Search News:

Amor Mundi: Illuminations

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.


Since the election of Donald Trump more people than ever have been reading Hannah Arendt. Richard Bernstein, Professor of Philosophy at The New School and a former student of Arendt’s, has written a book on why we should read Arendt now; he argues that Arendt offers illumination for those reaching for light in dark times.

“[Arendt] was remarkably perceptive about some of the deepest problems, perplexities and dangerous tendencies in modern political life, many of them still with us today. When she speaks of “dark times” and warns of the “exhortations, moral and otherwise, that under the pretext of upholding old truths degrade all truth in meaningless triviality” we can hear not only a critique of the horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism, but also a warning about forces pervading the politics of the United States and Europe today.

Arendt was one of the first major political thinkers to warn that the ever-increasing numbers of stateless persons and refugees would continue to be an intractable problem. One of Arendt’s early articles, the 1943 essay “We Refugees,” based on her personal experiences of statelessness, raises fundamental questions. In it, she graphically describes what it means to lose one’s home, one’s language and one’s occupation, and concludes with a more general claim about the political consequences of the new mass phenomenon — the “creation” of masses of people forced to leave their homes and their country: “Refugees driven from country to county represent the new vanguard of their peoples … The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.

When Arendt wrote this she could scarcely have realized how relevant her observations would be in 2018. Almost every significant political event during the past 100 years has resulted in the multiplication of new categories of refugees, and there appears to be no end in sight. There are now millions of people in refugee camps with little hope that they will be able to return to their homes or ever find a new one.”

The Road to Perdition

Cass Sunstein approaches the question “Can it happen here” by revisiting a series of books, one from 1939, another from 1955, and one focused on memoirs by Germans born in the 1920s. These books look at individuals—the little people—who supported Hitler and the Nazis, or who simply turned their heads and made peace with the Nazi rise. They explore how “ the collapse of freedom and the rule of law occurred in increments, some of which seemed to be relatively small and insignificant.” They describe how fake news worked in Germany: “Four of Mayer’s subjects insisted that the only Jews taken to concentration camps were traitors to Germany, and that the rest were permitted to leave with their property or its fair market value.” The third, looking past the Nazi period itself, concludes that “many Germans have been transformed “into sincere democrats and pacifists who want to prevent a recurrence of earlier horrors.” For Sunstein, the lessons from these books is that “habituation, confusion, distraction, self-interest, fear, rationalization, and a sense of personal powerlessness make terrible things possible.” He is right to look backwards at these small histories. Just a few days after mass protest forced the Trump Administration to backtrack from its heartless and soulless policy of separating children from their parents, Sunstein’s essay reminds us of the importance of individual “actions of conscience both small and large, by people who never make it into the history books.

“In such a time, we might be tempted to try to learn something from earlier turns toward authoritarianism, particularly the triumphant rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. The problem is that Nazism was so horrifying and so barbaric that for many people in nations where authoritarianism is now achieving a foothold, it is hard to see parallels between Hitler’s regime and their own governments. Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imaginable series of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought that it can’t happen again.

But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.

Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free, recently republished with an afterword by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, was one of the first accounts of ordinary life under Nazism. Dotted with humor and written with an improbably light touch, it provides a jarring contrast with Sebastian Haffner’s devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, Defying Hitler, which gives a moment-by-moment, you-are-there feeling to Hitler’s rise. (The manuscript was discovered by Haffner’s son after the author’s death and published in 2000 in Germany, where it became an immediate sensation.)* A much broader perspective comes from Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives, an effort to reconstruct the experience of Germans across the entire twentieth century. What distinguishes the three books is their sense of intimacy. They do not focus on historic figures making transformative decisions. They explore how ordinary people attempted to navigate their lives under terrible conditions.”

Class War Constitutions

ca. 1950 General Motors contract settlement- first partially paid hospitalization and medical program at union shop. J.W. Livingston, T.A. Johnstone, Irving Bluestone, Guy Nunn, Walter Reuther, Harry Anderson (GM), and Lou Seaton (GM).

Michael Lind argues that most successful constitutions are class warfare constitutions—those constitutions that moderate the class antagonisms that can lead to oligarchic oppression and demagogic revolt.  The Roman Republic sought to balance the aristocats who ruled in the Senate with the Plebians who controlled the Tribunes. The great Roman motto senatus populusque Romanus names the constitutional division of powers between the Senate and the People of Rome. The abbreviation SPQR is found all over Rome and signified the Roman Constitution that gave the people power but awarded to the nobility the authority to veto popular acts that would endanger the balance of the classes.

Lind turns our attention to the way class matters today. “[T]he best definition of a class, I would suggest, is this: a class is a group of families within a society whose members are disproportionately likely to work in certain vocations and also disproportionately likely to marry and have children with one another. This definition unites the functional and nepotistic aspects of class.” And it is this idea of a hereditary class of privileged elites that “is undoubtedly a factor in the rise of populist movements around the globe.”  For Lind, the point is not to eradicate class, but to moderate class conflict. And he offers an important history of the American constitutional means of addressing class conflict.

“The project of moderating, rather than eliminating, class conflict was central to Western political thought for two millenia. In his recent book, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, Ganesh Sitaraman writes:

For most of the history of constitutional thinking—the twenty-three hundred years from the ancient Greeks into the modern era—the hardest, most intractable problem was at the nexus of social and constitutional structure: the economic division between rich and poor. Aristotle, Polybius, Cicero, Machiavelli, and other political thinkers all paid considerable attention to how constitutional structure would intersect with economic inequality. They worried that economic inequality would lead to political inequality and, with it, oppression and ultimately revolution. Their primary answer was to develop mixed forms of government that built economic classes directly into the structure of government. Each class would thus have a stake in government and a check on the other.

