Hannah Arendt’s Politics of Possibility

Miracle Workers
Hannah Arendt in 1944 (DPA Picture Alliance / Alamy Stock Photo)

When Hannah Arendt accepted the Emerson-Thoreau Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April 1969, she used the occasion to reflect upon the contributions of one of its namesakes. Because Arendt did not step foot in America until she arrived as a stateless refugee in her mid-thirties, her early exposure to its culture was limited. As a student in pre-war Germany, Emerson was one of the few American authors she read closely. Arendt praised Emerson for being a humanist rather than a philosopher, a serene thinker who “wrote essays rather than systems.” As with the other (rare) occasions in which Arendt dispensed unqualified praise, there was an unspoken subtext of deep personal identification. This is apparent in her conclusion, a long quotation from Emerson describing what for Arendt remained the essence of the humanities:

For though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been at once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.

Arendt’s project was to recover the original poetry of the words that structure our world, and her devotion to it is responsible for the irresistible force of her prose, which is precise but never clinical, passionate but always lucid. Her writing, so often itself rooted in etymology, is suffused with wonder at the multitudes contained in individual words, the pictures they paint and the worlds they conjure.

The grand challenge that Arendt gave herself was the retrieval of the words most associated with politics—and therefore the words most ravaged through centuries of overuse and distortion. Thus we find a constellation of everyday terms turned over like stone artifacts again and again in her work: freedom, action, revolution, and politics itself. Recovering the vitality of these terms—something Arendt would never have claimed to have definitively achieved—would be an uphill climb, she argued, because Western philosophy since Plato had shunned the active, collective life of humankind that these words referred to, and instead concerned itself with the interior life of man. (This is why Arendt rejected the label “philosopher” for herself, too.) But Arendt felt that she could not truly understand the world she actually lived in—and the calamities she lived through—without taking a different course: interrogating the perils and promise of the vita activa.

 

Arendt has been welcomed to the #Resistance primarily as a prophetic psychotherapist, one who foretold the pathological appeal of Trumpism to the masses.

Half a century after Arendt paid homage to Emerson, her work has experienced a sudden rise in popularity and prominence—thanks mostly to the parallel rise of the most demagogic American president in at least a hundred years. Nationwide demand for her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), surged after the 2016 election; even Amazon ran out of copies. “A dead WWII-era philosopher understands Donald Trump better than anyone on CNN,” declared the politics website Splinter. “She Called Out Trump’s Lies Decades Ago,” announced the Daily Beast. “Hannah Arendt’s philosophy can teach us about Trump, Brexit, and the dangers of isolation,” echoed Vox. New York Times op-ed columnists Roger Cohen, Thomas B. Edsall, and Michelle Goldberg all cited Origins in columns published during Donald Trump’s first year in office.

What has interested journalists most about Trump is his lies, and Origins does indeed contain insights into the role of lies in totalitarian movements. “What convinces masses are not facts,” Arendt writes, “but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.” The application of this insight to contemporary American politics is obvious. Trump’s rhetoric has substantial appeal precisely because it subordinates truth to a closed but consistent ideological system. These sorts of systems are so resilient, Arendt argued, because they appeal to both gullibility and cynicism, conditioning people to “believe everything and nothing, to think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” These are the conditions that allow a leader like Trump never to have to account for his lies. The Origins of Totalitarianism is therefore a prescient corrective to naïve claims that appeals to facts and truth can combat Trumpism.

Arendt has thus been welcomed to the #Resistance primarily as a prophetic psychotherapist, one who foretold the pathological appeal of Trumpism to the masses. It’s likely that nothing would have pleased her less. Her account of the way totalitarian movements engulfed mid-century Europe was never meant to be merely descriptive. By examining how societies had become so debased that they fell prey to movements that treated every individual as utterly expendable, Arendt was taking the first steps toward articulating and recovering a positive vision of the kind of politics that might redeem those societies. In other words, her perennially popular descriptive views of the great crimes of the twentieth century (outlined most famously in Origins and Eichmann in Jerusalem) cannot responsibly be severed from her prescriptive views about the proper flourishing of politics.

