Another Liberty Canon: Arendt

My latest post at the group blog Notes on Liberty

Notes On Liberty

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the more influential writers on political thought during the twentieth century. Born in Germany, her political views and Jewish origins (she was also Jewish in identity though not in religion) meant not only that she had to leave Germany after the Nazi takeover, but that she had to escape from Gestapo interrogation. A period in Paris was ended by the 1940 German invasion, which led to another escape from detention, and her final destination of the United States. She was able draw on this direct experience of totalitarianism and antisemitism to write The Origins of Totalitarianism, one of the classic works on this topic, which also considers the role of political anti-Semitism, as distinct from older religious prejudice, in the formation of the modern phenomenon of totalitarianism.

Arendt reached beyond an academic and scholarly audience in her most widely ready book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report…

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

The political realm in antiquity was the realm of a kind of freedom which could not belong to everyone, as some have to labour, including the labour done by slaves. The political sphere was one of equality, but qualified by aristocratic suspicion of free labourers, an equality of liberty from coercion by a tyrant in every case, but ambiguous about how far those free relations could extend amongst the population. The sphere of the home was a place of non-freedom. Men ruled the home and themselves only became part of something where there was freedom on leaving the home to participate in public affairs. The suggestion is that even the male patriarchal ruler of the home was preoccupied there with business which had nothing to with freedom, managing the family, slaves and the wealth/property of the family.

In her understanding of antiquity, Arendt sees wealth as something separate from property. Property was not separable from the family and was essential to political elite status. Wealth refers to all the things owned by the family, and its income which be lost. That idea of the permanence of property was essential to how the ancients thought of what was proper to a governing class, and that assumption lingered into the 19th century, when capitalism undermined the idea that any kind of property could be separated from the world of exchange where it acquired a contingent status in relation to the owning family. The non-political sphere of household family affairs became the basis of polities, which moved away form discussion of matters of purely public interest to maximisation of everyone’s wealth. Equality and justice moved from being questions largely for the elite class in its awareness of itself, to the main concerns of politics in promoting the welfare of all.

This is part of Arendt’s picture of the emergence of economic and social goods for all as the centre of modern politics, a process she does not reject, but which inspires reservations about the loss of political questions within the political world. Again her supposed nostalgia for Athenian republicanism must be heavily qualified by her capacity for sketching out economic, social and political shifts since then. There is a desire for moments of political participation but this does not so much involve Athenian nostalgia as idealisation of the early stages of the American, French and Russian revolutions.The interest in both the virtues of participation and of aristocratic excellence draw on Tocqueville, whose work is part of the 18th and 19th century attempts to reconcile antique republican political liberty with modern individualistic commercial liberty. One of the sources for Tocqueville here is Benjamin Constant’s essay on the difference between the liberty of the ancients and the moderns, which draws on Athens as the most ‘modern‘ of ancient republics. The Pettit style of distinction between neo-Roman liberty and civic humanism, Athenian and Roman republicanism does not really account for this.

There is a drive in Arendt towards separating politics from the kind of welfare concerns that have absorbed politics since the 18th century, though this just as much as about hanging onto non-Kantian and non-Utilitarian notions of the good, so what hanging to what is normally called virtue theory, though she does not use that phrase. In other words, she defends a version of eudaemonism which is not just about immediate pleasure, but about excellence, distinction and becoming worthy of history. The being worthy of history establishes a political goal, the birth of political institutions and laws that will be remembered and last.  Arendt has a disruptive perspective here, since the agonistic element of her view of republicanism, the aristocratic struggle for excellence spread widely in the population, also undermines the Roman and Spartan, what Nietzsche called the Doric state, image of marmoreal permanence. The ancient aristocratic writers preferred the permanence and solidity of Rome and Sparta, that is the meaning of the rejection of Athens then and more recently, as in the criticisms of democracy by the Founders of the American republic, who in large degree tried to established an unchanging Lycurgian constitution, run by an oligarchy protected from the passions of the public. Though Pettit and Skinner would not define themselves in that way, they are positioning themselves in the same territory. Pettit’s work on Hobbes in which he implicitly finds the Hobbesian sovereign to be the centre of Rawls and Habermas style rational discourse goes even further in the direction of power for those who head the institution and make the laws which claim to be guided by reason, and what the people would want if they thought about it long enough under ideal conditions. That includes schemes of redistribution, of state enforced patterns of income and wealth which are in tension with the unplanned nature of the most productive economic activity. There is no such constraint on Arendtian political judgement, which makes judgement a matter of conceiving common goods and gaols without an inherent bias towards state power over the economy, in norms that demand government designed economic patterns.

