So just how much do you want to study philosophy?

Hannah Arendt to Mary McCarthy, August 20, 1954

At the moment, translating the old book [The Origins of Totalitarianism] into German, I am unhappy and impatient to get back to what I really want to do [likely her reflections on labor, work, and action]—if I can do it. But that is minor, I mean whether or not I am capable of doing what I want to do. Heinrich [Blücher] has a wonderful advice to give to his students when they talk about studying philosophy: he tells them you can do it only if you know that the most important thing in your life would be to succeed in this and the second most important thing, almost as important, to fail in precisely this.

On the peril of cliché: Helen Foley, Peter Levine, Hannah Arendt

My high school English teacher, Helen Foley, who helped me become who I am (at least the salutary dimensions), warned me against writing in clichés.  These are the antitheses of thinking, she said, and she was so right.  In all the years since, when I’m writing and a cliché floats to mind as an effective shortcut to convey what I am thinking, Helen Foley’s words exhort me to actually think and figure out how to write it in my own words.  And now I add to that Hannah Arendt’s observation that Eichmann failed to think what he was doing and invoked cliché instead. Peter Levine expands on the peril here.

Reading Arendt

I’m gearing up to teach a graduate seminar on Hannah Arendt next fall, which involves the lovely task of collecting, re-reading, and sometimes reading for the first time a wonderful assortment of books, all arrayed on my desk, including, by Arendt: The Origins of Totalitarianism, Between Past and Future, On Revolution, On Violence, Eichman in Jerusalem, Men in Dark Times, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, Crises of the Republic, The Life of the Mind, The Human Condition, and the newly published, The Promise of Politics. Books about Arendt are many.  I reviewed a few of them for Hypatia (vol. 19, Fall 2004) several years ago. (As an aside, it’s fascinating how people from radically different points of view — agonistic, civic republican, discourse theoretic — appropriate her work and consider it an ally.) And then there are collections of essays devoted to her work: Hannah Arendt: the recovery of the public world, The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt, Politics in Dark Times.  Please leave a comment if you have other suggestions!

A Phenomenology of Democratic Politics, 2d post

I ended my last post, the first of a series on my current book project, with these questions: Think about where you grew up or where you live now. When there’s a problem, how do people behave? Do they get together? Do they protest, beseech, complain, or even riot? Do they give up?

These habits are crucial indicators of a community’s civic capacities.

I recently posed this question to the students in my graduate seminar on democratic theory and post-conflict democratization. A student from a small town in Northern, Virginia, described how people in his town got riled up over the day laborer issue and descended on the town council meeting to air their grievances, one way or the other. A student from a small town in Florida said that whenever there was a problem in her community people would gather at the local diner and talk it over. A student from a small country in West Africa noted that when there were problems the elders, particularly the male elders, would gather at the village level to talk it through and decide what to do. A woman from the Middle East described a similar sex-segregated form of community, informal discussion and decision. She was clearly not pleased with how women were excluded from the meetings, I think she called them douania, but said that the women generally accomplished more in their own meetings. Finally, a student from another West African country reported that in his village, when there was a problem like the government failing to provide education funds, the young people would riot. I asked, do you mean demonstrate or riot? Is it violent? Oh, I mean riot, he answered; often several people would be killed.

We reflected on these various forms of political culture, ways in which people at community levels take up and address problems. I reminded the students of a previous meeting when a woman from Haiti visited the class and reported that in her village no one ever stepped outside, that there was no community public space.

So consider these various political cultures and forms of community-level problem addressing. There are those who gather to talk, others who gather to complain or protest, and yet others who gather to burn things down. There are some who talk without doing much of anything, and others who talk with an intent to devise a plan of action. There are communities that let only a select portion of the population engage in this political work, yet precious few that are inclusive in talking with the aim of coming up with a plan.

As I mentioned in my last post, in the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that we Americans are peculiar. In France when there is a problem people start knocking on the magistrate’s door, demanding that the magistrate do something. In America, when there’s a problem, people form an association to do something about it themselves. By the 20th century this habit was long gone. But if Tocqueville was right, in the 19th century the French and the Americans had distinctly different political cultures. They had certain habits and norms about what to do when problems happen.

Political cultures generally supervene on implicit expectations about who the legitimate political actors are and what kind of power exists. If we expect that government officials are “the deciders” and the actors, then it would seem irrelevant for all those who are affected by these actions to deliberatively engage the issues themselves. If we think that political power is solely a matter of the power of the gun, the purse, or the law, then we might just as well stay home and watch American Idol.

In places such as this, whether parts of America or Haiti, when no one ventures into public life with others, opportunities to create power are lost. Members of these communities recognize only the power of authorities, of the state. And when the state is dysfunctional, as it is in Haiti, then there is precious little power at all to create any kind of meaningful change.

Hannah Arendt reminded us that there are at least two kinds of political power: power over, such as the power of coercion, force, money, and control and power with. The mechanisms of government are certainly invested with power over. In fact political theory is often defined as the study of institutions vested with such power. Power with is the power that is created when people come together and create a plan to address something. This power is more than the sum of its parts.

Places that have this power have the intangible quality of civic capacity.