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What Hannah Arendt Really Wants

Reclaiming Space for the Vita Activa

There is an obvious reason why people in the U.S. have started to read George Orwell, Sinclair Lewis, Vaclav Havel, and Hannah Arendt again.[1] I must admit I share their concern: From the very first actions of the Trump administration, it became clear that the country has taken an authoritarian turn. And I am well aware that a single driving ideology, no matter what it is — let alone the rising right-wing populism, or anti-semitism, or even the communitarian conservatism of Trump supporters — runs the risk of being just as totalizing as Nazism or Stalinism. Sidestepping the trap of “Trump versus Hitler” debate, we should instead take account of the historical conditions that paved the way for the emergence of totalitarian dictatorships. Thinking this way, what scares me most is less the unstable person that has come to power with significant popular support than the human isolation his administration has brought in the form of the Muslim ban, and its potential for devastating consequences.

One of the political thinkers that is ‘enjoying a revival’ in Trump’s era is Hannah Arendt. And if there is one thing to take away from Arendt’s work, it is the vital necessity of having space for human action. What this means for Muslims living in the Western countries is that “we” have to focus on finding ways to create more space for Vita Activa, spontaneous human action, in order to end the never-ending ostracization and isolation of Muslims. We should be debating on open borders for refugees, on finding ways to reduce the religious stigma on Muslims, and on how to increase the visibility and political participation of the Muslims living in the Western countries. Instead, we are busy banning travel, banning burqas, and making dirty deals to keep refugees isolated in internment camps.[2] This may well be because we do not understand the problem.

Let me try to elucidate my argument and demonstrate what “we” have been missing all along: the historicity of the human experience. “We have not defeated the idea,” starts the much-debated The Atlantic cover story, What ISIS Really Wants, “We do not even understand the idea.” [3] The article’s author, Graham Wood, deploys the words of Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations Commander for the United States in the Middle East, on the unforeseen rise of the Islamic State, and on how to effectively fight against it. The article wanders around this question: what is the idea behind ISIS? What is ISIS’s motivation? What is it that ISIS really wants? Wood, does a remarkable job of portraying the ISIS recruiters and emphasizing the absolute necessity of understanding the ideology (or the theology) of ISIS in order to be able to defeat it, but his analysis falls well short of what it promises to do in the first place, namely, to understand the idea.

By highlighting ISIS’s strict adherence to Quran, Wood’s intention is to emphasize how “very Islamic” ISIS is. Though Wood admits he is by no means a specialist on Islam, This does not stop him from delivering an in-depth discussion about the Prophet, the Quran, and the prophecies. He even, though hesitantly, reminds us that there are “alternative” — and more peaceful — interpretations of Islam, such as quietist Salafism, which seems to be his way of saying “Hey, not all Muslims are terrorists!” Wood, little surprise, has earned strong criticism. Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and Wood’s primary source for the article, points out that while Wood’s research is “rooted in the authentic Islamic texts,” his analysis on the origins of ISIS falls short in many respects.[4] This is mainly because the piece, from the very beginning, begs for a historical, but even more so for an interactionist, perspective. Wood cannot resist the temptation to make big claims, while he misses the real issue right in front of his eyes..As Wood moves away from explaining ISIS’s origins to offering “more peaceful” interpretations of Islam, one cannot stop but ask, “Where did the article’s main argument — the necessity of understanding the idea — go?” This, I believe, is where Hannah Arendt can help us.

Wood looks at ISIS from a historical vacuum. He focuses on the historical authenticity of ISIS, but turns a blind eye to the historicity of the human experience. Disregarding the human condition, the social unrest caused by years of oppression and endless wars, disregarding the isolation, the uprootedness and the superfluousness of the people in the region, Wood reaches the conclusion that an invasion from the U.S. would only make ISIS’s case more legitimate in Muslims’ eyes, and this is what ISIS really wants. What he offers instead is a slow, long-term approach toward the gradual collapse of ISIS.

It is interesting to think about the idea behind the Jihadist Islamism from an Arendtian perspective, considering that Arendt herself ignored the religious affiliations and resonances of Nazism and Stalinism. In fact, she has never been hostile to the idea of religion. She once even stated that “this whole Totalitarian catastrophe would not have happened if people still had believed in God, or in hell rather — that is, if there were still ultimates.”[5]

Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, states that what is distinctive about Totalitarianism is that it destroys both the public and the private sphere. To put it in a different way, Totalitarianism destroys all hitherto existing legal, political and social traditions. It replaces these traditions with a single ideology, which eradicates the means of communication, and leaves no place for Vita Activa, the creative, spontaneous action of people in their plurality.

