Another Liberty Canon: Arendt

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the more influential writers on political thought during the twentieth century. Born in Germany, her political views and Jewish origins (she was also Jewish in identity though not in religion) meant not only that she had to leave Germany after the Nazi takeover, but that she had to escape from Gestapo interrogation. A period in Paris was ended by the 1940 German invasion, which led to another escape from detention, and her final destination of the United States. She was able draw on this direct experience of totalitarianism and antisemitism to write The Origins of Totalitarianism, one of the classic works on this topic, which also considers the role of political anti-Semitism, as distinct from older religious prejudice, in the formation of the modern phenomenon of totalitarianism.

Arendt reached beyond an academic and scholarly audience in her most widely ready book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, based on her journalistic reporting on the trial of one of the major administrators of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. Though the book did much to draw attention to the extreme horror of  Holocaust, and and its history, which strange as it might seem now was not the object of a great deal of public or scholarly discussion in the immediate postwar period, also led Arendt into a morass of angry criticism and even hatred, in part for supposedly trivialising Eichmann’s criminality. However, the point of referring to the ‘banality of evil’ was not to say that the Holocaust was trivial, or to deny Eichmann’s criminality, but to suggest that as a person he was more of a small minded conformist than a grandiose anti-hero of apocalyptic evil.

From the point of view of Arendt’s work in political theory, her writing on the Holocaust and totalitarianism, contributed to her understanding of modern politics in its darkest possibilities, which were distinct from older forms of tyranny. That understanding itself drew on the breadth of her historical approach, including literary and cultural interest, which went back to the Ancient Greek beginnings of western political thought. Her understanding also included the ethical and religious thought of late antiquity, as can be seen in her doctoral dissertation, Love and Saint Augustine. She had a general appreciation of the whole of human life, with regard to consciousness and action, which is behind The Life of the Mind and can be found in some of her political theory, most obviously The Human Condition.

Arendt’s interest and appreciation of ancient politics, particularly the democracy of city state Athens,  sometimes leads to her being labelled a nostalgic and a believer in anti-individiualistic integrated communities. This can only be a parody though, Arendt thought that there might be some things to learn about modern politics through comparison with antiquity, but she did not advocate a return, and her interest in antiquity was in those communities like Athens and the Roman Republic, where we can see individualism growing and a decline in community based on adherence to tradition and to communal assumptions.

Arendt thought that the Athenians had achieved liberty of a significant kind for the aristocracy, and to some degree for the lower classes, on a real but limited basis in which some had the leisure to think and argue about the rules and laws of the city state. That form of library rested on ‘heroic’ and patriarchal values according to which the home and family are the place of economic production and therefore the place of necessity.

Liberty was understood with reference to the tradition of  heroes going to war or to a more recently evolved habit of widespread public free speech about public affairs. Arendt did not argue for this as the all time ideal, but as a moment with some ideal aspects, which was bound to fail. Partly it failed because law was understood as custom and communal obligation, rather than as concerned with contracts between free individuals.  In her historical analysis, the Romans made progress on the legal front, because they saw  that law can and should evolve with regard to the best ways of grounding freely chosen contracts,  while also failing to maintain political liberty as the republic gave way to Imperial autocracy

Arendt emphasised that the Roman model inspired modern movements for liberty, particularly the French and American Revolutions (the comparison is made in On Revolution). Though she wrote about the motives and early actions of French revolutionaries with great sympathy, she pointed out that it had all ended in revolutionary terror and then country-revolutionary autocracy, so that the American Revolution had created a better model, as shown in the long lasting nature of the Constitution. She both respected that achievement and pointed out that it rested on assumptions about the dominance of a land owning class, so that it could not in itself provide all the answers for modern liberty, even it established an enduring framework, which survived major shifts in the location of economic wealth and the sources of political power.

For Arendt, the modern capitalist world undermined the idea of a strict separation between a private realm of economic production, based on family ownership and use of land, as economic activity became what happened in factories and other enterprises, with regard to national and world markets. The social-cultural result was an undermining of the antique assumption that intellectual life is superior to, and dominant over, physical activity and economic life. It also  resulted in states that seemed more remote from traditional forms of allegiance and everyday customs, because the state became increasingly something concerned with legislative and administrative activity that aimed to enable production and trade, so for the first time establishing the state as something that aims to constantly elevate material wealth and ‘national welfare’. Arendt, in this way, argues that commercial society tends to create its own statist reaction.

