Sunday, July 31, 2016


As announced previously, there will be no posting here after today.  However, I'll be checking the site periodically so comments may be left after today.  Thanks again to all readers and commenters since the blog began

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Worldly objects, the welfare state, and 'authentic' politics

According to Hannah Arendt in On Revolution, the degeneration of the French Revolution into the Terror was predictable as soon as the poor entered the political arena as direct actors, i.e., from the onset of the Revolution itself.  The plight of the starving provoked compassion; and -- as George Kateb summarizes Arendt's account -- this "intensely felt compassion" then "transformed itself...into an abstract pity for humanity, and turn transformed itself into immitigable anger that brooked no opposition and established a despotism that was meant to be radically remedial."[1]  

In this context Arendt contrasted "necessity," the unmet physical needs of 'the people', with "freedom," i.e., the ability/opportunity to participate, through speech and deliberation, in "the public realm."  In chapter 2 ("The Social Question") of On Revolution, she put the point this way:
When [the poor] appeared on the scene of politics, necessity appeared with them, and the result was that the power of the old regime became impotent and the new republic was stillborn; freedom had to be surrendered to necessity, to the urgency of the life process itself.  When Robespierre declared that "everything which is necessary to maintain life must be common good and only the surplus can be recognized as private property," he...was, again in his own words, finally subjecting revolutionary government to "the most sacred of all laws, the welfare of the people, the most irrefragable of all titles, necessity".... It was necessity, the urgent needs of the people, that unleashed the terror and sent the Revolution to its doom.[2]
Passages like this support the view that Arendt drew a sharp distinction between social and economic matters on one hand and properly political concerns on the other; of a piece is her denigration of "compassion," which, in its focus on suffering, "will shun the drawn-out wearisome processes of persuasion, negotiation, and compromise, which are the processes of law and politics, and lend its voice to the suffering itself, which must claim for swift and direct action, that is, for action with the means of violence."[3]  

However, Steven Klein offers a different reading of Arendt in an article published in the November 2014 issue of the American Political Science Review.  In "'Fit to Enter the World': Hannah Arendt on Politics, Economics, and the Welfare State" (APSR, v.108 n.4, pp.856-869), Klein argues, to quote the article's abstract, that  
[f]or Arendt, the danger is not the invasion of politics by economics, but rather the loss of the worldly, mediating institutions that allow economic matters to appear as objects of public concern.  Reconstructing her account of these mediating institutions, [the article] show[s] that Arendt's analysis opens up novel insights into the relationship between democratic action and welfare institutions, drawing attention to how such institutions transform material necessity into shared objects of attachment, judgment, and action.
Klein's argument, which proceeds through detailed exegesis, is quite dense and so rather than trying to summarize all of it I'll focus on a few key points.  Though Arendt's position on the modern welfare state is "equivocal" (p.857), Klein writes, implicit in her work is a view of the welfare state as containing "mediating institutions that transform [material] necessity into the worldly interests and concerns that are possible, indeed unavoidable, objects of political activity." (p.858)  Thus, according to Klein, "far from stringently upholding the divide between politics and economics," Arendt "elucidates sophisticated accounts of both the possible interrelationships between them and the vital importance of economic matters in political life." (p.857) 

The article's title comes from a passage in The Human Condition in which Arendt writes that 'work' -- one of that book's central categories -- transforms "'the naked greed of desire' and 'the desperate longing of needs' into things that 'are fit to enter the world'" (p.862, quoting The Human Condition), where 'work' "signifies those activities that transform raw materials into lasting tools and objects of the built human world." (p.858)  Bare needs, carrying "the urgency of the life process itself" (to quote the passage that opens this post), have to be changed into 'worldly' things to become proper matters for political action, in Arendt's view.  Klein thus emphasizes Arendt's concern with the public face, or 'worldly' aspect, of economic institutions (see esp. pp.861-63); it is this aspect that 'mediates' between bare needs (or 'necessity') and the public realm.        