 

 

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

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.   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 that 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 can 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 nationhood and 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

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. There as a distinct 19th century bourgeois tendency towards seeking dignity in antique and medieval heroic references, and this is open to charges of anachronism, if not outright absurdity. 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 take 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.

Amongst other things, Arendt shows the broad history and conceptual transformation which led from an Ancient Greek understanding of equality, and inequality, in justice to modern assumptions regarding those issues. Arendt does refer to Ancient Rome as the most political of communities.  We can see that Arendt did not make an opposition between Athens and Rome in the way that Pettit does, though she certainly does note some differences. Arendt contributes to an already well established interest in law as fundamental to the difference between Athens and Rome. We can see such a suggestion in the philosophical idealist history of Hegel. The way Arendt understands the difference is that Greek law is a form of divine authority over humans, while Roman law is about contractual relations between individuals and at the basis of political institutions. That is a distinction that suits the idea that Rome was the most political of communities, since it is the possibility of freely held relationships, which is the meaning of politics in the ancient world. That is Arendt refers to politics as the realm of freedom, as distinct from necessity. The work at issue, is most obviously slave labour. Arendt notes ancient distinctions between slaves (presumably by birth) and conquered peoples who become slaves. That separation of freedom from work includes the work of free labourers, on the whole. Ancient democracies, including Rome though that democracy was rather rigged to the benefit of the aristocracy, gave political rights to free labourers but never lost the disdain for labourers. Both Plato and Aristotle assume that political leadership should be in the hands of an elite not concerned with work or money making, and even regard politics itself as non-serious and secondary compared with philosophy, an inevitably elite pursuit. Arendt does allow for the political vision of human life in Plato and Aristotle, but also makes us pay attention to the opposite drive in their thought, the thought that the polity is something for the philosopher to ignore as far as possible.

 

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 .

 

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.

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.

Arendt, Equality and Justice. Ancient and Modern

Some thoughts about Arendt and distributive justice as a I prepare for a conference paper on that topic (Pluralism and Conflict: Distributive Justice Beyond Rawls and Consensus, Fatih University, Istanbul, 6th to 8th June, 2013). Mostly drawing on The Human Condition and ‘Introduction into Politics’ (published in The Promise of Politics) with regard to the historical development of political concepts.

Amongst other things, Arendt shows the broad history and conceptual transformation which led from an Ancient Greek understanding of equality and inequality in justice to modern assumptions regarding those issues. One small but significant point struck me in recent reading, which is the a reference to Ancient Rome as the most political of communities. Arendt is sometimes seen as nostalgic for Ancient Athens, and as preferring Athens over Rome as the model of republicanism. The most well known advocate of republican political theory in normative theory/analytic philosophy, Philip Pettit offers Rome as the model, and suggests (briefly) of Arendt that her form of republicanism is nostalgic for Athens, with the implication that the nostalgia is itself a bad thing, though we might think of Pettit as nostalgic for Rome. The other criticism form Pettit in his very brief references to Arendt is that she belongs to a less liberal version of republicanism than that of Rome, which enforces conformity and participation,  so is more ‘political’, something that Pettit refers to as civic republicanism. We can see that Arendt did not make an opposition between Athens and Rome in the way that Pettit does, though she certainly does note some differences.

Arendt contributes to an already well established interest in law as fundamental to the difference between Athens and Rome. We can see such a suggestion in the ultimate philosophical synthesiser of history, Hegel. The way Arendt understands the difference is that Greek law is a form of divine authority over humans, while Roman law is about contractual relations between individuals and at the basis of political institutions. That is a distinction that suits the idea that Rome was the most political of communities, since it is the possibility of freely held relationships, which is the meaning of politics in the ancient world. That is Arendt refers to politics as the realm of freedom, as distinct from necessity. The work at issue, is most obviously slave labour. Arendt notes ancient distinctions between slaves (presumably by birth) and conquered peoples who become slaves. That separation of freedom from work includes the work of free labourers, on the whole. Ancient democracies, including Rome though that democracy was rather rigged to the benefit of the aristocracy, gave political rights to free labourers but never lost the disdain for labourers. Both Plato and Aristotle assume that political leadership should be in the hands of an elite not concerned with work or money making, and even regard politics itself as non-serious and secondary compared with philosophy, an inevitably elite pursuit. Arendt does allow for the political vision of human life in Plato and Aristotle, but also makes us pay attention to the opposite drive in their thought, the thought that the polity is something for the philosopher to ignore as far as possible.

