For Education, Against Credentialism

Today I’ll be addressing a group of imprisoned students, university administrators, and prison officials to inaugurate the University of Baltimore’s partnership with the US Department of Education and Jessup Correctional Institution to offer Bachelor’s Degrees. We have a few tasks today, including inspiring the students and encouraging the officials that their support for the program is not a betrayal of their other constituents. Here’s what I plan to say:

It’s well-known that receiving a college degree improves life outcomes. The standard claim is that getting a Bachelor’s Degree is worth an extra million dollars in income over a person’s lifetime, but even this is hard to predict as the returns to education are increasing. In 1965, a person with a college degree only made $7,500 more per year than a person without one. This is called the college wage premium: in 2013, that college wage premium had increased to $17,500. Since it’s increasing, it’s likely that a college degree today will be worth even more than a million dollars over a lifetime.

What’s more, college graduates are healthier, have lower unemployment rates and shorter periods of unemployment. They are more likely to have happy marriages and less likely to be divorced; they are less likely to be incarcerated, and even live longer.

Thus it seems like a pretty good investment. But there is very little clear connection between studying Civil War history or the anthropology of upland Southeast Asia and doing the sorts of jobs that college graduates end up doing. What’s more, there’s a phenomenon called the “sheepskin effect” which shows that most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than along the way. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course can make a big difference.

College, then, seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

Calling it “signaling” is mostly an economic exercise, but educational researchers can see it at work in different ways, all of which indicate that there is not enough emphasis on learning. Educational sociologists call it the “disengagement compact,” a bargain struck between faculty and students in which both agree: “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” Teachers agree to be entertaining and undemanding, and in exchange students agree to pay their tuition without complaint and give the faculty good teaching evaluations. Both thus have more time for other endeavors.

I believe that imprisoned students do not have the luxury of the disengagement compact. If we accept the signaling theory then a period of incarceration is a severe signal to potential employers: it is a signal that you are more likely than not to go back to prison. At best, a degree serves to distinguish some formerly incarcerated returning citizens from the rest, to deepen the prejudice against some returning citizens in favor of others.

Thankfully, it turns out that people do sometimes learn useful skills in college. Education can be transformative. A rigorous liberal arts education that focuses on reading difficult texts, solving complicated problems, and writing and speaking clearly about matters of little direct concern can help teach the skills that employers want more than any other:

  • critical thinking
  • analytic reasoning
  • problem solving
  • clear written and oral communication

And research on college learning outcomes suggests that a liberal arts education can teach these skills so long as the classes require a lot of reading (forty pages a week), a lot of writing (twenty pages a semester), and the professor has high expectations of the students. Which is encouraging, because it means that we can break out of the merely competitive cycle.

I have a theory as to why this works, that comes from the educational advocate Earl Shorris. His Clemente course in the humanities inspired Bard College’s Prison Initiative, which inspired the US Department of Education, who took a chance on us here. In his book Riches for the Poor, Shorris argues that one major factor in poverty is the stultifying character of one’s problems and environment. Shorris offers the analogy of Native American hunting practices, where hunters would encircle their prey and then move in, creating anxiety and fear that aids the hunter in capturing stunned prey. Poverty and prison both offer similar “surrounds of force” whereby individuals are beset by so many forces (“hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism”) that they do not know where to turn.

An education in the liberal arts gives us the crucial pause we need to avoid confusion and find an escape route. The “pause” is a performative skill, like learning to fix a car or perform a surgery. Anyone could do it at any time, but learning to pause when we’re stressed is actually extremely difficult. We need to learn to reflect. And it isn’t just enough for a professor to tell you: “reflect!” Just as you can’t just tell an illiterate person, “read!” or a clumsy person who has never learned, “ride that bike! A highly rigorous and engaged liberal arts degree offers its students an opportunity to train in important meta-cognitive habits. Education is not something the teacher does to the student, it’s something the student does to himself, with the professor’s guidance.

To sum up:

Education may just be about signaling. If so, let’s signal loud and clear how amazing you guys are! But there’s a good deal of evidence that education can be transformative, even if your professors can’t transform you, exactly. You have to transform yourself with their help.