For most of Klein's article, the idea of "mediating institutions" remains at a high level of abstraction, but his concluding section gives some contemporary and historical examples tied to the argument about the welfare state.  For instance, a pension can be seen as a 'worldly object' because it not only "satisfies material needs of citizens but...also provides [them] with a stable location in the world and a measure of glory or public esteem...." (p.866)  Bismarck's social insurance funds, contrary to his intentions, assumed a 'worldly' character when they became sites of political action, as socialists demanded "that workers... play an active role in their democratic administration." (p.868)  In this way workers could become, in the words of one activist of the era, "'the most knowledgeable interpreters of their own wishes and demands.'" (p.868) 

Let's return to the period of the French Revolution.  Arendt held that there were, in Klein's words, "some important, albeit limited, mediating and worldly institutional structures" in late 18th-century Europe (p.861), but these were not enough to prevent the 'unmediated' entry of social needs into the public arena.  She viewed the U.S. Constitution as a worldly object, a "tangible worldly entity" (p.861, quoting On Revolution, p.157) that "open[ed] a non-instrumental space of appearance and judgment," but "the relative absence of such worldly, shared objects in Europe" (p.861) sent the French Revolution, in the words of the passage from On Revolution quoted at the outset of this post, "to its doom."  While the notions of 'mediation' and 'worldly objects' may shed light, as Klein suggests, on the modern welfare state and its institutions, the usefulness of these ideas for interpreting the French Revolution seems more doubtful. 

Arendt's views on the relation between economics and politics evidently can be read in more than one way.  I take Klein's reading as, among other things, an effort to broaden the sense of what counts as 'authentic politics' in Arendt's senseKlein argues that such politics can be found not only in, to use Kateb's words, the "eruptive" and "creative" moments of founding a new polity[4], but also in settings that are less dramatic but no less important.

And why is 'authentic' politics so significant anyway?  As Kateb explains, Arendt's answer is that humans are most distinctively human and also freest when engaged in it.  To "affirm existence against...causes for despair or resignation" and to "affirm the human stature," she seeks "evidence of freedom in activities that 'traditionally, as well as according to current opinion, are within the range of every human being'" (quoting The Human Condition).[5]   To engage in authentic politics is to bring within reach "the sheer exhilaration of action and, relatedly, the experience of being free."[6]  To broaden the conception of authentic politics is thus to expand the idea of freedom.  

1. George Kateb, "Political Action: Its Nature and Advantages," in The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt, ed. Dana Villa (Cambridge U.P., 2000), p.140.

2. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Viking Press, 1963), pp.54-55 (internal quotation from Robespierre, Oeuvres (1840 edition), vol.3, p.514).

3. On Revolution (Penguin ed. 1990), pp.86-87.

4. Kateb, "Political Action," pp.134-135.

5. Ibid., pp.147-148. 

6. Ibid., p.145.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Reflections on blogging here

As my time blogging here draws to a close (I will have one post [ETA: a rather long one] after this and that's it), I thought I'd reflect a bit about how the blog and my feelings about blogging changed over time.  I was a relative latecomer to a fast Internet connection, but as best as I can recall I started posting not too long after getting one.  For a while, after beginning in May 2008, the idea of posting something and having it read -- at least in theory -- in a matter of hours after that was exciting in itself.  I had no clear, precise, worked-out idea of exactly what I wanted to say or exactly why I was blogging, but the ability to throw one's words into the world instantaneously was somewhat intoxicating.

The intoxication did not last terribly long, as I realized that an astounding number of words were (and are) being thrown into the world daily.  I have blogged under my initials rather than full name, but if I'd used my full name I doubt the audience here would have been much bigger.  Not having written a book*, not having an academic position, and not having name recognition through other channels, use of my name in itself would not, it seems to me, have made much difference.  In recent years I have resisted going on Twitter or Facebook, two things that might have increased the blog's readership a bit.  In any case it has remained very small, despite occasional mini-spikes caused by one unusual factor (i.e. being linked by a particular site) or other.  But clearly a readership of the sort that, say, Corey Robin and Brad DeLong (to mention two well-known single-proprietor bloggers) have was never in the cards; nothing even remotely approaching that would have been a realistic goal.

Over the years I had occasional interesting conversations here with a few academics specializing in international relations, but unlike Duck of Minerva or some others this blog never became an IR blog in the full-blown sense, and as time went on I found my interests, as far as posting is concerned, drifting in other directions.  I also found myself exercising somewhat more self-censorship as time passed.  A short, inconsequential post that I might have put up without much hesitation in the first years I've increasingly thought twice or thrice about more recently.

The year 2011 saw the largest number of posts, mostly because the Libya intervention generated a lot of discussion of 'the responsibility to protect' and related issues, and it was easy to comment on and/or link to some of those discussions.  However, the gap between 2011 and the other high-volume years here is not that big.  The amount of posting I did decreased quite a bit in 2014 and 2015, a sign of waning enthusiasm on my part, among other things.

