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Political Philosophy, Arendt

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Melissa Yates

on 22 February 2018

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Transcript of Political Philosophy, Arendt

The Human Condition
On the Nature of Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt
Background on the hierarchy of Vita Activa.
- Arendt characterizes the human condition as devoted to three kinds of activities: labor, work, and action.

- Labor represents human activity that corresponds to biological necessities of human existence. This activity is closest to the activity of other animals, and has never-ending demands to sustain life. In our labor we are not free, but instead are like slaves, bound by necessity. Labor belongs to the "private realm", as do all economic concerns.

- Work represents ways human activity constructs a public world, divorced from the private world. This activity does not derive from biological necessity, is distinctly human, it is commanded by us for our own ends. Work is inherently public, creating a public world with institutions (physical and nonphysical -- buildings, cultural traditions, and laws), which enables action in the public realm. But work cannot be entirely free because it is only extrinsically valuable, in terms of the public realm it constructs.

- Action represents free human activity, which is not a contemplative/inner notion of freedom. To be free is to engage in free activity. Action involves the introduction of something genuinely new, unpredictable, and unanticipated into the world. Action necessarily requires the presence of others, and cannot be accomplished individually. Other people must be present to recognize and understand us and our acts for them to be free actions. Political life makes possible freedom, and that is why it is so valuable.

Note: Arendt describes a third realm, in addition to the private and the public, called the social, which has been created by the infiltration of private economic matters into the public political sphere. Since labor is fundamentally unfree, and since we are only free if the public action is protected and separate from private matters, the rise of the social realm (especially under capitalism) undermines the possibility of achieving freedom and political agency.
Details on Human Condition

Strength can be possessed and is reliable. But it has physical limits.
Strength is necessary for the production of things; power is necessary for action.
Strength "is nature's gift to the individual which cannot be shared with others.
Strength can cope with violence (force) better than it can cope with power because the strong can fight the forceful. But strength can be threatened by the corruption of power when the weak multitude band together against the strong (Nietzsche's slave revolt). Mob rule is the attempt to substitute power for strength.


The only alternative to power is force, "which indeed one man alone can exert against his fellow men and of which one or a few can possess a monopoly be acquiring the means of violence." (87)
Violence can never substitute power: force accompanies powerlessness, or "an array of impotent forces that spend themselves, often spectacularly and vehemently but in utter futility, leaving behind neither monuments nor stories, hardly enough memory to enter into history at all." (87)
Tyranny can either be cruel or benevolent, but always involves impotent and futile rulers. It is enabled by isolation -- "on the isolation of the tyrant from his subjects and the isolation of the subjects from each other through mutual fear and suspicion" (87).
Violence can destroy power more easily than strength.
- Published in 1951, "The Origins of Totalitarianism" was originally published as "The Burden of Our Time", as a response to WWII.- One of the most significant philosophical analyses of totalitarianism of the 20th century, including Italian fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism.- Racism and modern bureaucracy combined with individual isolation formed a dangerous European imperialism, that rejects national borders.- Continental totalitarianism transforms "classes" into "masses", relies on propaganda and fear-mongering.

- Published in 1958, "The Human Condition" emphasizes the distinction between an active life and a contemplative life.
- The idea of an active life derives from Aristotle's concept of
vita activa
, though Arendt distinguishes the human condition from Aristotelian accounts of human nature.
- Important distinction between the public realm (political action) and the private realm (property, individual physical needs).
- Public affairs concern everyone in common -- education, law, justice
- Private affairs concern basic sustenance issues -- economy, reproduction