We will set out the guidelines. You will meet our (VERY HIGH) expectations. If the educational sociologists are right, this will give you an opportunity to develop the habits and skills that employers want and need. And if Shorris is right, maybe you’ll develop inner peace along the way. If you see a professor giving you too much slack, ask: does she believe in the transformative value of education? Or is he just here to collect a paycheck and hand out sheepskins?

Demand transformation.

Touchstone Terms: Arendt’s Metaphysical Deflation

This post is a part of a series on some ideas that I find particularly useful or interesting. It also extends the post from last week of metaphysical deflation in Nietzsche. Here, I begin an account of Arendt’s metaphysical deflation, and its intimate connection to a kind of skepticism about personal identity.

Though Hannah Arendt began her intellectual career as an existential phenomenologist, she declined to elaborate her own theory of perception. Implicitly, she takes our encounter with the world to begin with the world, and not a particular object in that world. As she writes in her first attempt to describe the vita contemplativa: “[Facts] must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in a certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence.” (Arendt 1968, 238) The disorder of phenomena must be ordered even before we can encounter them, and Arendt was content to begin where she found herself, in an ordered world where experience was already endowed with sense.

Withdrawal from the Sensible

For Arendt, the phenomenological basis of thinking lies in the withdrawal from experience into what she calls “invisibility.” The world gives us phenomena, both visual and otherwise; it presses us with its sensational gifts until this generosity threatens to overwhelm us. In its withdrawal, thinking encounters invisible aspects of its now-absent experiences.

When we think, Arendt suggested, we focus on re-imagined appearances preserved by our memory. These ‘invisibles’ strike the thinker as further appearances, beyond or on the far side of appearance. Reflection on this process reveals a double movement: from sensation to image, and from image to thought. “[T]he thought-object is different from the image, as the image is different from the visible sense-object whose mere representation it is.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Arendt borrows her account of this process from Augustine: first, “sense-perception” gives way before an “image that re-presents it.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Memory holds this image in abeyance until thought calls upon it to provide this image, and here “the mere image of what was once real” is separated from “the deliberately remembered object.” In this bifurcated form, memories come to us either as abstractions and impressions of the experience, or as stored presentations of a past moment.

Arendt here splits sensory data from the imago, and asserts that we develop concepts or ideas of the appearance from the imago. She gives a similar account in her reading of Kant’s “Schematism,” where she argues that intuitions and concepts are naturally combined in any particular encounter with an object through the faculty of imagination. The schema “table” is available to anyone who has encountered at least one table, and can even be relayed verbally or abstractly, through description or a quick sketch. (Arendt 1992, 82-3)

The thinker encounters past appearances anew, re-presented through memory, altered, manipulated, combined, and dismantled until they offer insights that the thinker calls by many names: category, cause, or concept. Some of these names actually obscure the phenomena they describe. The thinker may develop the distinction between appearances and invisibles into metaphysical systems. She may encounter her own activity and posit a subject or a soul. Many of these efforts to cement the movement of thought into certainty are more or less obviously flawed. “[O]ur tradition of philosophy has transformed the base from which something rises into the cause that produces it and has then assigned to this producing agent a higher rank of reality than is given to what merely meets the eye.” (Arendt 1978, I, 25) According to Arendt, the long history of ontological mistakes is itself reducible to this confusion of cause and ground, and the normative dimension that it takes on.

The ‘Two-World’ Theory and the ‘Two-in-One’

Arendt refuses to grant professional philosophers a privileged capacity or relationship to thought, and she stakes few claims about the relative superiority of various metaphysical schemes. The frequent exception to this rule is her rejection of idealism: she constantly points out the errors of speculation that posit the invisibles as a ‘truer’ world than the appearances, since these tempt the thinker to attempt to dwell in the withdrawn world of invisibles. She calls this the ‘two-world theory,’ in which the thinker privileges the world of his withdrawal over the appearances from which they are derived. In those cases, Arendt applauds the derisive laughter that brings the philosopher back to the present and obvious, confronting him with the appearances he has ignored. Yet she emphasizes that the potential errors available to metaphysical thinking are not an indictment of the project of thinking altogether.

The speculative play of these invisibles is entertaining, even engrossing. It leads its practioners astray as often as it corrects them. Arendt’s account of the role of thought in avoiding evil focuses on two lines from the Platonic dialogues, developing a version of thinking as ‘account-giving’ or a narrative self, through reference to Socrates’ self-relational ethics. She claims these are the only non-aporetic assertions in the Platonic version of Socrates: that “it is better to suffer an injury than to inflict one,” and that “it would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me, than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me.” (Arendt 1978, I, 181) The Gorgias’s account of wrongdoing, Arendt argues, depends not upon a given self-identity established through logical assumption, but rather on the reflective work of producing this self-identity.

