Political Judgement, Justice and Republicanism I (Istanbul Talk on Hannah Arendt)

There has not bee much blogging for a while as my attention has been taken by the political drama here in Turkey. I will post about that, but when I am ready to say something considered and reflective. I prefer to avoid instant reactions here or imitating the kind of media intellectual always ready with a reaction dressed  up in superficially theoretical, historical or philosophical terms. I am posting, in parts, the talk (original title: ‘Political Judgement and Economic Justice in Arendt: Renewing Athenian Republicanism). I recently gave in Istanbul on Hannah Arendt at the conference Pluralism and  Conflict: Distributive Justice Beyond Rawls and Consensus  (6th to 8th June). My thoughts about Arendt do have some relation to my thinking about the protest movement in Turkey, but I want to avoid an instant pseduo-Arendtian analysis, so have nothing to say about current politics in the paper. The text is very much a text for oral presentation rather than a finished piece of work, so is I think suitable reading for a blog. I also gave a talk on Adam Smith, which I will post here, possibly after commenting on politics in Turkey.

The suggestion that we take Arendt in terms of Athenian republicanism should not be taken too literally. There is a polemical context here which is to contest the kind of republicanism presented by Philip Pettit, and which draws on Quentin Skinner in its reference to Neo-Roman liberty. Pettit briefly suggests that Arendt is a nostalgic for Athens. That is part of Pettit’s own general distinction, used by others, between the proper kind of republicanism base on liberty as non-domination, and civic humanism which apparently enforces some kind of conformity to a completely political and communal life. The distinctions Pettit makes are peculiar. Why should we regard the Rome described by Polybius as more open to privacy and individualism than Athens as defined by Pericles, who explicitly defends the Athenian model with regard to what Pettit says it does not contain, that is respect for difference and individuality. The really distinctive thing about Pettit’s republicanism is that republicanism is distinguished from civic humanism, or Athenian republicanism by its emphasis on institutions and procedures. If we think of those characteristics as requiring laws, that is laws understood as civic rules distinct from divine order and archaic custom, then Rome does provide a better model. Arendt herself emphasises the idea that Roman law establishes a break with the Greek vision of law as divine authority. The republican impulse is one that Arendt traces back to ancient Greece in a rather idealised way, in terms of sticking to a tradition of great moments in European freedom and thought, but in a way which is very revealing. It is a way of thinking about republicanism in which there is renewal of the tradition interacting with the ways that republicanism itself refers to the hope of a new order, a new birth of freedom. Roman law is one part of that renewal. Arendt does look at Roman republicanism critically with regard to a loss of the autonomy of politics, which becomes identified with community in her view, though that is a process she sees as completed in the Latin Middle Ages. The drive in that non-political direction, which is the direction of freedom, freedom from the kind of necessity found in labour and economy as well as from a tyrant or oligarchy, is mitigated at least in the republic by the development of law in Rome as something other than the divine authority.

Pettit’s republicanism in its adherence to institutions and procedures is following on from Rawls and Habermas, where ideas of correct institutional arrangement and procedures are very entangled with a definition of justice as economic equality. The default   is that income and wealth should have a completely flat distribution, but that inequalities may be allowed as far as they benefit the poorest (through greater economic growth) or promote the viability of civil society (which I think is a background constraint for Habermas, poking up through his texts in indirect ways). These economic egalitarian principles are largely advocated as normative arguments rather than directions for government policy, but they are designed as constraints on government actions and so at some point come into contact with policy, and as such steer policy towards redistribution of the wealth and income distribution that emerges from the market.

There are no such redistributive schemes in Arendt, though her thought does not completely exclude that possibility. On the whole,  she thinks of politics as being about something separate from economy and society, though she gives a very compelling argument for how the modern political concern with economic welfare is a product of the way that early modern capitalism creates a public sphere entangled with markets, which take economics out of the household into national and international systems of trade and exchange. 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.


2 thoughts on “Political Judgement, Justice and Republicanism I (Istanbul Talk on Hannah Arendt)

  1. I haven’t read Pettit, but your summary makes it appear that he’s either channelling Paul Rahe on the classical republican tradition or is running in parallel. The attraction of a Roman model here is not just the clarity of formal institutions and legalism, but also the sense that politics is circumscribed, identified as a distinctive area of human activity that is of particular concern to some sectors of society and of little concern to the rest, in contrast to the Athenian model of all-pervasive political culture.

    It goes without saying that the link between these images of ancient states and the reality of ancient politics is problematic; extensive debates in Athens about human law versus divine law, rather than assuming that all law was divine and changeless, and it’s not that the Romans ever wholly ditched the religious and traditional elements. I wonder if this explains what looks to me like a very odd idea in Arendt, as you note, that politics lost its autonomy under the Roman republic (rather than the principate); is she taking the claims of e.g. Cicero that his proposals express the will of the entire Roman people too much at face value?

    • Neville, thanks for a really interesting comment which I don’t feel I can reply to in the way it deserves at present. I certainly need to read Rahe. I am at the early stages of a reasonably full reading of Cicero, who I already have some acquaintance with, in the light of Machiavelli and of ancient writers on the Roman republic, Livy, Polybius, Dionysus of Halicarnassus etc. I’m acquainted with all of these to some degree, except for Dionysus, but I would really like to get further with this study before responding to your comment on assumptions Arendt might have drawn from Cicero. Again thanks for your comment, which will be one of the things shaping my reading of the relevant texts. I will have more to say at some point about these issues, but cannot do much now except to acknowledge the useful nature of your comments.

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