Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, “Decline of the Nation State and the End of the Rights of Man”

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

“Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”

[I have been posting my lectures for Political Philosophy. Previously we had taken up parts of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianisms, such as the prefaces and opening chapter, “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie,” and “Race Thinking before Racism” and “Race and Bureaucracy” in Part II, “Imperialism.”]

“The very phrase ‘human rights’ became for all concerned–victims, persecutors, and onlookers alike–the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy,” Arendt writes in the first section of her seminal chapter on the limits of the politics of rights in the interwar period, “Decline of the Nation-state and the End of the Rights of Man” (OT, 269). The promise of the post-Enlightenment period in the West was that we would have a widening belief in the “inalienability” of human rights that ground much of the Western liberal tradition. The Rights of Man and Citizen, voted on by the National Constituent Assembly in France in August 1789, though national in scope, became a promissory note, like the American Bill of Rights, of what can be hoped and just what language to use in opposing tyranny and oppression. Clearly influenced by Rousseau, the Rights of Man and Citizen famously holds that “men are born and remain free,” a riposte to the situation Rousseau had identified in the opening of the Social Contract, namely that “all men are born free and yet they are in chains.” The Rights of Man and Citizen also holds that sovereignty rests in the nation; that all have a right to liberty, property, and security; the law is the expression of the general will and all citizens have the right to take part in its formation; etc. As Arendt notes, these rights are premised on national sovereignty, which was unavailable to national minorities in many new states formed in the wake of the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I–or indeed, we can add, in many places today, such as in Palestine, with its more than five million official refugees (OT, 272). In this way, the effect of national sovereignty and the rise of the nation-state meant that only insofar as one belonged to a people, to a given nation, and only insofar as that nation had the reigns over a given state could one expect to have these supposed “Rights of Man.”

Today, we will need to take up this central element in the origins of totalitarianism. First we discuss Arendt’s ironic comments on the effect of the Rights of Man and Citizen–I would suggest that in few other places is her use of tragic irony, which is often mistaken for cutting sarcasm, more effective–before turning to her description of an enigmatic “right to have rights,” which means having a place in the world where one’s words and deeds can matter. First, then, a summary of her contentions about the “perplexities about the Rights of Man.”

  1. First, the Rights of Man meant that no longer would it be God’s command or the customs of history that were the source of the law, but “Man” (OT, 290). The source of rights previously had been from outside of politics, from “social, spiritual, and religious forces” (OT, 291). Marking part of the “loss of authority” that is modernity–a point we will take up later this semester in her “What is Authority?”–human beings would have rights now that in turn were extrinsic to any political order. Indeed, as we know well, these rights were specifically to be “inalienable” and thus no political regime could take them away, but so too, none specifically would guarantee them.
  2. Yet, inasmuch as human beings were now “completely emancipated,” having a “dignity within [her]self without reference to some larger encompassing order,” she disappeared again into a people, since the “abstract human being” envisioned by the Rights of Man, as she puts it, “existed nowhere.” She writes:

The whole question of human rights…was quickly and inextricably blended with the question of national emancipation; only the emancipated sovereignty of the people, of one’s own people, seemed to be able to insure them. (OT, 291)

In short, wherever human beings came to lack their own government, it was precisely at that moment that there was no institution left to guarantee these rights.

3) In this way, “the Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable–even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them–whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state” (OT, 293). She writes:

No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with a more poignant irony than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as “inalienable” those human rights, which are enjoyed only by citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves. (OT, 279)