Thinking brings the many propositions about intentions, desires, beliefs, and experiences that must share the intimate space of the psyche into harmony. This is why Arendt emphasizes the Socratic parenthetical, “…I, being one, should….” The force of this imperative to maintain consistency and avoid wrongdoing lies in the success of the work of unification of the self; so long as the self does not, or cannot, achieve unity, the force of the imperative is lacking. Thus, she cites the Hippias Major, where Socrates ends with a playful account of his jealousy of Hippias, who is not discomfited by self-contradiction, while Socrates must return home to cohabitate with “a very obnoxious fellow who always cross-examines him,” that is, himself. (Arendt 1978, I, 188)

Hippias does not feel the sting of the imperative to avoid wrongdoing. His ‘blissful ignorance’ secures him against the self-injury that contradiction entails. Hippias contains many men, just as Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Hippias is not one, cannot be one, but is many: the man who claims that beauty is a woman or that it is gold, a man who maintains that it is a thing or object and then also that it is a life lived so as to bury one’s parents and be buried in turn, and yet another man who is unconcerned with the contradiction because opinions are just bits of speeches to be collected and wielded as needed.

Of course, Hippias is not Adolf Eichmann. But like Eichmann, there is a lingering threat that he will act without knowing, behaving in such a way as to take a bold stand unconsciously, ungrounded in conviction or courage. Because he simply cannot become one with himself, the plurality within him threatens to engage the plurality without in a manner that destroys the common world.

Like Eichmann, Hippias fails to supply a consistent account of himself to himself. Unlike Eichmann, however, Hippias’s self-contradiction will not result in genocide. Thoughtlessness becomes evil only in those circumstances when the deed and the account of the deed we give ourselves diverge. In that divergence, we approve an act that we would never forgive. In those situations, we say we ‘ought to have known better.’ Yet Arendt argues that the Socratic conflation of knowledge and virtue is flawed, because action does not always depend on forethought, and the quest for certainty actually threatens to overwhelm the capacity to act with an impossible demand: to know the results.

The Unfinishable Work of Self-Unification

Thought is a process of self-reflection aimed at bringing oneself into agreement with oneself. Thus the ‘I’ who thinks in the Cartesian formulation is not a metaphysical given, but a product, a work of fabrication. (Arendt 1978, I, 187-9) For Arendt, internal consistency is an achievement garnered through the work of thinking, not an assumption to be granted. Once achieved, even the metaphor of unity or consistency will have to be jettisoned.

How do we make ourselves whole? How do we weld our psyche into a persona? How do we channel the diverse currents and movements of mind into a single intention or position upon which we can act? For Arendt, this is the wrong question: though thoughtlessness threatens evil, thoughtfulness does not promise goodness. (Arendt 1978, I, 191) In fact, thoughtful action appears to be a contradiction in terms for Arendt, as does thoughtful politics: the capacity for action is the will, and the same impulse that wrongly seeks certainty of results will also fail when it seeks to contain the human capacity for novelty within the bounds of some internal narrative or personal ethic.

Arendt writes of thought that, “the guiding experience in these matters is, of course, friendship and not selfhood; I first talk with others before I talk with myself.” (Arendt 1978, I, 189) My relations with others give me a model for my self-relation, and the two continue to inform each other so long as I am afforded both interlocutors and opportunities for solitude. Thinking, then, is not an encounter between desires and intentions, but rather between perceptions, concepts, and most of all, propositions. It takes on the tone and rhythm of my conversations with others, and finds there the language to explain my experience.

Arendt modeled this self-reflection on an ideal of self-friendship in the midst of a divided, democratic polity. Aristotle argues, that we do not govern our desires and intentions, but master them. If he is right, then the moment we attempt to apply these same techniques publicly, the republic becomes a tyranny. One cannot dwell in self-dissensus: we must struggle to achieve consensus between these intentions. As such, it seems that a citizen-thinker must enslave herself in order to act as an equal with others. How else can we acquire the agreement of rage and lust with the conclusions of reason or duty? Arendt draws on Aristotle, then, when she rejects the image of a body-politic, to be ruled by the soul as the city is ruled, where diverse interests and intentions struggle for recognition just as vigorously as they do in the world we share with other citizens.

