Hannah Arendt's Subtle Conservatism

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Arendt's reflections are reread by a broad spectrum of political groups; progressives, liberals of all stripes, academics and researchers of his work and sectors of the left

“to go beyond the concept through the concept” (Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectic).

The German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt, in recent years, has won the pages of the press in general, of cultural journalism in particular, and of academia. It is clear that its “resumption” in the current intellectual and public debate occurs in the political register to which Brazil and other countries, the United States, for example, face a moment of crisis of their democratic institutions with the rise and presence of right-wing governments. – and the new modalities they undertake in the management of the State and instances of civil society.

Hannah Arendt, and the reflections she wrote throughout her theoretical activity after leaving Nazi Germany, are reread by a relatively broad spectrum of political groups and their ideas; progressives, liberals of all stripes, academics and researchers of her work and sectors of the left (these critically at times) appropriate her writings to try to understand and seek solutions to current political and social problems. The author of As Origins of Totalitarianism, about the revolution, Between the Past and the Present e Eichmann in Jerusalem, to list some of his best-known titles, for having lived and witnessed one of the historical and existential moments of greatest political and social upheaval – and having written a great political theory that acquired prestige throughout the century precisely in line with such events has much to say to reflect on problems that are similar.

Totalitarian governments; the relationship between thought and practice; the revolution; the Liberty; moral duty and the relationship it establishes with reflective judgment; violence and political action were issues that Arendt's scholarship sought to understand. There is no doubt that the interpretation developed by her about political action (or simply action), together with the theme of totalitarianism, is a significant part, the most important, so to speak, of the thought she forged in the years she lived in the post -war.

It's in the monumental The Human Condition that Hannah Arendt builds the nucleus of meanings of that term and/or notion. Particularly in Chapter V – Action. In just over 60 pages contained there (in the edition of Forense Universitária) we find one of the beautiful texts of contemporary political philosophy: and it is not fortuitous that Arendtians, and even non-Arendtians like those who write these lines, admire such passages – which exude a enormous knowledge of ancient Greek tradition, the history of revolutions, western literature, modern social theory and political philosophy. However, sometimes something escapes readers of Arendt de The Human Condition. Its subtle yet present conservatism. Where can we find it? Where does it emerge from? What does it imply? Let's see.

I will not deal with other texts by Hannah Arendt, nor with the other chapters of the referred work (Laboratory e Jobs); things well understood, the reading I propose will be devoted precisely to the internal structure of chapter V – Action. Which is to say: I am not arguing that Arendt's thinking as a whole is conservative. Although there are few elements for such a statement (which is not the case here); and even though some more authoritative interpreters read excerpts from Hannah Arendt's political theory as an explanation of a certain conservatism, it is the case of Margaret Canovan who compares some of the philosopher's ideas with those of the English theorist Michael Oakeshott, this is not my intention.

I only make a punctual and relatively arbitrary criticism. (Modestly, which is my business here: in the words of the Marxist historian Perry Anderson, “any selection of figures [or works and texts] drawn from each of the segments of the political hemisphere [and of ideas] is, of course, doomed to be somewhat arbitrary, responding to the accidents of personal interest.[1] and the immediate socio-historical moment). Like this; action, and political action, can only exist under the condition of “human plurality” (p. 188); Arendt immediately excludes aspects of the very circumstances of men's survival from any possibility on the horizon of any bundle of plural life: “thirst, hunger, affection, hostility or fear” (p. 189) do not have elements that could eventually unfold in impulse for action and speech.

But she continues in the interpretation. It's not an exclusion. tour court those material facts of the living immanence of human beings; Arendt argues in a more sinuous way, because “thirst, hunger, affection, hostility or fear” (Ibid.) are not subject to communication. This implies, in the internal scope of the political theory contained in that chapter, in which decisive constellations of essential human relations are not referenced in order to communicate; they are not on the horizon of the forms in which (political) men as such immediately express themselves. More than that: they lack initiative, since they only communicate “something” (Ibid.) beyond their disposition for action and speech. Initiative here is articulated, in a primary way, to the theoretical idea of ​​action in Arendt.

It is as if the various constellations of experience to which men and women are thrown in their daily lives do not possess – the very condition of activity. In Arendt's argument, “to start […] to start […] to set something in motion (which is the original meaning of the Latin term aged)” (p. 190) is characteristic of man who has action and speech by nature. Thus, action, discourse, plurality and aged they are differentiated statutes that reveal themselves – and they have to reveal themselves since Arendt's political theory vehemently denies aspects of interiority, intimacy, so to speak – at the very moment they are apprehended by the light of the public world. Now, “action requires, for its full manifestation, the intense light that was once called glory and which is only possible in the public sphere” (p. 193). But what about those who are confined to the shadows of existence; what is the place of those thrown into the determinities of time (of “thirst, hunger, affection [and] fear”)?