Those views are expounded at length in The Human Condition (1958) and On Revolution (1963), but an anthology published last year, Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953–1975, provides readers with an opportunity to trace the post-Origins development of Arendt’s thought in a single volume. The essays and lectures it collects—many of them available to the general public for the first time—provide an accessible point of entry into nearly every aspect of Arendt’s political theory. The thesis of each one of her major published works (and some unpublished, like her book on Marx) is distilled into one or more provocative lectures that she delivered during the last two decades of her life. Book reviews, letters, and interviews provide insight into her preoccupations at specific points in time, and comments on current events (including the 1960 election, the assassination of JFK, and the Vietnam War) provide some insight into the applicability of her thought to specific contemporary problems, something she was reluctant to do in her books. That the collection is titled and marketed as if it were some sort of intellectual self-help book belies the almost exclusively political concerns that Arendt addresses in it.

Just as it’s a shame that the “banality of evil” thesis has long been taken as Arendt’s primary insight into the Holocaust (Origins itself contains dozens of different and equally acute insights on that subject), it will be a shame if Arendt’s understanding of lies and the appeal of closed ideological systems is all the professional anti-Trumpists learn from her work. Yet there are compelling reasons that many thinkers ignore Arendt’s more prescriptive ideas about politics—chiefly, that they can come off as (1) inscrutable, and (2) retrograde. Her refusal to provide concrete examples or definitions of the terms she valorizes—“politics,” “action,” and “freedom” among them—is responsible for this inscrutability, and her seeming enthusiasm for legitimately retrograde historical episodes, chiefly the Athenian polis, is largely responsible for the sense that her thought is, well, retrograde.

These are not small problems, and Thinking Without a Banister does not and cannot “solve” them. What it does, and does with relative economy, however, is show Arendt working through these problems herself over the course of her final two decades. Those of us who agree that Arendt’s thought does provide a compelling diagnosis of our times would do well to consider how the politics she advocated might offer a constructive alternative to Trumpism and contribute to our collective flourishing. Otherwise, our “resistance” is no more than a futile flailing within a historical current we feel we cannot alter. Arendt believed, in spite of all the traumas of the twentieth century, that it was still possible to chart a new course for our destiny.

 

As a reading public that is becoming quite adept at confronting Arendt’s despairs, we would do well to confront also her hopes.

Thinking Without a Banister begins in the immediate aftermath of the career-defining success of The Origins of Totalitarianism. It contains a series of writings and lectures delivered between 1953 and 1960 that bridge the seeming pessimism of the book that made her name with the humanistic optimism of The Human Condition and On Revolution. Indeed, no sooner had Arendt published Origins than she found herself uncomfortable with its reception. In an introduction to the 1958 revised edition of that book, collected in the new anthology, she clarifies that she did not intend for Origins to be read as a conventional history in which certain episodes and trends from the past seamlessly “caused” the outcome in question. Rather, the “origins” she identified—namely, organized anti-Semitism and imperialism—were grotesque responses to fundamental dilemmas faced by European nation-states: among them, how to reconcile diverse peoples to mass societies, and where to channel the surplus populations created by economic upheavals. The genocidal and imperialist responses to these dilemmas were actively integrated into totalitarian ideologies and state strategies, and the results were Nazism and Stalinism.

Nevertheless, the dilemmas themselves were real, and Arendt insisted that they could have been (and could still be) resolved otherwise. So she announces that she has added a chapter about the “amazing reemergence of the council system during the Hungarian Revolution,” which broke out two years earlier (and three years after the publication of Origins), as a kind of countervision to totalitarianism. While totalitarianism may express “the inherent tendencies of a mass society,” the organic establishment of deliberative citizens’ councils—which Arendt saw emerging, however briefly, at some point during the course of every modern revolution—opposes those tendencies, appearing as the perennial “result of the wishes of the people.”

In that added chapter, Arendt recounts how an unremarkable student demonstration in 1956 “spontaneously” metastasized and gathered strength, toppling a statue of Stalin in central Budapest. As demonstrations continued the following day, factory workers and the greater part of the national army walked off the job to join the growing crowd. Soon, the Soviet apparatchik government had lost control of the entire country. What was most remarkable for Arendt was the way the people who took power promptly organized themselves into deliberative public bodies. “Wherever people were together in whatever kind of public space they formed councils,” Arendt notices: councils of army members, councils of factory workers, councils to address political and economic matters. Crucially, she claims, questions about ideology and power played no role in their deliberations. The primary question they addressed, she observed, “was how to stabilize a freedom that was already an accomplished fact.”