There cannot be a polity-within, because the psyche is too intimate for politics. Thinking cannot be reduced to an act of the will, whereby we force ourselves to believe something, overcoming the resistance of counter-arguments through the threat of intellectual violence. It remains a question whether thinking enforces some kind of logical syntax, or is enforced by it, just as it remains a question how friends can remain friends in the face of disagreement.

Arendt, Hannah. “Truth and Politics.” In Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
———. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1978.

Nietzsche and the Parable of the Talents

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth And Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense.)

I think most philosophers will be familiar with this famous essay by Nietzsche deflating our conception of truth into a kind stripped metaphor. This idea that words are like coins who have gotten so old and rubbed clean that they count only as weights of metal and not as coins captures the ways in which the etymologies of words can surprise and delight us, and give us an understanding of our history–and ultimately of human meanings–that we have not previously explored.

Yet it has always seemed to me that there was a direct reference hidden in these lines–almost certainly a well-known one that Nietzsche the philologist would have been expecting us to catch. The coins that become mere metal complete a transformation that began in the Gospel of Matthew, in the “parable of the talents.” The word “talent” in modern English means a natural skill or aptitude. It’s a term for innate competence or mastery. Yet for the Greeks it was a unit of measure, and for the Romans it was a unit specifically used for the measure of currency. How did this odd “worn out metaphor” come about?

In the parable, Jesus depicts a master leaving on a long trip: he leaves different sums of money to three different servants. When he returns, those with the most money had invested it. The servant with the least money had merely preserved the original loan. So the richer servants hand over increased wealth, while the poorest merely returns the principle. The master punishes the servant for not investing as the richer servants had done.

It gets worse:

But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

On their own, these lines from Matthew seem to be advocating for a kind of “success theology,” by which God demands that we grow rich or suffer punishment. If nothing else, it supports usury and interest-bearing loans, which the Church forbade.

But this passage is followed by a list of commandments that seem utterly at odds with the claim that “Them that’s got shall have/Them that’s not shall lose/So the Bible says/And it still is news” as Ella Fitzgerald sang. Thus the passage–or perhaps the compositor–already begins the transition in the meaning of the word (we see the same in Luke, but the term there is “mina,” which didn’t receive the same development.) How do we save the passage from the explicit reading?

As early as Augustine, the passage has been interpreted as an allegory: since the direct meaning is offensive and at odds with what follows, the implicit meaning must be otherwise. Augustine saw it as a passage on salvation, and not wasting the opportunity it supplies. Later commentators analogized the talents to God-given abilities, and later still we find ordinary language mentions of “talents” without the connection to the Biblical text, including the success theology idea.

But back to Nietzsche: it seems to me obvious that Nietzsche is referencing this particular history in his account of the coins returned to metal once again. How odd that we would embed meanings in innocent words, and have later generations read them back out again? We’re doing that all the time, at many different levels, mobilizing that army of metaphors in a way that takes crystallized human relations as if they were merely for expressing banal observations about the color of snow.

I call it “deflationist.” Nietzsche makes an effort to reduce Christian allegories to their constituent parts, to take all meanings and make them mere patterns of behavior, all while spinning out more allegories, parables, and poetic embellishments. In particular, explorations of metaphysics become etymological explorations into the play of metaphors. In a future post, I hope to detail the ways in which Hannah Arendt picks up this metaphysical deflation in her own work, and try to specify what it means for her conception of truth.

Touchstone Terms: Personality Disorders and Ego-Syntony

I find the distinction between psychological disorders and personality disorders fascinating.

Consider obsession and compulsion. Someone suffering from the anxiety disorder OCD will often engage in ritualistic actions: locking and unlocking a door a set number of times, carefully arranging furniture, repetitive washing, or hoarding. A person with the personality disorder OCPD may do some or all of these things, but the key difference is that the anxiety disorder feels invasive and unwanted by the sufferer, while the sufferer of a personality disorder will endorse his maladaptive behaviors, finding them appropriate, suitable, or correct. He’ll even judge others for failing to behave likewise.

