Hannah Arendt’s Politics for Crises06-25-2020
Ned O’Gorman argues that what makes Hannah Arendt so meaningful in our divided, highly partisan, and post-truth age is her embrace of politics that avoids claims to truth. While some may recoil from the intensity of politics and seek to restrain political excess, Arendt insists that the only way to protect ourselves from democratic tyranny is by expanding rather than constricting democratic powers. For Arendt, politics must seek to empower people; politics is “different people getting along with each other in the full force of their power.” As Gorman writes, “For Arendt, politics was the back-and-forth interplay between regular people in a democracy. Done right, politics not only combats hyper-partisanship and raw power plays, but helps us thrive, even in the face of great collective challenges. For Gorman, this is especially true of our current moment of multiple crises.
When my book came out, the pandemic was just beginning. This was horrible timing, in many ways, as our collective worries about hyper-partisanship, misinformation, and the future of democracy took a nervous backseat to urgent concerns about testing kits, masks, hospital capacities, and staying safe and well. Arendt, as far as I know, never wrote about the politics of pandemic, and when my book went to press months ago, the world had never heard of COVID-19. And yet, trying to make sense of this illness and its broader impacts on life, I heard her voice in my head constantly. All the more so now, in the wake of the brutal deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery: I have been continuing to think with Arendt about our moment, our political moment, and I think there’s plenty we can learn from her insights about politics in a time of pandemic, police brutality, and protest.
The first and last thing Arendt teaches us is that politics was made for these crises. This may be obvious enough when it comes to police brutality and other forms of racist violence, but it is also true for the pandemic. While science, medicine, engineering, and manufacturing are essential to combatting coronavirus, it is politics, and politics above all, that creatively shapes how science is used, to whom medicine is applied, and how engineering and manufacturing are summoned to serve the public good. In acting collectively to care for others, we act politically. What is all this coordinating with innumerable perfect strangers to seek the good of our cities, communities, and neighborhoods, other than a form of political action?
We have a hard time seeing this because we assume politics to be the business of political parties, of Republicans and Democrats. Arendt’s writings try to disabuse us of this assumption.