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Amor Mundi: Against Sovereignty

Against Sovereignty

Jacob Levy dissents from the view that the rise of populism is not a response to a loss of democratic control over our collective lives.

“My colleagues were generally sympathetic to an explanation that I think a lot of people endorse, but that is fundamentally misleading: The people are frustrated that they’ve lost democratic control of their lives and their economies.

In this post I’ll argue that that’s wrong, not as a description of voters’ psychologies, but as an implied history. They never had such control; it’s not available, and never was. This matters a great deal for understanding what choices lie ahead. There is no option of restoring what this explanation implies sovereign democratic states used to have. Holding out the promise of it invites perpetual frustration, exploitable by opportunistic demagogues. I don’t have any simple recipe for either getting us out of the current upsurge of populist nationalism, or for forestalling its return in the future. (Yes, I still think it’s current, notwithstanding recent European elections — a topic for another day.) But the answer is not to hold out the prospect of a return to a sovereign control over the world by democratic electorates.

The imagined Golden Age in these kinds of stories of the fall from democratic grace is the postwar era; it’s often referred to as les trente glorieusesthe thirty glorious years of high economic growth, broadly distributed, during which most Western market democracies built substantial welfare and regulative states after World War II. The chronology varies from one country to another, but roughly speaking the Golden Age is taken to have ended sometime around 1970-75, opening political space for a very different political-economic model to take hold — with the election of Thatcher and Reagan, and the reconciliation of Mitterrand’s Socialist government in France to the market. Mitterrand’s turn toward monetary and fiscal restraint looms large in this history; the international economic environment (particularly the partly fixed-exchange European Monetary System) meant that he couldn’t follow through on his ideological commitments and aspirations. Over the rest of the 1980s and early 1990s, the international financial institutions (the World Bank, the IMF) then supposedly imposed “neoliberalism” on much of the developing world — and, after 1989, on eastern and central Europe as well. Neoliberalism in this sense — there are far too many senses— includes fiscal austerity, privatization, free capital movement, and free trade.”

Levy believes that the very idea of democratic control over our political lives is a myth.

“[T]he growth, stability, and expansion of powerful states governed by representative democracy was in part a creation of the credit market, bondholders, and international finance. That’s not a world in which democratic decision makers ever had unconstrained sovereign decision-making authority over public finance, even in the powerful core states of the international system.”

What Levy calls the “golden age” is a worldwide phenomena that he attributes not to political democracy but to economic comfort. No doubt he is right, at least in part.

And yet it is also true that in some places and at some times local political control meant more than simply economic growth. What Hannah Arendt called the “lost treasure” of the American Revolution was the practice and experience of political freedom, the experience of self-government, the belief and the actuality of making decisions over economic destiny. That treasure was lost, Arendt believes, by the mid-twentieth century. And Levy, looking at the mid-twentieth century, sees this lost sense of control as a myth:

“But I mean to also emphasize that even the things that states do govern about their economies, they have never sovereignly controlled. The public budget, the tax system, public debt, monetary and exchange policy: these have always been constrained by international actors. Indeed, the finance provided by the international actors has often been a precondition for the states’ ability to decide these matters at all. Once we look at things through that lens, the trentes glorieuses narrative falls apart.”

For Arendt, the dream of freedom was not to be found through the discovery of a sovereign democratic entity. She saw sovereignty itself as the enemy of freedom and understood that the great insight of the American Constitution was that sovereignty and tyranny were the same. Instead of the kind of democratic sovereignty that Levy attributes to the golden age, Arendt held out the hope for a dispersal of local and federated powers. She understood that the path to freedom was through neither democratic nor autocratic sovereignty, but through the constitutional and institutional creation of multiple power centers that would simultaneously allow for the power of collective self-government and the prevention of sovereign rule.

—Roger Berkowitz

The Partisanship of Higher Education

A Pew Research Center Report shows that support for higher education has dropped precipitously amongst Republicans in the last two years.

“Over the past two years, the share of Republicans and Republican leaners who view the impact of colleges and universities positively has declined 18 percentage points (from 54% to 36%), and this shift in opinion has occurred across most demographic and ideological groups within the GOP.

Younger Republicans continue to express more positive views of colleges than do older Republicans. But the share of Republicans under 50 who view colleges positively has fallen 21 points since 2015 (from 65% to 44%), while declining 15 points among those 50 and older (43% to 28%).

Since 2015, positive views of colleges and universities have fallen 11 points among Republicans with a college degree or more education (from 44% to 33%) and 20 points among those who do not have a college degree (57% to 37%). There also have been double-digit declines in the share of conservative Republicans (from 48% to 29%) and moderate and liberal Republicans (from 62% to 50%) who say colleges have a positive effect on the country.