This makes personality disorders particularly difficult to treat; they may be heavily maladaptive, but the sufferer doesn’t experience the personality disorder as an illness. Someone with OCPD instead experiences the world’s failure to live up to their standards or accommodate their behaviors as the major source of their suffering. Personality disorders are thus ego-syntonic: closely tied to the person’s sense of self and their view of the nature of existence. This is different from ego-dystonic disorders, which the sufferer experiences as alien or other: a set of invasive thoughts, reactions, and compulsions at odds with the life and goals she wants.

So far, so good; this is textbook psychology, the normal science hammered out in the last few Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals (DSMs), since the revised third edition in 1988. But there’s a lot to think through here.

Sigmund Freud coined the term “ego syntonic” in his book On Narcissism, where he tried to show that what makes many disorders untreatable is our ability to find support in a partner or a group. This “cure by love” crystallizes a maladaption in what he calls “happy love,” but is supposedly anything but happy. It is merely self-assured “intact narcissism,” because it has intimate social recognition.

Is this the first account of group polarization? Anthony Greenwald thought so. In his essay, “The Totalitarian Ego,”  Greenwald argued that there was a clear connection between the narcissistic ego’s tendency to find self-supporting information and ignore self-critical information and the totalitarian state’s tendency to suppress dissent:

Interestingly, characteristics that seem undesirable in a political system can nonetheless serve adaptively in a personal organization of knowledge.

Conceiving of the ego as a self-protective organization of knowledge strikes me as a useful metaphor for some elements of our thinking. But as always with analyses of bias, especially those like Greenwald’s or Freud’s that take it as a given that everyone is biased in her own way, it raises interesting questions about where to identify disorders and illnesses: the individual ego or the community.

Like Freud, the first DSM classified things like homosexuality as “sociopathic” personality disorders. From one perspective, this makes sense: gays and lesbians don’t experience their sexuality as invasive, but rather experience the world’s hatred as the main impediment to their flourishing. But as we learned then, sometimes it is the world, and not the deviant individual, that must change.

The same thing could be said for a perfectionist with OCPD; perhaps the real problem is that the rest of us are too sloppy or not conscientious enough. Am I wrong to give so little to charity, or is Peter Singer wrong to demand I give so much? Certainly, the personality disorder carries with it a maladaption, a kind of ill-fit between self and world. What empowers the medical establishment to decide where the blame for that misfittedness lies?

It took gays and lesbians activists, sympathetic researchers, and philosophers several decades to remove homosexuality from the DSM. But perhaps other such errors are still present. Some things, like anxiety, depression, or the word salad that schizophrenia produces can be safely recognized as disorders because sufferers experience them as such. But many mental illnesses aren’t precisely ego-dystonic; they merely create a mismatch between self and world: it is the sufferers who decide that it is they who must change and not the world. In their treatments, psychologists put their finger on the scale of that decision, placing the burden on the sufferer and not the world.

That’s why philosophers who have tried to make psychological disorders contained in the DSM into viable worldviews. Activists and sympathetic researchers have embraced depression, anorexia, schizophrenia, multiple personalities, and borderline personality disorder as healthy adaptations rather than maladaptive disorders.

“We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours … I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei [domination free] about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft [domination] of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents … I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause. I come from a better province.” (Richard Rorty, “Universality and Truth,” in Richard Rorty and His Critics, edited by Robert Brandom, 2000.)

Now, if you take someone like Richard Rorty as your guide, this is the particular mission of philosophy: to supply a justification for our pre-philosophical worldviews. It’s not hard to see that what many philosophers are doing is engaging in a defense of their own lives. Bourgeois liberals defend bourgeois liberalism; excluded groups challenge their exclusions; conservatives and theists defend these perspectives. What if this is all just the process of coming to terms with our misfit with the world; all just a kind of narcissism, rooting out ego-dystonic feelings and becoming more fully ego-syntonic?

My sense is that many philosophers understand themselves to be “merely” engaged in this kind of justification and activism on behalf of excluded lifeworlds. And I think that “merely” is a product of their own disillusionment, sometimes quite legitimately. They believe that any greater project of reconciliation or unification is really destined to failure or is propaganda for permanent domination, and so we should settle for this “good enough” work.

