Arendt in Brief

Hannah Arendt was at once a political theorist, a cultural critic, a philosopher, and a figure embroiled in a love affair that marred her reputation throughout her life.  She adaptably moved through radically different circles, studying under and sleeping with Martin Heidegger, the notorious philosopher, as a young student in Germany, and eventually writing her thesis under the tutelage of Karl Jaspers with whom she never lost contact.  One of the only types who could escape from a German death camp, emerge a Zionist, but simultaneously eschew the usage of state power, consistently arguing that a non-coercive federalized council system, based in mutual recognition, was the only alternative to statehood, which she argued was an outdated institution from the 19th century.  Arendt switched between spending her life documenting the way evil manifested itself in the modern world, critiquing Marx, being a New York socialite who was friends with Mary McCarthy and Paul Goodman, staking herself out as the first female professor at Yale, and reinvigorating modern academic interest in the humanities. Arendt’s dynamic maneuvering as a person only but understates her dynamic and acute philosophical and political writings.

There are unlikely allies lurking in the annals of intellectual history who provide, perhaps by contrast, the framework by which we understand our own ideas.  Hannah Arendt provides an interesting grounding for understandings of anarchism, as she attempted to envision a justification for democracy outside of liberal and Marxist traditions with an eye to communitarian ethics and a strong disposition against metaphysics. What I want to provide here is a bibliography, so to speak, suggesting titles of hers that are particularly suited to the anarchist tradition.
In The Human Condition Arendt seeks to establish an understanding of the fundamental categories of human beings, which she outlines as labor, work, action and finally, wholly separate from these three, contemplation.  Tracing back notions of the human back to the Greeks, she seeks to understand man in light of the death of metaphysics, which Nietzsche and Heidegger had apparently hailed.  Fundamental to man, she claims, is the ability to be conditioned (created by his surroundings), but also the chance to be glorious and individual.  Her attempt to negotiate the boundaries of duty to the collective and the freedom of the individual ultimately resolves in the understanding of the freedom of the individual as emerging from those conditions of possibility provided by the collective.  This problem of “the individual vs. society” has been one of contention in anarchist thought, culminating in Bookchin’s scathing attack on lifestyle anarchism “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: an Unbridgeable Chasm.”  What Arendt seeks to demonstrate is that the chasm is largely a result of myopic, western, liberal goggles. Interestingly, Arendt and Bookchin largely cite the same sources to scaffold their arguments; that Bookchin cites Hans Jonas, a great friend of Arendt, as his main influence belies a certain tender connection between Arendt and anarchism that remains to be explored.

The most obvious text for anarchists to explore is Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in which Arendt seeks to demonstrate the common origin of Nazism and communism.  Central to both is a notion of
the end of history, a grand narrative to which people can be subjected.  Interestingly, anarchism has historically been entwined with Marxism from their beginning, excepting the teleological and statist
aspects of the ideology.  What we find in Arendt is a manual to that very dissection to understand the historical and political causes of those very movements against which, arguably, anarchism is most
pitted.  The Origins is central to any anti-authoritarian library.

Arguably her most reactionary text is On Revolution, in which she argues that the French revolution was a failure and the American Revolution a success. Her argument runs along the lines of what she perceives to be the goals and methods of both.  The French revolution was palliative and violent while the American Revolution was constitutional and honorable, she argues.  What she argues is that any revolution to feed the poor, if we are to speak in metaphors, is bound to fail—love is not the proper virtue to the public and political realm, courage is—but that this is not a discouragement of attempting to fix such problems.  She claims that revolutions necessarily need to be positive, they need to be attempting to establish political freedom for all involved and political freedom emerges from the condition of possibility of a populace that is well-fed and equal.  That is to say, while revolutions should not seek to feed the poor, people should seek to feed the poor in order to engage in a revolution.  Although quite a conservative argument, it provides an interesting context in which to situate the competing anarchist goals of autonomy, community, equality, freedom and so on.

A proper discourse on Arendt would require much more space.  Briefly, the other texts that are important are Eichmann in Jerusalem, one of the most acute analyses of evil and ethics in the last 100 years, and On Violence, my favorite of her works, in which she argues that power and violence are opposites.  Power comes from bottom-up solidarity and is legitimate, while violence comes from the top-down and is illegitimate.  Anarchists I would argue need to embrace power, not violence.



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