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Chapter Three


Modern Worldlessness and New Beginnings:

Arendt’s Critique of the Rise of ‘Society’



This chapter begins with an overview of Arendt’s distinctions between the private and the public realms. It goes on to outline her concepts of the ‘liberation of the life process’ which coincides with the modern age, and of the growth of the ‘social realm’ of public housekeeping. Economic ‘society’, in which all activities become reduced to a form of ‘laboring’, develops a pseudo-natural life process of itself—endlessly expanding and with no practical end, it devours the stable artifice of the world in which through words and deeds human beings reveal their distinct personhood. Life in such a society, under the condition of ‘worldlessness’, is marked less by the pursuit of distinction than by the herd-like conformity of ‘behavior’—distinct human beings become transformed into the predictable and measurable automata that are the concern of the contemporary social sciences. In the face of this stultifying conformity Arendt grounds her hope in the fact of ‘natality’—a fundamental unpredictability in the realm of human affairs due to the fact that new individuals are constantly being born into the world and bring with them the potential for new beginnings. This hope for new beginnings draws Arendt towards a sympathetic understanding of the revolutionary tradition. Often considered an ‘embarrassment’ by more mainstream theorists, Arendt’s hope for a restored public realm through the spontaneous emergence of revolutionary ‘council’ forms of democracy has won her admirers on today’s political Left. Her concomitant ‘conservative’ hope for a redistribution of private property has been less often recognized however—despite the fact that Arendt clearly states that without a privately owned place in the world life would be shallow. Defending private property puts Arendt at odds with a political Left which has generally preferred socialized forms of property. Yet while Arendt did not believe socialism to be the solution to the crises of modernity, this did not issue in any praise for the capitalist system. In fact, what is wrong with socialism is that it all too readily adopts the logic of expropriation inscribed into capitalism and carries it through to its logical conclusion, intensifying the concentration of property ownership into the hands of the government. Arendt’s own hope, rarely made explicit, but publicly expressed in two interviews of the early 1970s, was that widespread property ownership might somehow be encouraged so as to provide some guarantee for public freedom. I hope to draw attention to this dimension of Arendt’s thought, which is likely to be explored today neither by thinkers with Leftist sympathies who are more attracted to the ‘radical’ side of Arendt which celebrates radical democracy and the revolutionary tradition, nor by those on the Right who are comfortable in the commercial ‘society’ of capitalism.



Private Life and Public World


In Chapter One we saw that in The Human Condition (1958) Arendt distinguished between the activities of ‘labor’ and ‘work’ in order to stress that humans are not merely natural beings who live upon the earth—they also need to construct the artifice of a world in which they can appear as distinct individuals rather than interchangeable members of a natural species. Modern society, however, is marked by a twofold alienation from both the natural earth and the human world. As we have already seen, Arendt detected the presence of ‘earth alienation’ in the public response to the launching of Sputnik to the effect that it raised the promise of finally escaping the limits of the earth. I shall return to the question of ‘earth alienation’ in Chapter Five when I explore Arendt’s thoughts on modern science. Here my concern is with the modern estrangement from the humanly constructed artifice of the world brought about by the rise of ‘society’.[1] According to Arendt, the presence of such a world, in which we reveal ourselves as distinct individuals through speech and action, depends on maintaining a distinction between the private and public realms. However, in the course of modernity this distinction has been eroded by the growth of a third realm which Arendt calls ‘society’. What is distinctive about society is that the laboring of the life process has been elevated above all other human activities, ‘liberated’ from the limits of the private household, and channeled into the public realm itself. This coincides with a transformation of stable property into the limitless process of wealth accumulation which erodes all durability and ushers in the condition of ‘worldlessness’. First, we shall look at the distinction between private and public realms upon which Arendt bases her concept of ‘world’.


Central to Arendt’s analysis of the human condition is a conceptual distinction between the private and public realms—a distinction which has in modern times been obscured by the rise of a third ‘social’ realm. For Arendt, the clearest example of distinct private and public realms is to be found in the world of ancient Greece, the context in which Arendt unfolds her own distinction between the private and the public. Following Aristotle’s distinction between the political life of the polis and the private life centered in the home (oikia), Arendt adopts the terms ‘private’ and ‘public’ to signify specific natural and political spheres of activity: the private realm corresponds to our natural needs for the maintenance of life while the public realm is concerned with the affairs of a humanly created common world. The private realm—centered on the natural necessity of the life process—is marked by inequality while the public real is the sphere of freedom and equality. It is a distinction which corresponds to those activities which need to be hidden from view and those which require public display:


Although the distinction between private and public coincides with the opposition of necessity and freedom, of futility and permanence, and, finally, of shame and honor, it is by no means true that only the necessary, the futile, and the shameful have their proper place in the private realm. The most elementary meaning of the two realms indicates that there are things that need to be hidden and others that need to be displayed publicly if they are to exist at all.[2]


The public realm is the realm of freedom whilst the household is concerned with the maintenance of life, in terms of both individual and species survival. Specifically, the private realm is the proper location for “the biological life process of the family.”[3] Marx’s concept of the ‘life process’ is central to Arendt’s understanding of the human condition and her critique of both the modern rise of ‘society’ and the condition of ‘worldlessness’:


Perhaps nothing indicates more clearly the level of Marx’s thought and the faithfulness of his descriptions to phenomenal reality than that he based his whole theory on the understanding of laboring and begetting as two modes of the same fertile life process. Labor was for him the ‘reproduction of one’s own life’ which assured the survival of the individual, and begetting was the production ‘of foreign life’ which assured the survival of the species. . . . He squared his theory, the theory of the modern age, with the oldest and most persistent insights into the nature of labor, which according to the Hebrew as well as the classical tradition, was as intimately bound up with life as giving birth.[4]


This natural life process of the family with its location in the private household comprises two dimensions: a) bodily labor, and b) procreation. This life process, concerned with our most natural needs for survival, moves “in accordance with the ever-recurrent cyclical movement of nature.”[5] Our natural life like the movement of nature in general consists in the endless circular movement of birth and death, growth and decay, it is part of “the over-all gigantic circle of nature itself, where no beginning and no end exist and where all natural things swing in changeless, deathless repetition.”[6]


But humans are not merely natural beings according to Arendt; we possess individual personhood, a ‘who’ as well as a ‘what’ (species-being). Humans possess the freedom to break out of the cyclical processes of nature and embark on a definite path in life; in addition to a mere species life, then, men have an individual life characterized by “a recognizable life-story from birth to death.”[7] Thus the individual life-story moves “along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.”[8] Arendt’s understanding of action as that which confers meaning to human lives retrospectively understood as a specific life-story has already been dealt with in Chapter One. Here it suffices to point out that in Arendt’s account this capacity for freedom, for breaking out of the sheer repetition of cyclical processes, requires a specific public realm for the performance of deeds and words which stands in contrast to the private realm of natural necessity. It is in the public realm through speech and action that men reveal their individual person-hood.


Arendt, as we saw in Chapter One, understood totalitarianism in terms in terms of a flight from reality combined with the construction of a fictitious and ideological pseudo-world marked, not by stability, but by a relentless process of movement. In contrast, Arendt understood a genuine, stable public realm as a guardian against such a politics of illusion; the free public realm was the sphere in which reality disclosed itself. The public world is shared with others—it is a ‘common world’—and the various perspectives from which individuals look upon commonly shared objects lends a sense of reality (or ‘objectivity’) to that world. This public world of appearance does not always exist, and although Arendt maintains that all men are capable of entering it, historically some have been excluded: slaves, barbarians and foreigners in ancient times; laborers and craftsmen prior to the modern age; and jobholders and businessmen today. To be deprived of the public world is to be deprived of the sense of reality itself: “To men the reality of the public world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all; ‘for what appears to all, this we call Being,’ and whatever lacks this appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality.”[9]


A consequence of human plurality—that “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world”[10]—is that we each occupy a different location in the world. The sense of reality of the world relies on this plurality of perspectives. The capacity for common sense develops through the activity of talking about the world, of comparing our views with those of others in a world which is shared in common. The sense of reality of the world is therefore something which is achieved inter-subjectively: “The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves . . . .”[11] Such a common sense entails accepting that the world exists independently of any patterns which the individual self would desire to impose upon it. Common sense assumptions are not irrefutable truths but arise out of the impact of experience, of talking with others whose viewpoints we can enter into imaginatively.


Public world and private life are for Arendt mutually dependent. While Arendt considers the Greek oikos-polis dichotomy as the paradigm case which recognized the existence of distinct realms of activity it should not be concluded that the Greek model is her ideal. Indeed Arendt praises the Romans for giving the private realm its character of warmth: “The full development of the life of hearth and family into an inner and private space we owe to the extraordinary political sense of the Roman people who, unlike the Greeks, never sacrificed the private to the public, but on the contrary understood that these two realms could exist only in the form of co-existence.”[12] According to Arendt, a life lived entirely in the privacy of the household would not be a fully human life. Such a life would be lacking in the essential aspect of appearance before others through which we achieve a sense of reality; it would be a life deprived of the objective ‘things’ which constitute the common world together with the access to a realm where something more durable than individual life can be achieved. Such a deprivation, Arendt notes, is typical of modernity and is expressed in the unprecedented phenomenon of extreme loneliness. Modern loneliness is extreme because not only the public but the private realm has been destroyed by the rise of society: man now lacks even the shelter of the private home which could serve as a substitute for the full reality which constitutes public life. If a life lived entirely within the private sphere is unsatisfactory, so is one enacted only within the public realm: “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we should say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.”[13] To gain a full grasp of reality it is necessary to inhabit both private and public worlds.


In order to develop as human beings we need a private sphere to shelter from the harsh glare of the public world. The four walls of the household constitute a shield against the public gaze and provide the setting in which a child might develop as a human being. Education, for Arendt, is thus inherently conservative in that it protects the children from the world and vice versa. In her essay ‘The Crisis in Education’ (1958) Arendt cautioned radicals against the adoption of ‘progressive’ attitudes towards the private sphere. For Arendt, the educational relationship between children and adults was in essence conservative, for its “task is always to cherish and protect something in the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new.”[14] 


For Arendt such a conservative attitude to private life was not contradictory to a revolutionary stance to the public world. Although the modern progressives “have struck very revolutionary poses” towards the relationships between children and adults, Arendt points to “the unquestionable fact that so long as America was really animated by that spirit she never dreamed of initiating the new order with education, on the contrary, remained conservative in educational matters.”[15] For Arendt, the true revolutionary retains a conservative attitude to the educational relations between children and adults at home and school: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative . . . .”[16] This conservative attitude which governs the relationship between adults and children in private is however inappropriate to the public realm constituted by adults and equals: “In politics this conservative attitude—which accepts the world as it is, striving only to preserve the status quo—can only lead to destruction, because the world, in gross and in detail, is irrevocably delivered up to the ruin of time unless human beings are determined to intervene, to alter, to create, what is new.”[17] Sustaining a common world requires both conservative and radical attitudes—broadly corresponding to the private and public realms. While the latter has been the focus of much attention of Leftist thinkers keen to formulate a radical politics, the ‘conservative’ Arendt has drawn much less attention.[18] Yet, it is precisely this combination of conservative and radical modes of thinking which one would have thought would today have been of particular interest in a period in which Left and Right political distinctions appear as less than compelling. A ‘conservative’ defense of private property is a common trait of both Arendt and Chesterton’s thought and we shall return to this theme later in the chapter. Our next concern is to see how both private and public realms have been undermined by the rise of ‘society’.