For Arendt, the root of freedom and therefore politics is just this kind of spontaneity, the ability of any person or group of people to initiate an unforeseen or unexpected event. How to promote and sustain this freedom is one of the slipperiest questions in Arendt’s work. But even though the Hungarian Revolution was quickly crushed by the Soviet behemoth, in the five years that followed Arendt only became more convinced that this “fact” of freedom could not be stamped out from the human condition entirely. In a 1960 lecture called “Freedom and Politics,” she explained why. “If one is serious about the abolition of political freedom,” she declares, “it is not sufficient to prohibit what we generally understand by political rights…. One must take possession of even those areas we are accustomed to regard as outside the realm of politics, precisely because they, too, contain a political element.” One recalls here Václav Havel’s account of the grocer who one day simply removes the state party’s slogan from his shop window, and in doing so exposes the nakedness of the regime to his neighbors. As long as necessity and coercion do not exercise complete and all-consuming rule over one’s life, this kind of spontaneity, and therefore freedom, is always possible.

This account of freedom corresponds to something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; at the base of the hierarchy are subordinate, lesser freedoms—freedom from want, freedom from coercion—that must be satisfied for the best and highest form of freedom to flourish. The pinnacle is public freedom, in which individuals can fully exercise their capacity for spontaneity in full view and appreciation of their peers and equals. Arendt believed that something called politics could only correspond to the full exercise of this highest freedom, the only kind that could mean “more than not being forced.”

Arendt believed that this loss of a higher, positive vision of political freedom was the result of a Western philosophical tradition that disdained politics in favor of contemplation, one concerned, as Arendt would put it, with man and not with men. For the pre-Platonic Greeks, however, politics was an end in itself: the participation in shared enterprises with their peers, the expression of their full humanity in word and deed. In a 1953 lecture at Princeton, Arendt called this a “unique, outstanding way of life, of being-together, in which the truly human capacities of man, as distinguished from his mere animal characteristics, could show and prove themselves.” Even though Western philosophy utterly abandoned this conception, in Arendt’s view, it could not excise it from language. Therefore, it could not excise it from thought: “To the historical belongs what is really an astounding fact...that in all European languages we use a word for politics in which its origin, the Greek polis, can still be heard.”

This is one reason Arendt believed there was still hope to restore the ethos of the polis in modern times. But we need not exalt the ancient Greek polis and its attendant injustices to recover the virtues that Arendt felt it promoted. For Arendt, the essential question of modernity was how to reconcile universal equality with freedom. The challenge was that freedom had historically relied on inequality—some toiling in perpetuity so that others could be free. (It was women, children, and slaves who took care of this for the Athenians.)

Because of their opposing approaches to the question of reconciling freedom and equality, Arendt felt that the American Revolution was a qualified success and the French Revolution an unqualified failure. In the latter, the question of material equality, freedom from want, was so acute that higher freedoms could not be pursued at all. In the former, however, the absence of a destitute peasant class and the assumption that the colonies’ slave population was not fully human meant that raw questions of want simply were not visible to the revolution’s participants, allowing them to focus on higher ends. (In other words, even if Arendt felt that the American Revolution was a success in terms of promoting freedom for some, it was not one that she felt could or should be replicated.)

We are left, then, with no historical “model” for how to recover Arendt’s politics for our present moment. The Hungarian Revolution might have suited—Arendt pointed out that Communism had largely solved the “freedom from want” question—had it not been crushed from without. But the search for models, for one-to-one correspondences, is not in keeping with Arendt’s intellectual spirit. Like Emerson, she wrote “essays rather than systems.” Therefore, it’s perhaps best to look in her work not for models but for metaphors.

The gospels in Arendt’s reading contain “an extraordinary understanding of freedom” in their discussion of the miracles of Christ.

Arendt ends “Freedom and Politics” with a metaphor that is, for her, from the unlikeliest of sources. For Arendt, the Christian tradition writ large was antipolitical in much the same way that Platonism was: it advised the withdrawal from worldly affairs and the passive acceptance of truth as revelation from God. It was another form of the vita contemplativa. Arendt felt that this emphasis originated with Paul and has dominated ever since. (The only meaningful departure, in her view, is Augustine’s City of God.) However, she says, “I am convinced that this impression would change considerably if we were to look more intently at Jesus of Nazareth—the man and his teachings.”

The gospels in Arendt’s reading contain “an extraordinary understanding of freedom” in their discussion of the miracles of Christ. This is because, for Arendt, “freedom” in its highest form was the ability to act deliberately and spontaneously, to break out of the automatic processes of daily life and initiate new and unforeseen events in the world. Miracles, actions that actually defy nature, capture the essence of this. “All miracles interrupt some natural series of events or automatic processes in whose context they constitute the entirely unexpected,” Arendt says.

Of course, Arendt is not arguing that we can utterly defy the natural world. She was a realist in the sense that she believed that material and bodily imperatives would very often take precedence over loftier goals. What she was arguing against, however, was any sense of fatality in the face of historical, social, and political developments. We may not be able to walk on water, but we can, under the right circumstances, initiate the “entirely unexpected,” resisting the inertia that dictates the course of humankind’s collective life.

If the analogy between Christ’s miracles and something like the Hungarian Revolution sounds grandiose or far-fetched, Arendt asks us to consider the frequent human triumph over daunting probabilities. For the cynics in the audience, Arendt posed the question: We accept the defiance of extreme probabilities in the history of the natural world, so why shouldn’t we accept and even expect it in the course of human events? In other words, if raw nature can triumph over extreme probability—as it did with the formation of the earth and the evolution of humankind—then surely so can we. We feel comfortable speaking of these events as “miracles of nature,” so why not speak of the human achievement of the utterly improbable as a miracle as well? A cursory glance at human history, in which seemingly inexorable social processes are frequently punctured by individual and collective initiative, testifies to this human ability to triumph over probability.

If these “miracles” are so commonplace that they don’t seem miraculous at all, then Arendt argues this is because there is one difference between natural “miracles” and those brought about by humans: the latter are the result of initiative, of agency, of will. “In the latter case there is a miracle worker, which is to say that humans appear to have a highly mysterious gift for making miracles happen,” she concludes. “This gift is called action.”

What Arendt does in this extraordinary lecture is unearth an affirmative argument for freedom from radically empiricist premises, premises normally associated with much more skeptical outlooks. If, as David Hume argued, we cannot speak of ironclad natural laws but only of the constant conjunction of events, then Arendt argues that we have no choice but to believe in our own ability to sever those conjunctions, and initiate events that are entirely new and unforeseen.

It was exactly this that Arendt observed in the Hungarian Revolution, and though that uprising was crushed by the Soviet army she remained cautiously hopeful about what it portended for the persistence of human freedom in the modern age. “I am not at all sure that I am right in my hopefulness,” she concluded in her 1958 introduction to the reissue of Origins, “but I am convinced that it is as important to present all of the inherent hopes of the present as it is to confront ruthlessly all its intrinsic despairs.” As a reading public that is becoming quite adept at confronting Arendt’s despairs, we would do well to confront also her hopes. It’s true that she approached history with a clear-eyed realism, but it was precisely that realism that convinced her that she could not give up hope entirely for the new beginnings that any group of people can initiate when they shun the seemingly automatic motion of regular, quotidian life.

Recent years have seen the outbreak of several genuinely unexpected world-historical events; the election of Donald Trump is only the most obviously astonishing example. Were these events the only evidence in favor of Arendt’s faith in human initiative, we might be justified in our despair after all. But a post-Trump revival of local democratic participation is underway across the United States, and it looks a lot like Arendt’s account of the council system. After more than a year of field research, the academics Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol concluded that an organic, mass mobilization of suburban women occurred in the wake of the 2016 election. From Wisconsin to North Carolina there were “newly formed citizens groups” that “spread like wildfire” throughout 2017, spurred not by any existing organization or call from above but instead by a sense that the course of the nation’s political trajectory could not be left uncontested. And so people with little or no formal power decided to contest it. In Pennsylvania alone, these groups fielded sixty mostly first-time candidates for local office. Four out of five of them won their races—often in places where the Democratic Party itself had long given up hope.

While it’s impossible to state the direct effects of this small-d democratic renewal beyond these sorts of local election results, it’s a fair assumption that this mobilization contributed materially to the Democrats’ tremendous victory in the 2018 congressional election. But, from an Arendtian point of view, positing this sort of cause-and-effect relationship is really beside the point. The point is instead to show how easily the normal causes that we think dictate the course of political life—fundraising, media prominence, formal organization and party support—can actually be rendered moot by dogged human initiative and direct participation. For Arendt, the point of this kind of political engagement was exactly that it was unpredictable in its effects, that it appeared quixotic until the moment its successes demonstrated the utter fragility of systems that were previously taken to be unalterable. “Every action touches off not only a reaction but a chain reaction,” she declared in a 1964 lecture. “One deed, one gesture, one word may suffice to change every constellation.” This possibility is what made such engagement nothing short of miraculous.

Published in the June 14, 2019 issue: 

John Thomason is a freelance writer and the Research Editor at the Intercept.

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