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Eugene McCarraher

The Incoherence of Hannah Arendt

Breaking the marriage between heaven and earth.

On a sunny March morning in 1962, a taxi bearing Hannah Arendt collided with a truck as it sped across Central Park. Awakening in the ambulance, Arendt moved her limbs, rolled her eyes, and tested her memory by recalling decades, stanzas of poetry, and telephone numbers. As she later described the episode to her close friend Mary McCarthy, "for a fleeting moment I had the feeling that it was up to me whether I wanted to live or die." While she "did not think that death was terrible," she also thought that "life was quite beautiful and that I rather like it."

Today, Arendt's brush with the Reaper might become another saccharine epiphany, denatured and packaged for the burgeoning market in "uplift" and "inspiration." Arendt herself would surely recoil from much of our "life-affirming" drivel. If it isn't advertising—"smell the roses" in our flower shop, "appreciate the little things" with help from our investment firm—it's an unwitting invitation to forget the larger concerns of politics, philosophy, and religion. Having spent her life pondering the carnage and futility of the 20th, most murderous of centuries, and having escaped calamities far worse than an auto wreck, Arendt might well admonish us that beauty is always bound up with the broader forces of history, whose evasion and neglect will inevitably rob the world of its deepest charms.

Like John Dewey and Richard Rorty—two thinkers with whom she certainly has little else in common—Arendt was attempting to uncouple a largely Christian moral sensibility from the embarrassment of Christian theology.

This rich and intelligent "love of the world," as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl characterizes Arendt's intellectual career, could hardly be more urgently needed or imperiled than it is in this very year, her centenary. It's a perverse and benighted time when worldliness is the stock-in-trade of bilious bon vivants like Christopher Hitchens. The last exponent of Arendt's kind of worldliness was Edward W. Said, who embodied, for many of us, that civilized and cosmopolitan humanism so often caricatured as haughtiness or sophistry. Both Said and Arendt enunciated stubborn and inconvenient truths, and detested the culture of euphemism that neutralized thought and camouflaged cruelty. Though grateful for the shelter and good fortune afforded by the United States, they saw much in the bustle of their adopted homeland that mocked a true love of life. And they scorned the sort of specious and imperialist universalism that corrupts our punditocracy, all those nostrums about "freedom" (for the market) and "human rights" (to be invaded) that comprise a beguiling form of parochialism.

Over the last decade or so, Arendt has inspired a growing legion of scholars and admirers. Most of them are responding, I suspect, to the contraction of moral and political imagination among the Western intelligentsia, or to the bloodbaths that flooded out the parade for the vaunted "end of history." Of course, not all evil would appear to be banal—does this word adequately convey the horrors of Rwanda, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, or Sudan? But as the premier investigator of modern evil's bureaucratic demeanor, Arendt would seem to be an unassailable scourge of today's well-mannered iniquity, whereby torture receives the imprimatur of our own attorney general. Who better to diagnose the sado-militarism in the corridors of Abu Ghraib, or the lack of concern or even interest in the scandal in the fabled Christian heartland?

But can Arendt's work fully reward this renewal of interest? If Arendt, like Said, remained adamant that worldliness required the rejection of supernatural hope, is her love of the world sustainable without an otherworldly desire? Do her insights into "the banality of evil" themselves hang over a void? She offers a great deal that's corrective or seminal to the political culture of our time, incapable as it is of envisioning much beyond a global shopping mall or a theater for American righteousness. Her Augustinian reflections on the nature of evil will outlast all moralistic prattle about "evildoers" and wickedness. And her affirmation of "action" can embolden us to replenish our stale and dwindling inventory of political possibility.

Nevertheless, there's much that's abortive and dispensable in her work—the suggestive but misleading formulation of "totalitarianism," to take a salient example, her indifference to the "social question," her incorrigibly exalted conception of political life—and these features do not derive, I think, from datedness or reportage. Our critical powers can be easily disarmed when faced with a resumé as illustrious as Arendt's, and we bestow the benefit of too many doubts if we're stunned into submission by her stature. An "éminence grise among éminence grises," as a fawning journalist once wrote of her, Arendt has become an idol of profundity, and a reflexive deference to all things "profound" can make our appropriation of her work all too timid and reverential.

