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Amor Mundi: The People’s Populism

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.

The People's Populism

Many writers have turned to populism in order to think about the crisis of democracy and the rise illiberalism around the world today. Jason Frank argues that using populism as a catchall term for illiberal movements obscures the connection between populism and popular sovereignty.

For Frank, we must not forget that populism is a movement by the people and that the easy rejection of populism makes manifest our democratic decline.

“Populism is a discourse organized around a clear set of normative commitments. Most obviously, populism emerges from a commitment to popular sovereignty, to the modern legitimating idea that the people are the ultimate ground of public authority and that political appeal to that authority can transcend the formal institutions of democratic representation. Advocates of the populist thesis emphasize the populist claim to speak on behalf of a morally pure and unitary people against the ruling power of a corrupted and unrepresentative elite. The idea that the popular will can be identified beyond the institutions of the constitutional state sets the condition for populist leaders to claim the sole mantle of popular authority against all competing political factions. The central claim of populism, we are often told, is that only some of the people really are “the People” and that it is the populist leader who acts on their behalf.”

What is obscured by the association of populism with democratic decline is the fact that “populism entered the English language to describe a nineteenth-century political movement born of struggle against the oligarchic economic and political order of the United States’s first Gilded Age. Twenty years before the People’s Party and William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, the Farmers’ Alliance served as the egalitarian heart of U.S. populism.”

“By focusing on populism as the primary source of democratic decline, the economic and political developments that have most profoundly undermined democratic institutions and the meaning of democratic citizenship over the past forty years are obscured. Worse, populism has become the name given willy-nilly to all movements challenging these developments on behalf of a recovered sense of collective authority and political control, whether articulated from a racist and xenophobic right or a radically egalitarian left. Authoritarian attempts to centralize and expand the state’s executive power and wield it against “enemies of the people”-however defined by Trump, Erdoğan, Orbán, and others-should never be equated with the radically democratic institutional experimentalism of Podemos or the Farmers’ Alliance. More attention should be paid to how “the people” is envisioned by these different movements, and how they propose popular power to be democratically enacted.

Designating populism as the term that best encapsulates the political dangers authoritarianism poses to democratic politics in so many parts of the world today has the additional and unfortunate consequence of suggesting that widespread resistance to these movements should not itself be populist, should not claim the mantle of “we the people” and engage in an antagonistic politics of who we are and what kind of collective power we should wield. This political movement need not recover and rally around the term populism-democratic socialism is also enjoying a new day in the sun-but it should openly recognize that a return to “politics as usual” may be insufficient to confront the full extent of the dangers democracies currently face. Defenders of democracy cannot surrender the authority of the people without undermining the very goal they claim to be fighting for.”

A Politics of Faith

Writing about populism in the same vein as Jason Frank, Matthew Goodwin argues that populism is “intimately entwined with the practice of democracy.” Following the great Arendtian scholar Margaret Canovan, Goodwin writes that populism emerges from a battle between two kinds of politics, a politics of faith and a politics of scepticism.

“[A]s long as we have democracy, we will have populists. This is because movements like Brexit, Trump, Five Star in Italy or the Sweden Democrats do not simply draw strength from things that happen today, but from a deeper conflict between two different ideal types, tendencies or styles of politics that have run through the West (and especially Europe) for centuries. These are ultimately two very different ways of seeing the world around us. On one side is ‘politics as faith’, on the other is ‘politics as scepticism’.
Populism is ultimately rooted in the politics of faith, grounded in the notion that human beings – through politics – can achieve perfection, salvation or utopia here on Earth. The political arena is not a forum in which we simply debate policy or manifestos; it is also a vehicle through which the people can pursue their own salvation – the salvation of their community, their nation and their group. Politics as faith is thus highly emotional, demands total obedience and seeks to inspire mass enthusiasm, affection, love and tribal loyalty. The otherwise routine humdrum of political life is transformed into a far grander and ambitious narrative; a campaign to save the nation or its people; a promise to ‘Make Country X Great Again’, or to ‘Take Back Control’.
Though populism is routinely portrayed as a reactive force, one that is only against, politics as faith appeals to a recognised authority, namely the people, and claims to speak on their behalf. This is why [Margaret] Canovan described the politics of faith as displaying ‘the revivalist flavour of a movement, powered by the enthusiasm that draws normally unpolitical people into the political arena’. Indeed, today’s populists, like the Alternative for Germany, Brexit and Trump, have done exactly that, drawing votes from people who had previously given up on politics but who now saw an opportunity to re-enter the political arena in order to pursue the salvation of their group and nation….
This is why some see populism as deeply problematic and brings us to ‘politics as scepticism’, which is a counter-balance of sorts to populism. Politics as scepticism is a fundamentally different way of viewing the political realm. In sharp contrast to the ‘revivalist flavour’ that characterises politics as faith, politics as scepticism is far more focused on incremental rather than radical change. It is about the formality of government, procedures, rules, technicalities, self-control and moderation, which makes it practical but inevitably dry and boring. It is sceptical not only of grand ideological visions but also of any concentration of power and also the involvement of the masses in complex issues, though this scepticism can quickly slide into open disdain. Politics as scepticism is about siding with the experts. Max Weber once said that politics is slow, steady drilling through hard boards. That is the politics of scepticism.”




