Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Worldly objects, the welfare state, and 'authentic' politics

According to Hannah Arendt in On Revolution, the degeneration of the French Revolution into the Terror was predictable as soon as the poor entered the political arena as direct actors, i.e., from the onset of the Revolution itself.  The plight of the starving provoked compassion; and -- as George Kateb summarizes Arendt's account -- this "intensely felt compassion" then "transformed itself...into an abstract pity for humanity, and pity...in turn transformed itself into immitigable anger that brooked no opposition and established a despotism that was meant to be radically remedial."[1]  

In this context Arendt contrasted "necessity," the unmet physical needs of 'the people', with "freedom," i.e., the ability/opportunity to participate, through speech and deliberation, in "the public realm."  In chapter 2 ("The Social Question") of On Revolution, she put the point this way:
When [the poor] appeared on the scene of politics, necessity appeared with them, and the result was that the power of the old regime became impotent and the new republic was stillborn; freedom had to be surrendered to necessity, to the urgency of the life process itself.  When Robespierre declared that "everything which is necessary to maintain life must be common good and only the surplus can be recognized as private property," he...was, again in his own words, finally subjecting revolutionary government to "the most sacred of all laws, the welfare of the people, the most irrefragable of all titles, necessity".... It was necessity, the urgent needs of the people, that unleashed the terror and sent the Revolution to its doom.[2]
Passages like this support the view that Arendt drew a sharp distinction between social and economic matters on one hand and properly political concerns on the other; of a piece is her denigration of "compassion," which, in its focus on suffering, "will shun the drawn-out wearisome processes of persuasion, negotiation, and compromise, which are the processes of law and politics, and lend its voice to the suffering itself, which must claim for swift and direct action, that is, for action with the means of violence."[3]  

However, Steven Klein offers a different reading of Arendt in an article published in the November 2014 issue of the American Political Science Review.  In "'Fit to Enter the World': Hannah Arendt on Politics, Economics, and the Welfare State" (APSR, v.108 n.4, pp.856-869), Klein argues, to quote the article's abstract, that  
[f]or Arendt, the danger is not the invasion of politics by economics, but rather the loss of the worldly, mediating institutions that allow economic matters to appear as objects of public concern.  Reconstructing her account of these mediating institutions, [the article] show[s] that Arendt's analysis opens up novel insights into the relationship between democratic action and welfare institutions, drawing attention to how such institutions transform material necessity into shared objects of attachment, judgment, and action.
Klein's argument, which proceeds through detailed exegesis, is quite dense and so rather than trying to summarize all of it I'll focus on a few key points.  Though Arendt's position on the modern welfare state is "equivocal" (p.857), Klein writes, implicit in her work is a view of the welfare state as containing "mediating institutions that transform [material] necessity into the worldly interests and concerns that are possible, indeed unavoidable, objects of political activity." (p.858)  Thus, according to Klein, "far from stringently upholding the divide between politics and economics," Arendt "elucidates sophisticated accounts of both the possible interrelationships between them and the vital importance of economic matters in political life." (p.857) 

The article's title comes from a passage in The Human Condition in which Arendt writes that 'work' -- one of that book's central categories -- transforms "'the naked greed of desire' and 'the desperate longing of needs' into things that 'are fit to enter the world'" (p.862, quoting The Human Condition), where 'work' "signifies those activities that transform raw materials into lasting tools and objects of the built human world." (p.858)  Bare needs, carrying "the urgency of the life process itself" (to quote the passage that opens this post), have to be changed into 'worldly' things to become proper matters for political action, in Arendt's view.  Klein thus emphasizes Arendt's concern with the public face, or 'worldly' aspect, of economic institutions (see esp. pp.861-63); it is this aspect that 'mediates' between bare needs (or 'necessity') and the public realm.        

For most of Klein's article, the idea of "mediating institutions" remains at a high level of abstraction, but his concluding section gives some contemporary and historical examples tied to the argument about the welfare state.  For instance, a pension can be seen as a 'worldly object' because it not only "satisfies material needs of citizens but...also provides [them] with a stable location in the world and a measure of glory or public esteem...." (p.866)  Bismarck's social insurance funds, contrary to his intentions, assumed a 'worldly' character when they became sites of political action, as socialists demanded "that workers... play an active role in their democratic administration." (p.868)  In this way workers could become, in the words of one activist of the era, "'the most knowledgeable interpreters of their own wishes and demands.'" (p.868) 

Let's return to the period of the French Revolution.  Arendt held that there were, in Klein's words, "some important, albeit limited, mediating and worldly institutional structures" in late 18th-century Europe (p.861), but these were not enough to prevent the 'unmediated' entry of social needs into the public arena.  She viewed the U.S. Constitution as a worldly object, a "tangible worldly entity" (p.861, quoting On Revolution, p.157) that "open[ed] a non-instrumental space of appearance and judgment," but "the relative absence of such worldly, shared objects in Europe" (p.861) sent the French Revolution, in the words of the passage from On Revolution quoted at the outset of this post, "to its doom."  While the notions of 'mediation' and 'worldly objects' may shed light, as Klein suggests, on the modern welfare state and its institutions, the usefulness of these ideas for interpreting the French Revolution seems more doubtful. 

Arendt's views on the relation between economics and politics evidently can be read in more than one way.  I take Klein's reading as, among other things, an effort to broaden the sense of what counts as 'authentic politics' in Arendt's senseKlein argues that such politics can be found not only in, to use Kateb's words, the "eruptive" and "creative" moments of founding a new polity[4], but also in settings that are less dramatic but no less important.

And why is 'authentic' politics so significant anyway?  As Kateb explains, Arendt's answer is that humans are most distinctively human and also freest when engaged in it.  To "affirm existence against...causes for despair or resignation" and to "affirm the human stature," she seeks "evidence of freedom in activities that 'traditionally, as well as according to current opinion, are within the range of every human being'" (quoting The Human Condition).[5]   To engage in authentic politics is to bring within reach "the sheer exhilaration of action and, relatedly, the experience of being free."[6]  To broaden the conception of authentic politics is thus to expand the idea of freedom.  

1. George Kateb, "Political Action: Its Nature and Advantages," in The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt, ed. Dana Villa (Cambridge U.P., 2000), p.140.

2. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Viking Press, 1963), pp.54-55 (internal quotation from Robespierre, Oeuvres (1840 edition), vol.3, p.514).

3. On Revolution (Penguin ed. 1990), pp.86-87.

4. Kateb, "Political Action," pp.134-135.

5. Ibid., pp.147-148. 

6. Ibid., p.145.

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