The political realm in antiquity was the realm of a kind of freedom which could not belong to everyone, as some have to labour, including the labour done by slaves. The political sphere was one of equality, but qualified by aristocratic suspicion of free labourers, an equality of liberty from coercion by a tyrant in every case, but ambiguous about how far those free relations could extend amongst the population. The sphere of the home was a place of non-freedom. Men ruled the home and themselves only became part of something where there was freedom on leaving the home to participate in public affairs. The suggestion is that even the male patriarchal ruler of the home was preoccupied there with business which had nothing to with freedom, managing the family, slaves and the wealth/property of the family.

In her understanding of antiquity, Arendt sees wealth as something separate from property. Property was not separable from the family and was essential to political elite status. Wealth refers to all the things owned by the family, and its income which be lost. That idea of the permanence of property was essential to how the ancients thought of what was proper to a governing class, and that assumption lingered into the 19th century, when capitalism undermined the idea that any kind of property could be separated from the world of exchange where it acquired a contingent status in relation to the owning family. The non-poliitcal sphere of household family affairs became the basis of polities, which moved away form discussion of matters of purely public interest to maximisation of everyone’s wealth. Equality and justice moved from being questions largely for the elite class in its awareness of itself, to the main concerns of politics in promoting the welfare of all.

Watching Hannah Arendt, the film, in Istanbul

Margarethe von Trotta’s film of 2012, Hannah Arendt is on at the Istanbul Film festival,  at the Rexx cinema in Kadıköy, the largest centre in the Anatolian part of the city, the other side of the Bosphorus from where I live and work.

Trotta has made many films, and the quality of directing in this case shows great use of her experience. It is quite  a virtuoso performance moving fluently between darkened interiors, sunlit out door scenes, Arendt on her own, noisy arguments between intellectuals (usually German Jewish) of strong personality, conversations a home between Arendt (played by Hanna Schygulla, a great name in German cinema) and her husband,  class room scenes, a journalists’ office and so on. No transition seems forced though many are between very different scenes. Contrasts of light and shade, balanced composition, and  harmonious colours are all deployed with great taste, sense and tact. However, these qualities are also connected with the limitations of the film. The highly accomplished good taste directing fits with an idealised world of academics, and other intellectuals, with upper middles class life styles, whose lives are dominated by earnest or angry conversations about deep questions, mixed with elegant solitary contemplation. Arendt and the other intellectual characters dress in a way which is expensive but understated, a bit heavy and formal, and quite elegant. Arendt’s students at the New School dress in a casual version of the same style. Interiors have marching qualities, the slightly heavy and old fashioned rooms or Arendt’s apartment and the New School set the tone. Lots of sombre and restrained wood and panelling, usually dimly lit, provide the perfect staging for characters who live for ideas and morally serious discussions. It’s a stye that belongs to  European ‘art house’ cinema, though its more found in the minor films than the greatest works. In American cinema, Woody Allen’s films set in Manhattan where academics at elite schools write books to a backdrop of autumnal trees and brownish smart-casual jackets provides the equivalent. I don’t mean to just dismiss Trotta’s cinematography, she does it extremely well and the film is worth watching just for her skill in executing it.