Whether total domination of private life is possible, or whether the human nature was really at stake in 20th century as Arendt claims are topics for another discussion,[6] but one thing is certain: both in Hitler’s Germany and in Stalin’s Russia, millions of people were drawn into a single idea. How is that possible? Arendt cites a report on German public opinion during the war, which makes it explicit that the public was “well-informed about all so-called secrets of the state, massacres of Jews” and that “the victims of propaganda had remained able to form independent opinions.” [7] What this means is that contrary to the common-place assumption, mass support for Totalitarianism neither comes from people’s ignorance nor propaganda’s brain-washing,[8] which then begs the question of where, in fact, does it come from?

The answer lies in the human condition. In Totalitarian regimes, terror replaces the positive laws and “translates them into the reality of the law of movement.”[9] Total terror, within its iron band, serves as the “accelerator” of the natural law and, by “pressing men against each other,” destroys the fundamental condition of human freedom, namely, the capacity to “act in concert.” Thus, Arendt argues, “just as lawfulness is not enough to mobilize men’s actions,”[10] terror cannot aspire any kind of human behavior, rather it sets limitations to it.

Returning to the question of where the mass support for totalitarianism comes from, terror alone cannot be the answer. As Arendt rightly suggests, both the executors and the victims of terror are chosen according to objective standards. [11] Although the element of fear is always there, fear as a guiding principle for human behavior has no use in Totalitarian regimes.

This brings us to Arendt’s conception of ideology, which, in its literal sense, means “the logic of an idea.”[12] To Arendt, ideology signifies a break from truth and experience, and it claims to represent a “truer” form of reality. Claiming natural law as their basic axiom, ideologies tend to explain everything through a consistent logical deduction process. In Hitler’s case, it is the“ice-cold reasoning,” and in Stalin’s case, it is the “merciless dialectics.” This logical deduction and terror together, according to Arendt, make the core of totalitarianism.

Every type of government has to serve some sort of a human need. Otherwise, it would have ceased to exist.[13] This, I think, is where Hannah Arendt’s most original contribution lies: she strives to emphasize the importance of the historicity of the human experience, and she names human isolation as “fertile ground” for totalitarianism.[14] By destroying the public sphere, Totalitarianism “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”[15] This results in the loss of human capacity for both thought and experience; loss of both the self and the world. Total isolation leaves the idea, the logical reasoning as the only human quality.

What Hannah Arendt really wants is the “human plurality,” [16] which is “where the action”[17] lies. To my mind, to defeat a flesh and blood enemy, it takes war; to defeat an ideology, it takes every ounce of imagination. What we need is to find ways to decrease the rampant experience of isolation to lay the groundwork for a world in which people can ‘act in concert’ through a vibrant political life rather than desperately cling to an idea for a sense of connection and meaning. With this difficult depiction of our current world, in Arendt we nevertheless find hope: such possibility for renewal is “guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”[18]

Footnotes

[1] “1984 Isn’t the Only Book Enjoying a Revival” The Atlantic, Jan, 2017.

[2] “European Union Reaches Deal With Turkey to Return New Asylum Seekers.” The New York Times, March, 2016.

[3] Wood, Graeme. 2015. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic, March.

[4] What The Atlantic Left Out About ISIS According To Their Own Expert. 

[5] Hill, Melvyn A. 1979. Hannah Arendt: the Recovery of the Public World. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 313-314.

[6] For a further discussion on total domination and on Arendt’s claim that human nature is being altered by Totalitarianism, see: Bradshaw, Leah. 1985. Acting and Thinking: Reflections on the Political Theory of Hannah Arendt. Ottawa: National Library of Canada. Pp. 42-43 “is it possible to alter human nature through political coercion?” & pp. 50-51 “a change of nature is a contradiction of terms”

[7] Arendt, Hannah. 1994. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt Brace. Pp. XXIII

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 464

[10] Ibid., 467

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 469

[13] Ibid., 474

[14] Arendt, Hannah. 1994. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt Brace. Pp. 474

[15] Ibid., 475

[16] Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[17] Goldfarb, Jeffrey. 2016. “Social Interaction: Where the Action Is!” Public Seminar, September 6.

[18] Arendt, Hannah. 1994. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt Brace. 479.

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