Month: February 2016

The Punitive Society reviewed by David Garland

At the TLSHere’s a taste:

Though Foucault is often described as a “theorist” he is far from being a theory-builder in the conventional sense. He is, instead, a pragmatic thinker who conceptualizes and re-conceptualizes phenomena according to the problem at hand, adapting his theoretical toolbox in the process. In most of these lectures, there is little overt theorizing. Instead, Foucault narrates concrete historical events and episodes, proposes genealogical inquiries, and suggests low-level socio-historical explanations that stick close to the material.

Lecture on Arendt’s “Race-Thinking before Racism”

[I have been posting my lectures for Political Philosophy. Previously we had taken up Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism sections, such as the prefaces and opening chapter, as well as “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie.” Below takes up critically the sections on “Race Thinking before Racism” and “Race and Bureaucracy” in the Part II, “Imperialism.” In particular, I take up and review claims in Kathryn T. Gines’s recent and excellent treatment of these sections in Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (2014). ]

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

“Race Thinking Before Racism”; “Race and Bureaucracy”

It is tempting to consider what would have been the case if late mercantilism had not robbed French noblemen of their fortunes, if they in turn did not turn to fantastic legends about different nations that came to inhabit 17th century France, if in turn all the elements for imperialism (rootlessness, race-thinking, early capitalism, etc.) had not crystallized into a seemingly implacable structure of the world order, all such that somehow racism–a fully biological, naturalized “ideology,” to use Arendt’s term–in turn did not become the nomenclature behind which generations of Europeans and North Americans, to this day, founded many of their notions of being-with. But this “what if?” would be another legend, as if we are not the historical shadows of these racisms and as if we could do any better than a shadow at ridding ourselves of what stands before us. We are no more “post-racism” than any of us can jump over our own shadow (I seem stuck on this metaphor) and any attempt to deny this would look just as foolhardy. The task today, then, is not just to tease out the “origins” of totalitarianism, but also the “origins” of racism. This isn’t the origin story of legends and racial history which were elevated to something of a “science” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather, we are to look to the past for those elements that crystallized into the institutions, texts, and codes, i.e., fully spatialized, as what we dub “racism”–which is not simply an “idea” and thus never simply, pace Arendt, simply an “ideology.” Not because we can change what we have collectively become, but because we can mark its contingency as a guiding principle of our politics and show that it need not have been. And yet we can’t wish that it hadn’t been.

First published in the Review of Politics (Vol. 6, No. 1 [Jan., 1944]: 36-73), “Race Thinking before Racism” is crucial for understanding the “Imperialism” sections of Origins, as well as Arendt’s question of tone (and content!) regarding those under the heel of the imperialists. Arendt is providing a history of ideas, and here it would help to begin a discussion of her mode of historical analysis. Let’s start near the opening of the chapter we read for today:

Until the fateful days of the “scramble for Africa,” race-thinking had been one of the many free opinions which, within the general framework of liberalism, argued and fought each other to win the consent of public opinion. Only a few of them became full-fledged ideologies, that is, systems based upon a single opinion that proved strong enough to attract and persuade a majority of people and broad enough to lead them through the various experiences and situations of an average modern life. For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the “riddles of the universe,” or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man [my emphasis]. Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all others: the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes, and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races. …[F]ree public opinion has adopted [these keys or ideologies] to such an extent that not only intellectuals but great masses of people will no longer accept a presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with either of these views. (OT, 159)

Voilà, we have a central passkey to much critical analysis during the long march of the Cold War, one that is heard among reactionaries today, namely the term ideology. Always used as a pejorative, Marx had used “Ideology” to refer to the conscious forms that hide the class interests at issue in a given society. We can simplistically refer to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, which held together a feudalism otherwise unthinkable in terms of its longevity, or we can refer now to the “freedom of choice” that we are told will end if we choose anything other than the free market system, which means we are indeed not free to choose what is truly at stake beyond which type of floor cleaner best removes the grim stench of our wasted lives [just threw that in there to see if you’re paying attention]. For thinkers of the midcentury ideology does not refer to that which hides the class struggle, but rather to a system of thought that reduces all phenomena to a single key, no matter the “presentation of past or present facts” that are “not in agreement” with them. The term is still used–always imprecisely–to refer to one’s political enemies: conservatives are ideologues, liberals are ideologues, and don’t even get me started on the socialists. If I seem pejorative about this use of the pejorative “ideology,” it’s because:

  1. It was a term of art, for long after Arendt wrote these pages, for diminishing enemies of imperialism. Those believing in using the military and CIA funding to open up “free markets” in the developing world were freedom fighters; all others were under a cult-like adherence to a single idea.
  2. It suggests that in looking at history’s development, one should look to the history of ideas. This is the typical narcissism of intellectuals and philosophers, namely that history is driven by ideas. But racism as a system is a set of alliances produced in institutions, texts, movies, and the glance of an eye at a street corner bodega. Racism is irreducible to political economy–I agree with Arendt on that–but to call it an idea would mean considering history as only a history of ideas, not in terms of the brute materiality of causes, of how our geographies that shape us are spaced in terms of race, and so on.
  3. Following (2), it’s not the case that people are simply “persuaded” by race as an idea. If one grows up in a given milieu of racism, when and where is the persuasion? There’s no one who comes to your door and asks if you would like to convert to racism today. If this sounds simplistic, I nevertheless wonder just how much work “persuasion” is doing above. I understand why Arendt uses it: persuasion means there is a level of agency for those persuaded. But racism is not carried out at the level of ideas, but through and on the bodies of those stained by it. It is not the result of persuasion, but something like the dominant discourse for a post-19th-century era (though others would put it much earlier than Arendt).

Let’s now follow Arendt’s analysis from a certain set of opinions (“race thinking”) to its arrival in the 19th century as an ideology (“racism”). Arendt begins by noting that racism should not be equated with nationalism, since “from the very beginning, racism deliberately [my emphasis] cut across all national boundaries,” and “historically speaking, racists have a worse record of patriotism than the representatives of all other international ideologies together” (OT, 161). They simply didn’t share an idea of mankind with various nationalists, who at least gave lip service to the comity of nations. Count me as skeptical of this claim, since nationalists are always particularists, making no universal claims for rights, since they belong only or most pertinently to a given nation. I think this is the case both for the first thinking of “nation” in such figures as the Comte Henri de Boulainvilliers, a French nobleman who is key to Arendt’s story, as well as contemporary nationalists. In any event, Boulainvilliers was writing at the beginning of the 18th century, depicting the history of France as the a war between two classes or nations; Arendt suggests he invents both notions that will form the beating heart of the ideologies she presents in OT. These two nations were the Franks, who were Germanic and barbarian warriors who usurped the rights of the Gauls, who were there earlier. As such he was saying that the true French nation had been at the mercy of strangers, namely those who took up the long succession that is the French crown.

This marks the first stage of “race thinking,” namely the thinking of nations not tied to a particular soil and invented by the noblemen for the sake of protecting privileges that otherwise would have been lost. They wrote history differently, too, not from the point of view of the great king and his glories, but from the point of view of a nation, one whose history is liable to be forgotten; history, then, becomes another tool in the arsenal for those seeking power, or rather, it always had been for the sake of emperors. We can say, then, that whatever changes since, the idea of a “people’s history,” a history written from below, has its roots in the soil tilled by Boulainvilliers and other nobles.

For Arendt, these noblemen actually split the incipient thinking of “nation” at the time, which was, it seems, just a marker of those people on a given territory. But nationalisms in Germany were of a different order, used to try to bring those of a common origin against the usurpations of the nobles, Arendt claims. This would be a second stage in race-thinking. It is difficult, Arendt admits, to think of German “nationalism” without its racist tilt, since we can’t help but see them as “what we know today to be racial terms,” that is, it’s all but unthinkable otherwise given the contemporary vantage point (OT, 166). We begin, nevertheless, in the early 19th century to mark a shift, from thinking of a common language of the French or Germans, to thinking of each as a “pure, unmixed stock” (ibid.). This race thinking, still, she believes could “uphold the central pillar of genuine nationhood, the equality of all peoples,” that is, each people as a set was equal. Yet, the stage was set to see one’s merit not in terms of what one does but through one’s birth.

