Sunday, January 14, 2007

Robin on Arendt

The London Review of Books has an idiosyncratic review by Corey Robin of works on and by Hannah Arendt. It is worth reading though I do not agree with the import of what he writes, in that he tries to draw a picture of Arendt as someone who would have been a supporter of his particular stance against Paul Berman and others of the anti-totalitarian left. His own position, nicely summarised in his article in The Nation of September 2005, actually seems to engage in the very type of psychological speculation that he accuses Arendt of in her work on Totalitarianism.

For example, his main claim is that liberals are driven by fear.

"… liberals need fear: to justify their principles, to warn us of what happens when liberalism is abandoned. And so they are driven abroad to confront the tyrannies that make life miserable elsewhere, in order to derive confidence in their own, admittedly imperfect but infinitely better, regimes."

This ignores a few simple facts. The collapse of liberalism in Germany gave us Hitler. It is infinitely better to live in Hull than in Harare. The brutal murder and torture of those who carry out the offence of teaching girls is a crime against humanity, that essential liberal concept. Opposition to tyranny abroad is both rational and moral and cannot be traduced as a form of "moral exhilaration". The desire to confront and ameliorate these crimes might just be a better way of explaining the reasons for liberals' engagement with the world.

Whilst he is right that Arendt wrote on Imperialism and Racism as well as Totalitarianism, by dismissing the latter and selectively emphasising elements of the former he is as guilty of distortion of those who simply focus on Totalitarianism to the exclusion of the rest. I am not well versed in Arendt's work and it is a long time since I read any so the review has achieved its primary purpose to make me want to go back and read more.

When he writes on Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem" he is much more incisive. The point he makes is that the banality of Eichmann's evil was not submersion in a bureaucracy but relentless self promotion.

"The bureaucrat is a passive instrument, the careerist an architect of his own advance. The first loses himself in paper, the second hoists himself up a ladder. The first was how Eichmann saw himself; the second is how Arendt insisted he be seen."

This emphasis on what he sees as critique of careerism is a real insight, and much more impressive than his attempt to enrol Arendt in the "Stop the War Coalition". Sadly, this is not explored in greater depth before he goes off on another anti-liberal rant.

"In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism."

Hopeless liberal I may be, but as a careerist I have never been a great success. I share his concern about those who promote themselves in organisations at the expense of others but feel that it is a universal of any power structure, something that was noted by Bakunin to Marx's enduring anger. How do we confront it? Corey Robin sadly brings us no closer to an answer.

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