4) This was partly because once rights were determined in terms of human beings, then one did not have rights accorded to the dictum that if one were in a territory, one was to be considered from that territory–both under the law and the protection of the sovereign. Once human beings were to be given rights no matter who they were and not where they were from and no where they were, there was no fallback of custom, such as the principle that “quidquid est in territorio est de territorio,” that is, one always fell under the sovereignty of the state one was in: whoever was in a territory was to be considered from that territory (OT, 280). (Arendt dates it to the Middle Ages but if I recall from Stuart Elden’s The Birth of Territory [2013]–okay, whom did I lend it out to who didn’t return it?–such a date would be too early for it to take the modern meaning; indeed in my own search to follow this up, I can’t find a usage of that phrase before various international law books of the 19th century. Nevertheless, as a heuristic counterpoint to the nation-state it is useful if misleading. If I mention this, it’s to warn, as always, of the political philosophy fallacy whereby certain terms–territory, a people, a race, sovereignty, rights–have some transhistorical meaning, as if states were always “states” in the modern sense, the space of a given political entity was a “territory” as we use it now, and so on. In fact, much of Origins attempts to tease out just how the notion of “race” has changed, how the state post-1789 takes on completely different functions, how nationalism itself, and when something new occurred without past precedent.)


In sum, the Rights, by empowering notions of the nation and the people, gave us notions of bare life and nothing but the human about which Arendt is always critical. If the referent for human rights was a non-political human being, a being who has rights adhering to her outside and beyond any political regime, then the 1789 Rights of Man was doomed from the beginning. To use the language of J. L. Austin, the declaration was not a constative statement of what simply is the case, like Jane is wearing green, as much as what we wanted to be the case. And neither was it political in terms of being a performative utterance, a sentence that creates the situation to which it refers, like a priest saying “I now pronounce you man and wife,” since what institution could do such for these rights? Arendt writes:

In comparison with the insane end-result—concentration camp society—the process by which men are prepared for this end, and the methods by which individuals are adapted to these conditions, are transparent and logical. The insane mass manufacture [fitting no utilitarian purpose and no raison d’État] is preceded by the historically and politically intelligible preparation of living corpses. The impetus and what is more important, the silent consent to such unprecedented conditions are the products of those events in which a period of political disintegration suddenly and unexpectedly made hundreds of thousands of human beings homeless, stateless, outlawed and unwanted, while millions of human beings were made economically superfluous and socially burdensome by unemployment. This in turn could only happen because the Rights of Man, which had never been philosophically established but merely formulated, which had never been politically secured but never proclaimed, have, in their traditional form, lost all validity. (OT, 447)

Importantly, I think, Arendt is bringing in her overall critique of reducing human beings to simply that, a human being of no exceptional qualities. Arendt writes in these pages that she wishes to “lay bare the hidden frame” of Western political thinking (OT, 267). As we’ll see, this isn’t a project limited to the last several hundred years, but rather to the whole of Western political philosophy:

I have clearly joined the ranks of those who for some time now have been attempting to dismantle metaphysics, and philosophy with all its categories, as we have known them from their beginning in Greece until today. Such dismantling is possible only on the assumption that the thread of tradition is broken and that we shall not be able to renew it [my emphasis]. …What has been lost is the continuity of the past as it seemed to be handed down from generation to generation, developing in the process its own consistency. …What you are left with is still the past, but a fragmented past. (The Life of the Mind, 212)

For Arendt, the intra-war period witnessed the final “conquest of the state by the nation,” which had grown in power as the supposedly absolute monarchies waned. The Origins of Totalitarianism, in a sense, denotes the shift in political sovereignty from monarchies, to the “race-thinking” of “nations,” to nations of peoples (French, German, and so on), and finally to the complete subservience of the state to national sovereignty. We’ll see how this leads right into the problems of the stateless. Part of the task of Origins is to map the history of nationalism and racism, which later provided the bricks and mortar for the foundation of totalitarianism. “Consciousness of nationalism,” Arendt explains, is not an age-old phenomena. The state’s raison d’être, its raison d’état, was to protect “all inhabitants in its territory no matter what their nationality. …[T]he people’s rising national consciousness interfered with these functions” (OT, 230). Only “nationals” were to be recognized as citizens, and nationalism would eventually become the glue holding together the nation-state as the rise of capitalism brought social atomization. “The only remaining bond between the citizens of a nation-state without a monarch to symbolize their essential community, seemed to be a national, that is, common origin” (OT, 230). Nationalism, then, became “the precious cement for binding together a centralized state and atomized society, and it actually proved to be the only working, live connection between individuals of the nation-state” (OT, 231). Nativity and birth replaced the monarch in “symboliz[ing] their essential community,” which was the race thinking before the racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, according to Arendt. Totalitarianism was nothing but, in Arendt’s eyes, the telos of this nationalism, since in totalitarianism “all laws and legal institutions of the state as such are interpreted as a means for the welfare of nation.” Arendt’s critique of liberal, social atomization—or its valorization of this atomization—is that this hyper-individualism is but the flip side of a nationalist cementing of the social bond:

