Apathy and Totalitarianism: Hannah Arendt’s Philosophy of Public Space

Cato Wong

Many people held the belief that totalitarianism is the consequence of the penetration of public power into private life. The fear of the “tyranny of the majority” led the contemporary thinkers after the Second World War to conclude that “positive freedom”, i.e., the freedom to do something, is inherently dangerous in contrast to the “negative freedom,” the freedom from something. None of the writers and thinkers from the “libertarian” side (Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand etc.) or the “liberal” side (Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper etc.) saw any worth in politics itself, both strands of thinking try to de-emphasize politics and replaced it with the pursuit of lifestyles preferred by individuals. By making everyone minding their own business only, it can be expected that no one would organize anything for public causes and therefore left no chances for government to act on behalf of people’s demand, thus the government power – the source of totalitarianism is withering away. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) stood out among the political thinkers of the postwar era for her defense of the political life. Far from denouncing politics as the cause of totalitarian rule, Arendt argues it was not the penetration of public power into private life that made totalitarian rule possible, but the loss of public space and the banishment of citizens from public world into private life is what responsible for the phenomenon we called totalitarianism.

Arendt was born in Germany and studied philosophy under Martin Heidegger. As an eyewitness of the Nazi movement of her country and a Jew whose identity made her fled Germany, Arendt rightly diagnosed the totalitarianism as the movement that organized not classes, not parties but “masses” (OT: 308), which could be defined as “people who either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both” (OT: 311), they are the men who struggle to maintain life’s necessities, they can be the day laborers (who are more affected by the Stalinist totalitarians) or the lower middle classes (who are more drawn to the Fascist totalitarians). Totalitarianism demands “total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable” loyalty which can only be achieved by the elimination of dissent voices and the abolition of all natural and social bonds between human beings. “The mass man whom Himmler organized for the great mass crimes ever committed in history,” Arendt said, was the man who “worries nothing so much as his private security, was ready to sacrifice everything – belief, honor, dignity – on the slightest provocation” (OT: 338).

For Arendt, the antidote for mass man is politics-engaging citizens; for politics is an activity in which true freedom and individual excellence can really shines. The true individualist is not businessmen or entrepreneurs – like the heroes in Ayn Rand’s novels – but someone who are able to lift themselves out of the worries of private concerns and have the courage to act in a tangible public space. Arendt need to demonstrate that being a citizen is happier and freer than being a bourgeois – therefore Arendt led us back to the ancient Greece to examine in order to distill from it the true notion of “freedom” and “politics.”

In The Human Condition Arendt introduced a typological system of “human condition,” in which the human activities or way of life can be categorized into life as an animal laborans, homo faber, and bios politicos. Arendt did not made up such typology; it was based on the experience of the ancient Greeks, who were the founders of polis, or city, from which the word “politics” sprang. Arendt stressed the importance of understanding concepts in their original sense – an approach called “hermeneutic phenomenology” which Arendt learned from her teacher Heidegger – so we will not misleading by the arbitrary definition of politics as “the struggle for power” (you will see in below who changed the whole notion of politics). Polis is a tangible space in which men can achieve “freedom” (eleutheros, “displaying oneself in the public”) by engaging in deliberative speech and displaying noble actions. The ancients understood freedom to be the condition where men could free themselves without being dictated by the natural cycle of production and consumption that sustains the bodily metabolism that characterizes a labor’s life, or without being dictated by the process of fabricating human artifices that involve means and end in which the worker must comply to that characterizes a worker’s life; both labor and work are the activities in oikos, or household (HC: 79-80). The activities in polis – not only have its merit as the only human activities that requires the intact between human beings, it also actualizes the men’s faculty of speech which is defined as the most human function of a man. The polis guarantees men “immortality” in the sense men’s deeds and words in the public space will be “remembered and turned into stories before they are finally incorporated into the great storybook of human history” (BPF: 154). One can compare Martin Luther King’s or Malcolm X’s speeches with a CEO’s speech at the company’s annual dinner.

