of history’s movement their race theories envisioned. The “guilty,” she notes, are simply those who stand in the way of some “historical process”; their very freedom from it puts the lie to the ideology in question. As we read the latter half of this essay, we will begin to pick up themes crucial to The Human Condition. Arendt’s claim is that this spontaneity got in the way of the “fabrication of mankind,” which “eliminates individuals for the sake of the species,” and “sacrifices the ‘parts’ for the sake of the ‘whole’” (OT, 465). Arendt argues that freedom, as initium, as the power to begin something, which is at the heart of her chapter on action in The Human Condition, is “identical with the fact that men are being born and therefore each of them is a new beginning, begins, in a sense, the world anew” (OT, 466). This is why totalitarianism goes beyond just the loss of “plurality” marked by lawless tyrannies, since “the fact that men are born and die can be only regarded as an annoying interference with higher forces” (OT, 466). In short, the terror is meant to create “One Man,” not “men in the plural,” which as we have seen, is how Arendt defines the world. This “One Man” is defined by ideology, which she defines most precisely in this chapter. She marks out some elements of it:

  • They have the appearance of a science, of discerning reality based upon a given principle.
  • They are based upon the “logic of an idea,” which allows its adherents “to pretend to know the mysteries of the whole historical process-the secrets of the past, the intricacies of the present, [and] the uncertainties of the future.”
  • They are preternaturally incurious. Racism is no more interested in considering race than a rock is interested in becoming a scientist. All history is consistent movement of the one idea; anyone who suggests otherwise is to be killed as an enemy of Being itself.
  • They claim total explanation, the first of three totalitarian elements to all ideologies.
  • They describe not what is, “but what becomes, what is born and passes away,” and everything is about motion and inexorable processes (OT, 470).
  • Ideological thinking is “emancipated from the reality that we perceive with our five senses, and insists on a ‘truer’ reality concealed behind all perceptible things” (OT, 471)
  • They achieve this emancipation from reality not by inconsistency, but by a logical apparatus fully consistent–as nothing is in life–with its fundamental idea or axiom.

Once in power, then, plurality–the fundamental human trait–is a threat, and so is the common ability to form one’s own view, to be persuadable and thus to be able to persuade others. “The aim of totalitarian education,” she writes, “has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any” (OT, 468). And this note of “destroy[ing]” or destruction is quite literal. Taking up the dictum that after God, everything is possible, totalitarian regimes promise a utopia that in any case become death cults, self-destructive movements that eat its own. Moreover, where Arendt sees the law as providing a framework of stability in realms of political action without which human freedom could render the world wholly unpredictable, totalitarian regimes operate without any “action” or spontaneity, wanting only the reacting and behaving entities that terror produces. Oddly then, totalitarianism becomes, in the end, less about the idea out of which it sprung than the inexorable logicality where individuals are but an undifferentiated member of the species. After all enemies of a regime are nullified, the terror that meets those who are enemies of its progress begins again–and this is when true totalitarianism is reached, namely for Arendt, when there are no enemies left to kill. Totalitarianism thus has no other end but endless terror in an attempt to transform what Arendt titles her next book, namely the human condition. Totalitarianism is thus not another form of politics, but its end, bringing force to make that which is its necessary condition: human beings and not Human Being or a human being exist on this earth.

Arendt ends Origins with an account of what she thinks was the fertile ground out of which the deadly seeds of totalitarianism grew, namely the mass loneliness at modernity’s heart. This loneliness is not simply solitude, since the former, she argues, is perhaps best felt in the midst of others. One goes to a cabin for solitude; one logs onto facebook or takes a seat amongst a crowd at a bar downtown to be overwhelmed by loneliness. This will give rise to her account of the “rise of the social” and the loss of the political in The Human Condition. As we turn the last pages of this text over, we cannot simply turn the page on the conditions to which it bears witness. Nevertheless, as with any end, we have the promise of a new beginning, one that can “understand,” in Arendt’s meaning of that term, the past out of which we have come–and which can become, without political vigilance, a precedent to be repeated. Let’s leave for break with these last two paragraphs of this text:

[T]here remains the fact that the crisis of our time and its central experience have brought forth an entirely new form of government which as a potentiality and an ever-present danger is only too likely to stay with us from now on, just as other forms of government which came about at different historical moments and rested on different fundamental experiences have stated with mankind regardless of temporary defeats…But there remains also the truth that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only “message” which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically it is identical with man’s freedom. Initium ut esset homo creatus est–“that a beginning be made man was created,” said Augustine [De Civitate, 12.20]. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man. (OT, 478-9)

