Withered Public, Disappearing Private10-01-2012
“What is necessary for the pubic realm is to shield it from the private interests which have intruded upon it in the most brutal and aggressive form.”
In 1973, Hannah Arendt was invited to participate in a series of conferences on the Humanities and Public Policy issues funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to be held at Columbia University. The first, scheduled for February 1974, was on the topic of “Private Rights and the Public Good,” and Arendt gave a speech in response to a paper on the subject given by Charles Frankel, a Professor of Philosophy and Public Affairs at Columbia University. (The original note cards of her presentation are available to researchers at the Library of Congress and can be viewed digitally online.)
Part of the grant’s requirements included taping the sessions and providing the Endowment with a transcript of all proceedings. Arendt objected to being taped and indicated she could do no more than present her oral commentaries; she had no time to develop a fuller paper. The organizers of the conference and Arendt reached a compromise: they would prepare a transcript of her comments from the tape; the tape would stay in the possession of Columbia University and no use would be made of the transcript, other than filing it with the Endowment as required, without Arendt’s express permission.
Some months after the conference, the coordinator of the conference sent Arendt the edited transcript, along with his wishes for her speedy recovery: while Arendt was in Scotland for the second of the Gifford Lectures, she had suffered a major heart attack. Unhappy with the transcription, Arendt indicated she still had her notes and would prepare something from them, adding that she thought this would present her thoughts more clearly, “even though these notes are written down in a rather apodictic style.” She had her secretary type up a version of the notes and then made a few additional minor changes and sent them to Columbia University.
“Notes on the Discussion of Professor Charles Frankel’s Paper...” provides several succinct insights into Arendt’s critical distinctions between public and private, which are especially germane to today’s political situation.
“Every individual by virtue of his citizenship receives a sort of second life in addition to his private life. He belongs to two orders of existence. Throughout his life he moves within what is his own, and what is common to him and his fellow man.” Public happiness was something that could only be attained “in public, independent of...private happiness.”
Today, Arendt bemoaned, the opportunities for experiencing this public happiness by participating in public life had shrunk, adding, “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” It was better represented in the activities of a jury. But the paradigmatic “public right” for Arendt was the right to peaceable assembly provided by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Its exercise was still evident in “voluntary association”, she remarked, “of which the civil disobedience groups were an outstanding examples.” Arguably, it has been more recently evident in dimensions of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its iterations. (Though, for interesting commentary and documentary materials on this see Cindy Weber’s recent essay in Open Democracy). But what was definitely not an example of the exercise of public rights was the degeneration of peaceable assembly into “lobbying,” which Arendt saw as “the organization of private interest for the purpose of public political influence.
Evidence from the current campaign suggests that the bipartisan perversion of public into private interests continues at an obscene pace. A recent article in The New Yorker provided some frightening facts: The impact of the 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has meant that “very wealthy Americans have begun wielding increasingly disproportionate power in U.S. politics...A pool of only 2100 people has given a total of 200 million dollars to the 2012 campaigns and their Super PACs—fifty-two million dollars more than the combined donations of the two and a half million voters who have given two hundred dollars or less. In other words, the top .07 per cent of donors are exerting greater influence on the 2012 race than the bottom 86%.” (August 27, 2012)
What this means, using Arendt’s terminology, is that only a tiny portion of private interests will exert tremendous political influence. Not only has the public realm shrunk; the private realm of influencing politics has all but disappeared for everyone except the very few. Entering the voting booth in 2012 will mean exercising your private right to choose between one form of oligarchy or another. What then of public life? How can it be restored?
Arendt was typically vague about what to do about the influence of oligarchies on public and private life. “Neither the capitalist system [nor] the socialist system respects ownership any more—inflation and devaluation of currency are capitalist modes of appropriation—although both, in different ways, respect acquisition,” she wrote in the same speech. As to the consequences of enshrining acquisition as a principle of social organization, Arendt had nothing but criticism—see The Human Condition for this. To protect private life, we must “restore ownership to private individuals under conditions of modern production.” And what is necessary for public life to be restored is “to shield it against the private interests which have intruded upon it in the most brutal and aggressive form.” Yet all recent legislation that would have restored “ownership” or secured the public realm against brutalization by private interests seem to disappeared from the legislative agenda.
Is it time to call upon the 99% to boycott the election entirely? What other act of civil disobedience would be adequate to the task of renewing public life and salvaging it from its bastardization at the hands of greedy private interests?
-Kathleen B. Jones