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The Euro-Crisis, Seyla Benhabib’s Cosmopolitanism, and Arendt’s Defense of Politics

From Athens to Madrid, the European crisis has entered yet another of its “decisive” phases —how many decisive phases can one crisis have?  Reflecting on Europe has brought to mind Seyla Benhabib’s 2004 Tanner Lectures on cosmopolitan universalism, which itself was inspired by Hannah Arendt’s comments on international law in the epilogue and postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe might seem to have little to do with Benhabib’s discourse ethics or Arendt’s affirmation of the limits of international law, but it does. Let me explain.

The debt crisis in Europe is not an economic crisis. It is a political crisis. The Euro-zone created a common currency without a common political system. This worked great for a while as countries benefitted from integration and stability of the Euro. But now that debt and recession plague Europe, indebted countries like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are losing control of their politics.

The typical response to over-indebtedness in democratic countries is to devalue one’s currency. This causes massive inflation, allowing the debts to be paid. It is painful in the short term and everyone’s buying power decreases and the standard of living suffers. But devaluation resets the economy and allows for growth free from the straight-jacket of debt.

It is of course possible to achieve the same effect of devaluation within the Euro zone. The Euro zone could issue Euro bonds, which would be inflationary and allow the indebted countries to pay off their Euro-debts with plentiful and cheap Euros. This is the solution that French President Francois Hollande and others are pushing.

The problem in the Euro-zone is that countries without debt problems don’t want to devalue the Euro and thus lower their purchasing power. Without the political sense of a common fate, Germans do not want to suffer for the sake of the Greeks. What is more, the Germans have no faith that if they bail the Greeks out now, the Greeks will reform their profligate ways and not come back for another bailout in a few years. The result is the current crisis of austerity. Or so it seems.

Behind the scenes there is another debate that few are paying attention to. Amidst the repeated rejection of Euro bonds by Germany’s leaders is the insertion of a caveat. Euro bonds would be possible if they came with treaty reform, say Germans like Joshcka Fisher and economic leaders like European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. In essence, Germany is willing to bail out Europe, but only if the countries in the Euro zone agree to give up a substantial amount of their sovereignty over economic policy. What Germany wants is for decisions about budgets and deficits and tax policy to be set by European bureaucrats not by democratically elected leaders. If the struggling Euro zone countries agree to those conditions, there is a good chance Germany will agree to bail them out with Euro bonds. And Europe will move closer to a United States of Europe, but one dominated by economic bureaucrats rather than a democratic legislature.

The connection between European politics and Hannah Arendt is important. What Germany is demanding is that Europe abandon its decentralized political control over economic matters and cede decision-making to an apolitical centralized European bureaucracy.  Behind such a desire is the subordination of politics to economics that Hannah Arendt saw as one of the defining features of the modern age.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argued that the transfer of the economic principle of unlimited growth to politics underlies imperialism. Imperialism has its economic roots in the “realm of business speculation”-specifically the bursting of an investment bubble in the 1870s. As national entrepreneurs sought new markets, they enlisted state support for economic expansion. “Expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics is the central idea of imperialism.” The rise of imperialism and the spread of economic thinking in the political sphere means, Arendt argues, that politics becomes subservient to economics.

Arendt fears the confusion of economics and politics and especially the elevation of economics over politics. Since politics demands the imposition of limits and “stabilizing forces that stand in the way of constant transformation and expansion,” she argues that imperialist expansion brought with it a grave and destabilizing threat to the political order. When politics under the sway of economic imperatives is forced to expand on the world stage, political leaders must offer ideologies that give meaning to an ever-larger, undefined, disconnected, and homeless mass, a population that replaces a citizenry. Under the economic imperatives of growth, politics becomes world politics. 

It is an open question today whether politics can return to a political activity that sets moral, ethical, and economic limits on human action. The reason is that we are increasingly suspicious of action, which is, by its nature, free, spontaneous, surprising and unpredictable. Whether we are Germans seeking economic stability, Americans demanding that the Federal government limit the states in their right to deliver (or not deliver) education or healthcare, or human rights activists insisting that individual states conform to international cosmopolitan norms of behavior, the liberal and centralizing demand that people behave well according to cosmopolitan standards rubs against Arendt’s democratic insistence that politics must leave space for local, bounded, and undisciplined action.