Arendt equivocated to some degree about whether capitalism was to be preferred to socialism, but in political writing emphasised enhancing individuality and a spirit of competition and that can only be seen as directed against the expanding administrative state, particularly as she argued for more separation between political questions and social welfare questions. She looked for ways in which modern political participation could focus on the best parts of the antique legacy: public speech focused on the conditions of liberty rather than on expanding state activity, contests for esteem in the public sphere rather than levelling down egalitarianism.  Perhaps her equivocation about socialism can be seen as leaving the way open for ‘socialism’ as defined by left libertarians, markets without a state that promotes politically inspired concentrations of wealth and power. She was certainly a prominent critic of Soviet style state socialism.

Arendt had a grasp based in rather classically oriented political theory, of how capitalism tends to produce statist reactions to itself, which parallels the more political economy and economics oriented work of Austrian economics and Virginia Public Choice theory on  the rise of the administrative state and rent seeking.  Together with her interests in how to avoid antique tyranny and modern totalitarianism, this makes her a great twentieth century pro-liberty voice, particularly for those interested in the historical, psychological, moral, and literary aspects of political thinking.

All of Arendt’s major contributions to political thought are mentioned above. A good starting point for those new to Arendt might be the essays collected in Between Past and Future or The Promise of Politics

The Meaning of Social Science: Ideology, Private Life, and the Internet

[Note: This is a guest essay by Dr Peter Miller, who is a sociologist (PhD, Berkeley), a longtime resident of Japan, a non-participant observer of the American scene, and (since 1991) one of the world’s few practitioners of original photogravure etching, whose semi-abstract Japan-influenced prints are in private and museum collections in Japan, Europe, Russia, and the United States. His websites can be found here & here]

Social-science expertise has been missing from current discussions of government-led spying on private citizens and the proper role of government in general. Ideologies, which is to say gut reactions, have corrupted the public debate; but there is nevertheless a role for sociological analysis of these phenomena.

Social science in its modern form started as a mostly European effort to explain the origins of the horrible totalitarianism that engulfed Europe, and to deduce the structure of institutions that would prevent it from arising again. The Nazi, Soviet, and Fascist systems were all characterized by total State-control of all aspects of life, including the most private aspects of life. Whether the ostensible purpose was re-casting human nature into the ‘new Soviet man’ or an embodiment of the German ‘volk’, they quickly evolved into an apparatus for murdering large numbers of their citizenry. Of course the prospective victims had to be identified before they could be murdered. For this purpose a State apparatus of domestic spying and information-gathering was devised. Primitive by today’s standards, the forced wearing of Jewish stars and the forced confessions by purported enemies of the State were crudely effective in generating large numbers of victims. Social scientists asked ‘How did this happen? What can be done to prevent its recurrence?’

The essential answer to the first question, distilled from reams of scholarship, is: De-legitimization of private life. All the social space traditionally separating individuals from the State was systematically removed. Private enterprise was abolished. All universities and schools in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were taken over by government, run by political appointees, and staffed exclusively by those who would do their bidding. The same for the media, the churches (co-opted in Germany, eliminated in the Soviet Union), youth groups (Hitler Youth, Young Pioneers), and welfare organizations. All intermediary organizations that had previously functioned autonomously were either taken over by government, co-opted, intimidated into conformity, or forced out of existence. The sequence from privacy-deflation to total State control to mass murder progressed in roughly 15 years in the Soviet Union. In Nazi Germany, with more intensive propaganda and ‘education’, this sequence took only five years.

From this historical record, social scientists deduced that properly functioning democracies require lively intermediary organizations — churches, labor unions, 4-H clubs, PTAs, bowling clubs, whatever. Re-reading Tocqueville and Madison, social scientists re-discovered with these sages a high regard for such humble institutions (not that there were bowling clubs in Madison’s day, but you get the idea). The Austrian School (Hayek et al) added private enterprise to this list of freedom-enhancing entities. And from Vienna also came Lazarsfeld who posited ‘cross-pressures’ — conflicting loyalties — as the essential building-blocks of democracy. His big idea was that a healthy democracy needed unpredictability, where a person’s ethnicity, race, religion, education, or social class did not necessarily determine his voting preferences or consumer choices.