It is also the case that she is animating a series of expectations about traditional intellectuals and their environment. It is a lost world, though that is not something that the film really notes. The film does suggest a distance between the culture of today and the culture of the early sixties, but most obviously through  the prevalence of smoking, centred on Arendt’s heavy smoking habit, particularly at moment of intellectual and moral stress, so drawing us back to the picture of the idealised traditional intellectual. The film refers to a time when an original thinker, not an media intellectual celebrity, might contribute to a well known magazine. That brings us to the central drama of the film which is Arendt’s writing on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a major operative of the Holocaust, in Jerusalem in 1961. Arendt covered the trial for the The New Yorkerand the articles were gathered after that in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The subtitle gives an idea of why the boo was highly controversial at the time of publication. It might be taken to trivialise the systematic evil of the Nazi murder of six million Jews. What Arendt means by banality is that in many cases, including that of Eichmann, evil comes from people of limited intellect and personality, obeying orders and following bureaucratic rules, without acting from hatred. I am not an expert on the issues around Eichmann, but there seems to be a widespread feeling that Arendt underestimated the degree to which Eichmann was a deliberate, calculated, malicious and enthusiastic persecutor of Jews with a strong belief in Nazi ideology. The film displays Arendt’s though processes on the matter through archive footage from the trial, which intercuts with reaction shots of Arendt. That was particularly unconvincing from the aesthetic point of view. There is more interest in the sequences of Arendt in the city. Her sense of distance from observant Jews and Jews from outside western Europe, is indicated as we see her walking through Jerusalem in her Germany-New York good taste intellectual’s garb. Even with Jewish intellectual friends we sense her distance from women with distinctly Hebrew names, and the issue of her move away from Zionism is addressed directly if briefly in the film. Unfortunately her snobbery, and even chauvinism, towards Jews who were not traditional German intellectuals, or something similar, was much more extreme than is indicated in the film. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she indicates distaste for Jerusalem by suggesting that it is like Istanbul, where I read Eichmann in Jerusalem for the first time, watched the film and where I am now writing.

The film focuses around the outrage initially generated  by Eichmann in Jerusalem, with disastrous consequences for her public life, and more poignantly in her deep personal relationships. The outrage was not just about her use of the word ‘banal’ though did not help. Passages where she referred to Jewish councils which collaborated with the Nazis (under extreme duress of course), and which she found damaging, led to accusations that she was anti-semitic (on the model of the real phenomenon of Jews whose assimilation extended to contempt for unassimilated Jews, or at the extreme complete self-loathing), blaming the victims, excusing the Nazis and betraying the Jewish people. She was caught in the unfortunate situation of playing a major role in the rise of Holocaust Studies and consciousness of the Holocaust, in Israel as well as outside, and of expressing herself in away that could give offence to those who were Holocaust victims, or had reason for identifying with those victims. I cannot comment at all on how correct her analysis of the collaborative Jewish councils was, in any case it certainly did not merit the outflow of abuse and hostility which followed. The book, as I have already indicated, is conditioned and limited by intellectual and cultural chauvinism, it is also a clear exposition of the evil of the Nazi Holocaust, with important discussions of the political, legal and national contexts for the ways the Holocaust operated in different parts of Europe.

The film’s presentation of the extreme negative reaction to Arendt’s writing up of the Eichmann trial concentrates on the melodramatic: stereotypically opportunistic New York journalists, academic administrators and bullying Mossad agents are shown to be Arendt’s persecutors. One of the Mossad agents is an old friend from her Zionist phase, and the academic administrators sit in on a lecture where she wins over her students with her intellectual charisma and deep humanism. A triumph undermined by sadness when she finds an old friend in the audience at the end, who is rejecting their relationship. It is all very well directed and executed but it is an exercise in stylish melodrama, which culminates in Arendt’s regret in expressing herself tactlessly and an apparent commitment to atonement through an engagement with the idea of evil in its full depth for the rest of  her life. This is not an accurate picture of Arendt’s intellectual development. I will just point out that her doctorate was on St Augustine, one of the great thinkers about evil in the history of philosophy. There are a few brief sequences in the film where she remembers the student-teacher  affair with Martin Heidegger she conducted as a student, at the time he was moving towards Naziism. This brings in the idea of commitment to thought as more than abstraction, as something tht is part of life, and does provide some connection between the film and Arendt’s own life of thought, and understanding of thought, though Heidegger himself is not portrayed in a convincing or interesting manner.

On the whole the film has very little to aid understanding of Arendt’s thought though. In some ways it is misleading, particularly where Arendt is portrayed as more interest in love and in friendship than politics. Arendt’s writing is consistently concerned with how humans are social and political in existence, how that intersects with other aspects of human existence, and how all these relations evolve over history. Perhaps in the way that Arendt gets caught up in a public scandal that point is partly made, but it is rather indirect. Some moments refer to what connects Arendt’s life with her thought, as when she is a refugee detained in France, but there is no reference to how she wrote on that issue.  There is no point though in criticising Trotta on this point. I am not aware of any film which does a good job of conveying the ideas of a great thinker, and that is not what cinema is. I recommend this film as a very elegant and skilful portrayal of an intellectual personality caught in a disruptive drama with ramifications beyond her own personal  life, with particular appeal to anyone with any interest in Arendt, or the history of attitudes to the Holocaust.

