The Women’s March ... imposes an ideological purity on its members and leaders, so that anyone who trades in antisemitism in their private life must be excluded. Donald Trump’s supporters and many liberal groups enforce ideological conformity, so that those who might be environmentalists or those who reject identity politics are excluded and denounced. All we have left, Gessen argues, is a politics of denunciation. In such a situation, no politics is possible. In this talk, I turn to Arendt to ask what it would mean to imagine a politics amidst the impossibility of politics?
The idea that political opponents are a danger to the well-being of society as a whole is rooted in a profound fear — a fear that could destroy itself through political choices in a nuclear and technological age. Having lived through totalitarianism, having witnessed the dropping of nuclear bombs, and now living in this technological age where we can replace humans with artificial intelligence, we are deeply aware that politics may well destroy political economics or even the human world. From out of this fear of politics, there is, I think, a horrible hope. Arendt expresses it: “Underlying our prejudices against politics today are hope and fear: the fear that humanity could destroy itself through politics and through the means of force now at its disposal.” The hope is to overcome politics and replace it with an “administrative machine that resolves political conflicts bureaucratically and replaces armies with police forces” (Arendt, 2005: 97). Terrified by the danger of politics in an age of horrifying technical power, it is all too likely that democracies will seek to replace politics with a technocratic and bureaucratic administration. But such a hope, Arendt argues, is more likely to lead to “a despotism of massive proportions in which the abyss separating the rulers from the world would be so gigantic that any sort of rebellion would no longer be possible, not to mention any form of control of the rulers by the ruled.” We will, in other words, trade our political and democratic freedoms for the security of expert rule.This, I think, is the danger we face today, and the rise of populist movements on the left and the right around the world is, in many ways, a last gasp of people who feel an unwanted power over their lives, feel the rise of an unresponsive technocratic-bureaucratic machine, and who are seeking to find some means of controlling it. That does not mean they have the right ideas. But it means we have to take them seriously. Which is why we need to be much more open to hearing dangerous and radical ideas in the public sphere.