Common themes:
- A search for the conditions of possibility for a democratic public life.
- A defense of political life as the most valuable realm of human action -- that through which we can be free.
- A rejection of metaphysically based political philosophy in favor of phenomenologically based approaches. This ultimately rejects the prioritization of abstract contemplation above real world experience, action, and appearance.
Power and the Space of Appearance
Space of appearance precedes the formal public realm (constituted by government and institutions). It is impermanent and does not have a spatial form; instead, it is defined by people coming together in speech and action. (Note, action is a term of art for Arendt.)
In contrast with buildings and institutions, it disappears whenever men disperse or cease to speak and act. Political power cannot be stored, or kept in reserve. Weapons and armies can be stored, but they do not represent "power" in Arendt's sense.
The public realm has the potential to be a space of appearance, but it takes people actually coming together in speech and action to constitute a space of appearance. "Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities." (86)
Power is not reliable, or predictable, and it cannot be possessed. But, as opposed to strength and force, it is boundless because it has no physical limitations, shared with others.
The material condition necessary for the creation of power is people living together.
Acts of passive resistance are not really passive at all, but are active and effective ways of countering force, "since nobody can rule over dead men." (86)
"Without being talked about by men and without housing them, the world would not be a human artifice but a heap of unrelated things to which each isolated individual was at liberty to add one more object; without the human artifice to house them, human affairs would be as floating, as futile and vain, as the wanderings of nomad tribes." (88)
Background on Totalitarianism
Historical Note: World War II lasted from 1939-1945, and began when Germany invaded Poland. The Allied forces included the British Empire, France, Poland, the Soviet Union (1941), the United States (1941), China, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Greece, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Brazil, and Czechoslovakia. The Axis forces included Germany, Japan, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, Thailand, and Iraq. The losses suffered by the Allied forces (civilians and military) amounted to more than 61,000,000. The losses suffered by the Axis forces (civilian and military) amounted to more than 12,000,000. Deaths under Stalin's regime (1941-1953) are hard to calculate, but range anywhere from 10,000,000 to 60,000,000 (including those killed by forced famines, executions, and those who died during forced resettlement).

Hannah Arendt herself was Jewish and was forced to flee Germany during World War II. She was philosophically trained by the leading scholars of her day including Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Karl Jaspers. She received her doctorate just before the war began, and spent the first few years working for Jewish refugee organizations in France. In 1940 she was held captive, but escaped. She moved to New York in 1941 with her husband, Heinrich Blucher. She taught at the University of Chicago and then the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1961 she attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, a leading Nazi responsible for the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. Her many famous books include The Human Condition, The Life of the Mind, Crises of the Republic, Men in Dark Times, On Revolution, and Between Past and Future. The Origins of Totalitarianism was her first major work.
Much of her work on totalitarianism makes use of Montesquieu's political philosophy, in that she is looking to expand on his original understanding of governments as being defined by a guiding principle. Totalitarianism is a form of government that came into existence, uniquely, in the twentieth century, according to Arendt.
Montesquieu was a French political and social philosopher who lived between 1689 and 1755. He famously articulated the modern division of powers into the executive, legislative, and judicial.

Montesquieu distinguished between forms of domination and forms of government.
forms of domination -- illegal -- despotic -- include autocracy, aristocracy, and democracy
forms of government -- legal -- constitutional -- includes republics
Note: "a democracy ruled by majority decision but unchecked by law is just as despotic as an autocracy" (91).
Montesquieu also argued that each form of domination and government has its own structure and guiding principle:
republic's principle is virtue = love of equality
monarchy's principle is honor = love of distinction
tyranny's principle is fear
Written following the end of World War II, this book was Arendt's attempt to fill the gap in political philosophy's understanding of different forms of government by providing an analysis of the guiding principle and nature of the new form of government experienced by the twentieth century regimes (Stalinism and Nazism in particular, Italian fascism and Spanish dictatorship under Franco are not totalitarian according to Arendt because both remain committed to nationalistic aims) -- namely, "totalitarianism".
The book also addressed what Arendt calls the failure of moral philosophy to actually provide universal moral principles that would rule out the atrocities of totalitarian governments.
Motivation to Understand Totalitarianism
Man as Citizen, Man as Individual
The public and private distinction are important to understand in the context of Arendt's analysis of totalitarianism. In the public realm, man is a citizen; in the private or social realm, man is an individual.
When the social corrupts the political public realm, freedom is undermined (Human Condition). Totalitarianism makes the inverse mistake, allowing government to invade to personal or private realm, in an attempt to control all aspects of men's lives.
Totalitarianism doesn't distinguish between foreign and domestic affairs either, instead seeing all nation states as falling under their universal law, all war as civil war.

