Amor Mundi: On Solitude
Jennifer Sitt turns to Hannah Arendt to think through the importance of solitude in modern life.
“In the 20th century, the idea of solitude formed the centre of Hannah Arendt’s thought. A German-Jewish émigré who fled Nazism and found refuge in the United States, Arendt spent much of her life studying the relationship between the individual and the polis. For her, freedom was tethered to both the private sphere – the vita contemplativa – and the public, political sphere – the vita activa. She understood that freedom entailed more than the human capacity to act spontaneously and creatively in public. It also entailed the capacity to think and to judge in private, where solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think.
In 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who helped to orchestrate the Holocaust. How could anyone, she wanted to know, perpetrate such evil? Surely only a wicked sociopath could participate in the Shoah. But Arendt was surprised by Eichmann’s lack of imagination, his consummate conventionality. She argued that while Eichmann’s actions were evil, Eichmann himself – the person – ‘was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions.’ She attributed his immorality – his capacity, even his eagerness, to commit crimes – to his ‘thoughtlessness’. It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder.
Just as Poe suspected that something sinister lurked deep within the man of the crowd, Arendt recognised that: ‘A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’ Eichmann had shunned Socratic self-reflection. He had failed to return home to himself, to a state of solitude. He had discarded the vita contemplativa, and thus he had failed to embark upon the essential question-and-answering process that would have allowed him to examine the meaning of things, to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, good and evil.
‘It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong,’ Arendt wrote, ‘because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live together with a murderer? Not even another murderer.’ It is not that unthinking men are monsters, that the sad sleepwalkers of the world would sooner commit murder than face themselves in solitude. What Eichmann showed Arendt was that society could function freely and democratically only if it were made up of individuals engaged in the thinking activity – an activity that required solitude. Arendt believed that ‘living together with others begins with living together with oneself’.”
Decadence and Democracy
James Traub argues that democracies are decadent in a specific way: when the people lose their republican values and stop speaking of “we” and instead talk only of “I.” The recent Republican-sponsored tax bill is Traub’s prime exhibit for democratic decadence. Along with, of course, the choice of our current President. For Traub, we need to see ourselves in the gold-plated mirror of Trumpism.
“Perhaps in a democracy the distinctive feature of decadence is not debauchery but terminal self-absorption
— the loss of the capacity for collective action, the belief in common purpose, even the acceptance of a common form of reasoning. We listen to necromancers who prophesy great things while they lead us into disaster. We sneer at the idea of a “public” and hold our fellow citizens in contempt. We think anyone who doesn’t pursue self-interest is a fool.
We cannot blame everything on Donald Trump, much though we might want to. In the decadent stage of the Roman Empire, or of Louis XVI’s France, or the dying days of the Habsburg Empire so brilliantly captured in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, decadence seeped downward from the rulers to the ruled. But in a democracy, the process operates reciprocally. A decadent elite licenses degraded behavior, and a debased public chooses its worst leaders. Then our Nero panders to our worst attributes — and we reward him for doing so.
“Decadence,” in short, describes a cultural, moral, and spiritual disorder — the Donald Trump in us. It is the right, of course, that first introduced the language of civilizational decay to American political discourse. A quarter of a century ago, Patrick Buchanan bellowed at the Republican National Convention that the two parties were fighting “a religious war … for the soul of America.” Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) accused the Democrats of practicing “multicultural nihilistic hedonism,” of despising the values of ordinary Americans, of corruption, and of illegitimacy. That all-accusing voice became the voice of the Republican Party. Today it is not the nihilistic hedonism of imperial Rome that threatens American civilization but the furies unleashed by Gingrich and his kin.
The 2016 Republican primary was a bidding war in which the relatively calm voices — Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — dropped out in the early rounds, while the consummately nasty Ted Cruz duked it out with the consummately cynical Donald Trump. A year’s worth of Trump’s cynicism, selfishness, and rage has only stoked the appetite of his supporters. The nation dodged a bullet last week when a colossal effort pushed Democratic nominee Doug Jones over the top in Alabama’s Senate special election. Nevertheless, the church-going folk of Alabama were perfectly prepared to choose a racist and a pedophile over a Democrat. Republican nominee Roy Moore almost became a senator by orchestrating a hatred of the other that was practically dehumanizing.”
Hannah Arendt warned against mass movements. Movements are built on ideological convictions and must assert and defend those ‘truths’ even against the facts. Which is why movements are so adept at creating and mobilizing coherent fictional realities. For Arendt, movements are one of the essential elements of totalitarian rule. It may be surprising, therefore, that one of the leading political thinkers of our times is calling for the resurgence of mass political movements. Alain Badiou, interviewed by Darko Vujica, attributes the continued victory of capitalism to the weakness of the alternatives. But that doesn’t mean that Badiou is giving up on communism. What communism needs, in Badiou’s telling, are better organized mass movements, better slogans, and the submission of politics to the will of movements.