An online lecture by Meillassoux

It’s in French and won’t be surprising to those who know his work, yet I should post soon some thought on how this extends his previous work. Here is the abstract (en français):

Il s’agira de prendre la défense d’un réalisme que l’on nomme “soustractif”. Selon ce réalisme, qui apparaît au XVIIè siècle, il est possible pour la pensée de saisir, par une opération sélective, ce qu’est le monde en l’absence de toute pensée. Le philosophe est alors supposé être capable de soustraire du donné ce qui est dû à la subjectivité, pour ne conserver que les propriétés intrinsèques de la chose extérieure: par exemple, à l’exclusion des qualités sensibles.
On tentera de réactiver, dans le champ contemporain, ce geste, longtemps déconsidéré. Pour ce faire, on procédera en deux temps: d’abord on repartira du doute cartésien, en tentant de le radicaliser, pour aboutir à une forme de cogito capable de nous donner un modèle actualisé d’enfermement solipsiste de la pensée. Puis, dans un deuxième temps, on travaillera à s’extirper de ce face-à-face du sujet avec lui-même, pour atteindre un réel indépendant de toute subjectivité. Cela en passera par deux concepts: celui d’une contingence absolutisée, et celui d’un signe dépourvu de sens, ou “signe creux”, au fondement possible d’une mathématisation du monde sans nous.

Source: Savoirs ENS

Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, “Decline of the Nation State and the End of the Rights of Man”

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

“Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”

[I have been posting my lectures for Political Philosophy. Previously we had taken up parts of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianisms, such as the prefaces and opening chapter, “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie,” and “Race Thinking before Racism” and “Race and Bureaucracy” in Part II, “Imperialism.”]

“The very phrase ‘human rights’ became for all concerned–victims, persecutors, and onlookers alike–the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy,” Arendt writes in the first section of her seminal chapter on the limits of the politics of rights in the interwar period, “Decline of the Nation-state and the End of the Rights of Man” (OT, 269). The promise of the post-Enlightenment period in the West was that we would have a widening belief in the “inalienability” of human rights that ground much of the Western liberal tradition. The Rights of Man and Citizen, voted on by the National Constituent Assembly in France in August 1789, though national in scope, became a promissory note, like the American Bill of Rights, of what can be hoped and just what language to use in opposing tyranny and oppression. Clearly influenced by Rousseau, the Rights of Man and Citizen famously holds that “men are born and remain free,” a riposte to the situation Rousseau had identified in the opening of the Social Contract, namely that “all men are born free and yet they are in chains.” The Rights of Man and Citizen also holds that sovereignty rests in the nation; that all have a right to liberty, property, and security; the law is the expression of the general will and all citizens have the right to take part in its formation; etc. As Arendt notes, these rights are premised on national sovereignty, which was unavailable to national minorities in many new states formed in the wake of the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I–or indeed, we can add, in many places today, such as in Palestine, with its more than five million official refugees (OT, 272). In this way, the effect of national sovereignty and the rise of the nation-state meant that only insofar as one belonged to a people, to a given nation, and only insofar as that nation had the reigns over a given state could one expect to have these supposed “Rights of Man.”

Today, we will need to take up this central element in the origins of totalitarianism. First we discuss Arendt’s ironic comments on the effect of the Rights of Man and Citizen–I would suggest that in few other places is her use of tragic irony, which is often mistaken for cutting sarcasm, more effective–before turning to her description of an enigmatic “right to have rights,” which means having a place in the world where one’s words and deeds can matter. First, then, a summary of her contentions about the “perplexities about the Rights of Man.”