At this point, Arendt introduces Count Arthur de Gobineau, whose Essai sur l’Inégalité des Races Humaines, is in her reading crucial to the birth of modern racism. (It is unclear, at least to me, whether Arendt thinks he’s reflective of changes underway, a marker of them, or whether he has a causal effect on others.) Nevertheless, she writes:

He was only a curious mixture of frustrated nobleman and romantic intellectual who invented [my emphasis] racism almost by accident. …In sad contrast to this teachers [older nationalists] he had to explain why the best men, noblemen, could not even hope to regain their former position. Step by step, he identified the fall of his caste with the fall of France, then of Western civilization, and then of the whole of mankind…[He argued] the fall of civilizations is due to a degeneration of race and the decay of race is due to a mixture of blood. (OT, 172)

Here we get not a set of opinions, as before, but a full-fledge ideology, which no longer needs facts since it has found the “key” to history. Arendt writes:

Ideologists who pretend [do they know they’re pretending and what would it mean otherwise?] to possess the key to reality are forced to change and twist their opinions about single cases according to the latest events and can never afford to come into conflict with their ever-changing deity, reality. It would be absurd to ask people to be reliable who by their very convictions must justify any given situation. (OT, 174)

As such we then get racism–or we’re almost there–and the pseudo-sciences that sprang up around them, from applications of Darwin to the races to all manner of anthropological fantasies that were the daily bread of intellectual life throughout the late 19th century. But something else was needed: Arendt avers that “thinking in terms of race would have disappeared in due time together with other irresponsible opinions of the nineteenth century” had their not been the so-called “scramble for Africa” and its “expos[ure] of Western humanity to new and shocking experience” (OT, 183). It is here that we might have our “shocking experience” in reading Arendt. Let me work through some passages from chapter seven, “Race and Bureaucracy,” with some help from Kathryn T. Gines’s treatment of these themes in Arendt, namely in her Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (2014). Before doing so, let’s take what Arendt says “racism” will do: (1) it will rely on intellectuals to provide the pseudo-theories that back up the ideology; (2) it will cut across national boundaries (think of the transnational categorization of races into white, black, yellow, red, and so on, from the nineteenth century and still used by racists today); (3) it will reject the principle of the equality of peoples, or even of people within a race who happen to be “mixed.”

Gines, whose work I will quote further below, outlines at least four criticisms of Arendt, even as she notes how she was “initially impressed at the connections Arendt makes between racism, imperialism, and totalitarianism” (HANQ, xii). But where she comes to a full stop is when experiencing “outrag[e] at her condescending and stereotypical characterizations of people of African descent” (ibid.). I’m moving a bit quickly typing this up for today, but, like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), Arendt’s writings are unclear as to whether she is merely taking on the guise of imperialist racists or is parroting their views. Let’s mark out some of Gines’s criticisms:

  1. “While there are places where it seems ­Arendt is offering a continuation argument concerning imperialism in Africa and totalitarianism in Europe, it is also the case that she emphasizes the uniqueness of Nazism and the totalitarian Holocaust as altogether different from and more brutal than imperialism” (HANQ, 78). This is a key question: is the problem of imperialism because it will lead to totalitarianism, or is it something of a unique horror all its own, no matter where it leads? In other words, Arendt practices a cruel Eurocentrism, it would seem, by thinking the problem of imperialism not because of its murderous and disastrous consequences for the colonized, but because of how it will be brought back to Europe. But it’s also a reminder that in the political, we should get out of the business of attempting to quantify and measure the relations between different “holes of oblivion.”
  2. Arendt suggests that 18th century slavery was different, e.g. in the U.S., did not have the biological racism behind it as it would later. (She makes the dubious assertion that the founding fathers were ready, after some time, to be rid of their slaves.) In this way, Arendt lines up with certain critical races theorists and such thinkers as Michel Foucault, who argue that there is something different in kind about the racial thinking of the 19th century. Yet, Gines notes, “I am arguing that the genocide, oppression, and aggression characteristic of this era operated along the lines of categories that we now classify as racial” (HANQ, 79).
  3. Arendt overlooks, Gines says, all those cases where in principle a nation “accepts” a certain equality yet in practice fails to adhere to it (Haiti’s revolution and the violent reaction of the French, who had just waged a revolution in the name of freedom and equality, comes to mind).
  4. While Arendt makes it clear that differences among peoples are not because of skin color but behavior, she seems to repeat the values of the colonizers. For example, Arendt writes, “Under a merciless sun, surrounded by an entirely hostile nature, they were confronted with human beings who, living without the future of a purpose and the past of an accomplishment, were as incomprehensible as the inmates of a madhouse” (OT, 190, my emphasis); the Boers in South Africa were “never able to forget their first horrible fright before a species of men whom human pride and human dignity could not allow them to accept as fellow-men,” which “became the basis for a race society” (OT, 192, my emphasis). Another quote at more length:

What made them different from other human beings was not at all the color of their skin but the fact that they behaved like a part of nature, that they treated nature as their undisputed master, that they had not created a human world, a human reality, and that therefore nature had remained, in all its majesty, the only overwhelming reality-compared to which they appeared to be phantoms, unreal and ghostlike. They were, as it were, “natural” human beings who lacked the specifically human character, the specifically human reality, so that when European men massacred them they somehow were not aware that they had committed murder. (OT, 192)

As Gines notes, “Arendt appears to be speaking in her own voice here” and these “African tribes did not adequately express human reason, passion, culture, or customs” (HANQ, 88). She concludes: “This is ­Arendt’s personal description of Africans, not just an adaptation of a European perspective. And yet, even if ­Arendt is describing the perspective of Europeans or imperialists toward Africans, and not her own, it is problematic that she presents this view uncritically” (HANQ, 89).

(5) In short, for Gines, she seems to make the reaction of the Europeans a “fathomable response by Europeans toward Africans, who (in her estimation) lacked civilization, reason, culture, history, and political institutions” (HANQ, 128). As Arendt herself puts it, race was “the emergency explanation of human beings whom no European or civilized man could understand and whose humanity so frightened and humiliated the immigrants that they no longer cared to belong to the same human species” (OT, 185).

These are indeed troubling passages, not least since it is here–not in earlier sections concerning Jews of the lower classes, or secular Jews of the nineteenth century, or later in Eichmann concerning Jewish leaders of Eastern Europe–that Arendt writes with a certain sympathy, with barely a scathing word for those caught up in the imperialist machinery of death and oppression. Not one passage, of course, is written to explain the views–available in so many works at the time she is writing–of those who were, in fact, anything but cultureless and, if any lacked a future, it was only because of the genocidal plans of depressingly racist adventurers and imperialists.

For next time, we turn to “The Decline and Fall of the Nation-State,” which I believe to be the most important chapter in the book. There Arendt gives a description of the masses of Europeans who were refugees, like the imperialists before them, and who were “rootless,” which is a notably ironic description since it was precisely their “rootlessness” that was said by the anti-Semites of …well, of all time to be precisely a Jewish trait. We will also need to discuss the rise of the bureaucratic state, how it differed from earlier forms of governance, and how, on Arendt’s account, it was perfected in the European colonies. This rule of no one, she explains, is the modern state at its heart: irresponsible, anonymous governance for anonymous, atomized masses, and a troubling element in the origins of totalitarianism.

Philosophers as Bureaucrats of Sadism

I have been lecturing the past two weeks on Hannah Arendt, moving through her Origins of Totalitarianism before approaching her others works as the semester proceeds. Class discussion has focused around vexing questions about responsibility, which in Arendt means not just those functionaries of violence but also, most controversially, Jews and others caught up in the machinery of violence. I’ll post today’s lecture a bit later, but part of it contains this quotation from Arendt from a 1964 essay on responsibility under a dictatorship:

I had somehow [she is here describing her Eichmann book] taken it for granted that we all still believe with Socrates that it is better to suffer than to do wrong. This belief turned out to be a mistake. There was a widespread conviction that it is impossible to withstand temptation of any kind, that none of us could be trusted when the chips are down, that to be tempted and to be forced are almost the same, whereas in the words of Mary McCarthy [an important writer and friend of Arendt’s], who first spotted this fallacy: “If someone points a gun at you and say ‘Kill your friend or I will kill you,’ he is tempting you, that is all.” And while a temptation where one’s life is at stake may be a legal excuse for a crime, it is certainly not a moral justification. (p. 18)

Whatever one thinks of Arendt’s analysis, what interests me for this quick-ish post is that the response engenders a problematic one that makes me (or the professor in any political or ethics course) into a certain sadist imagining the lines between this and that behavior–between what counts as coerced and that which doesn’t. That is, it doesn’t take long for questions to be raised about where one should, in light of Arendt, put the line between temptation and force, to use her words from above. What about if someone shot you in the leg? What if I’m not yet being water-boarded (we dealt with a quote from Arendt on torture as having a natural force) but fear it? What if… What if…? This is the daily bread of many ethics and political philosophy courses, but I have become more adamant about refusing this gesture. Arendt’s point is not to begin to detail situations that would absolve one of responsibility, but in fact the reverse, since she’s trying to remove all bad faith determinisms. And it’s not a “what if” scenario above, but McCarthy (and by extension Arendt) are referencing a well-worn post-War disavowal of responsibility by various functionaries: it was like (and all hangs on the abyss between the terms of this analogy) one had put a gun their head. And Arendt in turn says, well, in fact, let’s see if even in that case one has zero level of agency.