Since the 1970s, American and Western European societies have tolerated and even encouraged a progressive tribalization of their societies. Race, ethnicity, and sexual-identity have become increasingly salient in the distribution of government largesse, and consequently in the determination of political and consumer choices. Both public and private universities rely increasingly on government funding, and thus take their orders from the State, in research priorities, curricula, staffing, and extra-curricular activities. With some exceptions and counter-trends, the period since the 1970s has witnessed a progressive weakening of the autonomous mediating organizations that sociologists identified as essential to the working of democracy.

Separately, the growth of the Internet has deflated the private sphere, at first due in large part to the apparently voluntary choices of Internet users themselves. Only a few years ago the fad of the moment was 24/7 live webcams turned on oneself for the world to see. Now security cameras that do the same thing outdoors are all-pervasive. The collective mantra, highly promoted by the giant Internet companies, is ‘If you have nothing to hide, why be concerned?’ This is the tradeoff for ‘serving you better’. Mobile phones with geo-tracking are surely a great improvement in the quality of life, as is the proliferation of answers to life’s unanswered questions, and the blessings of instant communication. In return for all that, what does the loss of privacy matter?

I always doubted the business model of Internet-tracking. It never seemed plausible to me that a teen-ager with zits who happens to be in a drugstore is any more likely to buy zit-off after getting zapped with an ad on his geo-tracked mobile at that moment than if he weren’t zapped. The whole business of click-tracking, Web-tracking, and the like never made commercial sense to me. It was always hype — good for securing VC funding and not much else. But investors in these large-scale personal-data-gathering companies were not stupid. Behind our backs, these companies were getting paid by governments to sell users’ data. Their business model was not based on the supposed commercial utility of precise ad-targeting, but on secret NSA demands for indiscriminate personal data. Governments, under the banner of fighting terror, and shielded from Congressional or public scrutiny, have unlimited taxpayer funds to finance these transactions.

With the Snowden revelations, we now have a better understanding of the extent of Internet and telecom surveillance. Of course, this cannot have been a complete surprise. Nevertheless the near-universal scale of the surveillance, plus the technological capacity to sort and search the data, make for a real game-changer. As one security expert said in a recent interview:

The most shocking aspects of Edward Snowden’s courageous revelations is the scale of surveillance. Every one of us involved in this field, I think it’s fair to say, has not been surprised by what is possible but had assumed perhaps out of hope or fear that they were limited in what they did and were proportionate, and that although we didn’t believe they would just stick to terrorism they would not try to reach for everything.

But every single document, speech and slideshow shows that a bunch of juvenile lunatics have taken over the asylum and are drunk and exuberant on their capabilities to spy on everything all the time and that is what they want to do. They have lost every sort of moral compass and respect for civic values.

The problem is that many European countries, notably Britain but not exclusively Britain, have been complicit in these activities as a result of favours, trade or encouragement. Basically the NSA has, over years with Britain’s assistance, essentially tried to subvert companies and governments into a surveillance empire which is almost a supranational enterprise of their own.

The question is, to what end? As we know in sociology, not everything is what it seems. Just as the indiscriminate sweeping-up of personal data lacked a plausible commercial basis, though it still made business sense if the data were sold to government spy agencies, it is likewise implausible that all that data has much utility in fighting terror. What then is it good for?

I think that question has yet to be answered; that the answer will depend on what use the new owners of that data make of it. The meaning of the massive loss of privacy that has occurred is immanent, it will emerge as further events unfold. As far as I am aware, the central-conspiracy model does not fit the case. What we have is a set of disparate elements that as yet have not coalesced into any coherent order. Among these elements are the increasing tribalization of society, de-legitimizing of autonomous intermediary organizations, and deflation of the private sphere. These are exactly the conditions that gave rise to the totalitarian horrors of the mid-20th century. It does not appear that any current Western leader has it in him to become another Hitler or Stalin. But the elements are there, awaiting a moment — perhaps another terrorist attack or financial crisis — that will call forth a charismatic savior.

Yet one must be especially careful with historical analogies to avoid the ‘generals-fighting-the-last-war’ syndrome. Things are very different now, compared with analogous conditions 80 years ago. The greatly expanded human freedom, communication, and educational prospects empowered by the Internet may overwhelm the efforts of governments to use it as an instrument of State control. This will be a titanic struggle, with the outcome still unclear. And that’s where I’ll leave it for now, pending further sociological inquiry into what-all this may portend.