The Rise of Society


With the advent of modernity, Arendt believes that there has arisen a third sphere between the private and the public which obscures the meaning of both: ‘society’. Arendt’s use of the term ‘society’ may confuse those who work within the framework of mainstream social and political science. By ‘society’ Arendt is not referring to a general form of social life within the bounds of a specific territory—the usual meaning of the word. For Arendt, ‘society’ refers to the particular form of social life associated with the growth of the modern age in which humans no longer inhabit a public world common to all. Lacking a common world together with their own privately owned share in it, humans are united with one another merely by the fact of belonging to the same species and sharing the same biological needs: “Society is the form in which the fact of mutual dependence for the sake of life and nothing else assumes public significance and where the activities connected with sheer survival—previously confined to the private sphere—are permitted to appear in public.”[19] Furthermore, while it has become a commonplace in recent years for social and political theorists to praise the liberties of ‘civil society’, Arendt’s depiction of ‘society’ is overwhelmingly negative and at times utterly bleak.[20] The ‘worldlessness’ of society is marked by a loss of the sense of reality as individuals are thrown back upon their own subjective experiences and natural drives, tending less to initiate spontaneous actions than to conform to predictable patterns of behavior. Humans come to be understood as interchangeable and not unique beings.[21]


Arendt maintains a distinction between property and wealth which the rise of modern society has obscured. Pre-modern societies held that private property—and not wealth—was sacred; it was a private location in the world and the necessary condition for citizenship. For Arendt, the household existed for the sake of the free life pursued in the polis, yet it did contain certain “non-privative traits,” the main one being the concern with the maintenance of property: “To own property meant here to be master over one’s own necessities of life and therefore potentially to be a free person, free to transcend his own life and enter the world all have in common.”[22] Arendt essentially sees the worldly dimension of property in its being a means to the achievement of freedom in the public realm. Property represents “the privately owned share of a common world and therefore is the most elementary condition for man’s worldliness.”[23]


At the root of modern worldlessness is the transformation of property into wealth which began in the sixteenth century with the Reformation’s expropriation of monastic and Church property. As a result of this process of expropriation millions of peasants were deprived of a stable place in the world—a situation which, says Arendt, “was marked by its cruelty” as the laboring poor lost the protections offered by both family and property and became the mere embodiments of the productive force of ‘labor power’. With the liberation of the force of labor power from the privately owned share in the world the limitless process of wealth accumulation came to supplant the management of stable property: “What distinguishes this development at the beginning of the modern age from similar occurrences in the past is that expropriation and wealth accumulation did not simply result in new property or lead to a new redistribution of wealth, but were fed back into the process to generate further expropriations, greater productivity, and more appropriation.”[24] The course of modernity was thus marked by a move away from the ownership of stable property towards the inherently worldless activity of accumulating wealth. ‘Immobile property’, durable and thus worldly, came to be replaced by ‘mobile wealth’, which, lacking any definable end, led not to a durable world but culminated in a fluid, unstable consumer’s society. 


As has been suggested, concomitant to the loss of a durable privately owned place in the world was a break up in that form of private life inherently connected with the ownership of property—the family. Whereas the family had been the subject of the life process prior to the expropriation of private property, society would now become its subject and complete the disintegration of the family initiated by expropriation: “society devoured the family unit until it became a full-fledged substitute for it.”[25] With the rise of ‘society’ the political community becomes the family unit writ large, preoccupied with the administration of national, collective housekeeping. In a way, Plato’s desire for the re-modeling of the state along the lines of the family as expressed in The Republic and to which Aristotle objected to in The Politics has been fulfilled. For Arendt the one-man rule of the household has become extended to society. This one-man rule takes the form of “no-man” rule however; the rule of the “invisible hand” of economics and bureaucracy, an impersonal paternalism which, Arendt fears, may prove to be far more cruel than any previous form.


As ‘society’ comes to replace the family it is membership of a social class which provides the protections previously supplied by family life. Whereas property—as a ‘privately owned place in the world’ had been the location of family life, society would be territorially identified with the nation-state which would provide a substitute for the property from which the poor had been dispossessed. The twentieth century had however witnessed the decline of the nation-state at the expense of more global conceptions of identity. For Arendt, this represented the final stage of worldlessness and any notion of a ‘world government’ would have to be treated with skepticism:


Just as the family and its property were replaced by class membership and national territory, so mankind now begins to replace nationally bound societies, and the earth replaces the limited state territory. But whatever the future may bring, the process of world alienation, started by expropriation and characterized by an ever-increasing progress in wealth, can only assume even more radical proportions if it is permitted to follow its own inherent law. For men cannot become citizens of the world as they are citizens of their countries, and social men cannot own collectively as family and household men own their own property.[26]