A closer look at Republican and Democratic views on the impact of colleges and universities reveals different demographic patterns within the two party coalitions.

Among Republicans and Republican leaners, younger adults have much more positive views of colleges and universities than older adults. About half (52%) of Republicans ages 18 to 29 say colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country, compared with just 27% of those 65 and older. By contrast, there are no significant differences in views among Democrats by age, with comparable majorities of all age groups saying colleges and universities have a positive impact.

Views of the impact of colleges and universities differ little among Republicans, regardless of their level of educational attainment. Democrats with higher levels of education are somewhat more positive than are those with less education, but large majorities across all groups view the impact of colleges positively.”

Speaking Truthfully

Samantha Hill, of the Arendt Center, argues that at this time of intense partisanship, it is important to speak truthfully.

“Last Sunday, in what appears to be a reactionary Tweet, Bill Kristol threw his hat in with the worst of the Internet’s conspiracy theorists. Kristol who has been smartly criticizing President Trump and the media’s coverage of Trump’s presidency sent out a surprising Tweet in the style of Trump. It was short, doltish, and revealed a lack of veracity. Kristol, retweeting Jonah Goldberg, wrote: #Never Trump., #NeverFrankfurtSchool. It’s not clear from Mr. Goldberg’s writings that he has any real knowledge of the Frankfurt School, but that is another matter. What’s more disconcerting is that it’s not clear from Kristol’s retweet and hash tags that he knows much about what he’s agreeing with or saying either. And this is what reporting and the news have come to, and why our level of dialogue continues to decline. People say things that aren’t true to elicit attention, and then other people share what they’ve said without stopping and thinking about what they’re sharing.”

Turn Inward

Erik Hinton believes, now that we’ve turned to Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin to understand our own time, we should turn (in turn) to Gershom Scholem:

“A scholar of esoteric Jewish experience who rarely divulged his personal religious and political philosophy, Scholem resists the immediate, quotable relevance enjoyed by his contemporaries. His work features ecstatic stories of men who believed they were the Messiah, and incoherent descriptions of God’s celestial chariot—of limited use to political dissidents, war victims, and alienated workers. When the jackboots of authoritarianism are kicking in doors, Scholem’s apocalyptic religiosity can seem cloying. Why should we need to hallucinate the end of days? It’s here.

But Scholem wrote from a similar vantage. An adolescent and budding anarchist in Germany during World War I, he found himself trapped between a zealous nationalism and a bourgeois Jewish community that did nothing to prevent the bloodshed. Even the supposedly revolutionary Zionist movement, which enchanted Scholem, proved to be a disappointment when Martin Buber, one of its most influential intellectuals, endorsed the war. Later, after Scholem had moved to Jerusalem on a spiritual quest to deepen his engagement with Jewish literature and tradition, still trying to salvage redemptive threads of the cultural Zionist project, he again encountered devastation. The idealized return to the holy land engulfed Palestine in violence, culminating in the 1929 riots that claimed hundreds of Jewish and Arab lives. “Zionism has triumphed itself to death,” Scholem wrote in a 1931 letter to Walter Benjamin. “Now it is no longer a matter of saving us … but of jumping into the abyss that yawns between victory and reality.” A decade later, he witnessed the unimaginable tragedy of World War II and the Holocaust, which took the life of his close friend, Walter Benjamin, murdered his brother Werner, and annihilated much of European Jewry.

Scholem reacted to these waves of devastation by turning to the study of mystical movements in Jewish history. Working in Jerusalem at the National Library and, eventually, as a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University, he revitalized interest in Kabbalah, an esoteric tradition within Judaism. Dating back to the Talmudic era and thoroughly multifarious, Kabbalah is a mystical complement to Jewish religious life, driven by linguistic and metaphysical speculation. Rather than relegate the ecstatic and obscure threads of Kabbalah to a para-religious curiosity, Scholem detailed the evolution of Judaism as one that braided its mainline and mystical elements. In perhaps the best introduction to Scholem’s thought, his “Religious Authority and Mysticism,” he writes, “All mysticism has two contradictory or complementary aspects: the one conservative, the other revolutionary.” In his story of Judaism, the conservative tenets of the religion are tempered, subverted, and reinvented by mystical influences: blind sages meditating on the divine qualities of Hebrew letters, secretive rabbis forging mammoth tomes of speculative philosophy, and charismatic cult leaders claiming that they were the messiah. For Scholem, the history of Jewish mysticism held tradition open to innovation. He imagined a politics and ethics vitalized by an anarchistic spirit.”

