Arendt, Ancient Republicanism and Modern Equality

Hannah Arendt’s political theory, and broader account of the human world, amongst other things, shows a way that we can understand the movement from antique philosophical contempt for the slave, and the labourer, to political philosophies of human equality. Though she was no Marxist, her account includes an admirable way of thinking about Marx and Marxist theory as a deeply necessary form of analysis that captures some realities better than previous analyses. Marx’s way of thinking is part of the theoretical capture of a social world based on trade, production for trade, and the value of the efforts that go into production. She resists the temptation of some non-Marxist thinkers to snipe at those aspects of Marx’s economic analysis lacking much plausibility, even amongst Marxists after Marx’s own life time. The most obvious example of that is Marx’s labour theory of value, and related claims about the declining rate of profit and immiseration of the proletariat (sometime expressed as relative rather than absolute, which is the more plausible version). Sniping at Marx on these points should also be directed at his sources, including Ricardo, Malthus and Smith, who contain precedents for these claims. Arendt is inclined to take early political economy up to Marx as single school, and there is some justification for this. Her analysis is based on illumination of common points, continuities and the broad transformations of concepts and of social realities, rather than detailed appreciation of sources, and that is itself a necessary moment of analysis.

The broad point is that the kind of equality Marx sought for all who work is a product of capitalism itself. Capitalism makes clear a distinction present, but only a very submerged way, in antique concepts between the labour of the whole body and the work of the hands. It is labour which is one of the things distinguishes us from animals according to Arendt. Her capacity to assume an absolute opposition between the merely animal and the human, is not so widely shared now, but we hold on to it as a form of ranking which is not reliant on absolute distinctions, including any absolute distinction between the animal and the human. The modern commercial, or capitalist world, of production driven by trade across large areas unified as markets, is contrasted with production  by the household, for the household, at the centre of antique understanding. An understanding in which any kind of labour degrades, a labourer is a slave or only just above servitude in status, and can be tortured in judicial proceedings since that disgrace enacted on the body is just an extension of the disgrace of labour. Again these are no absolutes. We would have a very poor understanding of the antique world, and even of pre-historic human communities, if we do not appreciate that there was trade across large areas. The point is that the weight of trade across large areas compared with more self-contained forms of production and consumption increases, creating a sense of humanity as unified by trade and by participation in production. That production for trade is what pushes in the direction of egalitarianism in ethics and politics, and then egalitarian ideas of income and wealth distribution The distinction between dignified labour and mere work becomes more clear, though it had already been present in antique distinction between a craft using knowledge, sometimes providing a model for knowledge, and more disgraceful forms of money making.

Arendt’s alleged nostalgia for ancient Athens provides a useful way of thinking about why income and wealth egalitarianism are not necessary outcomes of moral equality, other than reasons of economic efficiency. Arendt emphasise the antique Greek aristocratic pursuit of excellence, but not simply by going back to antiquity. It is something emphasised in the late 19th century by Jacob Burckhardt, the historian and cultural historian, so we might see an implicit attempt there to find something equivalent to economic competition in antique aristocratic competition. Burckhardt was a friend of Nietzsche, there is some common purpose and some benefit in framing Nietzsche’s political thought in relation to Burckhardt, but we cannot go into that right now.  Arendt does not suggest that aristocratic competition finds a direct equivalent in market competition, emphasising political competition, so I am extending her analysis a bit. There as a distinct 19th century bourgeois tendency towards seeking dignity in antique and medieval heroic references, and is open to charges of anachronism. The point is that the political realm of competition provides the nearest equivalent to ancient aristocratic competition which included the idea of political honour. We could taken the economic  realm as something completely different, as if politics was heaven in relation to economic materialism. That is Marx’s critique of Hegel, and he was right in analysis if not so right in his offered solutions. There must be some spill over between economic efforts, which are efforts to find social status, ‘honour, as much as anything, and the search for political office, though hopefully with the  minimum of confusion between the political search to provide public goods, and the sectional work of economic self-interest. Back in antiquity, Pericles himself suggested in his famous funeral oration that poverty is not disgraceful, but a failure to struggle against it is.


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