We should read her more often in the spirit of Eric Hobsbawm, who once noted drolly that Arendt displayed "a certain lack of interest in mere fact." Some of Arendt's most renowned work is indeed empirically impaired, but a more serious problem, I think, is a certain lack of interest in consistency, and we should not be so overwhelmed by the shadow of her gravitas that we decline to point this out. Arendt's corpus exhibits an overall lack of architectural integrity, and its basic flaw is the notion that worldliness can survive without faith in divinity. Like many modern intellectuals, Arendt thought that religious insights could subsist without their roots in theology, and the result, in her case, was a panoramic oeuvre of portentous incoherence. Rather than continue to genuflect before the intimidating force of her mind, we should see in Arendt's career a scene in the drama of atheistic humanism, the conclusion of which, Henri de Lubac reminds us, is a morass of confusion and despair. So for all her invaluable and borrowed insight, Arendt cannot teach us how to love the world, for loving the world is not too much but rather not enough.

Like many an icon of crisis, Arendt has received the dubious honor of being more cited than read: one can now drop phrases like "banality of evil" without ever opening Eichmann in Jerusalem. The Origins of Totalitarianism is still assigned, even though many scholars now consider its central concept misleading or useless: even as sympathetic an interpreter as Hannah Pitkin criticizes Arendt for reifying "totalitarianism" into a "Blob" that metastasizes without any human agency. And like references to her Riverside neighbor Reinhold Niebuhr, those to Arendt are always good for a shimmer of moral authority.

That authority derives in part from the spell still cast by the principal settings she inhabited: Wilhemine and Weimar Germany and Cold War New York. Arendt grew up before World War I among the Jewish bourgeoisie of Konigsberg—where Kant had strolled the streets after musing on the ding an sich—and studied in the city's Gymnasium after being tossed out of one of its hochschulen for "insubordination." The friend of New Left radicals received a thorough classical education, proving that, as she later wrote, it is "exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child [that] education must be conservative." Exposed to little in the way of overt anti-Semitism, Arendt and her cohorts assumed that their assimilation into Hohenzollern Germany would continue unimpeded. But after the slaughter of the Great War and the disenchantment of Progress, they faced what the historian Detlev Peukert has called "the crisis of classical modernity." In the midst of cultural despair, worthless deutschmarks, and the earliest brays of fascism, Arendt and her generation invented kulturkritik, their makeshift armada of vessels for navigating the maelstrom of the modern: the neue Sachlichkeit, the Frankfurt School, psychoanalysis, and existentialism.

Moving through the universities of Berlin, Marburg, and Heidelberg, Arendt met many in the gallery of Weimar luminaries: Romano Guardini (then a rising Catholic star who taught her theology); Martin Heidegger (her mentor at Marburg, also her lover); Karl Jaspers (her teacher at Heidelberg and a lifelong friend); not to mention Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, who earned her everlasting dislike by lambasting her first husband's habilitationschrift. (Though enormously gifted in the study and at the piano, Adorno comes across in Arendt's letters as a peevish little snit.) Like many of these figures, Arendt hit the road when the Nazis came to power, migrating to America just a step or two ahead of the storm troopers.

Arriving in New York in 1941 after eight years on the run in Europe, she became the most glamorous and erudite of that legendary band of eggheads dubbed "the New York intellectuals." Far too much praise has been lavished on this island tribe, most of whose work now seems far more brilliant than enduring. Gliding through the salons of postwar Manhattan, Arendt shared dinner and conversation with Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, and Daniel Bell, and endured a marriage proposal from an infatuated W. H. Auden. But she also suffered the likes of like Irving Howe, Norman Podhoretz, and Sidney Hook, the latter an especially self-important pedant who thought Arendt was afraid to debate him. She married Heinrich Blucher, a roguish figure who talked incessantly, wrote little of interest, and strikes me as something of a blowhard. Arendt was a paragon of the breed, from the lacy whirl of cigarette smoke that always enveloped her head to her dazzling segues from philosophy to history to contemporary affairs, all executed with a facility rare among today's better-paid intelligentsia. (Her New Yorker essays still serve as models for intellectual journalism.)

