arendt & world politics

Ever since I read The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1999 I have been a fan of the philosophy and writings of Hannah Arendt. While I may have initially been drawn to what Margaret Canovan calls the ‘postmodern’ Arendt (one of her many faces) I think for me it was also a way of finding my way back into the late Heidegger and early critical theory. After that her insights and inspiration kept appearing regularly in my work: bits of Eichmann and Origins in Fear of Security, Responsibility and Judgement in an essay on just war, and Between Past and Future and The Human Condition in “Iraq: Strategy’s Burnt Offering” and “Freedom’s Freedom” (both found in Beyond Security).

One writer who has explored Arendt’s potential contribution to international relations – at book length –  is Patricia Owens, who published her Between War and Politics in 2007. This very important and impressive work was featured in a debate in the journal International Politics in 2008. When Patricia asked me to contribute, I strangely found myself focusing on an area of Arendt’s thought with which I had some substantial disagreement: her take on cosmopolitanism and the idea of humanity. The other participants were Helen Kinsella, Richard Beardsworth, and Owens herself, and the exchanges are worth reading. They are especially salient in an era where the biopolitical critique of Giorgio Agamben and others, drawing ostensibly (and in my view, tendentiously) on Arendt’s work, is leading to sweeping dismissals of a critical humanism in favour of a hyperbolic mode of critique and despair. Where is humanity in such a world, when the human is reduced in thought and politics to ‘bare life’? Has it no potential? I for one, was unconvinced. Rebuilding the idea of the human – beyond the pale and dangerous teleologies of Kant – is for me a long term project.

Recovering Humanity from Man: Hannah Arendt’s Troubled Cosmopolitanism

In 1961 John F. Kennedy received a briefing on the ‘net assessment of general nuclear war’ between the two superpowers. The US war plan (the SIOP) had been finalised the year before and called for a ‘single overwhelming attack’ on thousands of targets in the USSR, Eastern Europe and China using ‘thousands of megatons’. Walking from the briefing with his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, Kennedy dryly remarked: ‘And we call ourselves the human race’ (Bundy, 1988: 354).

This comment reveals much more than Kennedy’s  abhorrence of the idea of pre-emptive war then advocated by his generals, or his gut response to the carnage inherent in the plan. It evokes the moral and ontological existence of ‘humanity’, and the imperative of cosmopolitanism, in a novel and striking way. The danger to humanity inherent in the weapons is there, but also the hubristic, promethean power of the ‘Man’ of the early enlightenment, a ‘Man’ that has seized the powers of life and death from the Gods and subjugated nature to its own desires and ends. In such a vision, the ‘human race’ is not merely a vulnerable commonality of being but simultaneously the most potent threat to it. The human race is a new kind of being, a cold and mechanistic monster in the shape of Man.

As a thinker who developed a profound critique of utilitarian thought and the dehumanising tendencies of modern politics, I think that Hannah Arendt would have been intrigued by this contradiction, one where ‘the shrinkage of the globe’ such that ‘each man is now an inhabitant of the earth as he is an inhabitant of his country’ coincides with ‘the enormously increased human power of destruction’ (Arendt, 1998: 250, 268-9).

This raises a profound normative and moral problem that Arendt was never able to effectively solve. In my view, the solution to this problem of global human power and existence lies in cosmopolitanism: in the ability of humans to create a global system of norms, relationships and institutions that can control and mitigate their impact on the earth and guarantee fundamental human rights and dignity. In this version, cosmopolitanism finds its ontological foundations more in historical contingency than in a universal community of rational beings (see Nussbaum, 2002: 6). The fact that ‘man’ now has global destructive powers; the fact that, after the compression of space and time that has come with imperialism and globalisation, no human is insulated from the existence and activities of others; the fact that urgent contemporary problems, be they about the environment, security or economics, are no longer contained within national borders and require global cooperation to solve; the fact that self-interest as much as altruism requires that human beings everywhere take responsibility for the lives of others; these facts demand a cosmopolitanism of the present and a new way of conceiving human being.

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