But I’d like to believe that we’re doing something more than that: that we’re engaged in a kind of discovery, that we’re working towards some telos in that scholarship, rather than mapping incommensurables. Philosophical justification is not merely a conflict between mutually exclusive personalities, cultures, and ideologies, but the expansion of our shared horizons to find a frame of reference that is inclusive. Rorty’s deflationist account opens us up to the nonsense of Jonathan Haidt (previously here, here, and here.)

In this I find the imagery of Kant’s “kingdom of ends” (at least as interpreted by Christine Korsgaard) evocative: a world where each person finds her own connection with a rule–and a metaphysics–we make together. This necessarily involves some movement back and forth between the diversity of human personalities and the rule that allows us all to flourish. This, it seems to me, involves accepting Korsgaard’s gloss on Kant:

“If you view yourself as having a value-conferring status in virtue of of your power of rational choice, you must view anyone who has the power of rational choice as having, in virtue of that power, a value conferring status.” (Christine Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends, 123)

All that is left is to determine how to make each act of value-conferral harmonious with all the others. It’s a difficult practical and philosophical problem that will involve regular digressions into difficult metaphysical and meta-ethical matters, and it can no longer be accomplished while embracing Rorty’s deflationism.

(This post is a part of a series on some ideas that I find particularly useful or interesting.)

Imperialism as a Response to Surpluses and Superfluousness

“Older than the superfluous wealth was another by-product of capitalist production: the human debris of every crisis, following invariably upon each period of industrial growth, eliminated permanently from producing society. Men who had become permanently idle were as superfluous to the community as the owners of superfluous wealth. That they were an actual menace to society had been recognized throughout the nineteenth century and their export to populate the dominions of Canada and Australia as well as the United States. The new fact in the imperialist era is that these two superfluous forces, superfluous capital and superfluous working power, joined hands and left the country together. The concept of expansion, the export of government power and annexation of every territory in which nationals had invested either their wealth or their work, seemed the only alternative to increasing losses in wealth and population. Imperialism and its idea of unlimited expansion seemed to offer a permanent remedy for a permanent evil.” (Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, pg. 150)

Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism is famous for drawing explicit comparisons between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR. It is much celebrated (though infrequently read) because it achieved an important ideological task: previously it was tempting to treat the mass casualties on the Eastern Front as evidence that the Soviet Union had nothing in common with the Nazis they died to defeat. But if these were simply the two faces of totalitarianism, then we were obligated to oppose them both.

Yet Arendt was not a devoted anti-Communist: her actual goal was to offer a historical explanation for how the Jews came to be murdered by their neighbors. Thus she offers an explanation for the growth of the biological–rather than religious–sort of anti-Semitism that caused Jews to be seen as a race to be purged rather than a culture to be converted. To make this history work, she suggests that only an account of imperialistic racism can explain the development of ethnic concentration camps by which the tools for mass murder were developed.

Arendt rejects two possible explanations for anti-Semitism that still circulate today, that the Jews were merely randomly selected, and that the enmity against the Jews was somehow inevitable. First she rejects the “scapegoat” explanation by which the Jews were supposedly a convenient, innocent group upon which to a hang a community’s aggressions. As she puts it, “An ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily… the chief political and historical fact [is] that the [the forgery, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”] is being believed.” (Origins, 7) Something, she argues, has to explain why it was not the “Protocols of the Elders of Romani” that motivated Nazi ideology, given that Rom and homosexuals were also murdered in large numbers. Anti- Semitism, though, was the motivating ideology that made the other murders conceivable: the gas chambers for Jews could be used to murder the disabled, but they were first built for the Jews.

Arendt goes on to argue that the idea of eternal enmity is also mistaken, because it misunderstood the role that Jewish assimilation into bourgeois culture had played in stocking the fires of a hatred that was no longer about the divide within Judeo-Christianity: “The Jews mistook modern anti-Christian anti-Semitism for the old religious Jew-hatred….” (Origins, 7) While religious Jew-hatred served a unifying function within Jewish communities, modern anti-Semitism nearly destroyed them, by replaced religious fervor (which could be nullified by conversion) with racial animosity (from which no assimilated parvenu could be safe.)