From The Mailbox

Between Past and Future

Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future (Source: Amazon)

Last week we linked to a speech given by Michael Goodwin. Goodwin looks at the breakdown of trust in our best newspapers and argues that the blame falls squarely on the newspapers themselves. A number of readers wrote to challenge Goodwin’s argument. Some insisted that by including it we were misunderstanding Arendt. Here is a sample from one reader:

“You wrote: “In ‘Truth and Politics,’ Arendt maintains that there is no truth in politics, that there is only opinion. For Arendt, opinions are formed when we encounter ideas that challenge our own thoughts, compelling us to think through particular arguments.” You left out a central point that Arendt makes in “Truth and Politics,” one that is germane to the importance of periodicals like the New York Times and the Washington Post, namely facts, which Arendt refers to as “factual truth.” She wrote about “the clash of factual truth and politics. . . factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted today with greater hostility than ever before.” The way to eliminate truth from politics is to make facts irrelevant. Relevant facts are what newspapers of record like the Times make available as a basis for public discourse. Take the emails that revealed to us Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian operatives, for example. Goodwin and his fellow ideologues would like us to dismiss such information as “fake news.” We have to take sides, we are to believe, because there is no truth in politics…”

There is an important and widespread misunderstanding underlying this reader’s argument. It is absolutely true that Arendt believes in that necessity to uphold factual truth. While it is no doubt true that facts are dependent upon interpretation, such perplexities “are no argument against the existence of the factual matter, nor can they serve as a justification for blurring the dividing lines between fact, opinion, and interpretation, or as an excuse for the historian to manipulate facts as he pleases.” Arendt insists that “we don’t admit the right to touch the factual matter itself.” The argument for facts is political: politics is founded upon plurality. What unites a plural group of citizens is a common and shared world, a world that exists and persists through time. Facts are part of the common world. They are, as Arendt writes, “the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” We must preserve facts if we are to save the common world from disintegration.

At the same time, Arendt confronts the fundamental problem that political facts are deeply intertwined with opinion. She writes:

“Factual truth, on the contrary, is always related to other people: it concerns events and circumstances in which many are involved; it is established by witnesses and depends upon testimony; it exists only to the extent that it is spoken about, even if it occurs in the domain of privacy. It is political by nature. Facts and opinions, though they must be kept apart, are not antagonistic to each other; they belong to the same realm.”

The difficulty Arendt is alert to is that facts must be saved and secured even as we must understand that facts are “political by nature.” That facts are political is actually part of the democratic essence of politics. It means that all claims to truth in politics are open to contest, debate, and persuasion. “Seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.” The danger of claims to factual truth is that it is tyrannical, it shuts down debate. “The trouble is that factual truth, like all other truth, peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.”

In defending the importance of facts—and of truthtelling—Arendt does not make a simplistic argument that it is easy to distinguish fact and opinion. Her concern is rather with a particularly modern problem, the “relatively recent phenomenon of mass manipulation of fact and opinion as it has become evident in the rewriting of history, in image-making, and in actual government policy.” Her worry is not with factual mistakes so much as with the willingness and ability of idealogues and propagandists to rewrite history, deny the factual record, and undermine our faith in a common and shared public world.

President Donald Trump has proven remarkably adept at precisely the kind of “mass manipulation of fact and opinion” that Arendt warns about. We at the Arendt Center are not the only ones who have repeatedly pointed this propensity to weaponize facts and defactualize reality.

But Arendt adds something to an understanding of Trump’s persistent attack on the factual world, an understanding that the undermining of reality is part of a political movement.

Movements thrive on the destruction of reality. Because the real world confronts us with challenges and obstructions, reality is uncertain, messy, and unsettling. Movements work to create alternate realities that offer adherents a stable and empowering place in the world. The mobilized members of a movement are confounded by a world resistant to their wishes and prefer the promise of a consistent alternate world to reality. As Arendt writes, “What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.” Above all, movements promise consistency. Movements “conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.” Trump’s consistent lying is part of his leadership of a mass movement.

The reason a speech like the one by Michael Goodwin is important is not because it denies that Trump is lying—Goodwin does not. In fact, Goodwin argues that we need an independent and non-political press to preserve the factual world that President Trump is endangering. Goodwin argues that the conditions that enabled Trump’s mass movement—the masses increasing distrust of our common reality—were in no-small-part enabled by the increasingly partisan and ideological mainstream media that created its own fictional world, a lying world of consistency that Trump’s movement gets credit for unmasking. What is more, Goodwin argues that Trump’s election has made the partisanship and ideological commitments of the media fully visible; in fact, he argues that the NY Times and the Washington Post have so embraced their role as part of the resistance to Trump that they have sacrificed their traditional journalistic rule as impartial truthtellers.

