Search News:

Amor Mundi: Democratic Innovation

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Democratic Innovation

David Van Reybrouck, author of Against Elections, spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center last week about bringing principles of lottery into democratic government as a way of reinvigorating representative democracies that are seen to be corrupt and sclerotic. Van Reybrouck was in conversation with Zephyr Teachout and Roger Berkowitz. You can watch the conversation here.


Arendt & Marx

Samantha Hill remarks on Arendt’s recently published lectures on Marx, included in the new volume of her writings, Thinking Without a Banister, edited by Jerome Kohn.

“Arendt says that we have to take Marx seriously, because he was trying to grapple with the fundamental crises of the modern age: the problems of labor and history. This is where the significance of his thinking lies for Arendt. He was fixedly attentive to the political, economic, and social questions of his historical moment. It is not that Marx’s writing broke the tradition of Western political philosophy and opened up space for totalitarianism. Instead, she writes it is that “One might argue that the thread of our tradition was broken, in the sense that our traditional political categories were never meant for such a situation, when, for the first time in our history, political equality was extended to the labor classes.”

Marx saw that labor was undergoing a fundamental transformation. The sources of wealth were changing, and so too were the origins of social values. All men in capitalist society are sooner or later transformed into laborers. Marx saw the laboring class as an underprivileged group engaged in a fight for liberation and social justice. Arendt says that what he failed to see was that this passion for liberation and social justice is only applicable to individuals in the modern era, and not to any one social group. In Arendt’s reading of Marx she saw not just the condition of labor, but the corresponding social values that would come to define a society characterized by the laboring activity. In Marx’s elevation of labor, Arendt saw the erasure of all other occupations, vocations, and human activities.”

Our Ideological Moment

Jedediah Purdy takes stock of the burgeoning “crisis of democracy” literature and finds it harbors nostalgia for either expertise or ethics. What is missing, Purdy argues, is a return to ambitious and imaginative ideological contestation.

“It was another habit of the long 1990s to assume that because the political problems of ideological contest had been solved, what remained was a matter for either experts or ethicists. It isn’t surprising that, when expertise seems to be losing its authority, the diagnosis falls back on ethics—the demonstrably odious character of the president, but also the norms of American political culture, and, at bottom, the attitudes of its citizens…

Arriving at the wrong answer is more excusable than posing the wrong question. The crisis-of-democracy literature doesn’t get the questions quite right. It looks across the world for parallels to what is happening in the United States today, a comparative approach that manages to be both U.S.-centric and historically narrow. It might have been more illuminating to investigate the long-running illiberal, anti-democratic, racist, nativist, and plutocratic strands in American politics. While these books acknowledge “inequality” and “insecurity,” and even sometimes the ways liberalized trade and finance can undercut democracy, they don’t grasp the thought that capitalism and democracy might be in deep tension. Maybe for the world to be safe for democracy, it needs to be less safe for at least some versions of capitalism.

The focus on the norms of political elites is in one way a refreshing change from the technological determinism of the long 1990s, which tended to treat neoliberal globalization as an inevitable product of technology, with governments either leading, following, or getting run over if they stood in the way. Attention to norms at least acknowledges that politics matters. But it is a modest focus, limited to ensuring government becomes neither bloodletting nor openly corrupt.

A more robust approach would have been to ask how political leadership and mobilization can open up new ideological frontiers, for better or worse. Nativist campaigns create nativists, racist campaigns racists. Socialist campaigns create democratic socialists. It seems entirely possible—though nail-bitingly uncertain—that this fall, and in two-plus years, American majorities will reject today’s nativist, racist, and plutocratic movements. But in favor of what? To come to terms with the crises of democratic capitalism and the ideological openings of the post–Cold War era, it will have to be more than a renewal of moral seriousness and elite responsibility. Not long ago it seemed to many respectables that we lived in the best of all possible worlds, allowing for some improvements around the edges. Now nearly everyone sees that another world is possible—a much worse one, narrower, crueler, and more nihilistic. In fact, that “best” world seems to have had the defect that it fostered the worse one. The most important political question of this time, then, is whether a still better world is also possible—and, if so, what that world would be.”

You can revisit the  Hannah Arendt Center’s 2017 conference Crises of Democracy here.

Re-opening the Closing of the American Mind

Julian Vigo writes that it is time to return to Allan Bloom’s much maligned The Closing of the American Mind to find its critical stance on the commodification of the humanities.

“In “The Dying Art of Disagreement,” published in The New York Times last Autumn, Bret Stephens discusses our failure to have reasoned discussions, stating: “We no longer just have our own opinions. We also have our separate ‘facts,’ often the result of what different media outlets consider newsworthy.” Stephens elaborates on the ways in which the polarisation of opinion has become personal, to the extent that facts remain up for debate, weighed against feelings he claims are “purchased at the cost of permanent infantilization.” He implores his readers to embrace an education model that does not seek fixed answers but instead opens up texts and ideas to interrogation.

Many of us in academia have struggled with this very problem—how are we to revive a spirit of inquiry in the classroom during an era of great pressure to conform to fashionable theoretical trends and hip analyses? One interesting facet of Stephens’s text is that he calls up the 1987 Allan Bloom best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind.  Yet, Stephens has reframed the prevailing and more traditional perception of Bloom’s work. He suggests that it is not a conservative polemic but rather a liberal call for an inquisitive and open approach to reading texts.

Certainly, in the late 1980s Bloom’s opponents were inevitably leftists, defiantly hostile to his defence of liberal education. However, more recent reconsiderations of Bloom’s work reveals that others share Stephens’s view that Bloom’s push for a more critical approach to literature was anything but conservative. In a 2012 essay for the New Yorker, Matt Feeney described the chapter “From Socrates’ Apology to Heidegger’s Rektoratsrede” as a “secretly erotic quest for sublime knowledge to an existentially urgent battle for nonconformity.”  In a 2005 article for the New York Times, Jim Sleeper describes Bloom’s views on neoliberal education as a thoroughgoing critique of capitalist economy, citing the university as that unpopular bastion which “resists our powerful urges and temptations.” Contending that Bloom did not reduce the crisis of liberal education to a tug of war between the Left and the Right, Sleeper characterizes Bloom’s position on education as a plea to the student to resist both “whatever is most powerful” and the “worship of vulgar success.” Given that Bloom also laments the emergence of academic departments as mass communications and business management, which he claims “wandered in recently to perform some job that was demanded of the university,” it is clear that The Closing of the American Mind is not as conservative as many initially thought.

Closer scrutiny of his book reveals that Bloom’s efforts are focussed on encouraging his readers to think, to read, and to question—activities which today are quickly disappearing from academia across the English-speaking world. University professors are often asked not to require their students to read or write very much, if at all. Requests for professors to “lighten the reading load” have in recent years resulted in many being asked to abandon reading altogether so that today this task is viewed as merely ‘optional.’ Students, who now represent something closer to entitled neoliberal clients, now get to decide what empowers them more: studying and coming to class or virtually ‘attending’ their lectures and tutorials through online interfaces initially intended to be spaces for students to find course information and view online documents (i.e. Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, etc).”

Violent vs. Non-Violent Anti-Fascism

Sue Curry Jansen and Brian Martin take on the argument that the best way to counter the rise of fascism is through violent anti-fascist resistance. They discuss Mark Bray’s book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. Mark Bray will be speaking at the 2018 Hannah Arendt Center Conference “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience.” Jansen and Martin understand that while violence is a tool and can at times be justified and effective, the most likely impact of using violence is justifying more violence. Which is why Jansen and Martin suggest civil disobedience and non-violence as better responses to early manifestations of fascism.

“[Mark] Bray’s history of fascism and anti-fascism gives the most attention to violence on both sides. Fascists in inter-war Italy and Germany used violence and so did their opponents. Bray recounts clash after clash. From the 1940s to the present, he portrays anti-fascism as a continuing attempt to prevent fascists and neo-Nazis from being able to organize in public, with anti-fascists assaulting right-wing protesters and speakers. In some cases, this goes further, with anti-fascists assaulting anyone just wearing fascist garb, or bombing the offices and homes of prominent right-wingers. Bray recounts these events, presenting no reservations about any tactics used.

Bray argues that fascists need to be cowed into submission before they gain any sort of profile, arguing that the failure of the left in the 1920s and 1930s was letting fascism grow without sufficient resistance, though his claim is questionable. Most of Bray’s arguments concerning violence are about justifying it. The limitation of this approach is that even if one believes a violent action might be justified, morally or politically, it still may not be the most effective approach.

Bray presents violence as the alternative to liberal approaches, which rely on rational discourse and policing. Certainly, liberalism has often failed to deal with right-wing threats. However, there is another alternative: nonviolent action, the strategic use of petitions, rallies, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and a host of other methods. This alternative has a rich history — including, for example, countering fascists using clowning. Bray can hardly avoid discussing nonviolent action because it is now used widely in contemporary social movements.

To his credit, Bray addresses nonviolent action. He spends much of his treatment countering the arguments about fascism presented by Erica Chenoweth, a leading nonviolence scholar and co-author with Maria Stephan of the acclaimed study “Why Civil Resistance Works.” Bray cites particular cases in his attempt to counter the findings of Chenoweth and Stephan. This is strange because Chenoweth and Stephan do not claim violence is never effective, but rather that a statistical analysis of violent and nonviolent anti-regime campaigns shows that nonviolent movements are more likely to be successful and to lead to freer societies years later.