One of the main components of her story is the idea of a privileged group becoming superfluous: the Jews had had a role in Europe as usurers. When Protestantism and the industrial revolution forced Europeans to recognize that banking could be compatible with Christianity, it began to seem that Jews were irrelevant. Thus the network of trade, diplomacy, and credit that a few Jews helped to facilitate began to seem replaceable, and them men and women who had created and profited from it thus became dispensable, along with the mass of much poorer Jews who had no role at all but survived on the forbearance of sovereigns alone, who were themselves increasingly checked by democratic institutions and beholden to public opinion.

I call this an entitlement crisis, following Habermas’s usage in Legitimation Crisis. Habermas’s theory of the entitlement system, and the crisis that it can generate, depends on the idea that one of the primary functions that institutions in society must satisfy is justifying inequalities in the distribution of merit and material goods. An entitlement crisis is one in which the benefits and privileges of some class no longer seem deserved: when one has power without purpose or wealth without a visible role in production. Marx’s theory of exploitation invoked one entitlement crisis: the capitalist earns advantages at the expense of others, and these advantages are undeserved.

Habermas Political System

In modern society we don’t usually experience the capitalist in this way; we mythologize Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as somehow deserving their wealth, and worry that perhaps bankers and stock brokers do not. The Jews, however, had taken on a role in European society that made them seem as if they had privileges granted by the state that they didn’t deserve, while divorcing themselves (for good reason tied to the enmity of non-Jews) from the other classes that were not governing.

Meanwhile, the industrial revolution produced surplus capital in need of investment, and Europe also had many more superfluous men, who were put out of work and off their lands by the industrial revolution and had to make their way in a culture that no longer needed them. Capitalists thus became imperialists looking to use the state–and those surplus men–to open up foreign markets to their goods.

Only conquest could render foreign markets open to both their goods and their innovations without surrendering the future profits from both. Thus in a long discussion of Cecil Rhodes, Arendt argues that “expansion for expansion sake” is not actually a political ideal but a product of “business speculation.” It is the logic of the market–of ever-more-productive industry and ever-more-efficient transactions–taken as “the permanent and supreme aim of politics.” (Origins, 125) Yet there is an inevitable mismatch between the potentially limitless expansion of economics and the very limitations of legitimate consent required for the function of a nation-state. The project of unlimited growth is doomed to fail, and to create demands for isonomy wherever it touches.  (Origins, 126-8)

Imperialism, you see, is an allocation problem: how to re-allocate the benefits of increased productivity without losing the ownership stake that the capitalists had developed in those surpluses they call profits. Perhaps this allocation failure ought to create class conflict, but instead it created an alliance between surplus men and surplus money, an alliance between the mob and capital. And the mob was “a mass of people… free of all principles and so large numerically that they… could only be used only by imperialist politicians and inspired only by racist doctrines.” (Origins, 156-7) On Arendt’s account, the mob becomes a serious force in domestic politics when it begins to form movements to demand more imperialism, more conquest, and pride of place for the domestic mob against the colonies.

The mob’s first political movements are not leftist populism, but an effort to “imperialize the whole nation… for the looting of foreign territories and the permanent degradation of alien peoples.” (Origins, 155) As if recognizing that whole groups of surplus people will eventually be exterminated, the mob clamors for others to be disposed of first. That these techniques–the concentration camp, the racist registrations, the differential legal status–eventually make their way back to Europe to contribute to the mass extermination of the Jews was already prefigured in their imperial origins.

If Arendt is right, the bourgeoisie are to blame for totalitarianism, even when it ultimately turns on them. The mob only existed because the bourgeoisie refused to countenance the obvious solution: domestic redistribution of the increased productivity of the industrial revolution. This is one of the main motivators of my scholarship, though it’s usually quite far in the background: to develop an account of entitlements and merit that can sustain domestic equality and eliminate the threat of superfluousness in the face of our burgeoning wealth. Thus I worry about the way that the current political economy fails to find roles for people unless they are disciplined enough to attend college. And I worry more about the unspoken belief I see among my peers that the uneducated and unemployed are somehow to blame for their own useless existence, for not having made anything of themselves but a racist, and thus worthy of dismissal.

As I’ll argue later this week, this is the flipside of the abusive policing and mass incarceration of African-Americans. The mob would not be a mob if it was not organized around racial and racist ideologies. As Arendt explains, the degradation of ethnic others is implicit in the mob’s origins, and–arguably–is the only purpose to which it can be put. It’s a provocative assertion, and hopefully historically bounded, but if Arendt is right then populism is always nationalist, and nationalism is always imperialist.