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Romanticizing the Republic: Hannah Arendt on Freedom, Rights, and the Modern State

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Arendt on Freedom, Liberation, and Revolution

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Abstract

This essay is critical of two standard interpretations of Hannah Arendt’s political thought which either praise her agonistic conception of politics or assume that she in fact embraces the need for normative institutional structures that give democratic pluralism form. I argue that Arendt’s emphasis on the existential primacy of freedom does not hold up to constitutional and political realities, especially within the context of the debates about civil rights in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Paradoxically, it is precisely the existential primacy of freedom over rights, and over their institutional forms, that leaves democratic pluralism undefended. The stability of democratic pluralism requires a constitutional state, but Arendt consistently rejects the administrative demands of this state.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See Bonnie Honig, “Toward an Agonistic Feminism: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Identity,” in Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, ed. Bonnie Honig (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 135–66.

  2. 2.

    See Jeremy Waldron, “Arendt’s Constitutional Politics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt, ed. Dana Villa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 202–3.

  3. 3.

    See Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, “The State as an Ethical State” and “The Concept and Problems of the Constitutional State,” both in Constitutional and Political Theory: Selected Writings I, ed. Mirjam Künkler and Tine Stein and trans. Thomas Dunlap (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 86–107 and 141–51, respectively.

  4. 4.

    Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 77.

  5. 5.

    See Hannah Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics,” Social Research 57, no. 1 (1990): 92–94, 96.

  6. 6.

    Ibid., 95.

  7. 7.

    Ibid., 84, 102.

  8. 8.

    Hannah Arendt, “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought,” Social Research 69, no. 2 (2002): 315.

  9. 9.

    Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers (January 29, 1946), in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, Briefwechsel, 19261969, 2nd ed., ed. Lotte Köhler and Hans Saner (Munich: Piper, 1987), 66.

  10. 10.

    Hannah Arendt, TheHuman Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 198–99.

  11. 11.

    Ibid., 40.

  12. 12.

    Philip Pettit, On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 73–74.

  13. 13.

    Hannah Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” inBetween Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 2006), 169.

  14. 14.

    Arendt, TheHuman Condition, 244.

  15. 15.

    Ibid., 222.

  16. 16.

    See ibid., 30–31, 73.

  17. 17.

    Ibid., 234.

  18. 18.

    Ibid.

  19. 19.

    See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1963), 144–53 and 173–74.

  20. 20.

    See Arendt, TheHuman Condition, 67.

  21. 21.

    See Bernard Williams, “From Freedom to Liberty: The Construction of a Political Value,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 30, no. 1 (2001): 3–26.

  22. 22.

    See, along similar lines, Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, “Are Freedom and Liberty Twins?” Political Theory 16, no. 4 (1988): 523–52. Compare Arendt, On Revolution, 23.

  23. 23.

    Hannah Arendt, Freedom and Revolution: Henry Wells Lawrence Memorial Lecture, 1961 (New London, CT: Connecticut College, 1962), 19.

  24. 24.

    See Ronald Dworkin, Justicefor Hedgehogs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 4, 364–68.

  25. 25.

    See Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 163–65; and Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 31, 97.

  26. 26.

    Arendt, On Revolution, 21.

  27. 27.

    Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” 148.

  28. 28.

    Ibid., 154.

  29. 29.

    See Arendt, On Revolution, 22, 101, 141.

  30. 30.

    See ibid., 114–15, 208.

  31. 31.

    See, for instance, Hannah Arendt, “On Violence,” in Crises of the Republic (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1972), 113–14, 125, 148–49, 152. This is not the place for a critique of Arendt’s often questionable comments on decolonization and the postcolonial world. See, however, Ned Curthoys, “The Refractory Legacy of Algerian Decolonization: Revisiting Arendt on Violence,” in Hannah Arendt and the Uses of History:Imperialism, Race, and Genocide, ed. Richard H. King and Dan Stone (New York: Berghahn, 2007), 109–29.

  32. 32.

    See, for instance, Arendt, On Revolution, 109.

  33. 33.

    Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” 145.

  34. 34.

    Ibid., 151.

  35. 35.

    Here and elsewhere I use the term “normative order” in Rainer Forst’s sense: a normative order is an “order of justification.” Not all orders of justification are, of course, legitimate. Rather, their legitimacy depends on whether those individuals who fall under a specific normative order are, at the same time, the co-authors of this order. This implies that in the realm of politics only a democratic normative order can be legitimate because it can be justified in a reflexive way. See Rainer Forst, Normativity and Power: Analyzing Social Orders of Justification, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 37–51, 55–68, 131–39.

  36. 36.

    Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” 168. CompareCarl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 5–7 and 42. For Schmitt, the exception that necessitates the sovereign decision is akin to a miracle that transgresses normal expectations.

  37. 37.

    Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” 163.

  38. 38.

    See also Hannah Arendt, “Introduction into Politics,” in The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), 108, 114–53.

  39. 39.

    Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” 152. See also, Arendt, TheHuman Condition, 198–200.