Bringing Politics into Hayek and Schmitt’s Sublime Conception of Law

The last post finished with some sketches of positions in legal theory. The Hayek-Schmitt position in which Law is above Legislation (Laws emerging from social consensus about basic rules of justice is above the changeable often administrative concerns of a sovereign political body in its legislative acts) seems closest to a traditionalist natural law theory, usually traced back to Thomas Aquinas, and most associated amongst current writers on law with John Finnis. Hayek himself notes that his view of law might be taken for natural law theory, but complains that tradition is too rigid. There are two notable things about Hayek’s comments: 1. he does not completely distinguish himself from natural law tradition; 2. he emphasises the need for openness in legal institutions. So perhaps Hayek’s position is one of natural law modified to tae account of the evolution and Law, and by evolution of generally accepted principles of justice.

This can sound like Ronald Dworkin or even Jürgen Habermas. Dworkin (who died very recently) was a left liberal committed to centrally designed schemes of income redistribution, in the context of a large public sector and a highly regulated economy, so not in line with Hayek’s thinking. Habermas might seem even worse from a Hayekian point of view since he emerged from the Marxist Frankfurt School, but in reality his thought fits more with an egalitarian liberal way of thinking than with Marxism of any kind, except for ‘revisionist’ forms which in effect turn Marxist gaols into ideals pursued through political liberalism rather than class struggle, and which are general ethical goals rather than concrete proposals for social reinvention. Both Dworkin and Habermas think of law as formulated, revised and interpreted through an evolving political consensus, which they expect to have an increasingly egalitarian impetus.

The consensual-rationalist way this is framed leaves their theories ill equipped, or so I contend, to deal with individual and social action which does not fit in with their hopes for an egalitarian society based on rational reflection about how to increase individual autonomy through increasing equality. What they have  difficulty in dealing with individualistic action and resistance to state promotion of equality in a society integrated under state guidance. Anti-tax, deregulatory, state shrinking movements look like irrational populism to those of a Dworkin-Habermas frame of mind. The wish to preserve one’s property from increasing state demands to treat private  property as a bit of a public sum of welfare, which the state can dispose of if it so wishes, seems irrationally selfish within that framework, as does the wish of business to reduce regulatory burdens, or  any individual inclination to resist state led attempts to mould individual choices.

The Hayekian approach to social knowledge, on the model of economic action, as dispersed between all actors  and as something that never be aggregated as a guide to state action, does far better as a way of thinking about the ways that political attitudes may emerge from the constant reinvention of the economy and society. It suggests that irrationality comes more from state attempts to define maximum welfare for everyone than from individual resistance to such state activity. It is not that Habermas, Dworkin and the like are completely unaware of such issues, or the need to accommodate them, but that their way of thinking just does not allow for much weight for such considerations, which are always likely to be regard as secondary phenomena.

I outlined major legal theories in the last post. Though I mentioned Critical Legal Studies as the most left leaning stream, and as even disdained by those of other political leaning, at its best and least politically gestural, CLS provides a better fit for Hayek’s understanding of markets as decentralised, self-innovating and challenging to all attempts at top down control. It provides a better fit than Hayek’s own inclination to Law as an institution looming over the economy as the highest representative of mores and shared principles of justice. This elevation of Law to sublime and monumental status can be too easily taken up in the Carl Schmitt tendency to ultra-conservative sacramentalisation of the Order of orders in society, embedded in nationalist and traditional religious ways of thinking.

The CLS approach, like connected work in political and social theory, does draw on thinkers like Max Weber and Hannah Arendt who certainly do not belong on the Marxist or post-Marxist left. Michel Foucault is a frequent reference. I’ve discussed Foucault’s thought, including its political implications, in a large number of previous posts, so I will not go over that again. I will just note that Foucault is often brought together with Weber and Arendt as a theorist of political and social community in the modern world. Framing those three with regard to Hayek and market liberal thought could bring considerable benefits, and would frequently just very obviously be closer to their world view.

As far as CLS takes a position on the standard distinctions in legal theory it leans towards positivism-realism rather than natural law in its more evolutionary or more conservative forms. CLS does this because concern with politics leads it to consider law as expression of power. At its best CLS brings an appreciation of political conflict to positivism-realism correcting a tendency to a reductive view of the role of political power. From this point of view, CLS may bridge the gap between positivism-realism and the more evolutionary forms of natural law, with regard to a concrete detailed investigation of politics, and of political conflict.