  1. First, the Rights of Man meant that no longer would it be God’s command or the customs of history that were the source of the law, but “Man” (OT, 290). The source of rights previously had been from outside of politics, from “social, spiritual, and religious forces” (OT, 291). Marking part of the “loss of authority” that is modernity–a point we will take up later this semester in her “What is Authority?”–human beings would have rights now that in turn were extrinsic to any political order. Indeed, as we know well, these rights were specifically to be “inalienable” and thus no political regime could take them away, but so too, none specifically would guarantee them.
  2. Yet, inasmuch as human beings were now “completely emancipated,” having a “dignity within [her]self without reference to some larger encompassing order,” she disappeared again into a people, since the “abstract human being” envisioned by the Rights of Man, as she puts it, “existed nowhere.” She writes:

The whole question of human rights…was quickly and inextricably blended with the question of national emancipation; only the emancipated sovereignty of the people, of one’s own people, seemed to be able to insure them. (OT, 291)

In short, wherever human beings came to lack their own government, it was precisely at that moment that there was no institution left to guarantee these rights.

3) In this way, “the Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable–even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them–whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state” (OT, 293). She writes:

No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with a more poignant irony than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as “inalienable” those human rights, which are enjoyed only by citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves. (OT, 279)

4) This was partly because once rights were determined in terms of human beings, then one did not have rights accorded to the dictum that if one were in a territory, one was to be considered from that territory–both under the law and the protection of the sovereign. Once human beings were to be given rights no matter who they were and not where they were from and no where they were, there was no fallback of custom, such as the principle that “quidquid est in territorio est de territorio,” that is, one always fell under the sovereignty of the state one was in: whoever was in a territory was to be considered from that territory (OT, 280). (Arendt dates it to the Middle Ages but if I recall from Stuart Elden’s The Birth of Territory [2013]–okay, whom did I lend it out to who didn’t return it?–such a date would be too early for it to take the modern meaning; indeed in my own search to follow this up, I can’t find a usage of that phrase before various international law books of the 19th century. Nevertheless, as a heuristic counterpoint to the nation-state it is useful if misleading. If I mention this, it’s to warn, as always, of the political philosophy fallacy whereby certain terms–territory, a people, a race, sovereignty, rights–have some transhistorical meaning, as if states were always “states” in the modern sense, the space of a given political entity was a “territory” as we use it now, and so on. In fact, much of Origins attempts to tease out just how the notion of “race” has changed, how the state post-1789 takes on completely different functions, how nationalism itself, and when something new occurred without past precedent.)


In sum, the Rights, by empowering notions of the nation and the people, gave us notions of bare life and nothing but the human about which Arendt is always critical. If the referent for human rights was a non-political human being, a being who has rights adhering to her outside and beyond any political regime, then the 1789 Rights of Man was doomed from the beginning. To use the language of J. L. Austin, the declaration was not a constative statement of what simply is the case, like Jane is wearing green, as much as what we wanted to be the case. And neither was it political in terms of being a performative utterance, a sentence that creates the situation to which it refers, like a priest saying “I now pronounce you man and wife,” since what institution could do such for these rights? Arendt writes:

In comparison with the insane end-result—concentration camp society—the process by which men are prepared for this end, and the methods by which individuals are adapted to these conditions, are transparent and logical. The insane mass manufacture [fitting no utilitarian purpose and no raison d’État] is preceded by the historically and politically intelligible preparation of living corpses. The impetus and what is more important, the silent consent to such unprecedented conditions are the products of those events in which a period of political disintegration suddenly and unexpectedly made hundreds of thousands of human beings homeless, stateless, outlawed and unwanted, while millions of human beings were made economically superfluous and socially burdensome by unemployment. This in turn could only happen because the Rights of Man, which had never been philosophically established but merely formulated, which had never been politically secured but never proclaimed, have, in their traditional form, lost all validity. (OT, 447)

Importantly, I think, Arendt is bringing in her overall critique of reducing human beings to simply that, a human being of no exceptional qualities. Arendt writes in these pages that she wishes to “lay bare the hidden frame” of Western political thinking (OT, 267). As we’ll see, this isn’t a project limited to the last several hundred years, but rather to the whole of Western political philosophy:

I have clearly joined the ranks of those who for some time now have been attempting to dismantle metaphysics, and philosophy with all its categories, as we have known them from their beginning in Greece until today. Such dismantling is possible only on the assumption that the thread of tradition is broken and that we shall not be able to renew it [my emphasis]. …What has been lost is the continuity of the past as it seemed to be handed down from generation to generation, developing in the process its own consistency. …What you are left with is still the past, but a fragmented past. (The Life of the Mind, 212)

