Arendt and the troubles of Modernism

Finally I watched the film titled Hannah Arendt. I hesitated a long time, as I could not imagine the time had yet come for any filmmaker to understand and do justice to her life and thought. Who expects a biopic, as the title suggests, will be disappointed. The film is not about her life, nor about her intellectual and philosophical development. It orders some fragments of her life around this one event: her presence at and reporting about the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Not an unimportant event, but also not her most significant contribution to understanding our world, I think. More, the film does not analyze the process of her understanding the trial and of Eichmann, it focuses on the resistance that her thesis of ‘the banality of bureaucratic evil’ met, by Jews in Israel and the USA, and by those still believing in a final Victory over fascist evil. Essentially it provides a statement about this kind of evil, the statement that it expresses the troublesome aspects of modernism that we haven’t up till now been able to address. As such it is a film about our present time, more than one about the time of Hitler, or of Arendt.

Somewhere during Hannah Arendt someone warns the philosopher for the misconceptions that will arise over her work on Eichmann, saying something like: ‘following that line of thought, Hitler will become just a footnote in the history of modernism’. The one important line. Well, I do not think that Hitler will ever become a footnote in that history, as he represents one of the most crazy and gruesome expressions of it. But it becomes ever more clear to me that the opposition that we, children of postwar Europe, were made to believe in, that of Freedom over against Dictatorship was not the truth. It was a way to create a smoke curtain to keep us functioning in a political and economic system that has a lot in common with some main goals of nazi politics, as well as with state communism (the other dictatorial regime we were learned to be aware of). I wrote before on the false opposition of left and right that kept people in the seventies and eighties divided. Only now, when the true ugly face of the post-cold-war world is becoming clear – as it is systematically creating short, nasty and brutish lives for the most of mankind, while promising wealth and success to everone who is willing to play the game, is the time to see parallels between those systems, left and right, who created so much unfreedom for so many.

In a novel about the nazi camps I read just recently this interpretation: the camps wanted to learn its inhabitants that there was no relation between work and productivity, between crime and punishment, between your personal talents and what you could achieve or evade. You would be punished when you had done nothing wrong, you would be given work in the most ineffective conditions, and you would achieve nothing doing it, not even the security of survival. Although this system was used to kill people, it was more, and that has been said before: it tried to unlearn its victims (as well as those hired as perpetrators) normal human dignity, moral responsibility, as well as pride and joy in working – as all these aspects of a good human life were disowned, taken over by the system and made ridiculous. With the effect that Eichmann could say seriously: ‘I was just doing my job’. The cruelty of the nazi years was so intense and systematic, its racism so evident and central that one tends to see it as a unique horrific example of possible human evil, but all the same racism (or other forms of discrimination) and systematic cruelty are never absent in other oppressive systems. Nazi terror was an excess, an excessive experimentation to try to dehumanize people and make them puppets in some crazy production process: producing highways and cars as well as military machinery, chemicals to heal and to kill, bureaucrats and killers, and in the end corpses and more corpses.

With the difference that in the present system, in which states are losing more and more power to economical forces and their representatives, cruelty is more diffuse and not centralized as it might be in a dictatorial system, a lot of principles experimentally discovered by the early twentieth century dictators are still functioning to rule our lives: dehumanization, the taking away of responsibility, of dignity, of decency, of ownership of one’s talents and the produce of one’s work. These principles rule life in the richer parts of the world, but show their more gruesome effects in the poorer ones, of course. Hitler will never be a footnote. And the work of Hannah Arendt can only begin to be really understood in our time. The contribution of Arendt is well stated by Seyla Benhabib, who studied her life and work intensively: ‘Her work demonstrated how one can “think” about politics while resisting the temptation to system building. […] We read her today precisely because of the problematic distinctions and juxtapositions she creates, and not despite them; we read her because she helps us think politically, not because she answers our political questions.’ Because building systems and having an answer to questions proved to be part of the destructive and dehumanizing effects of modernism.

I referred to the film Hannah Arendt, 2013, directed by Margaretha von Trotta.

The work by Arendt which plays  a central role in it is Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, originally published in 1963.

I cited from Seyla Benhabib The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, originally published in 2000, new edition in 2003.

  1. Lee said:

    Hmmmm . . . . This seems more like a “reductio ad Hitlerum” than a real analysis of modern society. Yes, there are still despotic regimes where bodies pile up, often along racial and ethnic lines. But today those regimes are mostly (even if not always) self-inflicted within that country. And they do not benefit modern liberal (in the European sense) economies. You really can’t legitimately compare most modern liberal regimes and economies to Hitler’s regime and economy.

    Having said that, I do believe that wherever the U.S. or any other wealthy country is still propping up a despotic regime in a third world country, that should end. However, over the past half century most such arrangements have come to an end, even if a few still remain. In most such instances the puppet dictators have been deposed, and local rule has taken over–though not always very successfully.

    Perhaps not all “freedom” is fully free. We humans are not perfect, either individually or as nations. But there is still a legitimate opposition of freedom vs. despotism. The people of many third world countries are busily pressing for freedom from despotic government, even as the people of the more comfortable liberal nations gradually cede freedom and responsibility to their governments in the name of security. Still, none of those liberal nations comes anywhere near the dictatorship and despotism of the Nazi regime.

  2. Hi Lee, thanks for reading and commenting! I agree to your last sentence. I do not understand however your relativization that ‘regimes are self-inflicted’ – since that was the case with the nazi regime too! Hitler was elected democratically, and the other countries stood by and watch him start up his genocidal plans, since it was an ‘internal matter’. He did not only kill so many citizens of Jewish ancestry, but also his opponents, the mentally handicapped, homosexuals, ‘gypsies’, and not to forget, drove so many of the ‘aryan’ Germans he thought so well off senselessly into their deaths at his multiple warfronts.

    However, my point was not to compare modern liberal regimes directly to nazism, as I think I also said in the above text. Moreover, I was not talking about governments, but of the mechanisms at work – I wrote: ‘With the difference that in the present system, in which states are losing more and more power to economical forces and their representatives, cruelty is more diffuse and not centralized as it might be in a dictatorial system, a lot of principles experimentally discovered by the early twentieth century dictators are still functioning to rule our lives: dehumanization, the taking away of responsibility, of dignity, of decency, of ownership of one’s talents and the produce of one’s work.’

    I was not pointing to specific regimes that produces corpses in these days, but to the powers that transcend regimes, and they produce corpses indirectly, by working for such an uneven distribution of wealth, and the encompanying advertisement of luxury – which produces so much dissatisfaction around the world. Legitimate estimations say that in the Mediterranean Sea around 30.000 migrants from Africa, refugees of war or of the incompetent regimes (who, yes, survive because of their lucrative arrangements with large companies and international banks) drowned. Of course European governments should take their responsibity here, but the powers that create the situation often are transgovernmental, out of control.

    Then I was also indicating something else then economic cruelty: the disowning of central human values. In my country at least a lot of professionals, e.g. in healthcare and education, work in monster institutions (the larger the better, the economic rules say) where these values are under great pressure – the focus is only on ‘production’, while dignity, quality of work and responsibility are under continuous systematic pressure and are crumbling very often…

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