human condition The Human Condition Turns 60

To mark the 60th Anniversary of Hannah Arendt’s
The Human Condition, the journal
Arendt Studies has published seven essays reflecting on “The Human Condition Today.” The essays are by Ronald Beiner, Roger Berkowitz, Peg Birmingham, Adriana Cavarero, Annabel Herzog, Wolfgang Heuer, and Dana Villa. The essays are behind a firewall, but the table of contents is here.  Subscribing is recommended.
Here is an excerpt from a draft version of Roger Berkowitz’s essay “The Human Condition Today: The Challenge of Science.”
“Great books, Nietzsche taught, are made small by their readers, “who behave like plundering troops: they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole.” Hannah Arendt’s The Human Conditionhas too often been made small, picked over for Arendt’s conceptual analysis exploring labor, work, and action. So much attention has been focused on these chapters that we forget that The Human Conditionis not principally a conceptual account; it is, first and foremost, an “historical analysis”. (6)
To consider the meaning of The Human Condition today means to understand how Arendt explores the fate of humanity in the aftermath of the scientific age. She argues that the modern age of science began “in the seventeenth century [and] came to an end at the beginning of the twentieth century.” (6) In the aftermath of the scientific revolution, we now live in what Arendt calls the modern world, a world defined above all by earth and world alienation. Earth and world alienation have their origins in the scientific foundations of the modern age. Arendt asks: how does the rise of science in the modern age lead an alienated humanity to turn away from the earth and also the humanly conditioned world….
The human condition is threatened by the historical advent of modern science, which promises to overcome the split between man’s biological mortality and his worldly immortality. The danger posed by science is pictured in the event of the launch of Sputnik, which made palpable that the long-deferred dream of mastering the earth was finally within reach of the human species. It was now possible that humans could leave the earth and build new worlds. We now can build a purely artificial world in a spaceship or on an artificial planet, one in which every object-the water, the earth, and even our bodies-would be artificially constructed and humanly made. Sputnik shows that we have finally acquired the technological means to free ourselves from our earthly home and our biological limits. We are finally free to make our world and ourselves in our image rather than to exist in God’s image.”

Don't Play His Game

David Bromwich writes that President Trump is a showman, that his show is getting bad notices from the critics, and yet the show continues to draw enthusiastic audiences. He reminds us that “defeating this presidency and preserving the rule of law are not two elements of a single undertaking. The tasks are distinct, and success in the first venture will depend on persistence in the second.” Above all, Bromwich counsels the critics to cease playing Trump’s game.

“The way to match the Trump pace is by tweeting; but that is to play his game – a gambit the White House press corps have found irresistible. Much of the damage to US politics over the last two years has been done by the anti-Trump media themselves, with their mood of perpetual panic and their lack of imagination. But the uncanny gift of Trump is an infectious vulgarity, and with it comes the power to make his enemies act with nearly as little self-restraint as he does. The proof is in the tweets. Meanwhile his administration is well along – and not very closely watched – on its slow march through the institutions. One example can stand for many.