She appears to have been genuinely uninterested in acquiring or counseling power, another virtue increasingly scarce among our "public intellectuals." Witness her long-running feud with fellow-émigré Leo Strauss, who became a colleague of Arendt's at the University of Chicago. Besides rebuffing his amorous advances (what minor nightmares they must been), Arendt saw in Strauss' careful attitude toward the Nazis all the signs of a sniveling opportunist, especially when, as a Jew, he could hardly expect any favors. In the 1960s, Arendt became a grossmutter of sorts to many student radicals, while Strauss helped concoct the intoxicating blend of powerlust and esoterica that evolved into neoconservatism. His intellectual spawn now occupy editorial offices, university faculties, and the Bush Administration, and their Platonic noble lies, having issued in a needless and protracted war in Iraq, have stoked the flames of hatred and recrimination throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. Having seen the Master in action, Arendt would have known what to make of the Straussian cabal of sycophants and mediocrities.

She would probably have observed that their reckless lust for power stems from a refusal to accept without bitterness the evanescence of earthly life. "What I have loved / I cannot hold. / What lies around me / I cannot leave": more than mere adolescent sturm und drang, these lines articulate Arendt's embrace of our beautifully fleeting condition. Even her ill-considered affair with Heidegger—a married man who, in Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's understatement, "was not an exemplary Mensch"—did not occasion resentment. Read their letters, composed in the high-minded ardor of eros and erudition. Imprisoned in a respectable but stifling marriage, Heidegger becomes the unbuttoned bourgeois—"you saucy wood nymph," he teases—and the unsuspected poet, simply and movingly describing Arendt's loveliness in a rainstorm. (He also dotes on her "feminine essence" and "womanly Being" with a paternalism worthy of the Curia.) Arendt's devotion opened her eyes to "colorful and strange realms"—philosophy and sexuality—that conjured up her childhood longings for "the extraordinary, the magical." The affair lasted barely a year—ended, apparently, by Heidegger, who remained wedded, in the end, to his domestic security—but Arendt continued to correspond with her former paramour for four decades, even after his disgraceful and unrepentant deference to the Nazis. Much like Dorothy Day in The Long Loneliness—who saw in her own erotic misadventures the sources of spiritual insight—Arendt was strong and wise enough to bear more than guilt from her folly with Heidegger.

So it's risky but not facile to note that Arendt's intellectual debut was a dissertation on Augustine's conception of love. (Of all Arendt scholars, only Young-Bruehl seems to even hint at such a connection.) It's a convoluted and repetitious monograph, bathed in the brooding earnestness of Existenz philosophy. Arendt delineates the crucial Augustinian distinction between cupiditas—the love of worldly goods for their ministration to one's immediate desires—and caritas—the love of eternal goods and especially of God, a love which then enables us to love earthly things rightly. For those possessed by cupiditas, earthly life is a tragedy of accumulation, for the things and people they acquire or control cannot satisfy the desire for eternal happiness that animates their errant love. Even worse for the prisoners of cupiditas, life's intractable brevity implies no horizon beyond the grave, and so the avoidance of death, "transformed into the worst evil," compels the most desperate and even horrific conduct. While she must have remembered the sting of cupiditas in her futile love for Heidegger, Arendt seems to have recognized the outlines of caritas in their philosophical communion.

Arendt also saw that memory was central to Augustine's moral reflection, for in revisiting what he dubbed "the camps and vast palaces of memory," we also glimpse the kingdom that lies beyond the injustice and suffering of the earthly city. If God is the Alpha and the Omega, the genesis and the telos, then "the return to one's origin," as she glossed Augustine, "can be an anticipatory reference to one's end." Those who fully recognize and accept their beginning in time will practice "remembrance and gratitude," an unstinting thankfulness for the unmerited gift of existence from which all genuine virtue arises. And finally, eschatology, Arendt realized, is a remembrance of things future, a capacity, as Eliot put it, to see the place for the first time. Indeed, "it is memory and not expectation . . . that gives unity and wholeness to human existence." Contrary to Marx, for whom the past was a burden on the brains of the living, Arendt maintained that memory—the personal and collective storehouse of injustice, heroism, barbarity, and magnificence—is an ark of liberation, a reminder that the present does not define the limits of human possibility. Arendt thus belongs to that motley and distinguished roster of intellectuals who avow the promise of memory: Walter Benjamin, H. Richard Niebuhr, Christopher Lasch, and Alasdair MacIntyre.