Moreover, it’s certainly not a task for us to imagine–sadistically–those cases that count, like the worst form of arm-chair philosophizing, a point I also had in mind when torture came up during the late Bush years in the classroom and students wanted to hash out various 24-style scenarios. Why spend our time in classes in such joint fantasies? Some will suggest that this then means that we will allow the lines to be blurred, we won’t distinguish–abstractly, mind you–between what is torture and what isn’t, and so on. But as philosophers, this only has the affect of making us bureaucrats of that violence, like those Bush-era (and no doubt, also Obama-era) attorneys parsing out in Kafkaesque ways all manner of horrors. We are not here to quantify pain, adjudicate this level of horror and no more, etc. Rather I always return the question: why precisely does that abstraction interest us, rather than dealing with the very specific example at issue? Why a need to measure how much horror a hypothetical Arendt would permit–here and no more? These moments end up as creative lessons in irresponsibility–not the reverse, a point I hope follows a bit from the above. If this means that leaves me out of many “applied ethics” or “political” discussions, then so be it.

Lecture on Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism


[Part II (Imperialism), pp. 123-157]

At the end of “On the Nature of Totalitarianism,” as we noted last time, Arendt writes, “[T]he experience of the materially and sensually given world depends, in the last analysis, upon the fact that not one man, but men in the plural inhabit the earth” (EU, 360). We touched upon, I think, a key theme that will return to us, namely the responsibility that singularizes each of us in the face of human plurality, a vexing problem given Arendt’s analyses concerning one’s responsibility under conditions of the worst. Not just the responsibility of those who are history’s perpetrators, but also those who are its “victims,” which throws us an aporia: (1) we describe the victims of the Nazis in such a way as to render them “wholly innocent”—to borrow Arendt’s phrase—and thus render then as passive, inert, as mere reacting bundles, which frighteningly mirrors the aim of totalitarian regimes in the Gulags and death camps. It would also mirrors their complete “naturalization” of their victims. The death camps were to a be a real world proof of what the Nazis always held about the Jews, but which we can see in all forms of racism and misogyny, where the marginalized is made but a body, a ‘pratico-inert’, to borrow a Sartrean phrase, unable to be an agent in and of history. (2) We recognize a given agency on the part of the oppressed, on the part of the victims and hence—definitionally, since there is no freedom without responsibility and vice-versa—play into the hands, it would seem, of those who would blame the victim. How many victims of various forms of assault, or how many Germans after the second world war, would blame the victims in order to exonerate those privileged by a given social or political regime? In “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship” (collected in the volume Responsibility and Judgment) Arendt gives us a stark example:

I had somehow [she is here describing her Eichmann book] taken it for granted that we all still believe with Socrates that it is better to suffer than to do wrong. This belief turned out to be a mistake. There was a widespread conviction that it is impossible to withstand temptation of any kind, that none of us could be trusted when the chips are down, that to be tempted and to be forced are almost the same, whereas in the words of Mary McCarthy [an important writer and friend of Arendt’s], who first spotted this fallacy: “If someone points a gun at you and say ‘Kill your friend or I will kill you,’ he is tempting you, that is all.” And while a temptation where one’s life is at stake may be a legal excuse for a crime, it is certainly not a moral justification. (p. 18)

I would wish to juxtapose this with Arendt’s claims in On Violence and elsewhere concerning the distinction between “violence,” which is instrumental and coercive, and power, which relies on persuasion. Violence, she argues, is mute, and, as she puts it in The Human Condition, “To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence” (HC, 26).