Arendt believes that the modern process of wealth accumulation has sacrificed property and undermined its non-privative worldly character and instead reflects the subjectivism endemic within ‘society’. When stable property became mobile, it was no longer “a fixed and firmly located part of the world acquired by its owner in one way or another but, on the contrary, had its source in man himself, in his possession of a body and his indisputable ownership of the strength of this body, which Marx called ‘labor-power.’[27] With the transformation of property into wealth and with the worker owning nothing but his own labor power, “property lost its worldly character . . .”[28]


Once the labor of the life-process was allowed to appear outside of the protective walls of the household it was “liberated . . . from its circular, monotonous recurrence and transformed . . . into a swiftly progressing development whose results have in a few centuries totally changed the whole inhabited world.”[29] With the life-process liberated from its cyclical imprisonment, the social realm unleashes “an unnatural growth of the natural” against which neither the private or the political realms were capable of defense.[30] 


In more common language, Arendt is referring to the arrival of an expanding and market-driven capitalist economy viewed as an unnatural growth devouring the stable human world. Arendt’s own phrase of an ‘unnatural growth of the natural’ should guard us against too simple a conclusion that, with the erosion of the stability of the artifice of the world, the problem with society is that it is all too natural. Modern society does not lift its sights beyond the natural necessity of ‘mere life’, this is true, but the way in which the life process is ministered to is unnatural—it becomes perverted, subject to limitless growth. Quite obviously, any economy will be concerned with dealing with the needs of the life process; the question is whether those needs will be met naturally and properly or unnaturally and improperly. 


This is a question Aristotle dealt with in The Politics within the context of his distinction between the household and polis—a theme we shall return to in the next chapter when we discuss Chesterton’s ‘distributism’. According to Aristotle, if the ‘good life’ pursued in the polis was not to become overwhelmed by the ‘mere life’ concerns of the household, then the accumulation of wealth which was ‘natural’ and desirable would by necessity be limited. The ‘unnatural’ form of housekeeping, by contrast, knew no end beyond itself and was therefore limitless in its pursuit of wealth.[31] Similarly for Arendt, when the laboring activity was liberated from the limits of the household, “it was as though the growth element inherent in all organic life had completely overcome and overgrown the processes of decay by which organic life is checked and balanced in nature’s household.”[32] Modern society is characterized by unnatural forms of ministering to the natural life process which is liberated from its circular movement. The rise of society, according to Arendt, inaugurated a “constant growth” which “derives its strength from the fact that through society it is the life process itself which in one form or another has been channeled into the public realm.”[33] The paradoxical condition of modernity is that a society fundamentally obsessed with the satisfaction of mere natural necessity undermines the artifice of the world and yet is driven by a life process which has itself become unnatural—subject to the constant processes of growth rather than cyclical processes of return. Economic society, in which all activities become reduced to a form of laboring, develops a pseudo-natural life process of itself; abstract, endlessly expanding, and with no practical end: “doomed to an infinite progress without ever reaching any inherent telos or approaching any preordained idea.”[34] 


In her critique of the public preoccupation with economic growth, Arendt is making an important point that has recently been brought to our attention by the work of political ecologists: that economic growth is not the standard by which we can judge good government. An analysis of the relative successes of capitalist America or soviet Russia in achieving higher standards of living or technological development, says Arendt, may all be very interesting; but one thing such an analysis could never decide “is which form of government is better, a tyranny or a free republic.”[35] Indeed Arendt goes as far as to suggest that “Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good.”[36] In fact the whole thrust of Arendt’s critique of the rise of society, of the expansion of economic concerns into every area of life, suggests that it is indeed for her a curse of modernity. ‘Growth’, Arendt goes so far to suggest, is the superstition for our time offering us a comforting “pseudo-scientific refuge from reality” and by which “we are assured that nothing altogether new and totally unexpected can happen, nothing but the ‘necessary’ results of what we already know.”[37]


A result of unleashing a limitless process of production and consumption has been the replacement of durable objects by items for immediate consumption which embody built-in obsolescence. “In our need for more and more rapid replacement of the worldly things around us, we can no longer afford to use them, to respect and preserve their inherent durability; we must consume, devour, as it were, our houses and furniture and cars, as though they were the ‘good things’ of nature which spoil uselessly if they are not drawn swiftly into the never-ending cycle of man’s metabolism with nature.”[38]


In the condition of ‘worldlessness’, the stable and durable world which exists both before and after any individual lifespan and which represents the location for the appearance of the individual’s unique personality, melts away taking with it the stage from which the linear path of a life-story can begin: “Without a world into which men are born and from which they die, there would be nothing but changeless eternal recurrence, the deathless everlastingness of the human as of all other species.”[39]


Arendt’s depiction of a rootless, transient and ceaselessly changing modernity driven by a capitalist market economy is at one with Marx’s justly famous description in the Communist Manifesto:


Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.[40]


According to Arendt, however, with the melting away of an objective world reality is precisely what we do not face. The liberation of the activity of labor engulfs the separate and distinct activity of work which represents the contribution of durable man-made objects to the human world—the artificially created home for man set against the background of the natural environment. The situation of constant transformation which follows in the wake of a liberation of the natural life process from the limits of maintaining stable property undermines the durability of the world and drives humans back into an inner life of subjectivity, depriving them of the awareness of a reality shared in common with others and thus the ‘common sense’ which Arendt regarded as a key political virtue. In the condition of uprooted modernity, according to Arendt, individuals are left lonely and isolated and provide the mass of the collective household, the prey of abstract forces and political illusions such as those offered by totalitarian ideology. Bereft of a sense of self and identity, the ‘socialized’ individual becomes “imprisoned in the privacy of his own body, caught in the fulfilment of needs in which nobody can share and which nobody can fully communicate.”[41]


It was precisely in such a situation of alienation from a commonly shared reality that all those ‘superstitions’ which she thought Chesterton had so brilliantly exposed could flourish: “A noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world.”[42]  The replacement of the world-sustaining activity of work by the constantly consuming aspect of labor lends an unreal and spooky atmosphere to society: “The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible.”[43] In such a situation of worldlessness people “either live in desperate lonely separation or are pressed together into a mass.”[44]


Central to Arendt’s critique of ‘the social’ as mass society is that society now radically diminishes the scope for action and instead demands “a certain type of behavior.”[45] If action and the life-story were the mode of appearance in the public realm, this ‘behavior,’ according to Arendt, becomes the typical trait of life in ‘society.’ As opposed to the freedom of action, this conformist behavior “lies at the root of the modern science of economics, whose birth coincided with the rise of society and which, together with its chief technical tool, statistics, became the social science par excellence.”[46] 


The modern science of economics is at root ideological, it “could achieve a scientific character only when men had become social beings and unanimously followed certain patterns of behavior, so that those who do not keep the rules could be considered to be asocial or abnormal.”[47] Action, the most specifically human of our activities and through which we reveal our unique person-hood, becomes, by definition, deviant. Unique acts and events are seen as statistical deviations from the norm. Further, statistics rely on the gathering of information from a large population antithetical to the small-scale character of life in the polis. It thus becomes “a hopeless enterprise to search for meaning in politics or significance in history when everything that is not everyday behavior or automatic trends has been ruled out as immaterial.”[48] This appearance of behavior which was initially consigned to the realm of economics eventually comes to obliterate all other activities: “[The] initial science of economics, which substitutes patterns of behavior only in this rather limited field of human activity, was finally followed by the all-comprehensive pretension of the social sciences which, as ‘behavioral sciences,’ aim to reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal.”[49]


As we saw in Chapter One, Arendt had considered genuine political thought to be grounded in a sense of wonder at the realm of human affairs. But Arendt felt that such a basic grasp of factual reality was lost on contemporary social and political scientists who had lost touch with the “distinctness [of things] which traditional metaphysics used to call their ‘otherness’ (their alteritas). . . .”[50]: “There exists . . . a silent agreement in most discussions among social and political scientists that we can ignore distinctions and proceed on the assumption that everything can eventually be called anything else, and that distinctions are meaningful only to the extent that each of us has a right ‘to define his terms.’”[51] Such a “curious right” was a symptom of the loss of the common world. For Arendt the kind of theory which informed social science and its fluid definitions reflected the ‘functionalization’ of transcendent standards of the good into interchangeable ‘values’. Trust in the reality of things as they appeared was eclipsed by the criteria of a pragmatic usefulness for society. Arendt could see that the relativisation of objective truth as disclosed to the senses into subjective ‘values’ coincided with the eclipse or wonder:


These values in their ex- and inter-changeability are the only ‘ideas’ left to (and understood by) ‘socialized men.’ These are men who have decided never to leave what to Plato was ‘the cave’ of everyday human affairs, and never to venture on their own into a world and a life which, perhaps, the ubiquitous functionalization of modern society has deprived of one of its most elementary characteristics—the instilling of wonder at that which is as it is.[52]


Thus concomitant to the social and political sciences’ turn away from both action and the unexpected in favor of statistically predictable patterns of behavior was their ‘functionalisation’ into social relevance and the exclusion of the possibility for wonder at plurality. Both freedom and truth were under threat in ‘society’.



New Beginnings


There are passages in The Human Condition which describe the functionalisation of thought and the encroachment of behavior into the realm of human affairs with an utter bleakness of vision:


The last stage of the laboring society, the society of jobholders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the overall life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized,’ functional type of behavior.[53]


Arendt certainly felt that we were living in ‘dark times’ which did not warrant any optimism—though as we saw in Chapter One, pessimism is no more of an option than optimism. In the face of a human society heading towards “the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known,”[54] Arendt retains the capacity for hope anchored in the human condition of what she terms ‘natality’—that new individuals are constantly being born into the world and bring with them the potential for new beginnings:


The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ultimately rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, the two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their ‘glad tidings’: ‘A Child has been born unto us.’[55]


Despite the attempt to reduce human beings to the level of behaving animals, the human capacities have not disappeared—work and fabrication still exist, though now confined to the artist, action still occurs, though as we shall see in Chapter Five this is now largely confined to science and these actions are being directed into nature, with potentially disastrous consequences. In the realm of human affairs, the unexpected has not been excluded—in the face of totalitarianism[56] and the stultifying conformity of mass society Arendt finds hope for new beginnings in modern examples of spontaneous revolutionary actions which sought to rekindle the desire for freedom and truth.


Instances of revolutionary action reveal that men and women can reject the lies of the fictitious world, cease to behave in a conformist manner, and establish new and lasting institutions of public freedom. However, in On Revolution (1963) Arendt maintains that the revolutionary tradition has obscured genuine experiences of revolutionary action. For Arendt, the American Revolution—which proved not to be the inspiration for subsequent revolutionary upheavals—represents an example of men resisting apparently irresistible historical processes in order to institutionalize freedom through the founding of a republic and a constitution which would endure through time. The experiences of the founding fathers of the American republic has however been eclipsed in the revolutionary tradition by the events of the French Revolution. While the French Revolution did itself start in the experience of freedom, it soon gave way to a sense of helplessness in the face of irresistible forces and culminated not in freedom but in tyranny. Arendt is issuing a warning that revolution can itself come under the dominance of the same ‘life process’ which was the motor behind the dynamism of ‘society’.


