German born (although naturalised American) political philosopher, who contributed significantly to the analysis of totalitarianism, and the fate of Jewry in the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) is perhaps best known for a single utterance, her response to the Nazi Adolf Eichmann standing trial: ‘the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil‘ (1963a). This is not an inappropriate introduction to her thought. Her analysis of Nazism reveals not a psychology of evil, for Eichmann was not the monster of popular mythology, but simply a man without imagination, and yet unquestioningly obedient to the Nazi administration. The evil of Nazism largely lay in its shallowness and ordinariness. This account of Eichmann can be grounded in the arguments of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951b). In its first part, Arendt looks to the historical precedents of totalitarianism, not least in the status of the Jews as a pariah group. The position of the pariah is crucial to the analysis (and indeed to Arendt’s life and work as a whole). After an account of the rise of colonial and imperial administrations, with their focus on efficiency at the expense of the real needs of those administered — and it is here that Eichmann finds his place — Arendt turns to the fate of pariah groups as stateless. The pariah is an anomaly in the modern state, for they fall outside the law. The stateless are not deprived of specific rights, but of all rights, and as such are excluded from the community. Arendt notes that even the criminal has rights. Their crime occurs within the law. Pariahs commit no crime, and as such they are the innocent victims of arbitrary violence. Precisely because they have no rights, and as such are not respected by fellow human beings, totalitarianism deprives its victims of their very identity, and their death is anonymous. For Arendt the pariah status is not something that Jews can voluntarily relinquish. Attempts at assimilation led only to new prejudices and to self-denial. She therefore argues for the position of the ‘conscious pariah’, that can act from a position of strength only by accepting the contingent circumstances of birth and upbringing (or ‘natality’ as Arendt terms it: 1958b).
In The Human Condition (1958a) Arendt turns to a more general analysis of the polity and the weakness of modern political life. Her concern is with the vita activa, which she analyses through the categories of ‘labour’, ‘work’ and ‘action’. ‘Labour’ concerns the satisfaction of necessary biological needs, and ‘work’ the production of durable objects. ‘Action’ concerns the realm of freedom, and thus, for Arendt, the true realm of politics. In freedom individuals act in complete equality with others, capable of pure creativity (the ‘beautiful deed’). This realm is, in effect, the community — or republic — from which the pariah is excluded. The problem of contemporary democratic societies lies in the fact that governments have placed the satisfaction of material needs over and above the creation of freedom. In On Revolution (1963b), she argues that this failure can be traced to the French Revolution in contrast to the American Revolution. While the former comes to disregard the ‘Rights of Man’, the latter, with its drafting of a Declaration of Rights and various constitutions, gives higher priority to the creation of a community of free rights holders than to the solution of what Arendt calls ‘the social question’. Put otherwise, contemporary societies, in contrast with the ancient Greek polity, fail to recognise that the private realm of the household (oikia) was the site of labour and thus necessity, and as such should serve the public realm of freedom (and not vice versa). For Arendt, thanks to technological advance, the material problems that are the focus of the social question have now been solved. The conditions for the possibility of a free republic have then been achieved. Yet contemporary democracies continue to make politics banal (again echoing Eichmann’s Nazism), where a narrow focus on utilitarian concerns inhibits the possibility of addressing the genuine political issues of freedom and creativity.
Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge