Monday, March 20, 2023

#79 / Impossible Politics

That's Hannah Arendt, pictured above. It's nice to see a picture of her without a cigarette in her hand. Anyone who knows anything about Hannah Arendt will know what I mean
If you don't know Hannah Arendt, now is a good time to become acquainted. I particularly recommend The Human Condition, Between Past And Future, and On Revolution, but anything she has written is worth reading. 
If you'd like a fun biography, to introduce you to Arendt, try The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, by Ken Krimstein. If you take my suggestions, and become as enamored as I am with what Arendt has to tell us, I want to recommend the "Hannah Arendt Virtual Reading Group," which meets, generally, on a weekly basis.
In this blog posting, I am commenting on "Impossible Politics," an article by Roger Berkowitz, who is the Founder and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College, and who leads that virtual reading group. Getting the Hannah Arendt Center on your radar screen is also recommended!
In his "Impossible Politics" article, Berkowitz is reacting to various commentaries by the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. Here is a brief excerpt from the headnote to Berkowitz' article, which is based on a talk that Berkowitz gave at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences on March 31, 2018:

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?
Presumably, readers of this blog posting will recognize what Berkowitz is talking about. References to a politics founded on "denunciation" of those with contending views, should "ring a bell." That is our politics today, isn't it? And maybe we can't blame it all on Donald Trump, either, while nonetheless recognizing our former president's highly-effective efforts in driving out all other kinds of political discourse. "Denunciation," and accompanying political polarization, is definitely the "name of the game" in politics today. 
And... as Gessen suggests, with Berkowitz not dissenting, "in such a situation, no [genuine] politics is possible."
Berkowitz spends most of his time in the article outlining that our "impossible politics" today is based on a fear of "plurality." In other words, we are afraid that differences within the body politic will tear our body politic apart, and so we take action (from all sides) to reject and denounce any effort to advocate for something fundamentally different from what we think acceptable. This won't work, Arendt says, because a genuine politics is always based on the idea that "plurality" is not only "inevitable," but that plurality is a "good thing," not a "bad thing." Arendt's first major book of political theory was titled, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and it is totalitarianism that we must avoid to preserve an opportunity for a genuine politics of democratic self-government. 
Above, I provided a quote from the headnote. Here are the final paragraphs of Berkowitz' article: 

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.

I just came across this 2018 article quite recently, and I think that Berkowitz (and Arendt) are exactly on target. Without ever using the words I employ, Berkowitz (and Arendt) are arguing for the kind of politics that I have been saying is what we need - a politics of democratic self-government in which we, ourselves, are directly and personally engaged. 

Letting the bureaucrats, and the experts, and the consultants do it for us is not the way to react to an ever more "impossible politics." Impossible as it may seem, it will be our own direct and personal engagement in political discussion, dispute, and decision-making that will make our politics a politics of "possibility" once again.

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