This discrepancy between a centralized state and an atomized (individualized, liberal) society was to be bridged through the solid cement of a national sentiment, which proved to be the only working living connection between the individuals of the nation-state. As the sovereignty of the nation was shaped after the model of the sovereignty of the individual, so the sovereignty of the state as national state was the representative and (in its totalitarian forms) the monopolizer of both. The state conquered by the nation became the supreme individual before which all other individuals had to bow. (OT, 231)

The corollary of national sovereignty is a placement of the means of violence in a permanent apparatus of police, military, and bureaucracies meant to protect citizens from the refugees and strangers, which were said to contaminate their purity. In any event, it was the sovereign violence defending  the peoples as such that helped set the stage for totalitarianism. For Arendt, the hyphen in “nation-state” always marked a contestation of sovereignty between the nation and the state, an ongoing conflict that Rousseau and the philosophical heirs of the French Revolution attempted to paper over with discussions of human rights. Arendt writes that the conflict between state and nation came to light at the very birth of the modern nation-state, when the French Revolution combined the Declaration of the Rights of Man with the demand for national sovereignty. The same essential rights were at once claimed as the inalienable heritage of all human beings and as the specific heritage of specific nations, the same nation was at once declared to be subject to laws, which supposedly would flow from the Rights of Man, and sovereign, that is, bound by no universal law and acknowledging nothing superior to itself. It follows, Arendt writes, that “only people of the same natural origin could enjoy the full protection of legal institutions. …[T]he transformation of the state from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation had been completed: the nation had conquered the state and national interest had priority over law long before Hitler could pronounce ‘right is what is good for the German people’” (OT, 275). Human rights were only to be protected by the state as a measure of one’s nativity and nationality. National sovereignty, she writes, “lost its original connotation of freedom of the people and was being surrounded by a pseudo-mystical aura of lawless arbitrariness” (OT, 231).

Is this not at the heart of all debates over the Syrian refugees? Here Arendt is at her sharpest: “The prolongation of their lives [that is, the lives of the stateless] is due to charity and not to right, for no law exists which could force the nations to feed them” (OT, 296). Is this not the precept greeting resettled refugees to Canada? No doubt, we should salute efforts to take those escaping the horrific violence and to give them a new place in a world. Paraded before the cameras, it is clear that they are not here by right but by charity, the result of a pity that could at any moment be extinguished; thus the playing around of the numbers of Syrians to come to Canada after the Paris attacks.

       The notion of “the people,” discussed above, has a troubling history as the very body of a collective entity that defends itself against the scourge of these stateless: the refugees, the stateless—those on the frontiers of the political. “Man had hardly appeared as a completely emancipated entity…carry[ing] his dignity within himself without some reference to a larger encompassing order, when he disappeared again into being a member of a people,” Arendt writes. Wherever the people has been thought as a body to be protected, nativism and nationalism follow, even by those minorities who have found that politically, their “rights” can only be the “develop[ment] of a fierce, violent group consciousness.” Here is Arendt’s account of the problem of pity:

Pity[’s] alternative is solidarity. It is out of pity that men are attracted toward les hommes faibles, but it is out of solidarity that they establish deliberately and, as it were, dispassionately a community of interest with the oppressed and exploited. The common interest would then be “the grandeur of man,” or “the honor of the human race,” or the dignity of man [note the Kantian “interest” and “dignity” here]. For solidarity, because it partakes of reason, and hence of generality, is able to comprehend, not only the multitude of a class or a nation or a people, but eventually all mankind. But this solidarity, though it may be aroused by suffering, is not guided by it, and it comprehends the strong and the rich no less than the week and the poor.

