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To think what we are doing. Arendt at 107
Publication date: Nov 12, 2013 02:36 PM
Start: Nov 12, 2013 12:00 AM
In today’s paradoxical times of Occupy and voter apathy, of ‘big society’
versus the ‘fifth estate’, Hannah Arendt's work on political action is all but out of date.
Dr Uta Staiger
Last month, on 14 October 2013, Hannah Arendt would have celebrated her 107th birthday. Yet as one of the 20th century’s most original thinkers – she never endorsed the title of political philosopher – her work is all but out of date. It is proving, quite the contrary, a ‘continuing source of intellectual inspiration and provocation’ (Seyla Benhabib). Most known perhaps for her 1963 report on the Eichmann trial and its core concept, the “banality of evil” (at the heart of the recent film), most celebrated for her work on the Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she remains an unorthodox, idiosyncratic writer. One who liked to work beyond disciplinary traditions, without predetermined categories: “thinking without a banister”, as she once put it. And as such she has also, throughout her life and still today, received what British theorist Margaret Canovan politely termed “mixed press”.
What is it about Arendt’s work that manages to still attract spirited followers and detractors alike? To a great extent, I would argue, it is both the seeming straightforwardness and the bold ambition of what she proposes to achieve. As she states in The Human Condition (1958), this objective of hers is in fact “very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing”. Yet of course, far from simple this turns out to be. For Arendt, what we are doing – what human action actually, properly is – is already profoundly political. Indeed, true politics depends on it. Now, her definition of human ‘action’ is not altogether self-evident and we will revisit some of its implications below. At its heart however is Arendt’s conviction, growing out of her work on totalitarianism, that democratic politics depends crucially on our partaking in public affairs. Relinquishing this civic responsibility, leaving the tending of the public realm to others, is in turn the most fatal of political fallacies.
This may no longer sound exceedingly controversial to us. Yet in today’s paradoxical times of Occupy and voter apathy, of dwindling party affiliation and budding e-petitions, of ‘big society’ versus the ‘fifth estate’, few issues have more relevance. Not least so in and for the European Union, more embattled than ever when it comes to its democratic legitimacy and the political participation of its citizens – or rather, the lack thereof.
Arendt, characteristically perhaps, chose a rather contentious way to make her point. She not only sought to rethink the nature of modern democratic politics by taking recourse to pre-Socratic, 5th century BC Greece. But by so doing, she also questioned the very tradition of political philosophy since Plato’s Republic. Commending a form of politics that was amenable with rational oversight and instituted rule, most political philosophers had been averse, she claimed, to theorizing the potentially messy nature of debate among equals.
For Arendt, by contrast, at the heart of politics is precisely the “paradoxical plurality” of human beings, all equal and yet irreducibly different. It is what forces us to communicate, relate to and act toward each other. And to act, for Arendt, means that we ‘insert ourselves in the world’: through public speech and deeds we distinguish ourselves as human beings. By so doing, we also always set something into motion: we take an initiative, make a beginning. Acting for Arendt is therefore intimately related with the idea of human freedom. At the same time, acts only make sense if they are witnessed and replied to; they must always happen in relation to others. This, then, creates the public realm.
Obviously, action thus conceived is not be confused with the activities of “work” or “labour”, which Marx, for one, had elevated as the prime drivers of political change. Quite the contrary: Arendt found that their ascendancy in what she called the “rise of the social” – and the equation of politics with maintaining a “national household”, including all things administrative and economic – had not had a liberating but a detrimental effect. ‘Society’, Arendt claimed, has interposed itself between the private realm and the public arena of political affairs, thus ‘contaminating’ the latter with private interests, needs and utilities. For Arendt, however, the excellence and dignity of politics (her words) depend on it being entirely concerned with public affairs, and specifically the conditions that make public affairs possible in the first place.
This exceedingly pure vision of the public sphere as a regulative democratic ideal remains one of the most contentious aspects of her argument. In fact, with her dismissal of a politics focused on redressing social inequalities, Arendt very much resists a facile appropriation to modern-day causes, which has often been overlooked. However, her thought also contains the kernel of an idea, which could hardly be more relevant to us today. While she conceives of the public realm as the polis, it is not necessarily bound to an architectural or constitutional space, national or otherwise. Rather, it could potentially exist anywhere. It is a political organisation of people that arises directly out of “the sharing of words and deeds” – out of discourse, exchanges of view, persuasion and dissuasion. Action truly comes into its own as a response to others, whose response it provokes in turn: it needs a web of human relationships (Arendt’s term) within which it can unfold.
It would be going too far to say that Arendt foreshadowed social media, or the civil society movements they have helped foster. Indeed, much of their form and content would not have withstood the stringent criteria of what to Arendt’s mind true public debate was to be about. But perhaps precisely because of this, her work may still productively challenge the way we think about political action today. Between technocratic governance and electoral populism, what place for informed public debate? Have our traditional ways of channelling political participation – e.g. via party affiliation – run their course? Under which conditions can civic initiatives be said to be ‘political’? And what are the implications for our parliamentary democracies?
Despite drawing most of her examples from ancient Greece, Arendt did so in order to reconsider, in her own words, “the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears”. Indeed, even if we find some of her answers difficult to digest, the questions she posed are still topical today. Not least so in and for contemporary Europe, in which the question of what role citizens play in democratic politics has gained a new relevance – and where the subservience of politics to economic imperatives, which Arendt already lambasted in the 1950s, has acquired a wholly new dimension.
- Dr Uta Staiger, UCL European Institute