Month: February 2016

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.







Arendt Lecture to the Beginning of Origins of Totalitarianism

[I’ll post some more from my course on Arendt this semester. I began with Aristotle and Rousseau to set up the work for her. I gave an overview of her work the previous class and here we dive in, a bit, while noting common critiques of her work. Nevertheless in class, it was clear from questions that Arendt’s questioning of what to say about the ‘innocent’–those who history sometimes makes completely passive entities–was central.]

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

Prefaces, 3-10, pp. 54-88

Wednesday 3 February, 2016

At the end of “On the Nature of Totalitarianism,” which we read for Monday, 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). Let me begin by noting that we should make sure to step back more considerably from here on out, by which I mean from this lecture and into the text and into questions that you have, including points you wish to make, passages you wish to take up, and so forth. After all, it is not one man (me) upon this earth or in this class, but human beings in the plural. But as we do so, I wish to make this citation from Arendt our repeatable heading for each of lectures, though over the next six weeks or so, that might become tedious, even as I wish to let this quotation be rethought and requestioned with each text that we read from her. We can juxtapose this with a previous beginning point in the course. For example, in Aristotle, inasmuch as we are political animals (politikon zôon [Pol., 1253a3]), that is, we are by nature (phusei) in community with others, there can be no happiness without living well (euzēn), without living (zēn) in a koinonia. Anyone who is without a community, Aristotle writes, is “like an isolated piece” left over from a game of draughts (1253a12), or more pointedly, is so self-sufficient (autarkeian) as to be “either a beast [therion] or a god [theos]” (Pol., 1253a28-9). Thus Arendt’s claim, no doubt, appears a commonplace, a patently obvious assertion that would be undeniable, since once one denied it, one must be denying it to another, even the Other in oneself that one is trying to convince, and thus we are back to the fact that there is plurality in the world. Aristotle told us as much, it would seem, and thus one would wonder why Arendt would ever make this a repeatable dictum in many of her works. Why not just tell us that the Earth is round and the water in our harbor is cold?

Yet in the background one can hear Martin Heidegger’s argument that we are ontologically always already in a world with others: “the world is always one,” he writes, “that I share [teile] with Others” (SZ, M&R trans., 118). This originary condition of being-with (Mitsein) others is not at the epistemological level (can I know the other?) but an ontological condition of possibility along with being in the world itself; neither one without the other. Again, the world is definitionally shared with Others such that a world would not be such unless it is something shared. But also integral to this is that we are not integral or integers, single entities, self-sufficient or having autarkeia, over and against a world with Others, but rather the reverse: all considerations of ourselves as individuals, as integers of a sort, is a phantasm or fiction or abstraction from an originary being with. This state of Being as Being-with, for Heidegger, grounds the possibility of the ontic condition of “being-oneself” and not vice-versa. For Heidegger, it is not the case that the subject is formed and then performs his or her ontic tasks. On the contrary, the “there” of our being (Heidegger played often on the fact that our existence [Dasein in German] is a being [sein] there [da], that is, in the world that we are, our topos or place that we “inhabit,” as Arendt puts it; it is our home in the full sense of the term in English since it is where we dwell, not as some abstraction, but as a place of meaning. Thus we are always already with [mit] others just as we are always already in the world; even when alone, Dasein is constituted ontologically as with others, even if ontically, there is no particular other around. In fact, Heidegger remarks that Dasein may be most alone when “surrounded” by Others, a point that will go to the heart of Arendt’s analysis of loneliness and atomized mass man in the modern age. Mitsein or being-with is the ontological/existential characteristic of Dasein even in the factical situation wherein an other is not disclosed to us in the world. Nevertheless, as Heidegger notes, both Mitsein and Mitdasein are equiprimordial to being-in-the-world as existential structures of Dasein. This means that Dasein has the same world there with Others and “being with one another in the manner of being-for-one-another” (Heidegger, The Concept of Time, p. 8). The fundamental way in which Daseins have a world with one another is via speaking (Sprechen), which is “one-self speaking out in speaking with another about something. It is predominantly in speaking that man’s being-in-the-world takes place” (Heidegger, The Concept of Time, p. 8). Again, we can here Aristotle: human beings are the “zoon logon echon,” that being that has speech (Sprechen, logos as legein), that gives an account (logos) of itself.

