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Restoring the Dignity of Politics

Hannah Arendt changed my life. She taught me how to think deeply about the world. Her work helped me to recognize the many contradictions between how I have understood it and its reality. Reading Arendt, I grasped, for the first time, the essential difference between freedom and being ruled. I learned to accept the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in political activity, and to appreciate how participating in politics enables imperfect individuals to transcend their limitations and discern what James Madison called “justice and the general good” in Federalist 51.

All of this happened by chance several years ago when I rediscovered Arendt while perusing an old bookshop in the Capitol Hill neighborhood where I lived in Washington, D.C. On one particular visit, I happened to pick up a first-edition copy of Between Past and Future. Standing there, in the narrow aisle of the musty shop, amidst many wondrous treasures, I read Arendt’s 1961 pearl from cover to cover.

In the years since that day, I have returned to that book many times (now tucked safely away in my personal library) whenever I needed help thinking through something that I did not fully understand. And I have explored the rest of Arendt’s corpus in that time hoping to find other goodly pearls of great price.

One of the most thought-provoking works that I discovered was her 1958 tract, The Human Condition, which was recently released in a second edition by the University of Chicago Press. Considered by many scholars to be Arendt’s major philosophical work, the book’s emphatic appeal to “think what we are doing” is just as relevant today as it was when it first appeared over sixty years ago.

Arendt’s effort to comprehend the primary activities of the human condition is especially important now given the significant contradictions between how Americans across the ideological spectrum currently diagonse our present political dysfunction and the epistemological certainty they have regarding their ideas for treating the condition. Her ground-breaking analysis of the vita activa (or active life) suggests that these two phenomena—political dysfunction and ideological certainty—are intimately related. That is, Arendt’s reasoning illuminates the extent to which the problematic status quo that many Americans on both the left and the right presently decry is caused, first and foremost, by how they think about the world around them.

While it initially appears that this observation affirms today’s conventional wisdom on what ails the body politic, a closer look at The Human Condition instead demonstrates that Arendt offers a much-needed counter to the pervasive trope of polarization that characterizes the standard view. Specifically, she shows methodically in the book how science and technology have upended how we comprehend what it means to be human. In contrast to today’s pervasive polarization trope, Arendt helps present-day readers to recognize the underlying agreement between Democrats and Republicans about how politics should be conducted. And her analysis highlights the subtle ways such bipartisan agreement undermines our capacity for democratic self-government.

Science and the Vita Activa

The Human Condition is, at bottom, a book about how scientific ways of thinking have impacted how human beings relate to the world around them. Arendt contends that beginning with Galileo’s scientific discoveries in the 17th century, mind-boggling technological advances have steadily altered how we understand our world, nature, and even the human condition itself. This is because thinking scientifically has had a little-noticed influence on how the basic activities composing the vita activalabor, work, and action—relate to one another. According to Arendt, the emphasis that science places on certainty and prediction transforms human interaction into a series of technical problems that the application of standardized expertise can solve reliably regardless of the particular time and place in which those interactions occur. Arendt contends that scientific progress leads people to believe that they no longer need politics to make collective decisions while simultaneously raising questions that only debate and deliberation can answer.

In her analysis, Arendt uses the term labor to refer to the cluster of activities that are necessary to sustain human life. “To labor” means to produce goods that human beings consume to stay alive. In contrast, Arendt uses the term work to refer to the cluster of activities in which humans fabricate the artificial world around them (as distinct from the natural world). “To work” means to make concrete use objects that may outlast their maker. That is, to manufacture goods, or tools, that are used instead of consumed. While Americans today typically conceive of politics in terms of work, or as a process in which they make public policy, Arendt saw politics as emblematic of the third component of the vita activa—action. Arendt uses the term action to refer to the cluster of activities that occur within the public realm where human beings interact with one another. “To act,” in this context, means to reveal oneself in words and deeds to one’s peers. Given the plurality inherent in human action, Arendt argues that the activities associated with it are essential to politics. And she understands politics to be the activity in which free citizens govern themselves.

According to Arendt, each of these activities—labor, work, and action—conveys a particular way of seeing the world. For example, labor casts the world in terms of necessity and the application of force to conquer it in a never-ending struggle to survive. From the perspective of labor, human beings are mere animal laborans. In contrast, work portrays mankind as homo faber; a creator or a god. The activities to which it refers encourages us to see the world in instrumental terms. Human beings apply force to make things. Lastly, action portrays the world in architectonic terms. It emphasizes a space, or a public realm, in which unique human beings reveal themselves to one another in words and action.

Partisans’ eagerness for policy experts to give them the answers to political questions that they should be answering for themselves, and their ready willingness to weaponize that expertise to prevail in a debate by delegitimizing their opponents, betrays a contemptuous view of politics.

Arendt contends that science gradually altered how we understand the human condition by changing the relational status of these activities in the vita activa. Specifically, the industrial revolution led to the emancipation of man from labor for the first time in human history. Ironically, the scientific progress underpinning it also led human beings to glorify labor. This disturbed the previous relationship between labor, work, and action by subsuming the last two activities to the first one.

The resulting impact on the human condition is evident in the rise of a mass society of laborers in the aftermath of the Second World War who understand work in terms of “making a living” and, unlike in the past, do not use their freedom from necessity to engage in higher activities that give our lives meaning. They only consume.