  40. 40.

    See Pettit, On the People’s Terms, 4–18, 225–29.

  41. 41.

    See James Tully, “The Agonistic Freedom of Citizens,” in Public Philosophy in a New Key, I: Democracy and Civic Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 135–59. See also the comments by Bonnie Honig and Marc Stears, “James Tully’s Agonistic Realism” and Duncan Bell, “To Act Otherwise: Agonistic Republicanism and Global Citizenship,” both in James Tully et al., On Global Citizenship: James Tully in Dialogue (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 131–52 and 181–206, respectively. In contrast, see Jürgen Habermas, “Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action,” in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 116–94; and John Rawls, A Theory ofJustice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971).

  42. 42.

    Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” 145. See ibid., 150. It is an open question whether Arendt politicized existentialism, along the lines of Karl Jaspers, or whether she rather existentialized the political, along the lines of Heidegger. See Lewis P. Hinchman and Sandra K. Hinchman, “Existentialism Politicized: Arendt’s Debt to Jaspers,” Review of Politics 53, no. 3 (1991): 435–68.

  43. 43.

    Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” 168–69; and “On Violence,” 177.

  44. 44.

    See Arendt, TheHuman Condition, 230–36.

  45. 45.

    See ibid., 188–92.

  46. 46.

    See ibid., 236–47.

  47. 47.

    Arendt’s reflections on rights come at a moment when the discourse of rights in the U.S. undergoes dramatic changes in the aftermath of the Second World War. See Richard A. Primus, The American Language of Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 177–233.

  48. 48.

    Arendt, Freedom and Revolution, 19.

  49. 49.

    See Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,”Dissent 6, no. 1 (1959): 45–56; and her “A Reply to Critics,” Dissent 6, no. 2 (1959): 179–81. See also Ralph Ellison, “The World and the Jug,” in Collected Essays, rev. ed., ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Random House, 2003), 155–88. On the Little Rock essay and the exchange between Arendt and Ellison, see Ross Posnock, “Ralph Ellison, Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison, ed. Ross Posnock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 201–16; and Meili Steele, “Arendt Versus Ellison on Little Rock: The Role of Language in Political Judgment,” Constellations 9, no. 2 (2002): 184–206.

  50. 50.

    For the Guggenheim project, see Hannah Arendt, “Project,” 1952, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Hannah Arendt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. For a fuller discussion of Arendt’s complex relationship to Marx, see Anne Amiel, La non-philosophie de Hannah Arendt: Révolution et jugement (Paris: P.U.F., 1996), 117–218; and Bhikhu Parekh, “Hannah Arendt’s Critique of Marx,” in Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, ed. Melvyn A. Hill (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), 67–100.

  51. 51.

    Arendt, “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought,” 290, 294–95.

  52. 52.

    See Hannah Arendt, “The Impact of Marx,” 1952, lecture notes, Rand School of Social Science, New York, NY; and “History of Political Theory: Marx,” 1955, lecture notes, University of California, Berkeley, CA, both in Hannah Arendt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

  53. 53.

    Arendt, “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought,” 298–99.

  54. 54.

    Ibid., 299.

  55. 55.

    A recent example for such a reading of eighteenth-century American political thought is Thomas G. West, The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 59–76. Although West’s rhetoric suggests that he is merely providing a historical account, there is little doubt that the latter stands in the service of a demand to return to what he views as the original founding principles of the American republic. His description of “ex-slaves” as “immigrant blacks” whose claims to American citizenship are doubtful (65), since “equality” really only pertained to English “colonists” (89), are alarming, to say the least.

  56. 56.

    See James Bohman, “The Moral Costs of Political Pluralism: The Dilemmas of Difference and Equality in Arendt’s ‘Reflections on Little Rock’,” in Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later, ed. Larry May and Jerome Kohn (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996), 53–80.

  57. 57.

    Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” 48, 53–54. On Arendt’s conservatism, see Margaret Canovan, “Hannah Arendt as Conservative Thinker,” in Hannah Arendt, ed. May and Kohn, 11–32.

  58. 58.

    See James T. Patterson, Brown v.Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 86–117.

  59. 59.

    Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” 47–48, 50.

  60. 60.

    Ibid., 51.

  61. 61.

    Ibid., 49.

  62. 62.

    Ibid., 51.

  63. 63.

    Plessy v.Ferguson (163 U.S. 537), 551–52. On the historical and legal context of Plessy v. Ferguson, see Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 8–60.

  64. 64.

    Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” 49, 55.

  65. 65.

    Ibid., 51.

  66. 66.

    Ibid., 46.

  67. 67.

    See Plessy v.Ferguson (163 U.S. 537), 540, for the phrase “equal but separate.”

  68. 68.

    It is interesting to note that Brown v.Board of Education did not overrule Cumming v. Board of Education of Richmond County. The latter was simply ignored in subsequent decisions. See J. Morgan Kousser, “Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education,” in The Oxford Guide to Supreme Court Decisions, ed. Kermit L. Hall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 68.