Yet as Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark observe, many reviewers faulted Arendt's avowed indifference to the theological content of Augustine's ideas about love and human community. While this may sound like yet another tempest in a classroom, these objections anticipated the central weakness of Arendt's later work: her attempt to sever theological notions from their theological context. Approaching Augustine with an "intentional detachment from all doctrinal elements," Arendt immediately distorted the theological character of Augustine's ideas about love, and rendered unintelligible his conviction that delusion and ruin will inevitably attend a worldliness rooted in something other than worship.

Arendt spent much of her subsequent career attempting to appropriate the aura of theology without its nettlesome claims to veracity and commitment, and her evasive maneuvers in this regard have largely eluded detection or censure. I think we should stop treating her so gingerly. Take her courteous assertion, in an oft-cited 1950 Partisan Review symposium on "Religion and the Intellectuals," that she neither "explicitly rejected traditional religious beliefs" nor "accepted" them. Why do we not call this "punting" or "equivocation"? Compared to this mite of triangulation, the blasphemous bravado of a Hitchens is more admirable and refreshing. Eight years later, in The Human Condition, after informing her readers that "the question about the nature of man is no less a theological question than the question about the nature of God," Arendt proceeded to altogether ignore theology, even in the midst of a moving and astute discussion of forgiveness. (To my knowledge, only Charles Mathewes calls attention to this masterpiece of obfuscation in his long and thoughtful reflection on Arendt in Evil and the Augustinian Tradition.)

Having abandoned Augustine's theology, Arendt naturally eschewed his Christian account of human nature as the imago Dei, and she came to adopt an existentialist anthropology that undermines, if it doesn't quite discredit, much of what is valuable in her work. Here we encounter one of Arendt's most hallowed notions: "action," or—what seems to me pretty much indistinguishable from that concept—"natality." Elaborated rather ponderously in The Human Condition, "action" is the uniquely human capacity to initiate something new, especially in thought, and it reaches its highest (indeed, its only) development in the "public" or "political" realm. As our only safeguard and consolation against the mortality of earthly life—itself embodied in "work," the realm of biological processes, and "labor," the world of human making—action is "the miracle that saves the world." And like any good miracle, it is utterly unpredictable: as Arendt put it succinctly in Between Past and Future, "action insofar as it is free is neither under the guidance of the intellect nor under the dictate of the will."

Now when our democratic vistas are as narrow and kitschy as they are today—when, for instance, a huckster like Thomas Friedman is mistaken for a prophet—we need reminding that we have the capacity to make things not only "better" but new. And I hear echoes of Arendtian "action" when Alain Badiou or Slavoj Zizek speaks of the authentic political "act": in times of heightened turbulence, some become capable, not merely of "seeing what is possible," but of breaking and extending the boundaries of possibility, and redefining the very coordinates of what we can and cannot do.

But clear away the brain-fog induced by the words "miracle" and "free" in Arendt's description of "action," and ask yourself if she isn't suggesting something disembodied, irrational, even sinister. Though applauding Arendt's political theory of memory and narrative, Julia Kristeva admonishes her for "relegating the body to an uninteresting generality," a dismissal that makes Arendt a problem for feminists. ("Such nonsense is starting up again," the admirer of Rosa Luxemburg sighed at the dawn of Women's Liberation.) Dana Villa writes inelegantly that Arendtian action defines "praxis outside the teleological framework," while Mathewes chides its "effectively Pelagian concept of human freedom." I fail to see how Arendt's anthropology differs all that much from nihilism—or, if we're more generous, incoherence. I'll return later to the conflicted political import that "action" bears. But whether you dub it nihilistic or incoherent, Arendt's disavowal of a human nature desirous of beatitude doesn't, in the end, put her all that far away from Jean-Paul Sartre—a writer she loathed, without a trace of irony, for making "everything entirely arbitrary."

Isn't it obtuse if not utterly perverse to charge the author of Eichmann in Jerusalem with nihilism? Only if we read Arendt's most absorbing book in isolation from the rest of her work, and only if we forget that "the banality of evil" relied on theological ideas she "neither rejected nor accepted." As a piece of journalism (a venerable genre, I might add, at its best far more than what professional historians condescend to call the "first draft of history"), Eichmann remains a bold and unsettling document of moral portraiture. We are treated to unforgettable accounts of David Ben-Gurion's cynical stage-management of the trial; the Danish people's intrepid resistance to the Final Solution; and the Vatican's constipated and cowardly disclaimer that it did not want its protests of genocide understood as coming from "a false sense of compassion." We learn that the Allied policy of saturation bombing, which culminated, Arendt argues, in the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was clearly a war crime under the protocols of the Hague Convention.

And then there's Eichmann himself, whose excruciatingly average life is a study in the evil of banality. Arendt is at her appalled and incisive best when sketching this deadly little nebbish, especially when recounting the "grotesque silliness" of Eichmann's final words: after declaring his unbelief in God or an afterlife, he assures his executioners that "we shall meet again." (I wonder if Stanley Kubrick was thinking of Eichmann when he put "We'll Meet Again" on the soundtrack of Dr. Strangelove.) But the absurdity of Eichmann's death was a fitting end to the inanity of his life, for as Arendt notes, he had always been "incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché."

We don't pay enough attention to the relationship Arendt establishes between the omnipresence of cliché and the banality of evil. Of course, much has been made of the "banality of evil": its explosive imprecision as a phrase, its location in the postwar critique of "conformity," its secularized Augustinian pedigree. Yet Arendt realized that platitude is the anesthesia of the intellect and the bromide of the soul, a narcotic that enables its addicts to perform with efficiency and tranquility. "The most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others," cliché casts a shroud over the world, smothering its lushness and euphony under a blanket of triteness and euphemism. Our culture of death has a diversified portfolio of "reliable safeguards," small but lucrative investments in the enterprises of domination and self-deception : "family values," "choice," "freedom is on the march," even "culture of life," a phrase purloined and mangled by the vindictive likes of Tom DeLay.

So the devil, contrary to cliché, does not have all the best tunes, and goodness is never banal or boring. How could Arendt assert such a thing without believing that reality is good? And how could she believe such a thing without theological warrant? On what basis can she claim that genocide is an outrage against "the very nature of humanity" if her anthropology acknowledges no such essence beyond a radical contingency? When Arendt remarks that Eichmann was "not very much interested in metaphysics," I feel compelled to retort that this is rather rich coming from someone who never exhibited such an interest herself. Scholars rightly trace "the banality of evil" to Arendt's Augustinian inheritance, and even a theologian as suspicious of secular lineages as John Milbank has praised her resistance to the Manichaean notion of "radical evil." But few notice the incongruity, if not the contradiction, between Arendt's account of evil as privation and her lack of interest, as Young-Bruehl puts it, in any "quest for the Good, or for rules and laws defining what the Good is." Doesn't a conception of evil depend on a conception of the Good—how else can one write of "privation"? Once again, the specter of incoherence hovers over the entirety of Arendt's career.

This incoherence also aborts what I think could have been Arendt's most fruitful contribution to political thought: the discovery of forgiveness as a political virtue. Musing in The Human Condition that the Western political canon has tended to "exclude from articulate conceptualization a great variety of political experiences," Arendt sought to recover one of the cardinal Judeo-Christian virtues for political theory. Those across the spectrum who demand that people "get what they deserve" should think very hard about what they're saying, for justice alone is a merciless ideal. Without mercy or forgiveness, Arendt reminds us, we would be forever "confined to one single deed from which we could never recover." Far more than a cancellation of debts, the political marvel of forgiveness lies in its liberation for the future, for "only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents . . . to begin something new." Yet as Milbank has recently argued, forgiveness makes sense only within a theological account of time as "participating in the divine." Otherwise, he writes, time "passes away . . . into pure oblivion," rendering forgiveness and renewal as pointless as retribution. Why forgive debts if death is the ultimate creditor?

Many will object to my rebuking Arendt in this way, but I think we need to be clear about the import of her attempt to write checks on a closed account. Like John Dewey and Richard Rorty—two thinkers with whom she certainly has little else in common—Arendt was attempting to uncouple a largely Christian moral sensibility from the embarrassment of Christian theology. As Rorty put it with candor and succinctness in Achieving Our Country, many modern political intellectuals have aimed to "separate the fraternity and loving kindness urged by the Christian scriptures from the ideas of supernatural parentage, immortality, providence, and sin." Lamed by her own "intentional detachment from all doctrinal elements," Arendt's most disturbing and invaluable insights illustrate the dubiousness, if not the impossibility, of that achievement.