The Athenian democracy expanded the polis to include the whole body of citizens. While the slaves and women were still being barred from the polis due to the lack of technology which made household works toilsome, it was necessary to limit the citizen body to freemen. The citizenship in the polis guarantees men’s free status so long as it imposes “no-rule;” the men of polis, unlike in monarchy or in aristocracy, were said to be neither rule nor be ruled. The polis not only freed men from the oikos, the realm of necessity, it also guarantees equality. While in the oikos unequal faculties of men are necessary for the sake of “division of labor,” we become equal as citizens in the polis (OR: 30).

Perhaps people would say that the world has change, the polis was gone and more importantly, life is to make a living, not some abstract freedom. We might not aware how the notion of “life” was underwent a process of transformation to arrive in the way we understand life today. It was Thomas Hobbes who popularized the notion that public authority was founded for the sake of life, or self-preservation: a notion that edged out the traditional conception of public authority which rested on the claim of morality and virtue. For Hobbes, the protection of individual life from the “fear of violent death” is a more powerful principle of government than the principle of promoting a particular way of life for its constituents. The revolutionary consequence of Hobbes’ philosophy is that the public sphere is no longer the place for deliberation and discussion but a monopoly of violence: the principle of the oikos legitimately enters the sphere of polis. The political power will be monopolized by a “Leviathan,” who makes laws based on the generalized will of its subjects, while the subjects could enjoy their civil rights in economic activities. The state became the “superstructure” in which the economy rested on.

Despite the preoccupation of modern states with survival and preservation of self, the greatness of the Athenian democracy nevertheless became an ideal to which educated men are always looking up to. In fact, it is that ideal that brought us to the herald of the modern age, which began with two revolutions in the late 18th century. In On Revolution (1963), Arendt made a comparison between the two revolutions that shaped the modern age that we are living: the American Revolution (1775) and the French Revolution (1789) and argued that both of the events were inspired by the idea of polis. Arendt argued that the aim of the revolutionaries of the both side of the Atlantic was not to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and property” because these rights were being secured even more better under the British limited monarchy and the French absolutist monarchy. The ultimate aim of both revolutions is to establishing popular self-rule that made possible by the progress in technology – both revolutions are the product of the Enlightenment. One of the American Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, implied that the American Revolution is the decision of “establishing good government from reflection and choice,” so that men will not “forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and fate” (Federalist No. 1, from The Federalist Papers). Thomas Paine, another Founding Father, passionately proclaimed “what Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude” (Rights of Man, Part II).

Arendt saw the French Revolution – which started as the noble venture to liberate the Frenchmen from tyranny but ended up in the Reign of Terror of revolutionary dictatorship – as the prelude to the 20th-century phenomenon of totalitarianism. It failed not because of the French revolutionaries did not believe in God: both the American Founding Fathers and French Revolutionaries are deists. The Reign of Terror was the inevitable development following Maximilien Robespierre’s reversion of oikos and polis. Arendt pointed out that, “when Robespierre declared that ‘everything which is necessary to maintain life must be common good and only the surplus can be recognized as private property, he was not only reversing premodern political theory… he was subjecting revolutionary government to… the welfare of the people” (OR: 60). If the political sphere is modeled after the oikos, where violence is necessary in order to fulfilling the necessities of life, it can be expected that the government could justify its every means in maintaining the survival of its subject.

