Political Judgement and Distributive Justice in Arendt: Renewing Athenian Republicanism

I’m posting something between an abstract and a sketch of a paper I will give at a conference in Istanbul this summer. The conference is Pluralism and Conflict: Distributive Justice Beyond Rawls and Consensus. Details including the international list of plenary speakers can be found here. The organiser is Manuel Knoll, who is Professor of Philosophy at Fatih University, which will host the conference.

Arendt’s thought defends the existence and irreducibility of political community as part of any human community. There is no possible depoliticised utopia of technocratic planners or  of spontaneous orders, which evades the need for a political sphere. That is a sphere that mixes competition for power and the pursuit of political values, and that is an inevitable part of any human community. The political sphere is one of selection with regard to membership of political elites in different political currents, and in the overarching political elite of state institutions. This process can be defined as the kind of distributive justice that was discussed by Aristotle in Politics, III. For Aristotle, a polity led by an aristocracy of virtue is the optimal outcome, in terms of states with long term endurance, out of the various state options he considers which are all models of ‘distributive justice’ in terms of deciding who should have political power. Despite the accusations of nostalgia levelled at Arendt with regard to Athenian democracy, she was well aware of the differences between a modern polity and those of antiquity. She does suggest that late antique Christian and then Medieval discussions tend to obscure the difference between the political and the socia

l, but also has important analyses of what distinguishes modern society and modern politics from antique forms. Arendt refers to the changing nature of the relation between public and private in the emergence of capitalism, with an analysis of how that process erodes older versions of the public-private distinction that rely on the idea of a self-contained family economy. Capitalism breaks up that self-containment as individuals become actors in integrated economies at national and transnational levels. That  expanding and invasive economic sphere is the source of a public sphere with the same qualities, a parallel that arises because the economic sphere depends on laws, and on the state that enforces those laws. Politics in the world of modern political economy is conditioned by the reality of that invasive public sphere, the benefits it brings and resistance to its more coercive aspects, as it is also conditioned by parallel reactions to the economic sphere.

Arendt provides a framework for social justice which is much more engaged with the nature of politics as contestatory and as oriented towards the conquest of power, than the Rawls approach of public reason, or other approaches to political foundations such as discursive rationality in Habermas. The advantage of Arendt’s approach is that is does not need to presume a perfectly rational basis for distributing economic goods or a perfectly rational basis for political judgement. Even if we just take those rationalistic approaches as guiding ideals, they lead to theory unable to deal with the spontaneity necessary to a dynamic economic order, or the agonism necessary to pluralist political life. Despite the nostalgia of which Arendt is sometimes accused, she is better able than Rawls, and similar  theorists, to overcome Aristotle’s tendency to link the distribution of economic goods with distribution of political power.  It is not possible to make a strong enough distinction on the basis of Aristotle’s approach which leads him to limit economic inequality between citizens to a ration of five to one.  Non one has created a society with flourishing political freedoms, strong individual rights, and a dynamic economy, on the basis of such restrictions.  The Athens that Aristotle knew showed the ways that prosperity, democracy, and individual rights go together and grow, in an economy which is not constrained in the ways that Aristotle would like economic exchange and inequality to be constrained.  Arendt shows how there can be participatory and agonistic democracy, with elites approximately equivalent to Aristotle’s aristocracy. The reaction to the intrusive economic sphere, and various dissatisfaction with distribution in modernity are the basis of the modern political sphere.  The dissatisfaction with distribution does not just take the form or resistance to inequality, but also of sectional demands for more economic goods, and complaints about misdirection of economic goods to others, along with attempts to define genuine public goods and forms of government action which do not create sectional economic advantages or undermine economic incentives.

Arendt provides a framework in which politics is not depoliticised as in Rawls, economics is not subordinated to political rationalism as in Rawls, and there is a stronger distinction between the economic and political spheres than in Aristotle. Political justice is partly established through the competitive means of selecting a genuine political élite, and detached from possession of economic goods.  There cannot be a complete separation between political elites and economic elites. Members of the political elite are likely to be economically privileged as political actors, and have have advantages in becoming economic actors.  However, the relationship is much looser than Aristotle could envisage, as the modern economic sphere generates a level of economic goods for the most successful in the economic sphere beyond the goods of the political elite.  The complexity of modern society, the more varied nature of the economic world, the changes in the private-public distinction, enable more distinction between distribution of political and economic goods, and that is something Arendt understands.  She also understands that the complexity, the individualism, and the changeableness of modern societies, creates a need for an effective political elite able to shape the rules of the economic sphere to the public weşfare, without eroding the autonomy, emergent complexity, and spontaneity of the economic sphere.

We should not seek a rationalistic determination of economic distribution or of the arguments of politics.  We should seek a framework that is both sustainable and adaptive, an evolutionary framework, where rules are clear and known but can be debated and changed.  The political elite has been tested in the competitive nature of elections, and is not able to direct all economic goods towards itself.  Arendt shows how there can be a framework, rules, institutions and elite formation which are open to spontaneity and conflict, and thereby draw on the greatest Aristotelian insights into justice, politics, and judgement .


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