Of course, Arendt considered herself a political thinker, and many of her discrete political insights were acute and enduring. Along with Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, and other Jewish advocates of an urbane and capacious Zionism, Arendt was repulsed by the Ben-Gurion government's brutal dispossession of indigenous Arabs, and she long harbored a fear that Israeli nationalism was becoming increasingly chauvinist and belligerent. (Richard Ben Cramer's How Israel Lost is a depressing confirmation of Arendt's unease.) Warning New Left students against Sartre's delusional exhortations to revolutionary violence, Arendt pointed to the civil rights movement as evidence that "the means used to achieve political goals are often of greater relevance than the intended goals," adding for good measure that violence was "more the weapon of reform than revolution."

The heft these judgments possessed came first from The Origins of Totalitarianism. Against a still-powerful tendency to lift the Judeocide out of historical time and into the realm of the "inexplicable," Arendt located it in the main currents of modern history, setting a precedent for later historians such as Raul Hilberg, David Wyman, and Arno Mayer. Totalitarianism, she maintains, is a ghastly resolution to the central problem of industrial modernity: the creation, through mechanization and mass democracy, of large, restless, and mobile populations, whose volatile superfluity must be mobilized or eliminated. This problem lurked behind all efforts to contain or erase "the masses": racism, nationalism, imperialism, eugenics, and finally the death camps, the ultimate application of Stalin's brutal maxim, "no person, no problem."

Yet while she draws attention to the populist character of fascism, Arendt does not argue a "revolt of the masses" thesis that totalitarianism resulted from "growing equality of conditions, from the spread of general education and its inevitable lowering of standards and popularization of content." Rather, she assigns the main responsibility for fascism to two groups: intellectuals who, eager to merge with "the people," defaulted on their critical responsibilities; and the fearful, drifting bourgeoisie, willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to protect their loot and their self-regard.

But Totalitarianism also exhibits some of the signature vices of Cold War intellectual culture. Akin to bogeymen like Eric Hoffer's "true believer" and Czeslaw Milosz's "captive mind," "totalitarianism" is arguably the other side of a coin marked "end of ideology," a currency minted and traded among New York intellectuals eager to repent of their misspent leftist youths. Epitomized by Bell's celebrated 1960 volume, the "end of ideology" was the "end of history" of its time, the graying liberal's avuncular disparagement of radical aspiration. In her chapter on "ideology and terror," Arendt rehearsed the standard lecture of the Manhattan mandarinate. Impatient with the prudence and sagacity induced by "common sense," ideologies, Arendt explains, are "isms which . . . explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise." The ideological mind revolts at the contingent and indeterminate "miracle of being" and inevitably employs terror to "make the world consistent, to prove that its supersense has been right."

The most important reply to all of this is that a lot of it is demonstrably false, and that Arendt's uses of "ideology" and "totalitarianism" work to discourage any attempt at systematic cultural and political transformation. As Marxist intellectuals from George Lukacs to Terry Eagleton have reiterated again and again—and Arendt was surely acquainted with the former's History and Class Consciousness—"ideology" is not just any abstract, rigid, and self-conscious system of thought. Present in everything from game shows to academic philosophy, it's a form of consciousness engendered by social and material conditions, one that depends for its endurance on a volatile blend of truth and falsehood. Arendt and other Cold War sages conveniently forgot that, understood in this way, the concept of "ideology" is a powerful critical tool, and may well include in its purview the "common sense" of a given time and place. Arendt herself demonstrated a talent for keen ideological discernment: much of modern imperialism followed inexorably, in her view, from the "never-ending accumulation of power necessary for the protection of a never-ending accumulation of capital." Those who hear Marxist claptrap in "no blood for oil" would do well to ponder that line.

I think this is crucial in understanding not only the historical valence of "totalitarianism" but also the contemporary horror of something called "fundamentalism." Given the demise of fascism, only socialist or Communist political movements remained available for stigmatization by Cold War intellectuals, and so Arendt's book became a front-line weapon in the arsenal of "maturity" and "realism." Any comprehensive program for social and political change could be branded as a blueprint for the Gulag. So while it would be stupid and meretricious to dismiss Totalitarianism as a "mere" piece of ideology, its scholarly value is arguably diminished by its ideological entanglement.