But with this in background, who would deny, who could deny that it is not a “human being” but “human beings” who inhabit the Earth? Do we need to circuit this back through a Heidegger or Aristotle to understand the plain meaning of this? But let us return to our other principle quotation this semester, from Rousseau: “man [l’homme] is born free, and yet everywhere he [il] is in chains.” Note the singular in this sentence, which is neither accidental nor without meaning. Clearly, we would say, Rousseau does not mean only one human being is born free, or is simply repeating a dominant emphasis in social contract theory on what is integral, on what is an integer, namely the individual who has certain natural rights and trades those rights for civic rights, just as I might trade so many dollars for this cup of coffee. He means, simply, man in general: men everywhere are born free ontologically and yet ontically or empirically we could say, following Heidegger, they are in chains. But I would want to extend Arendt here to say that I believe she would refuse the central impetus of modern humanism, namely that in order to provide dignity politically or ethically to those we dub the human, we must treat them in terms of their essential sameness. Isn’t this Rousseau’s central claim? And isn’t it one we take as patently obvious, all but undeniable [the all but is crucial since I’m leaving a crack open to denying it], namely that politics should treat us in terms of our sameness, since this is what it means to live under the rule of universal laws, to consider what is to be done rationally and with reason, without partiality or our inclinations? Isn’t this the rule of reason and the law that we find in our Western tradition from Plato to Aristotle to Rousseau to Kant and beyond? Isn’t this what Rousseau means by the general will, namely that we become morally upright, we stand as humans, only inasmuch as we can transcend our particular wills to think what is to be done in terms of what reason dictates? Isn’t it precisely this life which is the “conditional gift of the state,” since in the state, in politics, we are to treat each one the same and without partiality, and those living another life, those living a life that is less rational, less able to wed reason to our natural pity, deserve—otherwise it is a “cruelty to all the others” [see my last Rousseau lecture]—the death penalty? And, as we come to it today, isn’t allegiance to this ideal our last, best hope for combatting the creeping nationalisms and anti-Semitisms of Europe in the nineteenth century, which are precisely partial, full of passion, and anything but reasonable? And why am I asking so many questions?

It may take some time to get there this semester, but we will need to show how plurality, the fact that it is “men,” not man in general, as an idea, inhabit or dwell on the earth gives Arendt a means from which to pivot to another thinking of politics, not least since she would argue that various nationalisms and communisms are varieties of the politics of sameness, of being unable to deal with a politics of the implacable difference between and among us, since that is what is destroyed first in the very regimes she discusses. In short, totalitarianism by reducing all to bare life, to mere survival in the face of abject fear, can admit no distinction between one and the other. Here she takes up the post-French-Revolutionary problem of equality, or rather its irony/tragedy for the Jews: “Equality of condition, though it is certainly a basic requirement for justice, is nevertheless among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind. The more equal conditions are, the less explanation there is for the differences that actually exist between people; and thus all the more unequal do individuals and groups become” (OT, 54). [Discuss and fill in.]

With all of that in mind, we can open the pages of Origins. Published, as I noted Monday, in 1951 (she discusses various updates to it in your edition from her first completing the text in 1949; pp. xxiii-xxiv), the preface to the first edition begins with a quotation from Karl Jaspers: “Weder dem Vergangenen anheimfallen noch dem Zukünftigen. Es kommt darauf an, ganz gegenwärtig zu sein,” which means, “Succumb neither to the past nor to the future. It is important to be completely in the present” (OT, vii), which mirrors what Arendt had been saying about understanding: we must not be a victim to the past or get swallowed in an inexorable future, but attend in this case to the horrors of the present. She writes:

We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history [my emphasis] has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipate oblivion of a better future, are vain. (OT, ix)

The present, she writes in the preface to the first edition, had produced out of a calamitous set of elements that “crystallized” into totalitarianism: anti-Semitism, the fall of the nation-state, the rise of the social or “mass man,” and so on. These are not necessary or sufficient conditions for totalitarianism; Arendt wants to make clear she is not presenting another iron-clad determinism of history. There is always, I think, a leap for her between precedents and the unprecedented. As she writes, “[The “origins”] only became origins–antecedents–after the event had taken place.”

