Hannah Arendt’s Crises, and Ours

The “worldlessness” of our time manifests itself in right-wing populism

Reading Hannah Arendt’s Crises of the Republic in the Age of Trump: A Symposium

Hannah Arendt’s Crises of the Republic is not so much a book as a collection, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1972, of three essays and an interview that first appeared, individually, in the years between 1969 and 1971. Three of the pieces were first published in The New York Review of Books, and the fourth, the essay on civil disobedience, was first published in the New Yorker. Even though the words “crisis” or “crises” do not appear in the titles of any of these pieces, all of them clearly address what Arendt considered to be a constellation of forces that together represented a severe test of “the American Republic.”

This symposium contains essays by Mary DietzWilliam E. Scheuerman, Christian Volk, Seyla Benhabib, and Jeffrey C. Isaac that engage with the obvious and meaningful resonances between Crises of the Republic and the present. They were originally presented in August at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting in Boston, in a panel organized by William Scheuerman and moderated by Cidgem Cidam.

Rereading Arendt’s 1972 Crises of the Republic in the light of the current situation leaves one with an ambivalent impression. These days, western democracies are deeply polarized in political, social, and cultural terms. On the one hand, Hannah Arendt’s public-law-and-policy-centered perspective and vocabulary in Crises of the Republic doesn’t provide us with the analytical key to unravel this kind of polarization that modern societies are currently undergoing. On the other hand, her understanding of “worldlessness” as one of the main outcomes of democratic and institutional regression, which she has analyzed in this book, remains a fruitful concept to grasp the challenges of the contemporary political constellation, albeit for entirely different reasons.

Arendt’s Crises of the Republic focuses primarily on the government’s self-empowerment efforts and “the increasingly impatient claim to power by the executive branch of government” (p. 93), as she calls it. Just recently Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg brought up the term “constitutional retrogression” to sum up their analysis of the dangerous transformation of modern democracies. For Huq and Ginsburg constitutional retrogression is a targeted strategy for the de-democratization of society, with the intentional aim of eliminating political dissent and opposition and increasing the political power of one’s own entourage. Constitutional retrogression is an outcome of political tribalism.

In contrast to such an account, Arendt understands this process of power monopolization of the executive branch as a direct result of the inner logic and dynamics of the political system itself (keywords are: changing role of Congress, “bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody except the party machines” (p. 89), etc.). Arendt’s conception of “constitutional retrogression” results from the fact that the “image” of a government or a politician has become so important in modern societies. Although there are some resemblances to Huq and Ginsburg’s account, for Arendt the danger of “constitutional retrogression” (and the dawning of sovereignty-centeredness) does not result from the predominance of economic interests. Nor is it a targeted strategy of a political clique, or the consequence of efforts to politically destroy the opponent in a culture war à la “we’ve got to take our country back,” as is the case with rightwing populist governments/movements today. Arendt’s “constitutional retrogression” is primarily due to systemic reasons, namely the logic and structures of a representative democratic system in a modern society. And the puzzling peculiarity of her analysis is that there are actually no winners, only losers – because everyone seems to be equally affected by the loss of democratic quality of the political system. So although her book offers interesting analytical insights, the conceptual tools that have been put on the table can only be used to a limited extent for an analysis of our current crisis.

For Arendt, one crucial consequence of this transformation of the political system is the “worldlessness” (a concept that plays a central role in The Human Condition) of political decision-makers. Worldlessness implies at least two things: loss of reality, loss of reference to a reality, to its factuality. And thus – secondly – loss of a shared world in the sense of a common point of reference about whose arrangement and interpretation one can debate (politically), but whose factuality is not challenged. Reasonable decision-making is undermined by an “Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere” (p. 20), created by public-relation managers and spin doctors. A second consequence, Arendt outlines, is democratic backsliding, the undermining of constitutional rights and liberties and, due to this, a general loss of confidence in constitutional processes.

I would like to suggest that the analytical substance of Arendt’s concept of worldlessness can be applied to analyze our current crises. For Arendt, the influence of consultants and experts, the imperatives of media logic, the dominance of social science theories (e.g., the domino theory) led to what she called “remoteness from reality” (p. 20). The worldlessness of our time manifests itself in the talk of alternative facts, of post-truth and fake news, of echo chambers, algorithmically generated filter bubbles and suchlike, in partisan reporting, or in calling mainstream media “lying press,” as the right-wing movements in Germany (for instance) do, and only giving faith to what one’s own worldview confirms.

Arendt is concerned about the irrationality of political decisions taken in such an atmosphere, but she is convinced that this kind of “politics” will necessarily fail. She is convinced that “the public,” “the people,” and “the press” will expose the lies and denounce the loss of reality. “Defeated by reality” (p. 7): that’s the phrase Arendt uses in order to express her conviction that this kind of politics won’t succeed. She emphatically relies on the integrity and power of the press and on the vigilance of the public (p. 45).