The root of the failure of the French Revolution and its descent into tyranny was its preoccupation with the ‘Social Question’.[57] What Arendt refers to as the ‘social question’ turns on the issue of poverty and the attempt to solve the misery of the many through political means.  Unlike America, France lacked material abundance and the mass of the populace was locked into a life of grinding poverty: “Poverty is more than deprivation, it is a state of constant want and acute misery whose ignominy consists in its dehumanizing force; poverty is abject because it puts men under the absolute dictate of necessity as all men know it from their most intimate experience and outside all speculations.”[58] In the course of the French Revolution the masses who lived under the force of necessity entered the political realm and demanded a solution to their plight; the revolutionary aim of institutionalizing freedom was thereby displaced by the demand for the release from misery and the harsh burden of necessity—the pursuit of freedom had to give way to the urgent needs of the life process itself. Robespierre reversed pre-modern modes of thought according to which property was understood as privately owned with only the surplus held in common when he announced that “everything which is necessary to maintain life must be common good and only the surplus can be recognized as private property.”[59] The revolutionary government was thereby put under the law of necessity; the Rights of Man became the rights of Sans-Culottes, namely “dress, food and the reproduction of the species.”[60] Consequently, the goal of revolution was no longer freedom but ‘happiness’.


What had elevated necessity to the central concern of the revolutionaries was their sense of compassion for the sufferings of others. Centered in the subjectivity of the human heart, Robespierre’s pursuit of virtue lacked limitation and this boundlessness of pity abstracted from reality was its evil: “Since the days of the French Revolution, it has been the boundlessness of their sentiments that made revolutionaries so curiously insensitive to reality in general and to the reality of persons in particular, whom they felt no compunctions in sacrificing to their ‘principles’, or to the course of history, or to the course of revolution as such.”[61] Driven by the limitless misery of the people and the limitless emotions of the heart, the descent into tyranny appeared as beyond the control of mere humans who felt themselves being swept along by a process which undermined their own better judgements. 


In her critique of the ‘Social Question’ Arendt should not be understood as being indifferent to the plight of the poor. Not indifference, but solidarity was the alternative to pity:


It is out of pity that men are ‘attracted toward les hommes faibles’, but it is out of solidarity that they establish deliberately and, as it were, dispassionately a community of interest with the oppressed and exploited.  The common interest would then be ‘the grandeur of man’, or ‘the honour of the human race’ or the dignity of man. For solidarity, because it partakes of reason, and hence of generality, is able to comprehend a multitude conceptually, not only the multitude of a class or a nation or a people, but eventually all mankind.[62] 


Furthermore, what Arendt wanted to convey was the danger inherent in attempting to combat poverty by political means. Arendt, wishing to maintain the distinction between the social and political realms, believed that the grinding misery of poverty could indeed be overcome in the modern context but that this would require a technical solution. Thus she endorsed Lenin’s early prescription, formulated, she said, in an instance when he had adopted the role of a statesman rather than that of a Marxist ideologue: “Electrification plus soviets.”[63] In other words, Arendt believed that the social question could be overcome through non-ideological technological means while freedom would be instituted in a new form of government—the soviets.[64]


Although it had avoided the perils of the ‘Social Question’, Arendt was far from uncritical of the American Revolution. While the American revolution had succeeded in framing an enduring constitution, its Framers had instituted a system of representative democracy which had excluded the majority of the people from participation in public life. At the beginning of the revolution, participation in public affairs had been widespread as citizens could engage in the local-level discussions in the meeting halls of the townships. The American constitution had however placed a barrier to participation by transferring power to a centralized and remote government. Thus Arendt shared Thomas Jefferson's fears “that the Revolution, while it had given freedom to the people, had failed to provide a space where this freedom could be exercised. Only the representatives of the people, not the people themselves, had an opportunity to engage in those activities of ‘expressing, discussing, and deciding’ which in a positive sense are the activities of freedom.”[65]


Representative democracy, according to Arendt, only provides scope for the elected representatives to experience political freedom; the majority—excluded from participation in the experience of ‘public happiness’—must content themselves with the pursuit of merely private pleasures. The institutions of representative democracy become themselves corrupted and perverted once, in an egalitarian republic, such private interests were allowed to invade the public realm. Arendt maintained that the “only remedies against the misuse of public power by private individuals lie in the public realm itself, in the light which exhibits each deed enacted within its boundaries, in the very visibility to which it exposes all those who enter it.”[66] Again it was Jefferson who recognized the need to provide a space more public than the voting booth and more frequently available than mere election days. He understood that “the mortal danger to the republic was that the Constitution had given all power to the citizens, without giving them the opportunity of being republicans and acting as citizens. In other words, the danger was that all power had been given to the people in their private capacity and that there was no space established for them in their capacity of being citizens.[67]


Jefferson had grasped the need to give substance to citizenship and proposed that the counties of the Republic be subdivided into ‘wards’ which would provide the basis for a system of ‘small republics’ allowing for popular participation in the affairs of government. Arendt endorsed this proposal with enthusiasm and believed that the basic principle of the ward system—that freedom and happiness required a distinct and readily available space for participation in the share of public power—was the basis for a “new form of government.” This same principle was also manifest in the popular councils which had spontaneously emerged in the modern age at times of revolutionary upheaval. And so for Arendt, if the experiences of the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution was one of the ‘lost treasures’ of the revolutionary tradition, another was the council system of democracy. Such popular councils emerged within the context of the French Revolution in 1789, the Parisian Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, in the aftermath of the first world war in Austria and Germany, and in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. These councils, Arendt notes, have perished every time they have emerged—destroyed by the party machine or the state bureaucracy. Although short-lived, these attempts at people’s government were effective in providing opportunity for ordinary citizens to participate in public life at the local level.


