Saturday, March 23, 2019

Hannah Arendt is the Philosopher for Right Now

From Lyndsey Stonebridge, at the New Criterion, "Arendt’s political philosophy, formed under Nazi persecution, is having a resurgence in our troubled age":


When Hannah Arendt was herded into Gurs, a detention camp in south-west France in May 1940, she did one of the most sensible things you can do when you are trapped in a real-life nightmare: she read – Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Clausewitz’s On War and, compulsively, the detective stories of Georges Simenon. Today people are reading Arendt to understand our own grimly bewildering predicament.

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Arendt’s 1951 masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism entered the US bestseller lists. Tweet-size nuggets of her warnings about post-truth political life have swirled through social media ever since. Arendt, the one time “illegal emigrant” (her words), historian of totalitarianism, analyst of the banality of administrative evil and advocate for new political beginnings, is currently the go-to political thinker for the second age of fascist brutality.

It is not just the opponents of far-right nationalism who are rediscovering her work. Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has attempted to garnish its claims to serious research with a half-quotation from Arendt. The AfD’s intellectual mission, in case you hadn’t guessed, is to create “clarity and transparency” in public discourse. They warn us sagely that power, according to Arendt, “becomes dangerous exactly where the public ends”. Power, Arendt also said, becomes dangerous when the capitalist elite align with the mob, when racism is allowed to take over the institutions of state, and when the aching loneliness of living in a fact-free atomised society sends people running towards whatever tawdry myth will keep them company.

It is true that Arendt loved the public space of politics for the robust clarity it gave to the business of living together. It is also true that she argued for a political republic based on common interest. These are both reasons why we should be reading her today. But her commitment to plurality is not an invitation to nationalism. Arendt wanted politics dragged into the light so that we might see each other for what we are. But that didn’t mean we had to accept what was evidently ruinous to politics itself, merely that we had to acknowledge that what we find most repellent actually exists – and then resist it.

And if there is one thing we have learned over the past two years it is that our political reality is not what we thought it was and still less what we would like it to be. Because the times she lived in were also dark, violent and unpredictable, and because she was smart, diligent and hardworking, Arendt was good at thinking quickly and accurately about the politically and morally unprecedented...
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