Why Read Hannah Arendt Now

Freedom — as Hannah Arendt understands it — is only possible in a participatory political life. Such a form of life, which cultivates individuality and spontaneity, can be contrasted with totalitarianism, which ultimately aims at the total domination of the individual.Our responsibility is to ensure our own freedom — that is, to ensure collective, participatory forms of political life under which such freedom is possible.

Richard J. Bernstein explores these and other of Arendt’s ideas with clarity and brevity in Why Read Hannah Arendt Now (Polity, 2018, 124 pp.). His focus is on central themes in her work that are relevant to issues we are facing today (8). Though he mentions international issues of importance, with the exception of the question of Israel, his contemporary focus is on life in America under the Trump administration. The topics he covers in Arendt include her views on refuges, states and statelessness, Israeli politics, race, the banality of evil, truth and lying in politics, the American revolution, and personal and political responsibility.

Arendt’s view of politics is normative. When she describes politics, as well as key concepts like “power” and “freedom,” she does not merely describe the way politics is understood to work in the real world or offer views of “power” or “freedom” that are generally accepted. She makes distinctions necessary to understand a political realm that we might strive for, freedom that we might hope to achieve and power the way it would be justly wielded. Her discussions of these issues — the premise of Bernstein’s book — are worth serious consideration in our present context, as they provide intellectual tools for countering tendencies toward authoritarianism that we can see emerging in various places throughout the world.

While humans have free-will, Arendt does not identify this with freedom. Human freedom, which she characterizes as “public freedom,” is a social and political achievement. It requires the development of human freedom of thought and individuality. An expression of human free will is the ability to form one’s own judgments and develop one’s own opinions and perspectives. It is the making up one’s own minds in the public sphere that characterizes public freedom that she thinks we are to strive for. Arendt’s focus in her discussion of the public sphere is on how perspectives are formed under conditions of dialogue and exchange. While this was part of life in the ancient Athenian polis, it was also an emphasis and achievement of the eighteenth century philosophes, who exchanged views in salons. It is in the give and take with others that individuals achieve better judgment. Judgment, she emphasizes in a text that sounds more than a bit like Habermas’ later thought, “rests on potential agreement with others…and the thinking process…finds itself always and primarily, even when I am quite alone in making up my mind, in an anticipated communication with others with whom I know I must finally come to agreement” (101-02).

Arendt’s writing on the American revolution drives home her view of the importance of the public sphere. The American, as opposed to the French, Revolution delivered not just on “liberty” (as Arendt defines this, the ending of their own domination by a political authority). The American Revolution also delivered on “freedom” — and for Arendt this entails “constitution-making.” The context of the American revolution, where the colonies had already been much involved in the daily tasks of self-government created conditions for a successful revolution: “the fight for independence … was the condition for freedom, and the constitution of the new states” (qtd. 106).

But the independence was not enough to guarantee freedom. In the constitution, the Founding Fathers set up conditions for continued self-government that makes freedom possible. Among the important conditions for this were of course the balance of powers, states rights, and limited government. But also key was the creation of public spaces for public discussion, for opinion formation (107). Jefferson, she highlights, had even set up local wards or “elementary republics” for self-government. His fear was that without them, in Bernstein’s words, “public freedom would wither away” (109).

In various of Arendt’s works, she emphasizes the importance of such local wards — in contexts as varying as the American Revolution and modern political uprisings. In writing on the Budapest uprising of 1956, she noted their emergence, even in a short period: “The neighborhood councils emerged from sheer living together and grew into country and other territorial councils, evolutionary councils grew out of fighting together; councils of writers and artists, one is tempted to think, were born in cafes, students’ and youths’ councils at the university, military councils in the army, councils of civil servants in ministeries, workers’ councils in factories, and so on. The formation of a council in each disparate group turned a merely haphazard togetherness into a political institution” (qtd. 113-4).

In Arendt’s view such community building impulses, while again and again being forgotten, can re-emerge. They provide one of the best hopes against the totalitarian temptations, which also remain present in modern societies. In Bernstein’s words: “Arendt expresses what was always fundamental to her and should be fundamental for us — the desire of people to have their voices heard in public, to become genuine participants in shaping their political life” (115).

