Triumph of humanism

Print edition : May 01, 2015

Hannah Arendt. Her philosophy stresses the defence of human dignity in the face of evil.

April 4, 1933: The building housing the German Reichstag, which was set on fire on the night of February 27, 1933. The large session hall was fully destroyed. Hannah Arendt’s involvement in the cold-blooded uses of power had its beginnings with the suspension of civil liberties and dissent on the day the Reichstag burned down. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The graveyard of Distomo, Greece, where victims of a 1944 Nazi massacre lie buried. Photo: AP

The book calls for serious reflection on the demands of notions of community, solidarity and public life.

THE philosophy of Hannah Arendt, a person who remained stateless for 18 years after the Gestapo hounded her out of Germany and who was an ardent admirer of Karl Marx, is underpinned by a Hegelian framework that uses dialectical negation for introducing emancipatory politics. Standing between Hegel and Jurgen Habermas, we see the towering figure of a thinker who has always had a deeply problematic relationship with the Left. Hannah Arendt often said: “You know the Left think that I am conservative and the conservatives think I am Left or I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say that I couldn’t care less. I don’t think the real questions of this century get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.”

Nevertheless, her philosophy has always had a powerful impact on the New Left and contemporary debates on bureaucratic workings of the nation-state and its inherent paradoxical nature of laying down the rights of its citizens, and yet, on the contrary, taking the extreme step of statelessness, dispossessing a huge section of its public on the basis of race, as visible in mainly three cases: Nazism, Zionism and, on a massive scale, in the Partition of India with implicit cultural and political dilution of liberation and individual consciousness.

Hannah Arendt’s involvement in the cold-blooded uses of power had its beginnings with the suspension of civil liberties and dissent on February 27, 1933, the day the German Reichstag (Lower House) burned down. Integral to her philosophy was the dilemma of the Jewish question and the contradictions in Adolf Hitler’s drive towards finding a solution to the minorities by first dispersing them and then gathering them for extermination. Added to this unsolvable problem were the creation of Israel and the dispossession of the Jews. These forces apparently stand in opposition to the notion of performative dispossession affected by injustice that has sparked uprisings from Zuccatti Park to Puerta del Sol, from north Africa to Turkey and India recently. Dispossession indeed constitutes “a form of suffering for those displaced and colonised” and therefore “could not remain an ambivalent political ideal”.

Though the question of nationalism is legitimate for a stateless people, it is not possible to support Zionism and its implications of illegitimate neocolonial confiscation of land as well as the pillage of the people of Palestine. In such a state of affairs, it is rather impossible to deal with the question of a nation especially because it is not possible to define the boundaries claimed by such nation(less) people. The dispossession of Palestinians must take into consideration the illegitimacy of dispossession as well as the rights of refugees to return to their land. Judith Butler in her book Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence elaborates on the question of dispossession: “Whether or not we continue to enforce a universal conception of human rights at moments of outrage and incomprehension, precisely when we think that others have taken themselves out of the human community as we know it, is a test of our very humanity.”

Such an early engagement with questions of the human condition and the inhuman use of power led Hannah Arendt to examine human action and judgment with respect to one’s duty and behaviour according to the demands of official work even if it means death for some. To her, the nature of evil was within human grasp, and if it was not, the world would be an inhospitable place to live in. We are, therefore, not naturally flawed as human beings and we could save ourselves if we worked on it.

In a bureaucratic world, what matters is the work assigned to you, not the nature of the work, even if it entails death and misery for many. This, according to Hannah Arendt, is the “banality of evil”, a fact intrinsic to the working of overbearing machinery around the world. Legitimation of state policies through individual assignments ensures subservience to state ideology as seen in the case of adherents of Nazism responsible for the genocide of the Jews; the task given to them by the state by virtue of which they stood absolved of all guilt or responsibility for any crime perpetrated in the name of oppressive systems.

In such a system, one confronts two kinds of people: the intellectuals, who have the conviction and the disposition of dissidents, and the others who deem themselves “normal” participants, who value conformism and compliance to the rules of the state. On the human level, the choices we make resolve our destiny and label our ideological stance. Rules are too straight and narrow in scope to cover the paradoxes and ironies of our way of life.