There is an argument for what these newspapers are doing. One can I think rightly argue that no other politician in modern America has so blatantly attacked our factual reality. Because of this, it is possible to believe that Trump and his lies are so dangerous that the journalists must abandon their objectivity and seek at all points to discredit Trump. Such an argument is one that Arendt would question.

At the end of her essay on “Truth and Politics,” she argues that “to look at politics from the perspective of truth, as I have done here, means to take one’s stand outside the political realm. This is the standpoint of the truthteller.” Politics, she argues, cannot exist without certain realms that are non-political. As examples of such non-political activities, she offers philosophy, art, history, law, and journalism. “These modes of being alone differ in many respects, but they have in common that as long as any one of them lasts, no political commitment, no adherence to a cause, is possible.” Arendt sees journalism as one of the “refuges of truth.” This means a space free from politics, place where one can “Say what is” absent political and ideological commitments. Goodwin’s argument is that journalism has now publicly and explicitly abandoned its non-political role as a truthteller. He thinks that once lost, this role is impossible to resurrect. I hope he is wrong. Regardless, his argument is important and worth considering.

“Truth and Politics” is one of Arendt’s most important and most relevant essays. We will be discussing this essay during the Hannah Arendt Center’s Virtual Reading Group on Friday, July 21st. I encourage you to join the conversation. If you’d like to sign up to be part of the reading group, contact us at

—Roger Berkowitz

The World At Stake

Ian Johnston eulogizes dissident Chinese poet, essayist and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo:

“I couldn’t help but think of Tan these past few days as China’s best-known democracy activist, Liu Xiaobo, lay dying of liver cancer in a hospital prison. Death comes to all people and cancer is not the same as an executioner’s sword. But the deaths of the two seemed somehow to connect across the hundred and nineteen years that separate their fates. Like Tan, Liu threw his weight behind a cause that in its immediate aftermath seemed hopeless—in Liu’s case, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. But with time, history vindicated Tan; I wonder if it will do the same for Liu.

When the Tiananmen protests erupted, Liu was abroad but chose to return. After the protesters were bloodily suppressed, many of the Tiananmen leaders who could left the country; Liu, too, after a brief stint in prison, had opportunities to leave. But like Tan Sitong, he chose to stay in China, where he mattered most. Even after a second, harsher stint in jail, Liu was determined to remain and keep pushing for basic political rights. He was risking not the immediate arrival of soldiers, but the inevitable and life-threatening imprisonment that befalls all people who challenge state power in China today.

This was not an active decision to die, but a willingness to do so.”

Last September, Johnston wrote of how Liu’s various periods of imprisonment had affected his wife, Liu Xia, also a poet and activist:

“Every month, the Chinese poet, photographer, and artist Liu Xia boards a train bound for the country’s north…The ride used to take six hours each way but Ms. Liu now makes it in just three—a tribute to the power and might of a state that rolls out high-speed rail lines as quickly as it snaps up those who oppose its vision of China’s future. Now fifty-five years old, Ms. Liu is one of those victims: a small, fragile woman with extremely short-cropped hair that sets off her high cheek bones and bright, wide eyes.

She has lived under strict police surveillance ever since her husband won his prize in 2010, one year into his eleven-year prison term. For more than three years, she could not see friends or even receive phone calls. Those close to her spoke of her becoming unbalanced from the pressure. When Associated Press journalists snuck past guards and knocked on her door in 2012, she trembled, cried, and said her situation was “Kafkaesque.” In 2014, people close to her reported that she was hospitalized due to heart ailments and depression.”

Johnson’s passages on the Liu’s remind me of Arendt’s thinking about courage in my favorite of her essays, “What Is Freedom,” where she says that “freedom or its opposite appears in the world whenever… principles are actualized; the appearance of freedom, like the manifestation of principles, coincides with the performing act. Men are free—as distinguished from their possessing the gift of for freedom— as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.” Arendt, countering the notion that freedom is an apolitical matter of the will, suggests that the key to freedom actually lies within the ability to take stock of situations as they arise and take the proper and virtuous actions in response to them. She compares the ability to do so to virtuosity, as in the arts, and she declares also that action is characterized by risk to one’s life, to one’s comfort, to one’s economic stability; actors able to overcome that risk, she says, make visible one of her “cardinal political virtues.” “Courage” she says “liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world. Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake.”


Posted on 16 July 2017 | 2:40 am

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