  69. 69.

    Cumming v. Board of Education of Richmond County (175 U.S. 528), 545.

  70. 70.

    Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” 56.

  71. 71.

    See Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999), 149. For a fuller discussion of Arendt’s complex relationship to race and racism in America, see Kathryn T. Gines, Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014); and Anne Norton, “Heart of Darkness: Africa and African Americans in the Writings of Hannah Arendt,” in Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, ed. Honig, 247–62.

  72. 72.

    Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” 46.

  73. 73.

    The argument that rights supervene upon freedom and political action differs from alternative accounts of Arendt’s discussion of rights as co-emerging with freedom and political action. See, for instance, James D. Ingram, “What Is a ‘Right to Have Rights’? Three Images of the Politics of Human Rights,” American Political Science Review 102, no. 4 (2008): 408–13. Ingram, however, faces the question how citizens, and non-citizens alike, can cash in on rights without the latter’s institutionalization.

  74. 74.

    Arendt, “On Violence,” 178.

  75. 75.

    Ibid., 182.

  76. 76.

    Ibid.

  77. 77.

    Arendt’s account draws on Henry Steele Commager, “Can We Limit Presidential Power?” The New Republic (April 16, 1968), 15–18.

  78. 78.

    Hannah Arendt, The Originsof Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951), 274.

  79. 79.

    Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. William Rehg (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998), 483.

  80. 80.

    Arendt, “On Violence,” 180–81.

  81. 81.

    See ibid., 178; and On Revolution, 280, as well as Colin Crouch, Post-democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004).

  82. 82.

    See, for instance, Philip Hamburger, Is Administrative Law Unlawful? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 411–78.

  83. 83.

    See Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” in Crises of the Republic, 89.

  84. 84.

    Ibid., 98.

  85. 85.

    See Waldron, “Arendt’s Constitutional Politics,” 206–10.

  86. 86.

    See Böckenförde, “The State as an Ethical State,” 89.

  87. 87.

    See Bruno Latour, The Making of Law: An Ethnography of the Conseil d’État (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009); and Cornelia Vismann, Files: Law and Media Technology, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

  88. 88.

    It is all too easy, albeit true, to point out, as Bernard Wasserstein once did, that Arendt was “painfully ignorant of political economy” and had “little grasp of or interest in the mechanics of the political process in the states about which she wrote.” See Wasserstein, “Blame the Victim,” The Times Literary Supplement (October 9, 2009): 13.

  89. 89.

    Arendt, “On Violence,” 135. Arendt draws here on Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: Its Nature and the History of Its Growth (New York: Viking, 1949); and Alexander Passerin d’Entrèves, The Notion of the State: An Introduction to Political Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

  90. 90.

    Arendt, TheHuman Condition, 40. See also Arendt, “On Violence,” 137.

  91. 91.

    Arendt, The Originsof Totalitarianism, 297.

  92. 92.

    See Jeremy Waldron, “Arendt and the Foundations of Equality,” in Politics in Dark Times: Encounters with Hannah Arendt, ed. Seyla Benhabib, Roy T. Tsao, and Peter J. Verovšek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 17–38.

  93. 93.

    Arendt, “What Is Freedom?” 118.

  94. 94.

    Arendt, TheHuman Condition, 198. On Arendt’s understanding of the public realm in TheHuman Condition, see Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 110–16. On Arendt’s ideal version of the polis, see Phillip Hansen, Hannah Arendt: Politics, History and Citizenship (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993), 50–88.

  95. 95.

    See also Helmut Dubiel, “Hannah Arendt and the Theory of Democracy: A Critical Reconstruction,” in Hannah Arendt andLeo Strauss: German Émigrés and American Political Thought After World War II, ed. Peter Graf Kielmansegg, Horst Mewes, and Elisabeth Glaser-Schmidt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 20–21.

  96. 96.

    See, in contrast, Max Weber, “Parliament and Government in Germany Under a New Political Order,” in Political Writings, ed. Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 130–271. For Weber, the power of parliament depends on translating speech into decisions.

  97. 97.

    Arendt, TheHuman Condition, 205; and Dana R. Villa, Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 41.

  98. 98.

    See Martin Jay, “Hannah Arendt: Opposing Views,” Partisan Review 45, no. 3 (1978): 348–68; Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, Heidegger and Modernity, trans. Franklin Philip (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); and Richard Wolin, The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 191, n. 3.

  99. 99.

    See Canovan, Hannah Arendt, 132–33, 141.

  100. 100.

    Arendt, TheHuman Condition, 205.

  101. 101.

    Alain Badiou, The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2012), 59.

  102. 102.

    Alain Badiou, The Century, trans. Alberto Toscano (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 63.

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Emden, C.J. (2019). Romanticizing the Republic: Hannah Arendt on Freedom, Rights, and the Modern State. In: Hiruta, K. (eds) Arendt on Freedom, Liberation, and Revolution. Philosophers in Depth. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-11695-8_4

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