Recent reflection on "totalitarianism," and especially on fascism, underlines this problem. As Robert O. Paxton—no leftist—has recently argued in The Anatomy of Fascism, fascism is "inconceivable in the absence of a mature and expanding socialist left." Underlining the fear of socialism that occasioned not only fascism but also the timidity of Western liberal democracies in the face of Hitler, Paxton's claim suggests that the antipathy between fascists and socialists grew out of a real conflict of political visions, one which, in Slavoj Zizek's view, mandates a distinction in the way we assess them. Stalinism, he contends, should be considered the murderous perversion of a worthy desire for material plenty and cosmopolitan equality—a love for the world that Arendt could (and should) have affirmed. But how, Zizek asks, could we see anything in the Nazi death camps but the fulfillment of fascist aspiration toward racial and sexual purity? Indeed, Zizek concludes, the oft-made comparison of Stalinism with Hitlerism serves, in effect, to disparage socialism or any other project of egalitarian social reconstruction.

But could we not suggest then that much of our postmodern distaste for large-scale, "totalizing" perspectives on human affairs—now encapsulated in the expletive "fundamentalism"—is itself a study in ideology? That "fundamentalism" is now the heir of the obloquy once heaped on socialism? The similar trajectories of socialism and religion in the political culture of Western intellectuals are worth noting here: both are disparaged as inherently "dogmatic" and violent antagonists of an "open," peaceful world, the secular eschaton of liberal democracy and corporate capitalism portrayed in the National Security Strategy.

As Zizek's remarks imply, "totalitarianism" was also the starkest form assumed by Arendt's perennial postwar bogeyman: "the social question" whose presence she always considered a low-born intrusion on the high calling of politics. (In Arendt's terms, a political resolution of social issues confuses the realms of "work," "labor," and "action.") Here, we should turn to On Revolution, in which—with the postcolonial movements of "national liberation" clearly in mind, and with the student movement emerging in the West—Arendt aimed to recover "the revolutionary tradition and its lost treasures." The most precious coins in that treasury, she thought, were numerous albeit short-lived experiments in decentralized, radically democratic political organization: the Jacobin sections of revolutionary France; the Paris Commune of 1871; the pre-Bolshevik soviets established by revolutionary workers and soldiers; the councils set up by Hungarian students and workers before they were crushed by the Stalinist government in 1956. The centralizing villains of the piece were Marx and Lenin, while the heroine was Rosa Luxemburg, whose courageous and eloquent indictment of Lenin exhibited "amazing clear-sightedness about the issues at stake."

And yet Arendt obscured the fact that, right up to her murder by the proto-fascist Freikorps, Luxemburg remained a Marxist, and thus presumably committed to resolving that "social question" Arendt ruled inadmissible in political life. Nowhere does Arendt seem to sense the inconsistency of her admiration for Luxemburg and the fact of Luxemburg's revolutionary socialism. Arendt notes generically and unhelpfully that all decentralist attempts to venture beyond "the political" and into social and economic governance have proven chaotic and tyrannical. Though she links the political failure of decentralism to the party system and the nation-state, Arendt never suspects that these two forces—along with their sponsoring bourgeoisie—might also be culpable in the misfortunes of decentralized answers to the social question.

"The political" (or "the public") sphere is a notoriously high-faluting realm for Arendt. As the exemplary forum for "action," politics properly speaking has, for her, no connection with the inarticulate necessities of the erotic, laboring body. Severed from material and social life, politics for Arendt has all the intellectual quality of Plato's guardian class without its ascetic communism. Indeed, it's not clear what besides displays of rhetorical ingenuity people are supposed to actually do in the political world. What's more, taken by the manly and "fierce agonal spirit" displayed in the Athenian polis, Arendt never stops to consider the slaves and women on whose backs this exclusively male sphere was borne. (That nonsense is starting up again. . . .) Hence George Kateb's gibe that Arendt dreamed of "male Greeks in togas."