Arendt uses this diagnosis of the nature of totalitarianism to introduce her conception of law, which defines the boundaries of social life but does not determine the contents of that social life.
"the law fulfills two functions: it regulates the public-political sphere in which men act in concert as equals and where they have a common destiny, while, at the same time, it circumscribes the space in which our individual destinies unfold -- destinies which are so dissimilar that no two biographies will ever read alike." (93)

The form of government exercised by those who seek political power, but who have "refused to "act in concert"" (94) is called tyranny. And while Montequieu understood that it was guided by fear, Arendt adds to this the claim that tyranny is the result of mean who live as isolated an lonely individuals.
Fear is "despair over the impossibility of action" (94), and is "anti-political" (95).
Tyranny is the only form of government that contains the cause of its own self-destruction within itself. "Tyranny, based on the essential impotence of all men who are alone, is the hubristic attempt to be like God, invested with power individually, in complete solitude." (95)
What's Unprecedented in Totalitarianism
Arendt's chief goal in the analysis of totalitarianism is to distinguish it from other previous forms of domination (like tyranny and one-state dictatorship).

Totalitarianism relates to law and authority in a new way.
it rejects "positive law" or law made by man
it also rejects arbitrary use of force, instead appealing to a Law of "Nature" (Hitler) or "History" (Stalin)
it is highly regulated and efficient
it seeks to accelerate a Natural or Historical progress -- which are laws of movement

Before totalitarianism, state/civil law derived its authority from something stable and transcendent, whether that was the authority of God's laws or natural laws (different from Hitler's Laws of Nature as a Movement). This meant that the law provided a stable structure in which the default position of the individual was as a free person. All actions under the traditional conception of law were assumed to be free, unless rightly bound by positive, man-made law.
This also meant that man-made law could be criticized by appeal to something more basic and fundamental that provided their authority. So, the presumption is that man-made laws are fallible -- motivating the division of powers.
Totalitarianism assumes the neutrality of science in its assertion of the "movement" or "progress". Arendt refers to scientism to describe this quality -- the arrogance of thinking that science should be used to prescribe human actions rather than merely to describe the natural world (or even to describe the human world).
Connection to Terror
Arendt argues that terror is the essence of totalitarian government. Terror is not the same thing as fear, the latter guides action in tyranny. Terror instead is the tool used to accelerate the progress of Nature or History.
"Terror freezes men in order to clear the way for the movement of Nature or History. It eliminates individuals for the sake of the species; it sacrifices men for the sake of mankind -- not only those who eventually become the victims of terror, but in fact all men insofar as this movement, with its own beginning and its own end, can only be hindered by the new beginning and the individual end which the life of each man eventually is." (97)
"Mankind, when organized in such a way that it marches with the movement of Nature or History, as if all men were only one men, accelerates the automatic movement of Nature or History to a speed which it could never reach alone. Practically speaking, this means that terror in all cases executes on the spot the death sentences which Nature has already pronounced on unfit races and individuals or which History has declared for dying classes and institutions, without waiting for the slower and less efficient elimination which would presumably be brought about anyhow." (98)