No man-exerted violence, except the violence used in torture, can match the natural force with which necessity itself compels. It is for this reason that the Greeks derived their word for torture from necessity, calling it anagkai, and not from bia, used for violence as exerted by man over man, just as this is the reason for the historical fact that throughout occidental antiquity torture, the “necessity no man can withstand,” could be applied only to slaves, who were subject to necessity anyhow. (HC, 46)

In other words, with violence of at least one kind (torture) comes necessity, which would seem to go against her discussion above, where it is a temptation and not a necessity. But perhaps its the case that there is all the world of difference between torture and one’s obedience in the face of a fear of that torture or violence. Before turning to the chapters in Origins for today, namely those that open its “Imperialism” section concerning “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie” and, at least to begin, some thoughts on “Race-Thinking Before Racism,” I want to pursue this line of thought for a moment, though we will need a full accounting of Arendt’s arguments on responsibility when we read about Eichmann and some of her later works on judgment. The task Arendt takes up in that essay is to wave away supposedly dominant modes in the early 1960s (the essay is from 1964) of lessening the responsibility of those who acted under the “moral collapse” of the Nazi regime: under such a regime, one is a mere cog in a machine; following orders is itself expected under all previous states that we have known of, so following orders is just a matter of course; a given culture or history or Plato or whatever is a proximate cause of Nazism; and most pointedly, one is merely obeying what is a horrifyingly totalizing and totalitarian regime, where the political and the private have no meaning anymore. As she says, in light of that, we are often faced with the question, “Who is to judge?” a phrase that is all the more popular in the 50 years since: who but the morally conservative sits in judgment of others? Who but a moral saint could look to another’s actions to find them morally dubious? Isn’t judging others but a dubious way in which one forces one’s cultural values onto another? I don’t doubt it for second that it’s an affirmative on each of these counts. And yet, despite Arendt’s claim that we are in an era of “thinking without banisters”—that is, without the aid of cultural mores and traditions given the “death of God”—judgment is precisely an act of understanding (in her meaning of that term, which we have explored) and coming to terms with our present—or indeed, our past. Let me quote from her a bit at length from “Responsibility under a Dictatorship,” where she takes up those who resisted “obey[ing] the laws of the land,” which is but “support” for “its constitution” (p. 47). Obedience for Arendt is support:

[T]he nonparticipators [those who find ways not to obey] in public life under a dictatorship are those who have refused their support by shunning those places of “responsibility” where such support, under the name of obedience, is required. And we have only for a moment to imagine what would happen to any of these forms of government if enough people would act “irresponsibly” [i.e., actually responsible] and refuse support, even without active resistance and rebellion, to see how effective a weapon this could be. It is in fact one of the many variations of nonviolent action and resistance—for instance the power [this will become a key term in her writings] that is potential in civil disobedience—which are being discovered in our century [that is, given the widespread actions that fall under the proper names of Gandhi or King, Jr.]. …[T]here is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters…..Hence the question addressed to those who participated and obeyed orders never should be, “Why did you obey?” but “Why did you support?” …Much would be gained if we could eliminate this pernicious word “obedience” from our vocabulary of moral and political thought. (p. 48)

This would seem to take us somewhat afield from discussions of a certain “responsibility” of those that Arendt “judges” in both Origins and Eichmann, namely the victims of the regime, not just its all-too-willing executioners. But it is axiomatic for Arendt that where there is power—that is, humans in the plural acting together—there is the ability to resist, that is, not to obey. Let’s read from Origins in the section read for today, where she takes up Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651). In that text, Hobbes had argued famously that life in the state of nature was “nasty, brutish, and short,” given that man by nature was competitive, acquisitive, and always after an increase in its power. The solution to this problem is the social contract, whereby the state has a monopoly over violence, instead of the violence open to one and all in the state of nature. This politics, then, is based on security, which is to say, life and nothing more, where the relation between states remains on the rapacious model of the state of nature—a war of all against all. In sum, Arendt identifies in Hobbes—we can debate another time the accuracy of her reading—what will become the dual nature of the modern nation-state: rule by decree by an omnipotent state in order to guard the endless process of accumulation that would become capitalist imperialism—neither one without the other. Return to the question of obedience, Arendt writes about Hobbes’s Leviathan:

[The Leviathan or state] acquires a monopoly on killing and provides in exchange a conditional guarantee against being killed [very conditional, I would add]. Security is provided by the law [in fact, it’s the state’s raison d’être]…And as this law flows directly from absolute power, it represents [this word is crucial in this sentence for our discussion: is it a simulacra of what it represents, or is it that it succeeds in brings into the world…] absolute necessity in the eyes of the individual who lives under it. In regard to the law of the state…there is no right or wrong, but only absolute obedience, the blind conformism of bourgeois society. (OT, 141)