The US Environmental Protection Agency, created in 1970 by Richard Nixon, has been responsible – under both Democratic and Republican leadership – for a large share of the improvements we now take for granted in the restriction of toxic chemical release, fuel economy and the safety of drinking water. Trump’s first choice as administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, soon after taking command, purged its website entry on climate change. (More than a year later, if you go to you are told the page is still being ‘being updated’ to ‘reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt’.) Then Pruitt found a method for reducing the number of scientists on the EPA’s two advisory boards. Science research lives or dies by the government grant, but under Pruitt no member of an EPA board can receive a grant. His administration weakened rules on coal ash, smog and mercury, and cut back enforcement on toxic chemicals. ‘Pruitt has driven away hundreds of experienced EPA staffers and scientists,’ Rebecca Leber reported early this year in Mother Jones, ‘while putting old friends and industry reps in charge of key environmental decisions.’ The military and charter flights he booked for himself, his $2 million security detail, his payment of $120,000 to an opposition research outfit to spy on hostile journalists: a long string of such offences tagged Pruitt as a bottom feeder, even by the grouper-and-bristleworm standard of the Trump government. In the face of complaints by scientists as well as lawmakers and journalists (including some on the far right), Trump continued to express unqualified admiration for Pruitt’s performance, until the boom was lowered on 5 July. A tweet announced that the president had accepted Pruitt’s resignation. His replacement, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal lobbyist who can be trusted to keep a lower profile; he has slowed the pace of Pruitt’s anti-regulatory innovations, and in some cases sent a programme back for reassessment. In the reign of Trump, this is what we are learning to call progress; but the truth is that climate change presents a developing catastrophe of such proportions that even the Democratic opposition has been immobilised.”

Democratic Socialism

In “Hannah Arendt on Hannah Arendt” recently published in Thinking Without a Banister, Arendt says “I never was a socialist. I never was a communist. I come from a socialist background. My parents were socialists. But I myself, never. I never wanted anything of that kind.”

For Arendt, capitalism entailed exploitation at the hands of the wealthy, while socialism risked oppression by the state. Private property, Arendt argued, has proven the most reliable protection against oppression and conformity; yet capitalism turns citizens away from the public good. Still socialism, she understood, had a poor record of respecting freedoms.

According to a new poll, 58% of millennials would prefer to live in a socialist, communist, or fascist nation rather than a capitalist one. The poll was conducted by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s Annual Report on U.S. Attitude Toward Socialism.

With the primary election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and popularity of politicians like Bernie Sanders who style themselves as democratic socialists, the term is gaining new currency in American politics, shedding its McCarthy and Soviet-era baggage.

The Communism Memorial Foundation said that these results “highlight widespread historical illiteracy in American society regarding socialism and the systematic failure of our education system to teach students about the genocide, destruction, and misery caused by communism.” The Foundation suggested that many millennials romanticize socialism and communism as an alternative to capitalism in a suffering economy.

Since the primary elections in NYC earlier this summer, many think-pieces have appeared on the left celebrating socialism. Writing for the Jacobin, Corey Robin argues that it is socialists who are championing American democracy. John Judis wrote an essay for the New Republic on “The Socialism America Needs Now,” arguing for a liberal, social-democratic movement. Joseph M. Schwartz and Bhaskar Sunkara writing for the Jacobin responded that “Social democracy is good. But it is not good enough.”

Sheri Berman writing for the Washington Post offers a sobering critique of these encomiums. Tracing the history of socialism, Berman offers a nuanced analysis of democratic socialism. She writes,

“Democratic socialism’s strengths are its idealism and the activism generated by intense dissatisfaction with the status quo. Its proponents today are people like Ocasio-Cortez and New York state Senate candidate Julia Salazar, who told Jacobin in a recent interview, “There’s no question that we have to expand and comprehensively fund the social safety net, but if we do that without altering the more basic structures that disempower people and keep them in wage slavery, we’re never going to see long-term social change.” Democratic socialism’s weaknesses lie, as Bernstein charged more than a century ago, in the abstractness of its vision and its lack of pragmatism. The movement has never made clear what socialism actually means or how it will be achieved. In addition, its idealism has often led to puritanism and a tendency to denigrate those, even on the left, who disagree . In addition, disbelieving that capitalism can be improved has led democratic socialists to disparage reforms.