More seriously, Bray does not come to grips with the assumptions underlying nonviolent action. As Chenoweth and Stephan show, and many others have argued, a key reason why nonviolent action is effective is because it enables participation by most sectors of the population, including women, children, elderly and people with disabilities. Anyone can participate in a boycott.

A second key reason for the effectiveness of nonviolent action is precisely its avoidance of violence. Many people see violent attacks on peaceful, non-resisting protesters as unfair, even inhumane. As a result, such attacks can recoil against the attackers, generating greater support for the protesters. This effect, called political jiu-jitsu, is reduced or nullified when protesters are themselves violent.

Bray is quite right to point out that many campaigns, categorized as primarily nonviolent, used some violence. But this does not mean the violence helped the campaigns. By the logic of political jiu-jitsu, it may have weakened them.”

How To Study

In The New Yorker, David Wallace writes about Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s idea of how to study.

In 2013, Moten published “The Undercommons,” a slender collection of essays co-written with his former classmate and fellow-theorist Stefano Harney. For a book of theory, it has been widely read, perhaps because of its unapologetic antagonism. “The Undercommons” lays out a radical critique of the present. Hope, they write, “has been deployed against us in ever more perverted and reduced form by the Clinton-Obama axis for much of the last twenty years.” One essay considers our lives as a flawed system of credit and debit, another explores a kind of technocratic coercion that Moten and Harney simply call “policy.” “The Undercommons” has become well known, especially, for its criticism of academia. “It cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment,” Moten and Harney write. They lament the focus on grading and other deadening forms of regulation, asking, in effect: Why is it so hard to have new discussions in a place that is ostensibly designed to foster them?

They suggest alternatives: to gather with friends and talk about whatever you want to talk about, to have a barbecue or a dance—all forms of unrestricted sociality that they slyly call “study.” The book concludes with a long interview of Moten and Harney by Stevphen Shukaitis, a lecturer at the University of Essex, in which Moten explains the idea.

We are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal—being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory—there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it “study” is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present.

Interviewing the Last Slave

In 1931, Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the last living  survivor of a slave ship passage to the United States. Eighty-Seven years later, the book based on her field work is finally being published.

“Barracoon is testament to her patient fieldwork. The book is based on three months of periodic interviews with a man named Cudjo Lewis — or Kossula, his original name — the last survivor of the last slave ship to land on American shores. Plying him with peaches and Virginia hams, watermelon and Bee Brand insect powder, Hurston drew out his story. Kossula had been captured at age 19 in an area now known as the country Benin by warriors from the neighboring Dahomian tribe, then marched to a stockade, or barracoon, on the West African coast. There, he and some 120 others were purchased and herded onto the Clotilda, captained by William Foster and commissioned by three Alabama brothers to make the 1860 voyage.

After surviving the Middle Passage, the captives were smuggled into Mobile under cover of darkness. By this time, the international slave trade had been illegal in the United States for 50 years, and the venture was rumored to have been inspired when one of the brothers, Timothy Meaher, bet he could pull it off without being “hanged.” (Indeed, no one was ever punished.) Cudjo worked as a slave on the docks of the Alabama River before being freed in 1865 and living for another 70 years: through Reconstruction, the resurgent oppression of Jim Crow rule, the beginning of the Depression.

When Hurston tried to get Barracoon published in 1931, she couldn’t find a taker. There was concern among “black intellectuals and political leaders” that the book laid uncomfortably bare Africans’ involvement in the slave trade, according to novelist Alice Walker’s foreword to the book, which is finally being published in May. Walker is responsible for reintroducing the world to a forgotten Zora Neale Hurston, who’d died penniless and alone in 1960, in a 1975 Ms. magazine essay. As Walker writes, “Who would want to know, via a blow-by-blow account, how African chiefs deliberately set out to capture Africans from neighboring tribes, to provoke wars of conquest in order to capture for the slave trade. This is, make no mistake, a harrowing read.”

One publisher, Viking Press, did say it would be happy to accept the book, on the condition that Hurston rewrote it “in language rather than dialect.” She refused. Boas had impressed upon her the importance of meticulous transcription, and while her contemporaries — and authors of 19th-century slave narratives — believed “you had to strip away all the vernacular to prove black humanity,” says Salamishah Tillet, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Hurston was of the exact opposite opinion.

In any event, a dejected Hurston moved on to other projects, and the manuscript for Barracoon ended up languishing in her archives at Howard University.”

Read an excerpt of Barracoon here.

Posted on 6 May 2018 | 8:00 am

Back to News