It so happens that in Hannah Arendt’s political theory “the who”, or the whos of every form of social relationship – of every human activity in history as such – was in opposition to action in the public sphere; revelation through light and glory was “the deed itself, and this deed […] transcends mere productive activity […] the modest fabrication of objects for use”. More than action, discourse, plurality and initiative – made possible by the revelation of the light and glory of the public world – Hannah Arendt was concerned with the loci permanence to which the human condition could exist. And even having proposed a sophisticated reflection on the philology of the word initiative, the aged Latin, in the text of Action the Arendtian defense of durability is conformed: in other words, the very fact of action, discourse, plurality and (own) initiative would require an arrangement, a lasting frame, which would preserve the possibility of transhistorical manifestation of action, discourse, plurality and initiative.

There was, in terms of Hannah Arendt's political theory, no other solution than the conformation of the web of human affairs. This would have to compensate as (institutional) beacons the most deleterious aspects of the process that Hannah Arendt names here “more solid and productive activities such as fabrication, contemplation, cognition and even labor” (p. 194), which are always looking for who. To the extent that the who of productive activity depends on a set of circumstances to which the whos may be “similar” in the construction of the world, the concern with the loci timelessness of action and discourse had no importance – strictly speaking, it was the very commitment and dynamics in uplifting the world in successive moments that was the primordial issue.

What Hannah Arendt envisioned in a society living with these dispositions was the end of the singular and the human capacity for discursive plurality. It is more than that; at stake was “the character of revelation, without which action and discourse would lose all human relevance” (p. 195). Indeed, as the German-American theoretician says – “[…] describing a type or character [or a set of them]” in any historically momentary activity “eliminates […] [the] revelation […] [and] would mean transforming the men into something they are not” (p. 196). It is about preserving what characterizes the “sphere of human affairs”; it is about interpreting for Arendt the permanence of the “web of human relations” and how it will figure in the scope of theory.

The Human Condition it is a work that is in its most ambiguous and contradictory moments in search, definitively, of the durability and stability of the nature of men. What is the immanent implication of this aspect of Hannah Arendt's work? One of the fears of the German-American theoretician was that the action, discourse and plurality of the men who appear where the public light makes them reveal was that, through the constitutive processes of modernity, they would become on the verge of perishing. Let us remember – and here Arendt clearly outlines her concerns and problems she wants to face – that “thirst, hunger, affection, hostility or fear” were as much forms of political non-action as they were circumstances that engaging in and with political action could lead her to disappear.

Now, every form, therefore, of irruption of political subjects, of subjectivities that throws itself into contingency and of human yearnings for transformation itself (quenching thirst; eliminating hunger; attending to affection and alleviating fear) would bring burdens to action. eventually incommensurable. so that for The Human Condition it would be necessary to “remedy the futility of action and speech” (p. 209). In this respect, Hannah Arendt's reading of the polis is full of meanings regarding her subtle conservatism: if the Greek experience was interpreted at certain moments in the history of ideas and political philosophy as an explanation of a modality of democracy that opposed the most elitists and political representation (in modern society), for the author of As Origins of Totalitarianism a polis it guaranteed “the imperishability of the most futile human activities – action and speech” (p. 210).

As (a) place of conservation of action, discourse and plurality, the polis, as an incarnation that frames the narrative of the public space, was theorized by Arendt as “organized memory […] the wall […] [and] stabilizing protection ” of those aspects of human experience. And the more the actions and discourses within the scope of the polis (the public enclosure of preservation) are extraordinary and large, the more they have to be shielded “from the truths of everyday life” (p. 217); in these cases they “lose their validity”.

Indeed – everyday life, “everyday life”, for Arendt mirrors fabrication, and more than that, both are opposed to action. although the aged means, even in terms of The Human Condition, modes and forms of practicality in the public world, which means the possibility of men leaving their pure and naive solipsism, in Arendt’s text itself, action emerges as the place that must be surrounded “[of] tangible products […] [of] the regularity of functioning and [of] sociability” (p. 232). For no aspect, no element, no modality, no characteristic of ordinary relations between men could lead to action – and, therefore, to plurality and freedom. Here, manufacturing assumes in protection of life and itself, with the objects forged in recurrent life, from the uncertainties of the aged, of the unpredictability of the action, so that by not accepting this “human condition [...] sine qua non” (p. 233) what is compromised in Arendt's political theory is the “plurality […] [as] the essential […] element […] of politics”.