Today we are no longer sure that in the end the liar will be defeated by reality. And there are many reasons for this. One reason is that we live in a digital culture. And the digital coding of information, which covers all areas of life, makes it possible to connect and change any signs that communicate meaning, to rearrange them – and thus also to generate new meanings, new structures of meaning, new truths and realities. I would like to highlight another reason for being reluctant to share Arendt’s optimism that in a democracy the political liar is defeated by reality. Some colleagues refer to a neoliberal subjectivity that makes democratic citizenship almost impossible. It is astonishing that in Crises of the Republic, this critique of the form of subjectivity plays no role, especially because a few years earlier, in The Human Condition, Arendt presented a radical critique of modernity that also and particularly targets the modern human being (keyword: animal laborans). How relevant is “living in truth” [1] for a modern human being at all?

One may philosophically think about this question in general. However, I would like to narrow it down a bit and link this question with the analysis of the supporters of right-wing populism. In Arendt’s analysis of the protest culture of the Weimar Republic, the subject-constitution of the protestors – i.e., the “who” of the protest – was of paramount importance. In On Violence, some remarks on the subject-constitution of the protestors can be found in the footnotes (Arendt speaks about “Praxisentzug,” the suspension of action and the loss of political experience on p. 81), but they are not present or relevant in her reflections on Civil Disobedience, where she tries to reconcile a certain form of politically motivated breaking of the law with the American constitutional tradition. This is particularly striking, given that other accounts of civil disobedience from the same time period explicitly highlight the issue of the subject-constitution of the protestor. Both Herbert Marcuse and Martin Luther King, Jr. are convinced that emancipatory social change goes hand in hand with the willingness of the activist herself to change and to become someone else/new. They argue that emancipatory protest also requires a new/different form or constitution of subjectivity (a similar thought can be found in Gandhi’s “fidelity to truth,” as Alexander Livingston has recently pointed out).

For example, King argues that an essential element of the “nonviolent campaign” is the “self-purification” of the activist, achieved through workshops and seminars. These workshops were held to ensure that the protesters do not take to the streets with hatred. It is of paramount importance to understand that for King, one central idea of protest (apart from its expressive dimension, from raising pressure and seeking to dramatize the issue) is to regain one’s dignity and to overcome one’s hatred and frustration, and not to be guided by it. Only on the basis of self-purification, are the protestors able to break the law “lovingly (not hatefully as the white mothers did in New Orleans when they were seen on television screaming ‘nigger, nigger, nigger’)” [2]. A similar thought can be found in Marcuse, who highlights the unity of moral-sexual and political rebellion. Instead of maintaining and reproducing moral rules of conduct and sexual manners that lead to neuroses, he stresses the fact that the students of the sixties sought to introduce alternative forms of relating to themselves and to others, alternative forms of social interaction and exchange that could help them become someone else and not be driven by aggression, fear, and anger. [3]

How does this relate to the topic of worldlessness? The willingness to become someone else – as a condition of the possibility of emancipatory protest – can be contrasted nicely with right-wing protesters and supporters and with the political significance of so-called alternative facts for right-wing populism. In what way?

For those who feel aggrieved, right-wing populism provides a public political stage on which their fear and anger are supposedly taken seriously. Right-wing populism translates these fears and anger into discriminatory political claims. In order to do so, right-wing populists need to create a world in which the fears and anger of their electorate appear to be justified, rational and reasonable. A right-wing voter’s train of thought might run along these lines: “I am afraid of foreigners, of Islam, of migrants, so they have to be criminals, prone to violence, they have to be invaders, otherwise my fears would have no reason; maybe they would be irrational, maybe even an expression of mere racism, and I would have to reflect on my own prejudices. Maybe, I would need to become someone else! But I am not a racist! That cannot be the case (says my pride and remains adamant). Trump, Le Pen, Gauland, Orban, Strache, Salvini, Wilders, and all the others of this kind provide the facts I need in order to remain who I am.”

In a nutshell, we have to understand the provision of political fake news, and of alternative facts, as an inherent feature of right-wing populist mobilization strategy, a strategy to tell the people that they can remain exactly who and how they are, but that all the others are mistaken and everything else has to change – in order to fulfill a completely obscure political agenda, namely to make America, Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, great again. This is worldlessness par excellence!

Christian Volk is Professor of Political Theory and Law at the Freie Universität, Berlin. He is the author of the book Arendtian Constitutionalism. Law, Politics, and the Order of Freedom (2015).


[1] This is the title of Vaclav Havel’s famous writing, in which he criticizes the regime of lies in authoritarian Czechoslovakia.

[2] King, Martin Luther: Letter from Birmingham City Jail, in: Hugo A. Bedau (ed.): Civil Disobedience in Focus, Routledge 1991, 68-84, p. 74.

[3] See Marcuse, Herbert: The problem of violence and the radical opposition, in: Five Lectures: Psychoanalysis, Politics and Utopia, 1970, 83-94, p. 92.

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