jueves, 21 de diciembre de 2006

Sobre la vigencia de la obra de Hannah Arendt

Ver artículo de Corey Robin en el último número del London Review of Books. Según Robin, el análisis de Arendt sobre el fenómeno totalitario estaría totalmente superado. Puesto en términos de mis sesgos profesionales, esto sería lógica consecuencia de pretender explicar fenómenos políticos con razonamientos socio-psicológicos, tributarios del funcionalismo. No es que la psicología no tenga nada que ver con la política, pero ese lugar tiene que ser cuidadosamente determinado.

"Arendt saw totalitarianism as the product of mass society, which arose from the breakdown of classes and nation-states. Neither a political grouping nor a social stratum, the mass denoted a pathological orientation of the self. Arendt claimed that its members had no interests, no concern for their ‘wellbeing’ or survival, no beliefs, community or identity. What they had was an anxiety brought on by loneliness, ‘the experience of not belonging to the world’, and a desire to subsume themselves in any organisation that would extinguish their ‘individual identity permanently’. With their insistence on absolute loyalty and unconditional obedience, totalitarian movements filled this need: they fastened mass man with a ‘band of iron’, providing him and his fellows with a sense of structure and belonging.

Ideology and terror reinforced this grip. Racism and Marxism confined their adherents in a ‘straitjacket of logic’, lending the world a spurious consistency and relieving people of ‘the freedom inherent in man’s capacity to think’. By reducing men and women to the barest animal life, terror ensured that no one would resist ideology’s law of nature, in the case of Nazism, or history, in the case of Stalinism. Because ideology ‘may decide that those who today eliminate races’ – or classes – ‘are tomorrow those who must be sacrificed’, terror must ‘fit each of them equally well for the role of executioner and the role of victim’. The purpose of totalitarianism, in short, was not political: it did not fulfil the requirements of rule; it served no constituency or belief; it had no utility. Its sole function was to create a fictitious world where anxious men could feel at home, even at the cost of their own lives.

Arendt’s account dissolves conflicts of power, interest and ideas in a bath of psychological analysis, allowing her readers to evade difficult questions of politics and economics. We need not probe the content of a particular ideology – what matters is not what it says but what it does – or the interests it serves (they do not exist). We can ignore the distribution of power: in mass society, there is only a desert of anomie. We can disregard statements of grievance: they only conceal a deeper vein of psychic discontent. Strangest of all, we needn’t worry about moral responsibility: terror makes everyone – from Hitler to the Jews, Stalin to the kulaks – an automaton, incapable of judgment or being judged".


By the Cold War’s end, Arendt’s account of totalitarianism had been so trashed by historians that Irving Howe was forced to defend her as essentially a writer of fiction, whose gifts for ‘metaphysical insight’ enabled her to see the truth that lay beneath or beyond the verifiable facts. ‘To grasp the inner meaning of totalitarianism,’ Howe wrote in 1991, ‘you must yield, yourself, a little imaginatively.’

La parte vigente del pensamiento de Arendt tendría que ver con sus escritos sobre el imperialismo, el sionismo (lo que nos lleva a las discusiones sobre racismo y etnocentrismo), y el el "carrerismo", y los planteamientos vinculados a la idea de la "banalización del mal"; cómo se llega a las grandes atrocidades desde pequeños vicios o defectos, inadvertidamente, por seguir sumisa y acríticamente rutinas de todos los días. Y también cómo se llega a esos males con una lógica pragmática y competitiva, desatendiendo las consecuencias y los contenidos de las acciones. Puesto en los términos en los que los pondría Jon Elster, lo mejor de Arendt son los mecanismos que están en la base de sus explicaciones causales.

"If Arendt matters today, it is because of her writings on imperialism, Zionism and careerism. Composed during the 1940s and early 1960s, they not only challenge facile and fashionable applications of the totalitarianism thesis; they also eerily describe the dangers that the world now faces. By refusing to reckon with these writings, the journalists, intellectuals and academics who make up the Arendt industry betray her on two counts: they ignore an entire area of her work and fail to engage with the unsettling realities of their own time. The latter would not have surprised Arendt: empires tend to have selective memories. The history of ‘imperialist rule’, she wrote at the height of the Vietnam War, ‘seems half-forgotten’, even though ‘its relevance for contemporary events has become rather obvious in recent years.’ America was so transfixed by ‘analogies with Munich’ and the idea of totalitarianism that it did not realise ‘that we are back, on an enormously enlarged scale . . . in the imperialist era.’


Many people believe that great crimes come from terrible ideas: Marxism, racism and Islamic fundamentalism gave us the Gulag, Auschwitz and 9/11. It was the singular achievement of Eichmann in Jerusalem, however, to remind us that the worst atrocities often arise from the simplest of vices. And few vices, in Arendt’s mind, were more vicious than careerism. ‘The East is a career,’ Disraeli wrote. And so was the Holocaust, according to Arendt. ‘What for Eichmann was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world.’ Genocide, she insisted, is work. If it is to be done, people must be hired and paid; if it is to be done well, they must be supervised and promoted.

Eichmann was a careerist of the first order. He had ‘no motives at all’, Arendt insisted, ‘except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement’. He joined the Nazis because he saw in them an opportunity to ‘start from scratch and still make a career’, and ‘what he fervently believed in up to the end was success.’ Late in the war, as Nazi leaders brooded in Berlin over their impending fate and that of Germany, Eichmann was fretting over superiors’ refusing to invite him to lunch. Years later, he had no memory of the Wannsee Conference, but clearly remembered bowling with senior officials in Slovakia.

This aspect of Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann is often overlooked in favour of her account of the bureaucrat, the thoughtless follower of rules who could cite the letter of Kant’s categorical imperative without apprehending its spirit. 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.

Most modern theorists, from Montesquieu to the American Framers to Hayek, have considered ambition and careerism to be checks against, rather than conduits of, oppression and tyranny. Arendt’s account of totalitarianism, too, makes it difficult to see how a careerist could survive or prosper among Nazis and Stalinists. Totalitarianism, she argued, appeals to people who no longer care about their lives, much less their careers, and destroys individuals who do. It preys on the dissolution of class structures and established hierarchies – or dissolves those that remain – and replaces them with a shapeless mass movement and a bureaucracy that resembles an onion more than a pyramid.

The main reason for the contemporary evasion of Arendt’s critique of careerism, however, is that addressing it would force a confrontation with the dominant ethos of our time. 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. Unlike the ideologue, whose great sin is to think too much and want too much from politics, the careerist is a genial caretaker of himself. He prefers the marketplace to the corridors of state power. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism may be as lethal as idealism, that ambition is an adjunct of barbarism, that some of the worst crimes are the result of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas: these are the implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem that neo-cons and neoliberals alike find too troubling to acknowledge.

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