Fabrication, the artifacts that all subjectivity of the “modern age” (p. 232) sought to make accessible to the majority of individuals, classes and groups, therefore, is the “attempt to eliminate [the] plurality [which] always amounts to suppression of the public sphere itself” (p. 233). In the analyzed section, The Replacement of Action by Manufacturing, we witness Arendt observing that things in government that “work excessively well” (Ibid.) (with a view to making sociability more tangibly enjoyable) are an evil for politics itself. “Tranquility and […] order” (p. 234) for Hannah Arendt were far from the eternal exuberance of politics; again the usual feature that is repeated in the lives of most men in the context of modern societies: it happened in an existential commitment to action, plurality and public brightness.

And to that extent, tranquility, order, “stability, security and productivity” lead to “loss of power”, which is, in fact, the ability to start something new. The conservation of all this manifestation of existence, of the condition of existence, of human circumstances as such was one of the constituent axes of Chapter V – Action de The Human Condition. In other words; action for Arendt had to be the ontological-phenomenological opposite to all practices of prosaic organization of men's and women's lives – accepting the “fragility of human affairs”, politics itself, means being willing to face uncertainty and loss without resentment, but also to the retribution of the eternal memory of great deeds.

Ordinary everyday life could not conform to action – and even less to political action. So The Human Condition assert that: the sense of stability necessary for good sociability of individuals was transfigured in the search for “utopian political system[s]” (p. 239). And these always “collapsed under the weight of the reality […] of human relationships” (Ibid.). However, Hannah Arendt argues that the utopia of founding political systems for a serene, peaceful, secure and productive life (cf. p. 234) within the scope of the tradition of political thought played a “merely instrumental” function (p. 240) – a means of to -; it was in and from the modern era that violence surpassed speculations about utopian systems: that is, the government of the body's satiability.

Now, if that disposition disappears in modern history, the rational search for a political arrangement that is consistent with the horizon of those who do not and “cannot” aspire to the glory of the public world, the brightness and light of eternity, still remains and makes of violence, the “glorification of violence itself”, the conditional artifice of labor-making for the body. So, “basically a gay faber and not one animal rationale brought to the fore the much older implications of violence on which all interpretations of the sphere of human affairs are based as [are] based on the sphere of fabrication”.

It was the “revolutions, Hannah Arendt would say, typical of the modern era […] – with the exception of the American revolution – [that] revealed[[were] the […] combination of enthusiasm […] for the founding of a new body politic”, outlined for the animal laborers and the gay faber, and the “glorification of violence as the only means of making this body” element of the body. In this way, Arendt always feared, in order to be weighted in the formulation, any idea that was catching a glimpse of “a new society, that is, of any historical or political change”. And she considered Karl Marx the thinker who synthesized these ideals most convincingly in the modern era – thus “Marx just synthesizes the dominant conviction in the entire modern era and deduces the consequences of its most central idea, namely that history is made by man, just as nature is made by God” (p. 240 and 241).

In Arendt's own formulation, things well understood precisely in chapter V - Action as I have been demonstrating since the beginning of this critical-immanent analysis, it implies the understanding of politics as a unique, singular and, one might say, virtuously warlike moment, of the extraordinary. It is not circumstantial regarding Arendt's style of erudite writing and argumentation that at the end of this text the person of Jesus emerges, representing the eternal glory of birth and action – men in their simple everyday life are always in the condition of being neglected in Hannah Arendt.

In one of the most beautiful constructions of contemporary political theory, Hannah Arendt articulates two fundamental considerations for the understanding she forges about politics, namely; the irreversibility of the action and the ability to forgive-promise. However, here too, she was not exempt from the subtle conservatism that crosses, contradictorily, her thinking in the The Human Condition. In the tradition of (Western) political thought from Plato and Aristotle to Marx's convinced synthesis, political bodies were utopianly planned “in the manner of fabrication” (p. 242). This, Arendt argues, is due to the fact that men seek in existence the durability of themselves and their own human affairs.

Now, by not accepting the grandiose confrontation of the fortuity of every “action process” (p. 245), men who tend to the demand for security – manufactured by the instruments of modern society and government – ​​are not “capable of bearing the burden of irreversibility and unpredictability from which it originates” every human manifestation that initiates something new. Thus; those who “propose themselves” to action, to the “human capacity for freedom”, and who accept with glory and pomp the vicissitudes of the plurality of men – must be beyond “labor, [subjection] to the needs of life, [from ] manufacturing [and of] raw materials”.