For Arendt, the intra-war period witnessed the final “conquest of the state by the nation,” which had grown in power as the supposedly absolute monarchies waned. The Origins of Totalitarianism, in a sense, denotes the shift in political sovereignty from monarchies, to the “race-thinking” of “nations,” to nations of peoples (French, German, and so on), and finally to the complete subservience of the state to national sovereignty. We’ll see how this leads right into the problems of the stateless. Part of the task of Origins is to map the history of nationalism and racism, which later provided the bricks and mortar for the foundation of totalitarianism. “Consciousness of nationalism,” Arendt explains, is not an age-old phenomena. The state’s raison d’être, its raison d’état, was to protect “all inhabitants in its territory no matter what their nationality. …[T]he people’s rising national consciousness interfered with these functions” (OT, 230). Only “nationals” were to be recognized as citizens, and nationalism would eventually become the glue holding together the nation-state as the rise of capitalism brought social atomization. “The only remaining bond between the citizens of a nation-state without a monarch to symbolize their essential community, seemed to be a national, that is, common origin” (OT, 230). Nationalism, then, became “the precious cement for binding together a centralized state and atomized society, and it actually proved to be the only working, live connection between individuals of the nation-state” (OT, 231). Nativity and birth replaced the monarch in “symboliz[ing] their essential community,” which was the race thinking before the racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, according to Arendt. Totalitarianism was nothing but, in Arendt’s eyes, the telos of this nationalism, since in totalitarianism “all laws and legal institutions of the state as such are interpreted as a means for the welfare of nation.” Arendt’s critique of liberal, social atomization—or its valorization of this atomization—is that this hyper-individualism is but the flip side of a nationalist cementing of the social bond:

This discrepancy between a centralized state and an atomized (individualized, liberal) society was to be bridged through the solid cement of a national sentiment, which proved to be the only working living connection between the individuals of the nation-state. As the sovereignty of the nation was shaped after the model of the sovereignty of the individual, so the sovereignty of the state as national state was the representative and (in its totalitarian forms) the monopolizer of both. The state conquered by the nation became the supreme individual before which all other individuals had to bow. (OT, 231)

The corollary of national sovereignty is a placement of the means of violence in a permanent apparatus of police, military, and bureaucracies meant to protect citizens from the refugees and strangers, which were said to contaminate their purity. In any event, it was the sovereign violence defending  the peoples as such that helped set the stage for totalitarianism. For Arendt, the hyphen in “nation-state” always marked a contestation of sovereignty between the nation and the state, an ongoing conflict that Rousseau and the philosophical heirs of the French Revolution attempted to paper over with discussions of human rights. Arendt writes that the conflict between state and nation came to light at the very birth of the modern nation-state, when the French Revolution combined the Declaration of the Rights of Man with the demand for national sovereignty. The same essential rights were at once claimed as the inalienable heritage of all human beings and as the specific heritage of specific nations, the same nation was at once declared to be subject to laws, which supposedly would flow from the Rights of Man, and sovereign, that is, bound by no universal law and acknowledging nothing superior to itself. It follows, Arendt writes, that “only people of the same natural origin could enjoy the full protection of legal institutions. …[T]he transformation of the state from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation had been completed: the nation had conquered the state and national interest had priority over law long before Hitler could pronounce ‘right is what is good for the German people’” (OT, 275). Human rights were only to be protected by the state as a measure of one’s nativity and nationality. National sovereignty, she writes, “lost its original connotation of freedom of the people and was being surrounded by a pseudo-mystical aura of lawless arbitrariness” (OT, 231).

Is this not at the heart of all debates over the Syrian refugees? Here Arendt is at her sharpest: “The prolongation of their lives [that is, the lives of the stateless] is due to charity and not to right, for no law exists which could force the nations to feed them” (OT, 296). Is this not the precept greeting resettled refugees to Canada? No doubt, we should salute efforts to take those escaping the horrific violence and to give them a new place in a world. Paraded before the cameras, it is clear that they are not here by right but by charity, the result of a pity that could at any moment be extinguished; thus the playing around of the numbers of Syrians to come to Canada after the Paris attacks.