This mandarin disdain for "the social question" could be embarrassingly disengaged and unseemly. A decade after she criticized black parents in "Reflections on Little Rock" for "using" their children to achieve racial integration, Arendt needed Ralph Ellison to explain to her the ideal of sacrifice that motivated them. Later, in On Revolution, Arendt disparaged the material dreams of immigrants who—"unhappily," in her view—saw in America "a 'promised land' where milk and honey flow." Only a refugee with a Guggenheim grant could see that dream as ignoble. In the same book, Arendt expressed bewilderment that American political thought had "dried up almost immediately" after the Federalist Papers, and that the American Revolution "has remained sterile in terms of world politics," an infertility she considered a "failure." It never occurred to her that the barrenness and failure might have derived from inattention to social issues, and that the "failure" might, from the standpoint of the propertied, be considered a success.

As with so much of her work, Arendt's repudiation of theology illuminates her insistence on preserving politics from contamination by social issues. In On Revolution, Arendt articulated two competing ontologies of human community. Pointing to the stories of Cain and Abel and of Romulus and Remus, she claimed that the founding stories of "our biblical and secular traditions" conveyed a sobering truth: "whatever brotherhood human beings may be capable of has grown out of fratricide." But if human community originated in bloodshed—"in the beginning was a crime"—salvation commenced in peace: "in the beginning was the Word." Once again, action miraculously saves the world. Yet Arendt never reconciles these two political ontologies. If crime lies at the origin of community—and Arendt seems clearly to think violence the more historically probable ontology—then it is hard to see how words can avoid being tarnished. And if action is as unconditioned and arbitrary as Arendt conceives it, how can it avoid becoming another form of violence?

But if the world and human community are founded in an order of love, peace, and plenty, then we—those rooted in Christian theology—would have to recognize that Arendt's difficulties here stem from her reluctance to join fully in what Charles Taylor has called "the affirmation of ordinary life." Since, as Taylor observes, the modern affirmation of ordinariness can be traced to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Arendt's stratospheric conception of politics can be traced to her rejection of theology. Though clearly inflected by her inordinate regard for an idealized polis of Greek antiquity, Arendt's refusal or inability to see social life as an inherently political realm ultimately stems from her lack of faith in a created order of abundance and love.

If Christian theology entails an ontology of abundance, an anthropology of beatific desire, and a politics of everyday life, then I think we will have to affirm Marx's insight, as Arendt glosses it dismissively, that "poverty is a political, not a natural phenomenon, the result of violence and violation rather than of scarcity." It is not enough to say, as Arendt did in The Human Condition, that "the social" is an "exchange market" inhabited by "a society of jobholders," for to stop there leaves the social question answerable only in the terms of capital. And we would have to recognize that, despite Arendt's indictment of commodification, her insulation of politics from social and economic conflicts—the efflux of her attempt to separate work, labor, and action—would disable the only politics capable of challenging what Edith Wharton once called "the vast, gilded void" of commodity culture. We would also have to resist any attempt, from whatever quarter, to vilify as inherently "totalitarian" a politics of social transformation.

And so, unanchored in a broader and deeper theology of ordinary life, Arendt's epiphany in the ambulance can be of only limited import for us. Life is quite beautiful, and we owe its radiance and splendor to a God who thought our bodies worthy of an Incarnation. Hannah Arendt lacked that sacramental faith in the marriage of heaven and earth, and her work ultimately founders on her attempt to annul this inseparable union.

Eugene McCarraher is currently a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies. He is completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

Books consulted for this essay:

By Hannah Arendt:
Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger: Letters 1925-1975, ed. Ursula Ludz (Harcourt, 2003).

Love and St. Augustine, ed. Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996).

The Origins of Totalitarianism (Schocken, 2004 [1951]).

The Human Condition (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998 [1958]).

Between Past and Future (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993 [1961]).

On Revolution (Penguin, 1991 [1963]).

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Study in the Banality of Evil (Penguin, 1992 [1963]).

On Violence (Harcourt, 1969).

by others:
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (Yale Univ. Press, 1983).

Charles Mathewes, Evil and the Augustinian Tradition (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001).

Hannah Fenichel Pitkin, The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt's Concept of "The Social" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998).

Dana R. Villa, Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt (Princeton Univ. Press, 1999).

Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt: Life Is a Narrative (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2000).

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