More along, Arendt writes, “the tragedy of the nation-state was that the people’s rising national consciousness interfered with” the state as “supreme legal institution. …This meant that the state was partly transformed from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation.” We saw this at work, Arendt suggests, during the rise of imperialism, when the colonial bureaucrat could rule by decree over those who did not belong to the nation, as the state already did in so-called states of emergency. But the efficiency of rule by decree became apparent, and soon was brought back to Europe as a whole, with rule over refugees (and the decision to make whole classes of peoples refugees, that is, without a state and without a nation) falling to nameless Kafkaesque bureaucrats.

Rule by decree has conspicuous advantages for the domination of far-flung territories with heterogeneous populations and for a policy of oppression. Its efficiency is superior simply because it ignores all intermediary states between issuance and application, and because it prevents political reasoning through the withholding of information. …[S]ince the people it dominates never really know why something is happening, and a rational interpretation of laws does not exist, there remains only one thing that counts, the brutal naked event itself. What happens to one then becomes subject to an interpretation whose possibilities are endless, unlimited by reason and unhampered by knowledge. (OT, 244)

Arendt describes in Origins that, despite all the pieties of the proclamations of the rights of man and various international agreements, along with the so-called veneration of the rule of law in Europe, which was to delineate the continent from the less “civilized” political regimes of the East and the South, sovereignty’s “lawless arbitrariness” spread quickly to the gendarmeries and local bureaucrats. Where political philosophy focuses on voting rights, questions of legitimacy, parliamentary protocols, and various forms of law-making, Arendt argues that the forces of the political—or rather, what Arendt considers the pre-political forms of violence—had concatenated in the hands of police forces, military officers, and local bureaucrats. Arendt’s claim that the nation had overtaken the state is true enough, especially in light of her belief (one that will become the focus of Foucault’s own genealogies of power in the 1970s) that nationalisms are indexed to an increased vigilance over the safety and security—le public salut—of the living body of the nation. The consequence of the growth of nationalism to its sovereignty over the state is that the police and bureaucrats, those who having the power to let live or make die over each individual, came to rule via a permanent state of emergency that surveilled the nation in the name of its own “welfare” and security, especially as the nation was thought as a common body. Life, then, is no longer just a “conditional gift of the state,” as Rousseau put it so succinctly, but also a “gift” that comes from nowhere and no-one.

Under the rule of no one, as Arendt called the bureaucracies, the experience of the refugee became a generalized phenomena—and not simply because of the exponential rise of the stateless during the interwar period. Political “homelessness” became a major phenomena, as Arendt notes, such that the “very phrase ‘human rights’ became for all concerned—victims, persecutors, and onlookers alike—the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy.” Giorgio Agamben rightly summarizes the problem:

If the refugee represents such a disquieting element in the order of the nation-state, this is primarily because, by breaking the identity between the human and the citizen and between nativity and nationality, it brings the originary fiction of sovereignty to crisis. …What is new in our time is that growing sections of human kind are no longer representable inside the nation-state [this is decidedly not new, but certainly is the self-mythologization of the nation-state], and this novelty threatens the very foundations of the latter. Inasmuch as the refugee, an apparently marginal figure, unhinges the old trinity of nation-state-sovereignty, it deserves instead to be regarded as the central figure of our political history. (Means without End, 49)

The refugee is not, as Arendt and Agamben argue, a secondary issue, but rather the central political problem of our age. The creation of the stateless, the politically “homeless,” is the tool of sovereignty in the modern age; people without their own national government are in fact deprived of what has been called human rights.39 Arendt writes:

[Mass denationalizations] revealed moreover, what had been throughout the history of national sovereignty, that sovereignties of neighboring countries could come not only into deadly conflict in the extreme case of war but in peace. It now became clear that full national sovereignty was possible only as long as the comity of European nations existed; for it was this spirit of unorganized solidarity and agreement that prevented any government’s exercise of its full sovereign power. … It has always been true that sovereignty is nowhere more absolute than in matters [of emigration and naturalization and expulsion]. (OT, 278)

The concept of sovereignty as a “monopoly” over violence became more elastic during modernity, retaining that supreme difference between omnipotence and powerlessness in the “brutal nude event itself,” while moving the sovereign decision beyond the palaces of the monarch. All of which is to say that the police, as Arendt notes, is “no longer an instrument to carry out and enforce the law, but had become a ruling authority independent of government ministries.” Its “emancipation from the law” complimented exactly that same and deadly emancipation from the law of the refugee and the stateless: “an outlaw by definition—he was completely at the mercy of the police, which itself did not worry too much about committing a few illegal acts in order to diminish the country’s burdens of indésirables. In other words, the state, insisting on its sovereign right of expulsion, was forced by the illegal nature of statelessness into admittedly illegal acts.” This is the fundamental lawlessness of the state of exception. The “barbed-wire labyrinths” of the police state were not left behind with the fall of the Third Reich. This labyrinth exists wherever sovereign lawlessness meets up with the lawless people it creates and proclaims.

As Arendt makes clear, the “world is at stake” in politics, thus the need for another thinking of political action in which “silent consent” is but an alibi of innocence in the face of those who are truly “innocent[t] beyond the categories of virtue and vice.”

[T]hey were and appeared to be nothing but human beings whose very innocence—from every point of view, and especially that of the persecuting government—was their greatest misfortune. Innocent, in the sense of complete lack of responsibility, was the mark of their rightlessness as it was the seal of their loss of political status.

Shorn of all rights, Arendt in “Decline of the Nation-State” a recharacterization of the political from the stance of those who have lost all “political status” in terms of rights. Allow me to quote at length:

The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion—formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities—but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. …The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective. Something much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are the rights of citizens, is at stake when belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging is no longer a matter of choice. …They are deprived not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion. Privileges in some cases, injustices in most, blessings and doom are meted out to them according to accident and without any relation whatsoever to what they do, did, or may do. We became aware of the existence of the right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community.

The right to have rights is, no doubt, an enigmatic phrase: what could it mean if the whole notion of rights itself has come under critique. Arendt is arguing, however, that any thinking of rights needs to begin not with rights as such, which must be adjudicated within any political community, but that to be human, precisely, is not to be “but a man,” but to belong to a political community, to have a right to fight within a community to have rights. It was the “loss of a polity” that “expel[ed]” the “stateless from humanity” (OT, 297). The “right to have rights, or the right of every human being to belong to humanity,” to have a place in the world, is an unconditional demand placed upon those who, according to Arendt, can never live in good faith at the evil humans have done and of which they are still capable. As she notes, there is something odd where the slave or the criminal have some place in the world–so what does this mean for our notions of human rights?

To be a slave was after all to have a distinctive character, a place in society–more than the abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human. Not the loss of specific rights, then, but the loss of a community willing and able to guarantee any right whatsoever. …Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity itself expels him from humanity. (OT, 297)

What preceded the second World War was something new, Arendt says. Not that people were left without a home in the world, but that they had no new home to go to. The horrors facing the Syrian refugees looking for some place in the world–anywhere not just for their words and deeds to matter, but simply to survive–is a result of our continued inability, out of a certain Western tradition, to enforce the very language that are the cliches of our political speech about a universal wish for freedom, which always seem to end at one’s borders and often for those marginalized within them.