This is evident in our common tendency today to think of the public realm as a national household. The necessity that previously characterized the private sphere in which labor was dominate now embodies our understanding of society. And, ironically, society has largely displaced the family in our collective consciousness. “Mankind,” or the global world order has replaced the nation-state and other forms of civic community in how we conceive of politics. In the process, the entirety of the human condition has been functionalized and oriented toward the conquering of necessity.

We understand our existence as human beings in terms of manufacturing goods that we consume. In politics, action is no longer concerned with adjudicating disagreements over the why and what questions of democratic self-government. Instead, it is only concerned with the how questions. The result has been to transform deliberation into what Arendt calls “reckoning with consequences.” That is, political activity, or the practice of self-government, is now concerned primarily with the end product rather than the process by which it is discerned. End products arise at the end of a fabrication process. We understand them in terms of the tools (or means) that we used to produce them. In contrast, self-government is an end in itself. It is not an object that we use or consume. Self-government is instead an activity. Its value lies in its inherent nature, not in being used or consumed. In that sense, it exists in the realm of action where the application of force as a means to conquer necessity or material is inadmissible.

A Prescient View

Looking back, Arendt’s analysis of the vita activa appears prescient given the present state of our politics. For example, what Arendt experienced in 1958 as “the complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty” is pervasive in our political discourse today. This is because conservatives and liberals alike think of politics in terms of work, and are concerned chiefly with the policy outcomes it produces instead of their freedom to participate in the political process. This trivializes politics because without action, as defined by Arendt, politics is meaningless. It becomes merely a production process in which policies are assembled by the people’s representatives according to a blueprint that someone else designed.

This phenomenon is evident in the pervasive view among Democrats and Republicans that political problems (the why and what of politics) are really technical problems (the how of politics) that experts can solve definitively. It is also evident in their tendency to interpret political action in strictly utilitarian terms.

Given these trends, Arendt would not be alarmed by the tenor of today’s debates over issues like the COVID-19 pandemic, health care reform, or even immigration. She would see in them the pervasiveness of means-ends thinking that characterizes activities associated with work, not action. Arendt would also recognize the relatively new phenomenon in which Americans consume political news instead of participating in political activity. She would grasp immediately that this development reflects the extent to which we also think of politics in terms of labor. To her, the rise of political hobbyists is just another manifestation of how science has altered how we understand the human condition and distorted our view of politics.

Politics as Production

Arendt helps us to see that the dysfunctional nature of today’s politics is illustrative of what happens when work and labor displace action in the vita activa. The shared tendency of both parties to conceive of politics in terms of grappling with a series of technical problems that have definitive solutions suggests that many of their members have come to believe that the awesome power of scientific expertise can be used to liberate Americans from the messy realities of democratic self-government. Partisans’ eagerness for policy experts to give them the answers to political questions that they should be answering for themselves, and their ready willingness to weaponize that expertise to prevail in a debate by delegitimizing their opponents, betrays a contemptuous view of politics.

Arendt contends that altering how we understand politics in this way changes how we think about the activities in which politicians engage, especially in places like Congress. This is because a work-oriented view transforms the political process into a production process that is designed for manufacturing policy widgets. The public realm, and institutions like Congress, are then transformed in our consciousness into factories that produce policy outcomes according to a pre-determined design that complies with the dictates of science. Action and speech relate human beings to one another and, in the process, create the web of human relationships that constitutes the public realm. Given that humans are all unique individuals, conflict is an inherent characteristic of the public realm. Each new beginning brings human beings, by virtue of their agency, into conflict with some aspect of the public realm that existed prior to their speaking or acting. The functionalization of politics inherent in work collapses the distinction between the public and private realms and excludes the possibility of action in terms of new beginnings. In this post-political world, human beings behave. They do not act.

Politics as Action

Yet Arendt’s analysis of the human condition helps us to understand why we have no choice but to embrace the messy realities of political action if we want to maintain democratic self-government and thus preserve our freedom to participate in politics. The factory floor cannot replace the public realm. This is because we need a place where we can participate in political activity to make collective decisions. After all, we are equal to one another. No one citizen rules another. But we are all equal only in the sense that we are all different. That is, no two people are the same in any respect other than the fact that they are each unique individuals possessing their own abilities, characteristics, interests, and passions. For Arendt, politics “deals with the coexistence and association of different men.”

Given that people with different views participate in politics based on equality, political activity inevitably generates conflict in the space where politics occurs. That conflict is how a self-governing people discern justice and the general good. It arises out of the process by which they come together based on equality to resolve their differences and compromise. When that happens, every citizen is a ruler, and every citizen is ruled, and obedience to the government’s decisions is won by persuasion. In contrast, the government is left with no choice but to resort to coercion to compel compliance to its dictates when the people are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the expertise on which it bases its decisions. When persuasion is abandoned for coercion, politics ceases to be an activity in which free people participate to govern themselves.

Arendt’s point is not that science has no role in politics. It is that we cannot substitute science for politics altogether while simultaneously maintaining our freedom. At best, science should help to inform the decisions free and equal citizens make via political action.

To treat our present political dysfunction, we must revive politics, which means we must rescue the public realm from obscurity. The success of constitutional self-government requires Americans to reject force and coercion and to instead embrace persuasion when making collective decisions. Arendt’s depiction of the vita activa helps us to save the public realm where we participate in politics to the extent that it emphasizes the proper relationship between labor and work and action in our thinking about the human condition.

Above all, it suggests that we must heed Arendt’s advice fully moving forward and “think what we are doing.”

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