“The weakness of the communism of the 20th century was primarily political. Centralised and militarised communist parties were good instruments for seizing power. But they were not good instruments for organising communist society. They were too attached to state power and did not develop a true internationalism. We now have to organise communist power around three things: mass movements, organisations that continuously forge the slogans and wills of the movements, and, what will remain for a long time states, which must be under the constant supervision of the movements and organisations. The great failure of the 20th century was the fusion of the Party with the State, the creation of Party-States, gradually cut off from the masses. The political dialectic has to comprise three terms: (movement, organisations, states) and not two (masses and state), or even one (Party-State).”
A History Lesson
Laura M. Nicolae reports from Harvard that an ahistorical and sanitized version of communism predominates on campus. As the child of Romanian parents who endured the brutality of communism, Nicolae argues that the continued celebration of communism as an idealistic and utopian fad is both anti-intellectual and dangerous.
“Walk around campus, and you’re likely to spot Ché Guevara on a few shirts and button pins. A sophomore jokes that he’s declared a secondary in “communist ideology and implementation.” The new Leftist Club on campus seeks “a modern perspective” on Marx and Lenin to “alleviate the stigma around the concept of Leftism.” An author laments in these pages that it’s too difficult to meet communists here. For many students, casually endorsing communism is a cool, edgy way to gripe about the world.
After spending four years on a campus saturated with Marxist memes and jokes about communist revolutions, my classmates will graduate with the impression that communism represents a light-hearted critique of the status quo, rather than an empirically violent philosophy that destroyed millions of lives.
Statistics show that young Americans are indeed oblivious to communism’s harrowing past. According to a YouGov poll, only half of millennials believe that communism was a problem, and about a third believe that President George W. Bush killed more people than Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who killed 20 million. If you ask millennials how many people communism killed, 75 percent will undershoot.
Perhaps before joking about communist revolutions, we should remember that Stalin’s secret police tortured “traitors” in secret prisons by sticking needles under their fingernails or beating them until their bones were broken. Lenin seized food from the poor, causing a famine in the Soviet Union that induced desperate mothers to eat their own children and peasants to dig up corpses for food. In every country that communism was tried, it resulted in massacres, starvation, and terror.
Communism cannot be separated from oppression; in fact, it depends upon it. In the communist society, the collective is supreme. Personal autonomy is nonexistent. Human beings are simply cogs in a machine tasked with producing utopia; they have no value of their own.
Many in my generation have blurred the reality of communism with the illusion of utopia. I never had that luxury. Growing up, my understanding of communism was personalized; I could see its lasting impact in the faces of my family members telling stories of their past. My perspective toward the ideology is radically different because I know the people who survived it; my relatives continue to wonder about their friends who did not.”
The Humanist Marx
Terrell Carver offers another take on why Marx is so popular on college campuses.
“That scholarly and loosely philosophical approach was widely taken up when a ‘humanist Marx’ hit the headlines in the 1960s and caught a wave of student protest, religious activism, ‘Third World’ rebellion and wars of national liberation. The Stalin or Mao version of Marx, and the hermetic East-facing debates that they engendered, looked decidedly stale in Latin America, at the Second Vatican Council, on the anti-war student barricades in the US and France, and anywhere else that the arrogant practice of Great Power politics had caused offence or disaster.
The ‘humanist Marx’ was a world-class intellectual up for debate, rather than a communist icon to be adored or defamed. He was youthful – just in his mid-20s, his texts were hitherto little-known, and moreover they were sketchy, puzzling and sympatico. His editorially titled ‘economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844’, though published in 1932 for German scholars, were circulating among French intellectuals only from the later 1940s, and hit the Anglophone world in translation at the very end of the 1950s. Several bestselling English versions appeared, but neither communist nor anti-communist Cold Warriors had much to say about them, since the concepts therein – famously ‘alienation’ and ‘species-being’ – had featured nowhere in the orthodoxies through which Marxists and anti-Marxists alike had operated ideologically. Most people could spot Marx’s image and register him as a big-browed intellectual. Many would assume – given the Cold Warrior echoes – that he was Russian (which he wasn’t), but then on discovering that he was German, many Anglophones found him just about as alien, yet still appealing….
Refreshingly, the ‘humanist Marx’ had set the stage for an examination of capitalist society in ways that bypassed all these efforts in economics, of whichever opposing camp. ‘Alienation’ was neither economics nor Marxist, so it suited the New Left of the 1960s. It functioned as a political critique that required relatively little study, given the brevity of Marx’s early manuscript notes-to-self. In particular, the ‘humanist Marx’ needed no study at all in conventional economics textbooks, based as they were (and still are) on rather abstractly asocial and ahistorical presumptions, and on evidential reasoning that is easily converted to mathematics.”
Posted on 7 January 2018 | 8:00 am
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