As argued rigorously by Philip Hansen, Hannah Arendt’s philosophy stresses the defence of human dignity in the face of evil. She argues that in each one of us there is the urge for public self-promotion, but our freedom really lies in our “inability to disclose who we are”. This is, paradoxically, a trait that dictates certain invisibility for the purpose of gaining power. Hannah Arendt gains in her relevance to oppositional politics and the radical delegitimising of institutions and established assumptions that begin and end with the design to essentialise public opinion, moulding it in the complexion of the ideology of the ruling class. Individual identity stands in conflict with the state’s ideological engineering that promotes overwhelming subservience. As Hansen argues, “if in the modern age we have seen in totalitarianism an unprecedented threat to human plurality, we have also seen the emergence of a unique expression of the human ability to begin anew, to act in freedom, to create a genuine public realm.” This is the specific “phenomenon of revolution” for Hannah Arendt’s “exercise in political theory”. It is, Hansen explains in the chapter on Hannah Arendt’s book Revolution, “the peculiar modern attempt to reclaim our political inheritance.... Revolution, then, is about acting individuals, spaces of appearances, genuine power, freedom itself. It is, therefore, also about hopes and possibilities, and not just social, political and historical forces, or states, parties and classes.”

Taking her important writings, particularly The Human Condition, The Origins of Totalitarianism, On Revolution and Between Past and Present, Hansen scrutinises history from the perspective of Hannah Arendt’s focus on what it is to think and act politically. As is visible in the dissident movements from the 1848 world revolution to the rise of Bolshevism and the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, from the Occupy Wall Street agitations to the Arab Spring, there arises a need for contemporary “citizen rationality” in the face of threats to a genuine politics of active political freedom within a free public life. Here lies Hannah Arendt’s sense of democratic liberalism, which had been unfortunately overrun by an anti-parliamentarian predatory politics. Her growing significance to the rise of revolutionary movements, to the concept of historical consciousness and totalitarianism, which tries to extinguish any sparks of rebellion smouldering within a bureaucratic world, exhibits her deep-seated interest in political humanism and a free space in the world inhabited by people who are inspired by public principles and an ethics that inherently remains essential to their world view.

Hannah Arendt, in the words of Marx, asserts that “stable societies develop sites of resistance: contradistinctions built in the social systems that ultimately lead to social revolutions and the development of a new society upon the old”. Tension, dialectics and revolutions must continue and conflictual politics emphatically develop into the only solution for countering the state apparatus and its overpowering role. Whatever the polemics, it is clear that her overriding rationale is to elucidate and defend political action in its essential freedom and dignity. Politics is indeed a public activity and the magnitude of political action lies in being “human among humans”. In this lies the gravity of any political action where individual distinction without the element of self-aggrandisement becomes the sine qua non of clean politics.

The question, therefore, arises about the fundamental assumptions of genuine politics in the context of the uncertainty following the end of the Cold War and the rise of neoliberal global politics “under the auspices of transnational capital”. The regional institutions of power and coercion stand under interrogation in a world overtaken by “the national security state, exercising and preserving its sovereignty in a hostile Hobbesian world”. To struggle for control of state power is to either buttress one’s goals for more power, instilling hegemony underpinned by hopes and fears, desires and aspirations for a society that evolves through complete regimentation by the vision and ideology of the ruling class. Intellectuals who are anti-establishment remain at logger heads with the illegitimacy of such systems. However, as Hansen argues, “This dilemma of supposedly anti-statist movement, which remain implicated in the exercise of state power is unavoidable—there can be no withering away of the state nor an autonomous civil society without the supportive structures of state power as critical elements of its very make-up.”

Nevertheless, state power remains a hostile force to any solidarity of the masses or individual autonomy. The book, therefore, calls for a serious reflection on the demands of notions of community, solidarity and public life. The question remains: How far have such intellectual interventions helped in the stemming of powerful forces of social and political control? Probably, as Hannah Arendt saw it, only the “free spectators of action” determine the meaning of action and it is such public meanings that save humans from the void of futile existence.

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