If democratic socialism is to revitalize the Democratic Party, it should have answers to questions that have bedeviled it in the past. What does the DSA’s goal of socialism actually mean? If abolishing capitalism is its goal, as its adherents say, how are the growth, efficiency and innovation that are the prerequisites for redistribution to be achieved? And if reforms can’t create a better world (“Today’s democratic socialists don’t see positive policy reforms as something we’ll stack up until one day, voilà!, we have socialism,” as one democratic socialist wrote in Vox), then how is socialism to be achieved? Is democracy, even when flawed, a means or an end? Will democratic socialists prioritize democracy if the votes for a “socialist future” do not materialize? Will they eschew the compromises and alliances necessary to protect democracy?”

One beginning of an answer to Berman’s important questions is offered by Corey Robin, who argues that modern democratic socialism is deeply committed to what he calls “economic democracy.”

“What strikes me about the current moment is how willing and able the new generation of democratic socialists are to go on the offensive about democracy, not to shy away from it but to confront it head on. And again, not simply by redefining democracy to mean “economic democracy,” though that is definitely a major – the major – part of the democratic socialist argument which cannot be abandoned, but also by taking the liberal definition of democracy on its own terms.

The reason this generation of democratic socialists are willing and able to do that is not simply that, for some of them, the Soviet Union was gone before they were born. Nor is it simply that this generation of democratic socialists are themselves absolutely fastidious in their commitment to democratic proceduralism: I mean, seriously, these people debate and vote on everything! It’s also because of the massive collapse of democratic, well, norms, here at home.”

-Samantha Hill and Roger Berkowitz

Learning Desire

Samantha Hill asks, “Why do people go along with behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable and violated?”
“This question appears to be at the heart of the latest #metoo scandal. Esteemed N.Y.U. philosopher Avital Ronell has been found responsible for sexual harassment and placed on unpaid academic leave for a year. Nimrod Reitman, the graduate student that accused Professor Ronell of harassment, assault, stalking, and retaliation, filed a Title IX complaint two years after graduating…
This scandal is not a question of feminism, as theTimes tried to suggest. And it is not about famous academics like Judith Butler who have come to Ronell’s defense. It is a question of learning and desire and the way the two often go hand and hand. It is a question about academic culture and the kinds of relationships that occur when two people work closely together over many years. It is a question of the political climate created by Title IX on college campuses, that makes it difficult for students to report offenses.”

The Arendt Center is Hiring

We are pleased to welcome a new member of the Hannah Arendt Center Team. Roger Normand has joined the Arendt Center as the Director of our new Polis Forum, promoting the liberal arts, free speech, and critical thinking in a democratic society.
In addition, we are hiring a new Part-Time Communication Coordinator. You can read the job description here. Or email for more information.
The Communication Coordinator is a part time position at the Hannah Arendt Center (HAC) at Bard College. The Coordinator creates and manages marketing and membership materials to effectively promote the programming and events at the Center.  This position requires excellent, demonstrated written, visual, and verbal communication skills, superb attention to detail, and the ability to manage multiple projects effectively.  Intellectual curiosity and experience in an academic setting is a plus.  This is a part-time position, but may transition into a Full-Time position beginning in January 2019.

The Fragility of Persons and the Need for the Imaginary Domain 

I will argue that embodied human beings demand many forms of so-called “public support” in order to engage in the project that I have called becoming a person. Privacy, both in Anglo-European philosophy and in the jurisprudence of the United States Supreme Court, has always turned on the notion of the individual as a given and the legal person as an expression of this idea of a self-contained subject inextricably tied to private property and literal spaces of retreat. Feminism is not anti-privacy in any simple sense, instead, a feminist rethinking of what is of value in privacy demands that the entire discourse of the private and the public be entirely rethought particularly because of the fragility of our lives as embodied human beings. In 1995, in a text called The Imaginary Domain, I argued that we need an entirely new political and ethical rhetoric to adequately defend crucial rights for which feminists have fought. Here I am going to focus on the right to abortion, but it is only one of many examples. I argue that the imaginary domain is the moral, legal, and ethical space that embodied human beings need in order to play out their different personas. This domain enables us to be the source of our own imaginary and narratives of how we have embodied ourselves as sexuate beings who inevitably see ourselves through an unconscious imago which can endlessly be played with, re-performed, and ultimately re-narrated in the infinite project of becoming a person.

This is an excerpt of from an essay by Drucilla Cornell that will appear Volume 6 (2018) of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center.  Read the rest of this journal feature here on Medium.
Subscribe to HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center here.
Posted on 20 August 2018 | 9:26 am

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