Here is her discussing in the later (July 1967) preface to Part 1 what she previously called “understanding”:

Comprehension…does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden that events have placed upon us—neither denying their existence nor submitting meekly to their weight as thought everything that in fact happened could not have happened otherwise. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attententive facing up to, and resisting of, reality. (OT, xiv)

Resisting means both understanding what has come and denying its force, resisting its reality, in the sense of refusing to give ourselves over to historical determinism. This means coming to terms with the elements that would later crystalize into what I suggested Monday were “regimes without regimes” (since they are without predictability, without law, without precedent each time they occur) into totalitarianism, and perhaps that means there’s never a fruitful “concept” of totalitarianism, some one form under which to bring disparate inversions of the political.

One of these is the theme we began building above: a certain “homelessness of an unprecendented scale” and “rootlessness to an unprecedented depth” (OT, vii). We will see how this caches out historically, that is, in specific circumstances, there is little doubt that to be human, for Arendt, is to have a place in the world where one’s words and deeds could matter, that is, where one was among a plurality of others and not submitted to “total domination,” which “has begun to destroy the essence of man,” namely this originary condition of plurality, of being with others, of dwelling and inhabiting a world, in sum, being at home in it. Arendt’s discussions of anti-Semitism, as least in our readings for today, is to show the historical relations between Jews and non-Jews in Europe, at once arguing that after the destruction by the Romans of the Temple of Jerusalem, the Jews were a diaspora who avoided politics at all costs, instead always living on the margins of the various political communities in which they found themselves. She wants to build to the way in which the nation-state, with its emphasis on equality, could not countenance the “nation within a nation” that were the Jews (e.g., p. 14), since this would admit given privileges beyond mere citizenship. (We can think in the contemporary period about the way the Quebecois are accorded [or not] certain rights not given to Anglo-Canadians, and how this goes against the supposed universalism of treating all within a state exactly the same.) Before turning to what Arendt provides as a summary on pp. 14-15 of exactly what she is charting in the readings for today, I would like to begin by noting her chastising of the “scapegoat” theory of othering, which dictates, as in René Girard, that all communities produce an other, a scapegoat, that allows their community to coalesce. Here is Arendt:

The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well. It upholds the perfect innocence of the victim, an innocence which insinuates not only that no evil was done but that nothing at all was done which might possibly have a connection with the issue at stake. It is true that the scapegoat theory in its purely arbitrary form never appears in print. Whenever, however, its adherents painstakingly try to explain why a specific scapegoat was so well suited to his role, they show that they have left the theory behind them and have got themselves involved in the usual historical research-where nothing is ever discovered except that history is made by many groups and that for certain reasons one group was singled out. (p. 6)


In short, Arendt does not go in for ahistorical accounts of history, whereby there is a passkey on hand to explain the political as it always was, or even how it should be. Above, she notes as soon as you cache it out historically in this or that place at this or that time, suddenly you have nothing illuminating to say except that this or that community may have been singled out, which amounts to saying nothing at all. So much for the scapegoat theory. What she wants is understanding, not a Platonism of history (it only ever repeats a single eidos), and this means looking to the elements that crystallize into given phenomena, with the upshot that the unprecendented does occur, that it could have been otherwise, and it need not be that way again. But there’s also something else notable above, which is that Arendt does not go in for describing the Jews in these sections with “perfect innocence,” which seems maddening to many who read these sections, or frankly anyone who thinks they have an understanding of what happened, say, in Nazi, Germany, especially after the invocation of the Final Solution.

But Arendt’s point—and we’ll see this again in Eichmann, where this point becomes controversial again—is that to depict any people as wholly innocent is to deny them any agency, to make them passive to the vagaries of history or wholly powerless in the face of what comes, that is, to join hands with those who would dehumanize these groups in the first place. I think this is a key point, which has the upshot (have I been using that word a lot today?) of specifying that a certain agency is always possible, that dominated groups are such not just because of their acquiescance but because so many obey, and by this I mean also the functionaries who are the persecutors. This would seem almost a cruel point to make later about Jews during the Holocaust, to seemingly implicate them in their own murder, though Arendt is arguing that to make someone wholly innocent of circumstances is to make them inert, passive, merely reactionary bundles, in short, what the Nazis, as we read for Monday, wanted to create in the death camps. And yet, there’s no getting around what today we’d call the “tone”—as in the “tone police”; one must have a civilized “tone”—that Arendt has. Why not more care in taking up the issue of those who are persecuted? Why not more of sense of general solidarity, instead of what seems as dangerous moralizing, about those who have faced the sharp stick of power? This is the only way to introduce this passage, which has the upshot of giving us the summary of our reading and giving us reasons why, despite invocations by many in the Jewish community of Arendt’s elucidation of totalitarianism, one is not likely to find Part 1 of OT on the reading list at your local Yeshiva. Here we go [I’m c and p’ing this since some of you may not have your books]:

  1. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed the slow development of nation-states under the tutelage of absolute monarchs. Individual Jews everywhere rose out of deep obscurity into the sometimes glamorous, and always influential,


    of court Jews who financed state affairs and handled the financial transactions of their princes. This development affected the masses who continued to live in a more or less feudal order as little as it affected the Jewish people as a whole.

  2. After the French Revolution, which abruptly changed political conditions on the whole European continent, nation-states in the modern sense emerged whose business transactions required a considerably larger amount of capital and credit than the court Jews had ever been asked to place at a prince’s disposal. Only the combined wealth of the wealthier strata of Western and Central European Jewry, which they entrusted to some prominent Jewish bankers for such purposes, could suffice to meet the new enlarged governmental needs. [Often true, but Arendt spends little time on cultural issues in Judaism, and moves right to explaining their economic prowess, which grew out of the Catholic prohibition on usury. And doesn’t this sound really close to anti-Semitic claims that their states were beholden to the Jews, as point Arendt herself makes?] This period brought with it the granting of privileges, which up to then had been necessary only for court Jews, to the larger wealthy class, which had managed to settle in the more important urban and financial centers in the eighteenth century.


    emancipation was granted in all full-fledged nation-states and withheld only in those countries where Jews, because of their numbers and the general backwardness of these regions, had not been able to organize themselves into a special separate group whose economic function was financial support of their government.

  3. Since this intimate relationship between national government and Jews had rested on the indifference of the bourgeoisie to politics in general and state finance in particular, this period came to an end with the rise of imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century when capitalist business in the form of expansion could no longer be carried out without active political help and intervention by the state. Imperialism, on the other hand, undermined the very foundations of the nation-state and introduced into the European comity of nations the competitive spirit of business concerns. In the early decades of this development, Jews lost their exclusive position in state business to imperialistically minded businessmen; they declined in importance as a group, although individual Jews kept their influence as financial advisers and as inter-European middlemen. These Jews, however in contrast to the nineteenth-century state bankers, had even less need of the Jewish community at large, notwithstanding its wealth, than the court Jews of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and therefore they frequently cut themselves off completely from the Jewish community. The Jewish communities were no longer financially organized, and although individual Jews in high positions remained representative of Jewry as a whole in the eyes of the Gentile world, there was little if any material reality behind this.

  4. As a group, Western Jewry disintegrated together with the nationstate during the decades preceding the outbreak of the first World War. The rapid decline of Europe after the war found them already deprived of their former power, atomized into a herd of wealthy individuals. In an imperialist age, Jewish wealth had become insignificant; to a Europe with no sense of balance of power between its nations and of inter-European solidarity, the non-national, inter-European Jewish element became an object of universal hatred because of its useless wealth, and of contempt because of its lack of power.

This treatment leads some, like the historian Peter Staudenmaier to wonder, like critics before, whether Arendt is “blaming the victim.” In his “Hannah Arendt’s Analysis of AntiSemitism in The Origins of Totalitarianism: A Critical Appraisal” (Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 46, No. 2, 2012), Staudenmaier is, given the usual venom in critical discussions of Arendt’s work, quite even-handed, arguing that she is right to give agency to the victims, even as the cost of a seeming callousness (p. 177, n. 78). Nevertheless, he writes:

Arendt cites anti-Semitic texts affirmatively, as secondary sources to support her interpretation of anti-Semitism. She endorses anti-Semitic analyses of Jewish history and adopts a number of their arguments as her own….The difficulty with Arendt’s procedure in such instances is not that anti-Semitic authors should be off-limits to later thinkers; the problem is, rather, that Arendt’s uncritical reliance on these sources imparts a series of tendentially antisemitic tropes to her own narrative. From the well-worn stereotype of overweening Jewish pride to the suggestion that Jews come in two basic varieties, intellectuals, and bankers, such themes run throughout her text. Arendt thus endorses the view that the Jews themselves preferred “national isolation” and refused to “become men” (33). She posits “a perfect harmony of interests” between “the powerful Jews and the state” at the expense of “the Jewish masses,” and claims that “rich Jews wanted and obtained control over their fellow Jews and segregation from non-Jewish society” (33). This line of thinking yields a number of invidious contrasts: Arendt is often inordinately critical of prominent Jewish figures while absolving their non-Jewish counterparts. The trouble with such portrayals is not just the over-emphasis on Jewish wealth and power or the focus on Jewish actions rather than non-Jewish beliefs. The constellation of images is all too familiar: the arrogant nature of Jewish self-segregation, an inordinate involvement in finance capital, disreputable business practices and disagreeable personal habits, a rogues’ gallery of parasitical and rootless types. …[etc.] (citing pp. 161, 163, 172)

If I cite this at some length, it is to make you aware of a long history of critical complaints, often from Jewish historians and writers, though not only them, about OT, which I think only prepared the ground for the complete paroxysms of anger surrounding her account in Eichmann in Jerusalem. But I think also that, despite her historical sourcing aside, I think the general accounts about racism, about differences between political and cultural anti-Semitism, and so on, that Arendt provides are, despite the critiques of sourcing, are, oddly, not wrong, but that certain writers can’t get past such stuff as above to engage with her broader arguments in the text. Here are typical critiques made of OT since its publication:

  1. The success of OT relies largely on both a certain guilt over imperialism by the left in the West and because it proved useful by Cold Warriors in their castigations of the Soviet regime.
  2. Her appraisals of the similarities between the USSR and Nazi, Germany are unconvincing, making it unclear why “totalitarianism” would be itself a useful nomenclature, allowing her work, despite her equation of the Cold War with a new kind of imperialism, to be usurped for right-wing ideological purposes.


[I will pause here to quote the following from her “Labor” chapter in The Human Condition: “In the following chapter, Karl Marx will be criticized. This is unfortunate at a time when so many writers who once made their living by explicit or tacit borrowing from the great wealth of Marxian ideas and insights have decided to become professional anti-Marxists.” She then quotes from Benjamin Constant, affirming his point that “If I happen to agree with them on a single point [i.e., for Arendt: the anti-Marxists] I grow suspicious of myself; and in order to console myself for having seemed to be of their opinion…I feel I must disavow and keep these false friends away from me as much as I can” (HC, 79). Incidentally, Constant was writing about J.J. Rousseau.]


  1. Her discussions use idiosyncratic sources while tending to underplay political economy’s role in anti-Semitism and imperialism, and her lack of treatment of the specifics of the very different nation-states she was writing about often muddies quite different processes in order for her to make general conclusions.
  2. She leaves aside any discussion of Italian fascism as a test case for totalitarianism.
  3. She is hyper-critical of Jews, even a “self-hating Jew.”

I have wondered for some time, then, about Arendt’s tone and why, even after OT was published she couldn’t bring herself to adjust how she wrote, not what she wrote, which had the effect of giving her critics easy potshots for her work as whole; as in some families, Arendt could be toughest on those who were supposed to be her kin. Ironically for one who often wrote on the way persuasion and politics go hand in hand, no one could appear more politically tone deaf and less interested in persuading than to make a point. Indeed, ten years later, as Corey Robin details, these would be criticisms of Eichmann:

The charges against Arendt were many: She blamed the victims; she ignored the trap the Jews were in; “she saw symmetry,” in the words of [Deborah] Lipstadt, “between the Nazis and their victims where there was none.” According to [Richard] Wolin, “Arendt made it seem as though it was the Jews themselves, rather than their Nazi persecutors, who were responsible for their own destruction.” (“The Trials of Hannah Arendt,” The Nation, May 12, 2015)

And yet, despite all of that, we’ll have to ask, is there not something to her leaving open, even under the worst, a micro-politics whereby one refuses, whereby one is responsible, not all the rest, not everyone else, and not some Cause greater than the one who is responsible? That seems to me to be her insight: human beings, not a human being, inhabits the earth, and yet it is not human being as such or mass of human beings who are responsible; rather, I think, the weight of responsibility singularizes us, even as we exist always with others, always in a web of relations where the spontaneity on all sides brings not only the chance for a future but also an unpredictability that we would rather, often, wish away. And the responsibility that goes with all of that, namely the tasks of understanding the present and the difficulties that it puts before us.