Here are contained the seeds for an alternative to the party system and representative democracy of the modern nation state. These councils, Räte, and soviets constituted “rudiments of an entirely new form of government, which emerged independent of all preceding revolutionary theories, directly out of the sense of revolution itself, that is, out of the experience of action and out of the resulting will of the actors to participate in the further development of public affairs.”[68] This would be a political system “which begins from below, continues upward and finally leads to a parliament.”[69] Such revolutionary councils, Arendt maintains, are of a very different character to the drop-out communes of the hippies—which, if often “grotesque”, Arendt felt were justified responses to the time at a personal level but lacked any political significance. Revolutionary councils, by contrast, represented the genuine expression of political action: “The councils say: we want to participate, we want to have our voice heard in public. And we want to have a possibility to determine the political course of our century.”[70]


As well as representing a thirst for freedom through participation, Arendt’s discussion of the abortive 1956 Hungarian revolution reveals that the formation of councils was intrinsically linked to “the explosive contradiction between the totalitarian fiction and the everyday world of factuality in which we live.”[71] If Arendt approved of the non-materialistic (or non-‘social’) aims of the Hungarian revolutionaries, she also found noteworthy their thirst for truth and reality: “Not the underprivileged, but the overprivileged of communist society took the initiative, and their motive was neither their own nor their fellow citizens’ material misery, but exclusively Freedom and Truth.”[72] The desire for factual reality represented a much greater threat to the totalitarian regime than the longing for freedom. We know this, says Arendt because after the Second World War the returning Russian army of occupation—having “been exposed to the impact of reality”—were sent en masse to the concentration camps; while Germany had witnessed “the curiously complete breakdown of Nazi indoctrination after Hitler’s defeat and the automatic destruction of his fictitious world.”[73] In Hungary and other satellite countries it was still possible to distinguish truth from lies; oppression could be perceived for what it was and resistance could lead to the demand for freedom: “The Hungarian people, young and old, knew that they were ‘living amidst lies’ and asked, unanimously and in all manifestos, for something the Russian intelligentsia apparently has even forgotten how to dream of, namely, for freedom of thought.”[74] 


The sense of reality achieved through acting in concert seemed to have been intimately connected with the absence of any ideological motivation amongst the revolutionaries as well as the swiftness with which the existing power structure in Hungary collapsed:


The striking absence of ideological dispute, the concomitant lack of fanaticism and the ensuing atmosphere of fraternity, which came into being with the first demonstration on the streets and lasted until the bitter end, can be explained only on the assumption that ideological indoctrination had disintegrated even more swiftly than the political structure. It was as though ideology, of whatever shade and brand, had simply been wiped out of existence and memory the moment the people, intellectuals and workers, communists and non-communists, found themselves together in the streets fighting for freedom. In this respect, the change in reality brought about by the revolution had much the same effect on the minds of the Hungarian people as the sudden breakdown of the Nazi World had on the minds of the German People.[75]


Crucial for Arendt is that this revolutionary action of the people, without leadership or ideological program, did not result in chaos, looting, or crimes against life, for almost simultaneous with the uprising had emerged “the Revolutionary and Workers’ Councils, that is, the same organization which for more than a hundred years now has emerged whenever the people have been permitted for a few days, or a few weeks or months, to follow their own political devices without a government (or a party program) imposed from above.”[76] It was these revolutionary councils which embodied the Hungarian people’s demands for freedom and truth which were the focus of the bloody repression which followed. The only concessions which could be granted were in economic terms—thus reflecting Arendt’s assertion that the distinction between totalitarianism and democracy was not to be seen in any economic conflict between communism and capitalism but in the scope for freedom of thought and action.


Arendt acknowledged that not everyone would want to take part in the deliberations of the councils, but she maintained that everyone must be entitled to do so: “Anyone who is not interested in public affairs will simply have to be satisfied with their being decided without him.  But each person must be given the opportunity.”[77] Arendt also admits that the possibility that revolutionary councils will emerge and stabilize into a decentralized and deliberative form of democracy is remote to say the least, but the slim chances of success do not undermine her hope: “if you ask me now what prospect it has of being realized, then I must say to you: very slight, if at all. And yet perhaps, after all—in the wake of the next revolution.”[78]



Freedom and Property


In stressing the fundamental political nature of revolutionary councils Arendt was keen to dismiss their economic role (i.e. concern with the ‘social question’) and thus—to the dismay of radical democrats such as Christopher Lasch[79]—she rejected workers’ control of factories: “The fatal mistakes of the councils has always been that they themselves did not distinguish between participation in public affairs and administration or management of things in the public interest. In the form of workers’ councils, they have again and again tried to take over the management of the factories, and all these attempts have ended in dismal failure.”[80] Workers’ councils introduced “an element of action into the management of things” which could only lead to “chaos” and which was responsible for the bad name the council system had obtained.[81]