Arendt saw an unbroken line from Hobbes down to Marx, which saw state as the “superstructures” which could be “overthrown by political organization and revolutionary means” (OR: 62). Because of the reversed relations between the oikos and the polis, or what Arendt called “the mentality of fabrication has invaded the political realm” (BPF: 217), politics became a process. By assuming politics is a process, it nevertheless will arrive in an end point where the final product is furnished. The fabricators of ideal mankind, the totalitarians, “apply the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men. The law of Nature or the law of History,,, is expected to produce mankind as its end product” (OT: 462). Such laws, Arendt claimed, “are never anything but the projections of present automatic process and procedures… every action, for better or worse, and every accident necessarily destroys the whole pattern” (CR: 86). “Only total conditioning… the total abolition of action, can ever hope to cope with unpredictability.” One could identify here of the similarities between Arendt’s “fabrication” with Jürgen Habermas’ “instrumental rationality” and Michel Foucualt’s “biopower.” Mussolini was once commented, “Lenin is an artist who has worked in men as others worked in marble or metal.”

Arendt did not argue for a return to the polis way of life; but she did emphasize the importance of a public space in preserving freedom. In fact, the American Founding Fathers carefully worked out the mechanism that could preserve public freedom despite the “chief business of the Americans is business.” Like the 19th-century French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville, Arendt too has noticed that the factors of totalitarianism are not fertile in American soil: “America… with all its shortcomings, know less of the modern psychology of masses than perhaps any other country in the world” (OT: 316). Apart from high mobility in the social realm that made public intervention in private enterprises unnecessary, the Americans are more citizens than bourgeois. America is not just the land of Kardashians and Hiltons, most of the American citizens “can be integrated into any organization based on common interests, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions,” in contrast to the Germans in the 1920s (OT: 311). As the disciples of Montesquieu, the American Founding Fathers did not see “factions” as something that must be suppress for the sake of public order, like some politicians of our country like to claim that it is necessary to crack down dissent parties in the name of law and order; they (the American Founding Fathers) agree with Montesquieu that factions are the natural consequences of a free-spirited, self-governing people (Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Chapter XXIX, 3).

Arendt admired Thomas Jefferson’s plan to divide “county into wards”; since the United States is too big, Arendt saw it is necessary to have “a number of public spaces within it” (CR: 190). Jefferson have an unyielding affection with the agrarian mode of economy (the fact that neglected by almost all contemporary libertarians who simply equalizes Jefferson’s laissez faire for the farmers with the laissez faire for the industrialists). Jefferson vigorously opposes to Hamilton’s plan to transform America into an industrial nation: not only such plan has the potential of uprooting the virtuous citizens from their stabile yeoman life that made participation in politics of wards possible, an industrial economy where the “success or failure in ruthless competition” will inevitably drain away citizens’ time and energy to participate in public affairs (OT: 313). Even when the poor become wealthy, Arendt noticed, they “did not become men of leisure whose action were prompted by a desire to excel,” they prefer instead “to throw open their private houses in ‘conspicuous consumption,’ to display their wealth and to show what, by its very nature is not fit to be seen by all” (OR: 70).

What are the lessons we can learn from Arendt’s phenomenological analysis of totalitarianism? We might not being aware of the dangerous consequences of the public attitude towards demonstration and protests, or the rights of a citizen to be a participator in the governmental affairs, out of the excuse of “public order,” or out of the illusion of “an apathetical lifestyle is more worth living”. Arendt dismisses the claim that the political power should be limited at the hands of a few:
‘wise man’… cannot rule a world exposed to the constant onslaught of the inexperience and ‘foolishness’ of newcomers… interrelated condition of natality and mortality… guarantees change and makes the rule of wisdom impossible…

The neglect of the fundamental human condition, Arendt warns, breeds inhumanity and cruelty as in the totalitarianism. Meanwhile, indifference towards the public affairs is even more dangerous than the totalitarian establishment itself. It was “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” that produced mass man like Adolf Eichmann, an ordinary guy, to commit extraordinary crimes. Arendt concluded in her first-hand account of the Eichmann trial, that “in politics obedience and Support are the same” (EJ: 279).

Quoted works by Arendt
[OT] The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966.
[HC] The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1958.
[BPF] Between Past and Future. Cleveland: World Publishing Co, 1961.
[EJ] Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Viking Press, 1963.
[OR] On Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.
[CR] Crises of the Republic. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.


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