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Amor Mundi: Political Conversion

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.


Political Conversion

Reflecting on revolutions in thinking, Corey Robin writes about political conversions. Focusing on Derek Black, an ex-Neo-Nazi, and Max Boot, who notably broke with the Republican Party after the nomination and election of Donald Trump, Robin thinks about how the ex-Communists of the Cold War era have shaped our contemporary political moment.

The ex-Communist didn’t merely defect. He created the modern right, clearing a path for others, not just Communists and leftists, to follow. Twentieth-century conservatism is unthinkable without Chambers or Burnham or Irving Kristol, who, despite leaving the left, remained loyal to its imagination. They transmuted its energy into a movement that found traction in magazines like the National Review or journals like The Public Interest and, eventually, a home in the White House. The same goes for Frank Meyer, the ex-Communist intellectual who devised the Republican strategy of fusionism, which enabled free-market libertarians to ally with social traditionalists and statist Cold War warriors.

Berlin as a Laboratory of Freedom

Amro Ali argues that a political resurgence amongst the arab world might just begin in Berlin. He turns to Hannah Arendt’s metaphor of the “spaces of freedom” that spring up around people who act in concert in order to argue that Arabs in Berlin have a unique opportunity to begin anew.  “The Arab uprisings brought about a hiatus between the “no-longer” and the “not-yet.”  The individual transitioned from bondage to freedom that broke the chains of work and biological necessity. The result was an imagination unleashed to see humans thrive in freedom and exhibit their capacity to make a new beginning, only for the subsequent journey to be stomped upon by the weight of the jackboot and silenced by the thud of the judge’s gavel hammer.” For Ali, the wave of immigration into Berlin in the wake of the Arab Spring offers hope for a renaissance.

Dislocating the Arab future from the grip of the political bankruptcy and moral morass in the Arab world might appear remote and relegated to the domain of quixotic dreams. But does it need to be that way? As communities are unsettled, resistances triggered, a chorus of voices fired up, waves of bodies set in motion for justice, and a range of emotions roused even when they no longer have an appetite, can the continued onslaught on reality not also reinvigorate political thought?…

Berlin is where the newly-arrived Arab suddenly (but not always) recognizes that the frightful habit of glancing over the shoulder – painfully inherited from back home – gradually recedes. All the while, a new dawn slowly sets in among the meeting of peers in this new city: As such, Berlin is not just a city. It is a political laboratory that enforces a new type of beginning, one that turns heads in the direction of matters greater than the individual; and it generates a realization that the grey blur that nauseatingly blankets the future can actually be broken up.

Following the 2011 Arab uprisings and its innumerable tragic outcomes, Berlin was strategically and politically ripe to emerge as an exile capital. For some time now, there has been a growing and conscious Arab intellectual community, the political dimensions of which to fully crystalize is what I wish to further explore.

When the storm of history breaks out a tectonic political crisis, from revolutions to wars to outright persecution, then a designated city will consequently serve as the gravitational center and refuge for intellectual exiles. This is, for example, what New York was for post-1930s Jewish intellectuals fleeing Europe, and what Paris became for Latin American intellectuals fleeing their country’s dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.

Against those historical precedents, the Arab intellectual community in Berlin needs to understand itself better, moving away from an auto-pilot arrangement, and become actively engaged with political questions that face it. In effect, there is a dire necessity for this community to acquire a name, shape, form and a mandate of sorts. With a vigorous eye to a possible long-term outcome, this may include a school of thought, a political philosophy or even an ideational movement – all cross-fertilized through a deeper engagement with the Arab world.

The Amor Mundi Podcast: Martin Gurri

This weeks marks our inaugural episode of the Amor Mundi Podcast. Roger Berkowitz, academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center, interviews author Martin Gurri on his book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. First published in 2014, the book has now been updated for the Trump era. Click the button below to listen now or download for later.


Quote of the Week: Power, Violence, & Political Action

By Yasemin Sari. As a political philosopher, Yasemin’s work mainly focuses on democratic political theory, especially as it relates to human rights, extra-institutional recognition, and the borders between citizen and non-citizen. Her current research takes up the global refugee crisis.

Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.

— Hannah Arendt

In this compelling quote from “On Violence” Hannah Arendt points to the difference between violence and power, specifically with regard to her understanding of politics. Ultimately, she aims to recover what she calls the raison d’être of the political — or what she otherwise calls freedom — because she contends that when understood merely in instrumental terms, the political space becomes a realm of violence where human freedom cannot occur. In other words, for Arendt, if the “political” is to be free of violence, it must be a realm of freedom, and not one of instrumentality, which is to say, a realm where human action consists of these actions that are a means to an end.

Arendt relates the idea of the instrumentality to the activity of production because production has a certain beginning and a certain end, with the activity in between, working in service of the end. The activity of production aims at an end product, a tangible reality in the world so that its outcome can be judged by its utility. As she further explicates in The Human Condition, “the issue at stake is, of course, not instrumentality, the use of means to achieve an end, but rather the generalization of the fabrication experience in which usefulness and utility are established as the ultimate standards for life and the world of [men].”[1] For her, by contrast, political action does not necessarily produce an outcome that can be regarded as a stable, tangible thing in the world, and hence cannot be judged by the utility of the latter.

Instead, political action is properly understood as an auto-telic performance rather than as a production. According to Arendt, endorsing a mere instrumental attitude in politics leads to judging political action by way of the goal realized at the end of political action, where this outcome itself can then be reduced to further means to other ends. The principle of instrumentality rests on a type of mechanical reasoning that assumes mastery and sovereignty as its preconditions. Such sovereignty, in turn, may imply the redundancy of plural perspectives, thereby effacing the possibility of the creation or affirmation of the fact of human plurality in political action. Arendt’s articulation invites some care then: if the condition of plurality of human beings is effaced from political action, action turns into a mere striving for a pre-conceived end, which covers over the indeterminacy and open-endedness of the outcomes of political action, as well as the plurality of human existence.[2]

This condition of plurality is what presents political action as a properly public endeavour, which manifests the freedom of the human beings who can enact certain principles in the world and create and recover their world in common. Informed by Montesquieu’s articulation of the “spirit of the laws,” what she understands as the principles of action are linked to the Greek verbs “archein” (to begin, to lead) and “prattein” (to pass through, to achieve), which together designate the verb “to act.”

In turn, political action gives us a world in common, in focusing on the principles around which to create and to build this world together such that a public space can turn into a political one. Such creation, in Arendt’s onto-political understanding of the world, can neither rest on an individual’s pursuit of their self-interest, nor the mere achievement of collective identity-oriented concerns.

Through the plurality of opinions, and the equality of the participants, the world is presented to the actors in political action as a world that they create and sustain. While seemingly this political space can be limited by way of pre-determined rules and laws, its creation rests on mutual promises based on worldly principles that bring people together in equality and plurality. The world articulated through political action allows for reflective political judgment — in judging the particular to bring to focus worldly principles such as justice, and public freedom — which stands in stark opposition to mere instrumental reasoning, which focuses on the ends in turn to justify the means to achieve such ends. For Arendt, political action should be judged by way of the worldly principle(s) it enacts, mainly because the enactment of such worldly principles is intimately linked with the human being’s capacity to begin something new, i.e., her ontological capacity for novelty.

Beginning something new does not denote political action that is devoid of motives and goals, but rather it means that political action cannot be judged by its motives or goals alone. Central to this beginning is political action’s characteristics of boundlessness and open-endedness, where the outcome of such action cannot be pre-determined. This is why Arendt differentiates between the activity of production (work) and the activity of praxis (political action) because the latter can properly manifest the indeterminacy of the outcomes of political action and hence the non-sovereign character of human beings in their relationality. For Arendt, praxis is human action that rests on a principle of action and not on its utility or outcome. Unlike poiēsis or making something, praxis is neither equivalent to the action’s motives and goals nor to the standard of utility that we have in the activity of production. Insofar as political action has a principle, it differs from the activity of production in that the political actor manifests this principle in acting in the presence of others.

The worldly character of political action, as that which reveals the conditions of plurality and equality of political agents in the political space, is related to an articulation of recognition which does not rest on an identity-based politics that understands recognition based on the abstract recognition of equality of human beings as part of some species. To the contrary, an Arendtian articulation of recognition would focus on the public appearance of each human being, where the human being is recognized as enacting worldly principles that reveal who they are. Such articulation of recognition is more than just an attempt to get to the root of the question of recognition — as it relates not only to the recognition of individual rights and liberties, that delineates private and public spaces and understands human freedom’s connection to the fine lines between these spaces — but also the recognition of one’s potential political agency in community.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 157, my emphasis.

[2] Cf. Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 189.

Journal Feature: When Telling the Truth Demands Courage

by Wolfgang Heuer

Truthtelling is often very unpleasant when it contradicts the opinioon of the majority. Telling the truth can easily lead to a minority position and exposes the truthteller to the pressure of the majority. To resist this pressure demands courage. Therefore, courage is not only the virtue of political action par excellence, but also quite evidently the virtue of truthtelling. To tell an inconvenient truth is not only a statement, but also an action.

Read the full essay on page 81 of HA Journal I

Video Feature: Lying and Politics

Democracy and Lying with George Kateb

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Posted on 25 January 2019 | 10:35 am

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