Unlike tyranny, totalitarianism does not have a principle of action, but instead only has a principle of movement -- namely, terror.
Unlike the tyrant, the totalitarian dictator does not believe that "he is a free agent with the power to execute his arbitrary will" and instead sees himself as "the executioner of laws higher than himself." (99)
Unlike one-state dictators (Lenin, Mussolini, Franco) Nazis (totalitarians) were not nationalists with imperialist aims; totalitarianism aims to bring all mankind under one head.
"What totalitarian rule therefore needs, instead of a principle of action, is a means to prepare individuals equally well for the role of executioner and the role of victim. This two-sided preparation, the substitute for a principle of action, is ideology." (101)
Terror is not restricted to totalitarianism, nor is ideology restricted to totalitarianism.
The content of ideologies (completely vacant in the case of racism, valuable in the case of socialism) does not matter when it is in the hands of totalitarian dictators.
"I call ideologies [...] isms that pretend to have found the key explanation for all the mysteries of life and the world.
Racism and anti-Semitism are not inherently ideologies; they become ideologies "only when it pretends to explain the whole course of history as being secretly maneuvered by the Jews, or covertly subject to an eternal race struggle, race mixture, whatnot." (101)
Socialism and communism are also not inherently ideological, as long as they describe class struggles, promote justice for the underprivileged, fight for social improvement. They become ideologies "only when it pretends that all history is a struggle of classes, that the proletariat is bound by eternal laws to win this struggle, that a classless society will then come about, and that the state, finally, will wither away." (101)
Ideologies are arrogant and separate from actual experiences.
Ideologies erase pluralism and force consistency in belief and in a systematic narrative of everything as a whole.

"Terror is needed in order to make the world consistent and keep it that way; to dominate human beings to the point where they lose, with their spontaneity, the specifically human unpredictability of thought and action." (101)
Resistance, Self-Interest, and "Truth"
The chief resisting factors to totalitarian regimes are (1) unpredictability and unreliability of man, and (2) inconsistency of human world. (102)
Combined, these two factors make it necessary for any ideology that seeks to change the world in its image (regardless of content) to totally and reliably dominate man.
Not only must the totalitarian ruler dominate the people within his own state, but must also dominate non-totalitarian state, because they are a threat to the believability of the ideology. Totalitarianism cannot survive unless the whole world comes under the totalitarian regime's control. And this presents a new and unprecedented danger for the human world.

Neglect for self-interest -- Lust for power doesn't cut it as an psychological explanation: "Why should lust for power, [...], suddenly transcend all previously known limitations of self-interest and utility and attempt not only to dominate men as they are, but also to change their very nature; not only to kill innocent and harmless bystanders, but to do this even when such murder is an obstacle, rather than an advantage, to the accumulation of power?" (103)

Totalitarians are motivated by a warped lesson from Western philosophy: that reality determines truth. If this is the case, then he who determines reality determines truth. Nazism aimed to change the race reality of the world, not reflect it, and thereby sought to create truth. Stalinism aimed to change the class reality of the world, and to create that new truth. "totalitarianism has concluded from this that we can fabricate truth insofar as we can fabricate reality; that we do not have to wait until reality unveils itself and shows us its true face, but can bring into reality whose structures will be known to us from the beginning because the whole thing is our product." (103)
In this way "logic" and "reason" were the purported tools of Stalin and Hitler.
Isolation and Collective Action
Why do people, many people, go along with totalitarianism?
The first answer has to do with what is desirable about the ideology -- not its racism or classism, because the content is not the most defining feature of totalitarian mindsets -- but instead, it's the promise logicality. Defenders believe themselves to be pursuing the pure line of logical progress, and they are comforted by that "that nothing can ever happen to them anymore, and they are saved." (104)
But Arendt's core response to this question is that totalitarianism is made possible by conditions of social and political isolation or atomism, which she argues had already shaped the environments in interwar Soviet and German societies. Stalin and Hitler utilized this isolation and created additional isolation through their terror machines and administrations.
"By the terms "atomized society" and "isolated indivudals" we mean a state of affairs where people live together without having anything in common, without sharing some visible, tangible realm of the world." (105)
Totalitarianism remains a threat so long as we live isolated from other men and do not act in concert with them.

"Logicality is what appeals to isolated human beings, for man -- in complete solitude, without any contact with his fellow-men and therefore without any real possibility of experience -- has nothing else he can fall back on but the most abstract rules of reasoning." (105)
Arendt Review Questions:

Human Condition

What is the difference between power, strength, and force?
Why is Arendt invested in the existence of power?
What causes power to exist, and why does it depend on other people?
What is wrong with the private realm invading the public realm?


What is the difference between totalitarianism and tyranny or one-state dictatorship?
What are the conditions in which totalitarian governments can arise?
What is it that combats totalitarian regimes?
What is the relationship of totalitarianism to truth or reason?
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