Sitaraman calls these mixed forms of government “class warfare constitutions.” In the Roman Republic, patricians controlled the Senate while plebeians were represented by tribunes. Although the Roman Republic collapsed into civil war and was replaced by despotism, thinkers from Polybius to Machiavelli were inspired by the idea of formal representation of different classes in different ways. For some, the goal was to prevent the poor from attempting to expropriate the property of the rich. Machiavelli, however, viewed the greed and ambition of elites as the greatest threats to republics, which needed to be safeguarded by popular power.

The American founders kept the idea of constitutional checks and balances but rejected the idea that bodies like the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives should formally represent different social classes. Jefferson and Madison did not believe that this mere formal equality could work, however, in the absence of a high degree of equality among a dominant class of free family farmers in a society with few landless laborers. Jefferson hoped that the homesteading of the continental domain of the United States by family farmers, combined with the voluntary movement of freed slaves to colonies abroad, could preserve a white yeoman farmer utopia for many generations. Madison, more pessimistic, calculated in 1830 that a century later, in 1930, a majority of Americans would be landless laborers “necessarily reduced by a competition for employment to wages which afford them the bare necessities of life.” As a result, “the institutions and laws of the Country must be adapted, and it will require for the task all the wisdom of the wisest patriots.”

Right on schedule, following America’s evolution from a society of farmers to a society with a wage-earning majority, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presided over the New Deal—the American version of the post-Depression/post–World War II “settlements” that were associated with three decades of widely shared prosperity in the United States and its western European and East Asian allies.

Two stories are told today about the “thirty glorious years” between 1945 and the mid-1970s. One, popular in the bipartisan neoliberal establishment, holds that the spread of high school and college education in the mid-twentieth century increased “human capital,” raising the wages of workers by making them more productive and thus more deserving of higher pay. The secret to higher wages today is, therefore, more education.

The other story, associated with the labor Left and social democrats, and some populists on the right, emphasizes the bargaining power of the working class relative to employers. Central to the bargaining power of national working classes in the golden age of postwar Western capitalism was the institution of “corporatism” or “tripartism”—government-brokered deals among employers and unions. In many European countries, this kind of government-employer-union negotiation was highly institutionalized. In the United States, a weak version of it existed for a generation following the Treaty of Detroit in 1950, in which the United Auto Workers union made deals with the big three automakers. Although no more than a third of Americans were ever unionized, these deals in the concentrated manufacturing sector served as models for corporate-labor relations throughout the economy.

The Treaty of Detroit regime can be thought of as an informal, extragovernmental version of Sitaraman’s class warfare constitution that enhanced the bargaining power of the working class. So can the postwar party systems of the industrial democracies that incorporated two large groups which had been left out before the world wars and the Great Depression: the industrial proletariat and family farmers. The farmer-labor coalition that was the backbone of the New Deal Democrats was similar to the alliance of industrial workers and farmers responsible for the “cow deal” alliance of 1933, in the early years of Swedish social democracy.

The real significance of the post-1945 settlements in Europe and North America is not that they created a wholly new middle class. The white-collar, college-educated group expanded, to be sure, but it was and remains a minority in developed nations even today. And as we have seen, intergenerational mobility was not that much different half a century ago than it is now.

What really happened in the generation after World War II is that the balance of political and economic power among the preexisting managerial (in Burnham’s terms) and working classes shifted, and so did the distribution of gains from growth. The working class in 1960 was pretty much the same as the working class in 1930—but with more money, more leisure, and better benefits. Likewise, the managerial class was not that different in 1960 than it had been in 1930, but it paid more taxes and was far more constrained in its authority over employees.”

Crisis of Hatred

Trump’s immigration policies have caused a shift in language: The political crisis is now a moral crisis and as individuals we have a choice to stand up for what we believe or be complicit. This week we saw the President back-peddle on a policy of separating children from their parents who enter the United States claiming asylum. Paul Krugman argues that the President’s demonization of asylum-seekers is evidence of a Return of the Blood Libel; Krugman compares myths spread about Jewish peoples to foster social hatred to the lies Trump tells about Mexicans as murderers and rapists. Hannah Arendt took a similar approach when she was researching the first part of The Origins of Totalitarianism, in order to offer an account of anti-Semitism. Her analysis of anti-Semitism was so prescient because she read and sought to understand anti-Semitic texts and how the myths they created were so effective for the Nazi party. Krugman writes,

“The thing about anti-Semitism is that it was never about anything Jews actually did. It was always about lurid myths, often based on deliberate fabrications, that were systematically spread to engender hatred.

For example, for centuries people repeated the “blood libel” — the claim that Jews sacrificed Christian babies as part of the Passover ritual.

In the early part of the 20th century there was wide dissemination of “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a supposed plan for Jewish world domination that was probably forged by the Russian secret police. (History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as more tragedy.)

The fake document received wide dissemination in the United States thanks to none other than Henry Ford, a virulent anti-Semite who oversaw the publication and distribution of a half-million copies of an English translation, “The International Jew.” Ford later apologized for publishing a forgery, but the damage was done.

Again, why would someone like Ford — not only wealthy, but also one of the most admired men of his time — have gone down this path? I don’t know, but clearly such things happen.

In any case, the important thing to understand is that the atrocities our nation is now committing at the border don’t represent an overreaction or poorly implemented response to some actual problem that needs solving. There is no immigration crisis; there is no crisis of immigrant crime.

No, the real crisis is an upsurge in hatred — unreasoning hatred that bears no relationship to anything the victims have done. And anyone making excuses for that hatred — who tries, for example, to turn it into a “both sides” story — is, in effect, an apologist for crimes against humanity.”

Posted on 24 June 2018 | 8:00 am

Back to News