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

There is distinct interest in aristocracy and competitive excellence in Arendt, which do not obviously lend themselves to egalitarian redistributionist projects, she is more Tocqueville and Burckhardt than Marx or even Thomas Paine. Arendt’s thought defends the existence and irreducibility of political community as part of any human community. There is no possible depoliticised utopia of rational (utlra-Rawlsianism) designers or (ultra-Hayekianism) 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.

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.  It is not possible to make a strong enough distinction between questions of political citizenship and questions of distribution of economic goods on the basis of Aristotle’s approach, which leads him to limit economic inequality between citizens to a ratio of five to one. No one has created a society with flourishing political freedoms, strong individual rights, and a dynamic economy, on the basis of such restrictions, even if we allow for the limited number that Aristotle thinks of as citizens.  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 contestatory democracy, with elites approximately equivalent to Aristotle’s aristocracy, but based on choice and competition. 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. That is the James Buchanan public choice style of analysis of how political bargaining can undermine the provision of public goods is a better fit with the Arendtian themes of political judgement and struggle than redistributivist models. The public choice model does not exclude some redistribution where there satisfies some widely accepted public good, or moral impulse, to keep citizens out of poverty, but it tends to provide reasons for regarding attempts to define an acceptable income and wealth spread, and who gets economic rewards, as pretexts for capture of the polity by coalitions of sectional interest.

Arendt provides a framework in which politics is not depoliticised as in Rawls, something taken further by many libertarian thinkers, 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 examined by Arendt, enable more distinction between distribution of political and economic goods.  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 welfare, 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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