And here we can return to Seyla Benhabib’s call in her Tanner lectures for a new cosmopolitan universalism. Benhabib has initiated an important engagement with Arendt and human rights, one that embraces Arendt’s formulation of a “right to have rights” but also resists Arendt’s efforts to limit the scope of that universal right. We should all be grateful for the clear-sighted way Benhabib raises this crucial question.

Arendt seeks her bearings in reformulating human rights from her experiences of the Jews and other minority peoples during and preceding the holocaust. The true “calamity of the rightless” in the middle of the 20th century, Arendt writes, is “not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion… but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever.”  Human rights reflect the legalized exclusion of human beings from civilized communities and these human rights are “much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are the rights of citizens.” The rights of man, in other words, are not revealed by the deprivation of specific rights, but by the plight of those who are expelled from all rights; the truly rightless are those who are so oppressed that they are deprived of legal status so that no one will even oppress them. It is this total deprivation of rights that makes manifest the one truly human right, what Arendt calls the “right to have rights.”

In thinking about Arendt’s enigmatic formula, Benhabib has worried that Arendt simply does not offer a full and philosophical elucidation of the right to have rights. The “right to have rights” partakes of a “philosophical perplexity”; to invoke the “right to have rights” is to give certain rights “a binding power over and beyond the moral obligation that they impose on moral agents.” The rights in the “right to have rights” are not mere “oughts,” but are universal, cosmopolitan norms. Or at least that is what Benhabib wants to argue, with and against Arendt.

If Arendt remained suspicious of international norms that would be applied in international courts, Benhabib argues that the last 50 years have witnessed an “evolution of global civil society that is characterized by a transition from international to cosmopolitan norms of justice.” She embraces the term “cosmopolitanism,” which she argues has rightly become one of the key words of our time. What cosmopolitanism means, for Benhabib, is the “carrying of universalistic norms” of a common truth that is inter-subjective rather than metaphysical. In short, Benhabib argues that cosmopolitan norms are emerging in our times that give basic human rights to individuals and can even bind state actors.

Benhabib’s interpretation of the “right to have rights” is appealing, especially in the face of, for example, the ongoing inhumane treatment of Shiites in Syria. Yet, as Benhabib herself recognizes, her reading complicates Arendt’s hard-minded characterization of the right to have rights as “a right to belong to some kind of community.” Arendt means the right “to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions.” In doing so, Arendt excludes the traditional civil rights of life and liberty that Benhabib wants to read into Arendt’s formula. Arendt is careful to distinguish human rights to the rights to be treated humanely that Benhabib seeks to encode in a newly emerging cosmopolitan institutionalization of human rights.  For reasons at the core of Arendt’s thinking, Arendt clearly limits the right to have rights and thus human rights to only two rights, the right to act and the right to speak.

The only truly human rights, for Arendt, are the rights to act and speak in public. The roots for this Arendtian claim are only fully developed five years later with the publication of The Human Condition. Acting and speaking, she argues, are essential attributes of being human. The human right to speak has, since Aristotle defined man as a being with the capacity to speak and think, been seen to be a “general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.”  Similarly, the human right to act in public has been at the essence of human being since Aristotle defined man as a political animal who lives, by definition, in a community with others. It is these rights to speak and act—to be effectual and meaningful in a public world—that, when taken away, threaten the humanity of persons.

Benhabib has good reasons to want to expand the cosmopolitan basis of Arendt’s “right to have rights.” It is important to see, however, that the desire to strengthen a cosmopolitan foundation for human rights places stability and security above action in much the same as the present German desire to subordinate Greeks and Spaniards to a pan-European regime of responsible citizenship. Both are motivated by a desire for security, stability, and standards. And both elevate the institutional application of cosmopolitan universal norms (economic norms in Europe, human rights norms internationally) over the messiness of local political action.

At a time of economic crisis and humanitarian crises, the great uncertainty of our world will militate toward ever more centralization and thus ever less space for action. Benhabib is certainly alive to these tensions and has answers to many of them. You can read her account here. It is your weekend read.

Posted on 1 June 2012 | 1:30 pm

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