That is, there is actually something politically reactionary when those who oppose x, y, or z build it into an omnipotent entity, one that cannot be resisted. There are mass effects of such things as capitalism, or patriarchy, or racialisms that no doubt found even or especially in those who would declare themselves clean or innocent of implication in them: I am not a racist, I don’t participate in patriarchy, I do the best I can not to benefit from my place in a given economic class. And yet, while one cannot simply choose for or against capitalism, for or against partriarchy, for or against racialisms—that is, one person’s choice cannot wish them away nor one’s historicity as overdetermined by them—one should not, for Arendt, I think, make these into omnipotent entities not in fact supported by the micro-politics of individual decisions. Where all are responsible, none are, Arendt often repeated; this has the upshot that if we recognize some x’s power, that is, the seeming infinity of alliances that support capitalism or patriarchy or systemic racism, those who resist should see how this opens many more places for resistance, neither being naive about what those wanting systemic or structural change face but not rendering these implacable, all-powerful entities against which all resistance is null and void a priori. In short, perhaps one modus operandi for a certain reactionary bent–if under the cover of critique and progressive good conscience–is precisely to build what one opposed into a One-All in order to dispense with any responsibility for changing it. For now, let’s leave for now a promissory note to keep returning to this conversation, given the need for responsibility and judgment here, there, and everywhere that humans in the plural, and not just a human being, inhabit a given world.


“Expansion for Expansion’s Sake”

Let’s now dive into that wide instrument of violence that is and was imperialism, under which, Arendt leaves no doubt, Europe perfected the horrifying techniques of domination, including the first uses of concentration camps, that would be imported back into Europe as one of the elements in the crystallization of totalitarianism. Here is a summary of Arendt’s claims here:

(1) The “central inner-European event of the imperialist period was the political emancipation of bourgeoisie” (123). The bourgeoisie in Marxian terms are the owners of the means of production. As the bourgeoisie ascended as a class, it broke up the old laws and rules that protected the pre-capitalist order. At first, the bourgeoisie practiced what Michel Foucault calls a vast series of “illegalisms,” that is, they were corrupt from the start and could only get underway by by-passing the petty rules and laws that hitherto protected the more or less “feudal” schemes of guilds and so on. As they ascended, however, industrialization forced out of the economic order all manner of competitors (think of the Wal-Mart that comes to town that then puts out of business all manner of small business owners), producing a superfluous army of human beings whose former political order provided something of the glue between one and another. In short, we get the beginnings of political atomization that Arendt argues is in a principle of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (a bit more below).

(2) In this way, as the bourgeoisie grew with the nation-state, which “almost by definition ruled over and beyond a class-divided society,” since the bourgeoisie was matched by the proletariat, or rather those vagabonds and criminals—they were forced into such because of the radical changes in political economy—that would become the workers in the factories and, later, the desperate workers seeking out hope abroad (123). [Discuss.]

(3) Imperialism is not colonialism and it is not conquest. We are starting to get a feel for Arendt’s thinking through an understanding of the “unprecedented,” that is, what is wholly new (imperialism) and irreducible to previous steps by states and such to secure holdings away from the home country. Most markedly, she argues, in pre-capitalist colonialism, government is based “primarily on law” and as such “conquest could be followed by integration of the most heterogeneous peoples by imposing upon them a common law” (125). At least that is her claim for Republican Rome, for example. But the completely different form of governance that is the nation-state is different from this rule of law over disparate peoples: “[T]he nation-state…is based on a homogenous population’s active consent to its government…and would, in the case of conquest, have to assimilate rather than to integrate, to enforce consent rather than justice, that is, to degenerate into tyranny” (125). But if the colonies were not ruled by law, what in fact where they ruled by? For the bourgeoisie, “the state had always been only a well-organized police force” (138)—there simply for the protection of its property, a point she says can also be found in Hobbes. That is, they “always consider[ed] political institutions exclusively as an instrument for the protection of individual property” (149). As such, when the bourgeoisie ran into the problem of superfluous funds—that is, the new industries impoverished so many even as they produced unquestionable profits—that needed to be invested somewhere. After all, if expansion is an end in itself, money merely sitting in a bank or under a gilded mattress is not out earning even more money; the bourgeoisie, as investors, may not labor like the masses, but their money certainly should. There was superfluous capital that needed to find someplace for “productive investment” (135). In any event, we have two consequences: in the nation-state, there was some modicum of the rule of law—especially as the laws protected bourgeois interests (it helps to have the police around to make sure there aren’t thefts in factories or off of one’s ships.) But in the colonies, the colonial administrators ruled by decree. This kind of rule, she argues, would provide a practice run for the administrative rule by decree that would become the modus operandi of European governance in the interwar period, especially for the stateless. The colonies were police states—“ruthless imperialist rule by decree”–given that “national institutions remain[ed] separate from colonial administration” (131). And since the bourgeoisie only wanted security, it cared little about the institutions of the political: “What imperialists wanted was the expansion of political power without the foundation of a body politic,” she writes (135). Wanting the wealth provided by imperlialism but, as politicians, uncomfortable (though about this I’m doubtful) with non-political means of governance, states in the 19th century faced a quandary:

The various national governments looked with misgiving upon the growing tendency to transform business into a political issue and to identify the economic interests of a relatively small group with national interests as such. But it seemed that the only alternative to the export of power was the deliberate sacrifice of a great part of the national wealth. Only through the expansion of the national instruments of violence could the foreign-investment movement be rationalized, and the wild speculations with superfluous capital, which had provoked gambling of all savings, be reintegrated into the economic system of the nation. The state expanded its power because, given the choice between greater losses than the economic body of any country could sustain and greater gains than any people left to its own devices would have dreamed of, it could only choose the latter. The first consequence of power export was that the state’s instruments of violence, the police and the army, which in the framework of the nation existed beside, and were controlled by, other national institutions, were separated from this body and promoted to the position of national representatives in uncivilized or weak countries. (136)

(4) As she notes in a quote from the South African imperialist Cecil Rhodes—one of the truly horrific characters of history—imperialism has at its heart the view that “expansion” was an end in itself. “Expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics is the central political idea of imperialism,” she writes. It is “an entirely new concept in the history of politics”—neither looting nor a more “lasting assimilation of conquest,” since it is not a political concept at all has “its origin in the realm of business speculation” (125). Yet, there is a natural limit within the nation-state (e.g. French territory on the continent). “Imperialism was born,” she argues, “when the ruling class in capitalist production came up against the national limitation to its economic expansion” (126). Here she makes a distinction that will become crucial between economics and politics for such works as The Human Condition: “In contrast to the economic structure, the political structure cannot be expanded indefinitely, because it is not based upon the productivity of man, which is, indeed, unlimited. Of all forms of government and organizations of people, the nation-state is least suited for unlimited growth because the genuine consent at its base cannot be stretched indefinitely, and is only rarely, and with difficulty, won from conquered peoples.” (126) In fact, ironically, wherever the nation-state did conquer areas, it spread the ideals on which it stood, namely a desire for self-determination based on a similarity of those colonized.

(5) But of course, it was not just for economic reasons that it would take two world wars, widespread insurgencies, and the redrawing of the political map under the banner of the Cold War (which itself was another guise of imperialism) for Europe to cut back its imperial ambitions. Arendt’s critique of Marx in this chapter is to see imperialism wholly in terms of political economy, which she says doesn’t account for the odd alliance of the mobs and bourgeoisie. But she argues “race” is the key to explaining this: the new nationalisms and pseud-scientific racisms allowed for a commonality among those who formed the mobs and those who were the owners of the colonial enterprises (152). In capitalism one loses all connection to fellow-men, she argues, and race became the glue that replaced a previous sense of political community.

As such, contra Marxian type of analyses, Arendt thinks the problems of modernity are disparate if interconnected elements that are political and economic: the rise and “perfection” of police state apparatuses; the creation of superfluous capital; economic cyclical collapses that produced a “mob” of those who could serve oversees; the increased replacement of political communities with notions of race, which provided for the raison d’être of imperialism—ruling those who couldn’t rule themselves, manned by those who previously were the “scum of the earth” in their own states. Next time, we turn to Arendt’s account of the rise of racism in modernity out of early kinds of “race thinking,” which in turn would be a key element in the rise of totalitarianism—and a mode of political thinking that, along with imperialistic uses of the state for bourgeois expansion—is very much still with us.