       The notion of “the people,” discussed above, has a troubling history as the very body of a collective entity that defends itself against the scourge of these stateless: the refugees, the stateless—those on the frontiers of the political. “Man had hardly appeared as a completely emancipated entity…carry[ing] his dignity within himself without some reference to a larger encompassing order, when he disappeared again into being a member of a people,” Arendt writes. Wherever the people has been thought as a body to be protected, nativism and nationalism follow, even by those minorities who have found that politically, their “rights” can only be the “develop[ment] of a fierce, violent group consciousness.” Here is Arendt’s account of the problem of pity:

Pity[’s] alternative is solidarity. It is out of pity that men are attracted toward les hommes faibles, but it is out of solidarity that they establish deliberately and, as it were, dispassionately a community of interest with the oppressed and exploited. The common interest would then be “the grandeur of man,” or “the honor of the human race,” or the dignity of man [note the Kantian “interest” and “dignity” here]. For solidarity, because it partakes of reason, and hence of generality, is able to comprehend, not only the multitude of a class or a nation or a people, but eventually all mankind. But this solidarity, though it may be aroused by suffering, is not guided by it, and it comprehends the strong and the rich no less than the week and the poor.

More along, Arendt writes, “the tragedy of the nation-state was that the people’s rising national consciousness interfered with” the state as “supreme legal institution. …This meant that the state was partly transformed from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation.” We saw this at work, Arendt suggests, during the rise of imperialism, when the colonial bureaucrat could rule by decree over those who did not belong to the nation, as the state already did in so-called states of emergency. But the efficiency of rule by decree became apparent, and soon was brought back to Europe as a whole, with rule over refugees (and the decision to make whole classes of peoples refugees, that is, without a state and without a nation) falling to nameless Kafkaesque bureaucrats.

Rule by decree has conspicuous advantages for the domination of far-flung territories with heterogeneous populations and for a policy of oppression. Its efficiency is superior simply because it ignores all intermediary states between issuance and application, and because it prevents political reasoning through the withholding of information. …[S]ince the people it dominates never really know why something is happening, and a rational interpretation of laws does not exist, there remains only one thing that counts, the brutal naked event itself. What happens to one then becomes subject to an interpretation whose possibilities are endless, unlimited by reason and unhampered by knowledge. (OT, 244)

Arendt describes in Origins that, despite all the pieties of the proclamations of the rights of man and various international agreements, along with the so-called veneration of the rule of law in Europe, which was to delineate the continent from the less “civilized” political regimes of the East and the South, sovereignty’s “lawless arbitrariness” spread quickly to the gendarmeries and local bureaucrats. Where political philosophy focuses on voting rights, questions of legitimacy, parliamentary protocols, and various forms of law-making, Arendt argues that the forces of the political—or rather, what Arendt considers the pre-political forms of violence—had concatenated in the hands of police forces, military officers, and local bureaucrats. Arendt’s claim that the nation had overtaken the state is true enough, especially in light of her belief (one that will become the focus of Foucault’s own genealogies of power in the 1970s) that nationalisms are indexed to an increased vigilance over the safety and security—le public salut—of the living body of the nation. The consequence of the growth of nationalism to its sovereignty over the state is that the police and bureaucrats, those who having the power to let live or make die over each individual, came to rule via a permanent state of emergency that surveilled the nation in the name of its own “welfare” and security, especially as the nation was thought as a common body. Life, then, is no longer just a “conditional gift of the state,” as Rousseau put it so succinctly, but also a “gift” that comes from nowhere and no-one.

Under the rule of no one, as Arendt called the bureaucracies, the experience of the refugee became a generalized phenomena—and not simply because of the exponential rise of the stateless during the interwar period. Political “homelessness” became a major phenomena, as Arendt notes, such that the “very phrase ‘human rights’ became for all concerned—victims, persecutors, and onlookers alike—the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy.” Giorgio Agamben rightly summarizes the problem:

If the refugee represents such a disquieting element in the order of the nation-state, this is primarily because, by breaking the identity between the human and the citizen and between nativity and nationality, it brings the originary fiction of sovereignty to crisis. …What is new in our time is that growing sections of human kind are no longer representable inside the nation-state [this is decidedly not new, but certainly is the self-mythologization of the nation-state], and this novelty threatens the very foundations of the latter. Inasmuch as the refugee, an apparently marginal figure, unhinges the old trinity of nation-state-sovereignty, it deserves instead to be regarded as the central figure of our political history. (Means without End, 49)

The refugee is not, as Arendt and Agamben argue, a secondary issue, but rather the central political problem of our age. The creation of the stateless, the politically “homeless,” is the tool of sovereignty in the modern age; people without their own national government are in fact deprived of what has been called human rights.39 Arendt writes:

[Mass denationalizations] revealed moreover, what had been throughout the history of national sovereignty, that sovereignties of neighboring countries could come not only into deadly conflict in the extreme case of war but in peace. It now became clear that full national sovereignty was possible only as long as the comity of European nations existed; for it was this spirit of unorganized solidarity and agreement that prevented any government’s exercise of its full sovereign power. … It has always been true that sovereignty is nowhere more absolute than in matters [of emigration and naturalization and expulsion]. (OT, 278)

The concept of sovereignty as a “monopoly” over violence became more elastic during modernity, retaining that supreme difference between omnipotence and powerlessness in the “brutal nude event itself,” while moving the sovereign decision beyond the palaces of the monarch. All of which is to say that the police, as Arendt notes, is “no longer an instrument to carry out and enforce the law, but had become a ruling authority independent of government ministries.” Its “emancipation from the law” complimented exactly that same and deadly emancipation from the law of the refugee and the stateless: “an outlaw by definition—he was completely at the mercy of the police, which itself did not worry too much about committing a few illegal acts in order to diminish the country’s burdens of indésirables. In other words, the state, insisting on its sovereign right of expulsion, was forced by the illegal nature of statelessness into admittedly illegal acts.” This is the fundamental lawlessness of the state of exception. The “barbed-wire labyrinths” of the police state were not left behind with the fall of the Third Reich. This labyrinth exists wherever sovereign lawlessness meets up with the lawless people it creates and proclaims.

As Arendt makes clear, the “world is at stake” in politics, thus the need for another thinking of political action in which “silent consent” is but an alibi of innocence in the face of those who are truly “innocent[t] beyond the categories of virtue and vice.”

[T]hey were and appeared to be nothing but human beings whose very innocence—from every point of view, and especially that of the persecuting government—was their greatest misfortune. Innocent, in the sense of complete lack of responsibility, was the mark of their rightlessness as it was the seal of their loss of political status.

Shorn of all rights, Arendt in “Decline of the Nation-State” a recharacterization of the political from the stance of those who have lost all “political status” in terms of rights. Allow me to quote at length:

The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion—formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities—but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. …The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective. Something much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are the rights of citizens, is at stake when belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging is no longer a matter of choice. …They are deprived not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion. Privileges in some cases, injustices in most, blessings and doom are meted out to them according to accident and without any relation whatsoever to what they do, did, or may do. We became aware of the existence of the right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community.

The right to have rights is, no doubt, an enigmatic phrase: what could it mean if the whole notion of rights itself has come under critique. Arendt is arguing, however, that any thinking of rights needs to begin not with rights as such, which must be adjudicated within any political community, but that to be human, precisely, is not to be “but a man,” but to belong to a political community, to have a right to fight within a community to have rights. It was the “loss of a polity” that “expel[ed]” the “stateless from humanity” (OT, 297). The “right to have rights, or the right of every human being to belong to humanity,” to have a place in the world, is an unconditional demand placed upon those who, according to Arendt, can never live in good faith at the evil humans have done and of which they are still capable. As she notes, there is something odd where the slave or the criminal have some place in the world–so what does this mean for our notions of human rights?

To be a slave was after all to have a distinctive character, a place in society–more than the abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human. Not the loss of specific rights, then, but the loss of a community willing and able to guarantee any right whatsoever. …Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity itself expels him from humanity. (OT, 297)

What preceded the second World War was something new, Arendt says. Not that people were left without a home in the world, but that they had no new home to go to. The horrors facing the Syrian refugees looking for some place in the world–anywhere not just for their words and deeds to matter, but simply to survive–is a result of our continued inability, out of a certain Western tradition, to enforce the very language that are the cliches of our political speech about a universal wish for freedom, which always seem to end at one’s borders and often for those marginalized within them.

The Punitive Society reviewed by David Garland

At the TLSHere’s a taste:

Though Foucault is often described as a “theorist” he is far from being a theory-builder in the conventional sense. He is, instead, a pragmatic thinker who conceptualizes and re-conceptualizes phenomena according to the problem at hand, adapting his theoretical toolbox in the process. In most of these lectures, there is little overt theorizing. Instead, Foucault narrates concrete historical events and episodes, proposes genealogical inquiries, and suggests low-level socio-historical explanations that stick close to the material.