But Hannah Arendt walks a fine line. For, in his political theory, unpredictability did not correspond to the non-permanence (of the unpredictable) and was not even associated with any notion that disregarded frames to provide, even existentially, a space for the glorious life of the unforeseen. It is not the “mundanity, maintained by fabrication”, that is, the arms of ordinary men in everyday life that constitute the durability that Hannah Arendt was looking for in order to ensure that the plurality-irreversibility does not dissipate (and the very entrance of the homo laborans and gay faber in the public world of freedom, of action, it destroys these – the author of the enlarged mentality theory never accepted the “categories of means and ends” (p. 248), the destructive consequence of politics expressed by the urgency of those).

It was the courage to forgive (and promise) “the possible solution to the problem of irreversibility” and the manifestation of vacillating chaoticity: “the chaotic uncertainty of the future” of the results of political action, of human plurality in concert. With that, avoiding the violence of destruction (cf. p. 250), the way in which non-glorious men, of rustic simplicity involved in the daily work and doing, undo what must be undone in the course of history (and in the modernity they, men, learned “to undo what [they did] through destruction, as one destroys an unsuccessful work” (p. 250), whether this is the policy of governments, politicians and sovereign States), The Human Condition, in the chapter Action found in the transcendence of Jesus of Nazareth the figure of forgiveness.

It was in him that Hannah Arendt believed as a symbol to be remembered by those who face the consequences of irreversibility, the uncertainty of action – in Arendt’s words, “Jesus maintains, against the opinion of scribes and Pharisees, that […] it is not true that only God has the power to forgive [...] this power does not derive from God – as if God, and not men, forgives through human beings – but, on the contrary, [forgiveness] must be mobilized by men among themselves” (p. . 251). The immanent core of this consideration is, that those whom God can see with the faculty of forgiveness he will imitate; they are men not attached to the ordinary of feelings of violence as a response to the non-long and who, in their perception, are capable of being destroyed with the force of historical eruptions that will transcend the commonplace and that “God [by repeating them] will do the same” (Ibid.) in the act of forgiving.

Common men; naive people with existence; the part of humanity that wants to redeem itself from daily hunger; those who assume love as forgiveness (cf. p. 254): they will never achieve the glory of the power to forgive, of the public glow within the scope of plurality as a political event. The conservation of this “miraculous [human] faculty” (p. 258) could only be maintained, the permanence (as opposed to the transformative processes of the labor and day, the life of material needs), by men who were not “generic” men; “the miracle that saves the world” is “the action of those who are capable” (p. 259) of the distinct glory of forgiving.

What to ask Hannah Arendt[2] what specifically your text Action, he would say to Nancy's father, Randy, Lonny, Phoebe's ex-husband, his former co-worker, the common man, a character in Philip Roth's novel of the same name.[3] Like many like him, he was concerned that his “thin frame” (See Philip Roth – Ordinary guy, Companhia das Letras) would have throughout his life the freedom to “dominate the waves of the indomitable Atlantic” (cf. ibid.); he simply died of “cardiac arrest” (cf. ibid.), even so, his journey deserved to be narrated. Not for Hannah Arendt…

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.



[1] See Perry Anderson. Preface. Spectra: from right to left in the world of ideas. Boitime, 2012.

[2] Throughout the interpretation, I tried to follow the theoretical and political implications of the internal (Adorno) constellation of arguments and formulations present in chapter 5 – Action de The Human Condition. The reader interested in this theme about the conservative ambiguities of Hannah Arendt, who I would like to insist is one of the main political theorists of the XNUMXth century and who bequeathed a theory of revolutionary councils and the notion of enlarged mentality (the expansion of reflective judgment in collective political action) that may eventually be fundamental in the radical political struggle of the left for those seeking emancipation, you should consult the following works: Margaret Canovan – Hannah Arendt as a Conservative Thinker. Larry May and Jeromy Kohn (ed.) Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later. Mit Press, 1966; J. Peter Euben – Arendt's Hellenism; Jacques Taminiax – Athens and Rome; Hauke ​​Brunkhorst – Equality and Elitism in Arendt. All of these in Dana Villa (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt... Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[3] As a metaphor (and/or political rhetoric) I mobilize here the Ordinary guy by Philip Roth. From the point of view of the composition of the character, he is a New York middle-class man with strong traits of machismo. Your typical average white American.

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