Psychologically, one of the liberating things about stopping posting is that I will no longer have to even pretend to keep a deliberate eye out for interesting articles and tidbits, and I can read books and other things with no thought of how I might turn them into a post.  Conversely, I will no longer rush to the keyboard eagerly if something happens by chance to catch my eye.  The tradeoff is probably worth taking.

In the future I could perhaps see blogging again in a different context, but for now I'm looking forward to a protracted period of not being a blogger.
*Under certain definitions of "book," I did co-author a short one in the mid-1980s; however, the details aren't worth going into. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Exchange of the day

There has been a fresh eruption of violence in South Sudan.  Asked by The World's Marco Werman whether the issue is still the conflict between the president and vice-president, Dale Willman replied that "It's not clear what this latest round of fighting is about, to be honest," before going on to mention factors such as poverty, low oil prices, and ethnic divisions.  He said that the currency has dropped by 90 percent since December and that about 4 million South Sudanese (out of roughly 9 to 11 million total population) are 'food insecure'.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Bad week

Queen Elizabeth once memorably used the phrase annus horribilis.  In the U.S., this week has been a septimana horribilis.  (A cursory search makes clear that I'm not the first person ever to have had the idea of adapting the phrase in this way.)  ETA: Would like to say something more substantive but not up to it at the moment. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The shock of the...something or other

For those who find talk of great art (see previous post) fusty and old-fashioned, here is a statement from Willow Smith:

"That’s what art is, shocking people. Sometimes shocking yourself."

Yeah, down with that. Totally.

The sources of art (capital 'A')

Where does great literature and art come from?  [ETA: A more accurate version of the question might be: How is it produced or generated?] Herewith a couple of perspectives, not original of course (though the labeling may be).

The first could be called Individual Genius Meets An Imperfect World.  The artist converts personal misery into art (consider, e.g., how much mileage Dickens got out of his relatively short time in the 'blacking' factory).  The misery can be collective rather than strictly personal (e.g., no Napoleonic wars, no War and Peace).

The second perspective could be called Individual Genius Meets Its Predecessors.  The artist struggles to carve out her or his own terrain in conversation with, or response to, what others have done.  This is about the anxiety of influence, in Harold Bloom's well-known phrase.

The two perspectives are not mutually exclusive.  A given work can respond both to an external event and to the influences of the artist's predecessors (or perhaps contemporaries).  

Does great art require the prod of misery, frustration, injury, imperfection, unhappiness, injustice?  Would there be great art in a utopian society?  My impression is that some sketchers of utopias (say, the nineteenth-century utopian socialists, or Skinner in Walden Two) have not been much concerned with this issue.  Where is the Marxist tradition on this?  Is the whole notion of great art a decadent bourgeois concoction?  Are the question's assumptions irrelevant or meaningless in a communist society where, as Trotsky apparently thought, the average level of human creativity would rise to heights never before seen?  In the absence of empirical evidence on the last point, I guess we're all free to speculate.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Terrorist attack in Dhaka: what does it say about the current government?

To an interested albeit casual outside observer, politics in Bangladesh has long seemed a highly personalized duel between the leaders of the country's two main parties: Sheik Hasina of the Awami League, the current prime minister, and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP).  Punctuated by fairly regular charges of election fraud and nationwide strikes and boycotts, this rather dysfunctional political setting has not distinguished itself in recent months when faced with the challenge of rising jidahist-militant violence, including a string of fatal attacks on bloggers, academics, and others.

The attack on the restaurant in the Gulshan district of Dhaka, for which ISIS claimed responsibility and in which 20 people who had been taken hostage were killed, has led to renewed attention to what the current government has been doing -- or more to the point, not doing -- about the threat and actuality of militant violence.  As Ishaan Tharoor notes in a July 2 WaPo piece (see esp. the links toward the end of the article), close observers have criticized Hasina's government for downplaying or denying the extremist threat and focusing too much effort on consolidating its power at the expense of the BNP.  Until the government's basic approach changes, Bangladesh, which has been one of the Muslim world's relatively secular, as opposed to theocratic, polities, will probably continue to be seen by ISIS and other extremist groups as fertile ground for expansion.

ETA: See also this by J. Allchin, which goes into detail on the recent history and gives one a sense of the complexities of the political situation in Bangladesh.