One of Arendt’s most famous works, On Totalitarianism, offers a penetrating analysis of the emergence of political forms that run antithetical to the participatory forms that Arendt thinks provide our opportunity for realizing human freedom. Totalitarian regimes move to destroy freedom and institute “total domination.”  “The logic of total domination” characteristic of such totalitarian regimes involves three steps. First, totalitarians eliminate judicial protections of the person, stripping people of their legal rights. Second, they move to impinge even on moral acts of conscience. This can happen, for example, when individuals are forced to choose between various morally objectionable choices. As Arendt noted “When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and thus murdering his friends or sending his wife and children…to their death…The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder” (qtd. 30). Third, they move toward the destruction of individuality. In Arendt’s words “For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis of reactions to environment and  events” (31). Arendt views the final aim of such totalitarian regimes as the transformation of human being into “living corpses” (31). Individuals no longer express their own lives and make decisions for themselves. They are totally dominated.

In Arendt’s discussion of totalitarianism and in other work, she also makes important points about refugees and the denial even of “the right to have rights.”  Arendt is perhaps most famous for her comments on the banality of evil in her evaluation of the Eichmann case. Her main point, whatever one’s assessment of how appropriate her analysis was for Eichmann himself, is that the great evils of the Third Reich, monstrous as they were, did not generally occur because the people carrying out these deeds were monstrous. Though we may want to think of evil in mythological terms, Arendt suggests that we rethink this. As she noted in a later assessment of the Eichmann trial: “However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think” (qtd. 63). The evil of totalitarianism in the Third Reich occurred as people moved on with their normal everyday lives, following orders and climbing career ladders with a lack of much concern for those around them.

Some of Arendt’s deepest insights concern truth, lying, manipulation and self-deception in totalitarian regimes. Though there may be new elements to our “post-truth” culture, totalitarian regimes had long ago mastered propaganda that played on a willingness of people to suspend disbelief. In Between Past and Future, Arendt had noted: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and truth defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearing in the real world — and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end — is being destroyed” (qtd. 75). In other work she notes similarly important points about the erosion of truth in totalitarian societies: “What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part” (qtd. 77). In Bernstein’s prescient discussion of her views: “People who feel that they have been neglected and forgotten yearn for a narrative that will make sense of the anxiety and the misery they are experiencing — one that promises redemption from their troubles. In such a situation, an authoritarian leader can exploit the anxieties that people are experiencing and successfully blur the distinction between lies and reality. Argument and appeal to facts are not really important for such propaganda. An appealing fictional story can be foolproof against factual truth, reality, or argument” (77)

The use of appealing fiction for purposes of manipulation occurs in what Arendt calls “image making.” In image making, facts are dismissed that do not line up with the cultivated image of a political movement. As Bernstein notes, “the image becomes a substitute for reality” (77). Clearly those with despotic tendencies can play on that, encouraging individuals to dismiss as “fake news” or as a conspiracy from elites anything that conflicts with a cultivated political image. Arendt’s words on this are still pertinent. “Contemporary history,” she notes, “is full of instance in which tellers of factual truth were felt to be more dangerous, and even more hostile than the real opponents” (qtd. 79). On the same topic, she notes “Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing than reason, than reality, because the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear” (qtd. 80).

Such incredibly insightful observations on truth and lies in politics are just some of the many ideas of relevance to us today that Bernstein highlights. Bernstein succinctly presents Arendt’s views on these varying issues. And he makes appropriate bridges to present policies and dynamics in U.S. and international relations. If the book has a flaw it is that the various ideas are not presented systemically. Some might also regret what the book doesn’t do. It doesn’t speak of Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger, for example. But none of that is precisely the point of this publication. In the main, the book does very well what it sets out to do, which is to describe why we should read Hannah Arendt now.

We will benefit indeed from taking earnestly Arendt’s warning that “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up wherever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social and economic misery in a manner worth of man” (qtd. 34).

Faced with a world in which such temptations are attractive to many, our best antidote may be to cultivate the forms of participatory democratic form that Arendt argues can allow the development of greater human freedom. Arendt — skeptical as she was of narratives of inevitable progress or inevitable decline — would emphasize that our freedom is key, as is our understanding of responsibility.







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