Joshua Miller’s Top Ten Things that Arendt Got Right About Political Theory

I wrote this little primer at the bottom of a long discussion of the Schocken Books editions of Arendt’s work, and then reposted it a while back on Facebook. It’s been popular, so I’m reposting it again here so I can easily link to it without feeding social media.

  1. Race-thinking precedes racism. Arendt’s analysis of the rise of totalitarianism is a mammoth book, but the basic argument is simple: you can’t hate Jews for their race until you think of the fundamental flaw with Judaism in racial terms. Thus, race-thinking comes before racism.  Before race-thinking, Europeans hated Jews for completely different reasons: religion! You don’t exterminate other religions, you convert them. But once you have race-thinking, you can create justifications not just for anti-Semitism but for colonialism, imperialism, and chattel slavery of Africans. You can see strands like this in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which is (supposed to be) a comedy! Jessica and Lorenzo get a happy ending. Miscegenation fears require a biological theory of social differences.
  2. The Holocaust happened because Europeans started treating each other the way they treated indigenous peoples in the rest of the world. Europeans learned to think racially in the colonization of Africa, and the European model for dealing with resistance involved murderous concentration camps. Thus, when race-thinking eventually returned as a form of governance in the European continent, so too did the concentration camps. (Arendt makes this claim in the second volume of The Origins of Totalitarianism, though it’s built into the structure of the book. It’s often called the “boomerang” thesis: that the men (like Lord Cromer and Cecil Rhodes) who practiced racial imperialism brought those techniques back to Europe to found “continental imperialism.”)
  3. Totalitarianism is largely caused by the growth of a class of “superfluous” people who no longer have a role in their economy. In an industrializing society, much traditional work can now be done with fewer workers. One possible solution to this oversupply of workers is to put some of that surplus labor force to work monitoring, policing, and murdering the rest.
  4. Ideologues ignore counter-evidence. A very good way to understand ideology is as a logical system for avoiding falsification. There are alternatives theories of ideology that aren’t immune to counter-evidence but instead merely exert constant pressure: for instance, there’s a difference between what Fox News does and what Vox does, and Arendt’s account is more useful for criticizing Fox’s constant spinning than Vox’s technocratic neoliberalism. But Arendt supplied us a useful account of ideology that is closest to our standard use and our current need.
  5. The language of human rights is noble and aspirationally powerful. However, statelessness renders most rights claims worthless in practical terms and in most judicial institutions. Someone who must depend on her rights as a “man” or a human is usually worse off in legal terms than an ordinary criminal.
  6. You don’t discover yourself through introspection. You discover yourself through action. The main set of claims she made in The Human Condition about the role of public and political life strikes me as pretty important, especially insofar as it denigrates economic and racial identity politics. Think of the cocktail party version of this: on meeting a new person, some people will ask, “Where do you work?” in order to get to know them, identifying them through their profession, their economic role. Others will ask: “What are you into?” as if to say that our recreation and consumption is what defines us. But for Arendt, the appropriate question is: “What have you done? What do you stand for?”
  7. If you take that seriously, “identity” politics is frustratingly restrictive. A person is not defined merely by the class or race they come from: they are defined by the principles upon which they act. While it is often necessary to step into the political sphere as a representative of Jews or women–and Arendt acknowledged that this becomes unavoidable when one is attacked as a woman or a Jew–the best kind of politics allows us to enter the political sphere as ourselves, not knowing what we will discover about those selves until we have acted. So the need for identity politics is an indication of larger injustices: we respond as members of our groups when systematic and institutional forces oppress us as members of these groups.
  8. Revolutions that aim for political goals are more likely to succeed than revolutions that aim for economic goals. Misery is infinite and thus insatiable; political equality is comparatively easy to achieve. Thus it’s important to connect economic complaints to a deprivation of political equality: the important problem with white supremacy, for instance, is not that whites “have” more than Blacks, but that we count for more, that it is uncontroversial that “White Lives Matter.” (Though an important indication of that “counting for more” is that white people have more than Blacks because we continually plunder Black people and are able to get away with it systematically.)
  9. Philosophy as a discipline is fundamentally at odds with politics. This is a problem for political philosophy, and it helps to explain why so much of political philosophy is hostile to politics and tries to subsume the agonistic nitty-gritty of the public sphere under rules of coherence and expert knowledge. This is because thinking as an activity is a withdrawal from active life, and especially politics: the fundamental conflict between the eternal and the ephemeral is not one that can be usefully bridged, and most often those encounters are pernicious for both thinkers and doers.
  10. Work and labor are different. Some activities are repetitive and exhausting, and only biological necessity forces us to continue them. Some activities make the world and our lives within it meaningful and fruitful. Many people have economic roles that mix the two activities, but still and all they are distinct. What’s more, there’s not shame in wishing and working for a world without labor, perhaps a world of automation. But a world without work would be fundamentally meaningless.
  11. Evil is not complicated, so don’t overthink it. (No kidding, either. Arendt’s view is the opposite of the Spaceballs version of evil: “Evil will always triumph over good because good is dumb.” She seemed to think that evil is dumb and that’s why it can be so powerful.)

Second Opinions