While this refusal to allow politics a legitimate concern with economic matters is well known,[82] Arendt’s acknowledgement of the public significance of the boundaries of private property is less often noted. Pre-modern political institutions recognized the importance of private property, writes Arendt, but they did not directly concern themselves with the activities of the private realm. Rather, they aimed to preserve the existence of the boundaries between privately owned property and other parts of the world. The rise of ‘society’, by contrast, is stimulated by the public refusal to conserve these boundaries which act as a limit to the expropriation of property:


The distinguishing mark of modern political and economic theory, on the other hand, in so far as it regards private property as a crucial issue, has been its stress upon the private activities of property-owners and their need of government protection for the sake of accumulation of wealth at the expense of property itself. What is important to the public realm, however, is not the more or less enterprising spirit of private businessmen but the fences around the houses and gardens of citizens.[83]


Though Arendt grants no public significance to the inside of the household and its activities, she does grant a public significance to its external appearance in terms of “the boundaries between one household and another.”[84] These boundary lines represented a no-man’s land which served to separate the public from the private realms, whilst simultaneously protecting both. These boundary walls were the original source of meaning for the law of the city-state:


The law of the city-state . . . was quite literally a wall, without which there might have been an agglomeration of houses, a town (asty), but not a city, a political community. This wall-like law was sacred, but only the inclosure was political. Without it a public realm could no more exist than a piece of property without a fence to hedge it in; the one harbored and inclosed political life as the other sheltered and protected the biological life process of the family.[85]


It would thus be in the public interest to preserve the external boundaries of property and hence the limits of wealth accumulation. In this way, property is not debased into an end in itself, in the form of the mere accumulation of wealth, but becomes the prerequisite to the distinctly human life in the public realm. For the citizen, property is the means to the free life in public; to the businessman the public realm is a means to maximizing his private interests. In preserving the boundaries between properties the public realm is prevented from becoming swamped by the private interests of ‘the social’: “In a society of property-owners, as distinguished from a society of laborers or jobholders, it is still the world, and neither sheer abundance nor the sheer necessity of life, which stands at the center of human care and worry.”[86]


As we have seen, the transformation of stable property into fluid wealth is the key factor in bringing about the modern condition of worldlessness. Defending the institution of private property, it would follow, is likely to coincide with any attempt at a ‘recovery of the public world’. This, however, is not an avenue which many of Arendt’s Leftist sympathizers have cared to explore. Seyla Benhabib, for example, mentions Arendt’s own preference for privately owned property merely to dismiss it as something which cannot be taken seriously.[87]


Arendt herself, however, defied the conventional classification of political perspectives within a Left-Right spectrum which encompasses socialism, liberalism, and conservatism. Arendt perceived that the need for change and the need for stability were inherent in the human condition. The very fact that people could consider themselves as exclusively progressive or conservative was, to Arendt, a sign of the unbalanced condition of out time: “Man’s urge for change and his need for stability have always balanced and checked each other, and our current vocabulary, which distinguishes between two factions, the progressives and the conservatives, indicates a state of affairs in which the balance has been thrown out of order.”[88]


Thus Arendt understood the American revolution was both a new beginning and a conservative act: the new political realm was meant to endure through time.[89] The genuine revolutionary quest for a new beginning is quite distinct in Arendt’s mind from the constant striving for novelty which is typical of today’s society. The distinction between a genuine revolutionary and today’s searcher for novelty lies in the fact that the former is also conservative: “Psychologically speaking, the experience of foundation combined with the conviction that a new story is about to unfold in history will make men ‘conservative’ rather than ‘revolutionary’, eager to preserve what has been done and to assure its stability rather than open for new things, new developments, new ideas.”[90]


Arendt celebrated the ‘lost treasures’ of the revolutionary tradition but her thought also contains conservative elements which, as Canovan has pointed out, contemporary Leftist readers tend to ignore for the sake of her more radical sympathies for revolutionary action and participatory politics.[91] Arendt was, as Ronald Beiner points out, a ‘revolutionary conservative’ and a key aspect of this is her assertion that “[h]human beings need property in order to provide some measure of stability against the flux of ‘the life process’.”[92] Indeed, it is in her attitude towards property that Arendt reveals herself as more conservative than contemporary ‘conservatives’. Arendt was herself extremely skeptical about any attempt to find ‘alternatives’ to stable, tangible, privately-owned property as the anchor for freedom: “I must confess that I fail to see on what grounds in present-day society liberal economists (who today call themselves conservatives) can justify their optimism that the private appropriation of wealth will suffice to guard individual liberties—that is, will fulfil the same role as private property.”[93] In fact, the ‘conservative’ endorsement of property-as-wealth was undermining genuine privately owned property.   


Modern advocates of private property . . . who unanimously understand it as private wealth and nothing else, have little cause to appeal to a tradition according to which there could be no free public realm without a proper establishment and protection of privacy [my emphasis]. For the enormous and still proceeding accumulation of wealth in modern society, which was started by expropriation—the expropriation of the peasant classes which in turn was the almost accidental consequence of the expropriation of Church and monastic property after the Reformation—has never shown much consideration for private property but has sacrificed it whenever it came into conflict with the accumulation of wealth.[94]


Arendt was far from explicit in The Human Condition about the need to restore the institution of privately-owned property but if that book was itself appealing to a tradition in which “there could be no free public realm without a proper establishment of privacy” then we should not be too surprised by some of Arendt’s more candid remarks in two interviews of the 1970s.[95] 


In 1972 Arendt took part in a discussion of her political thought and was asked by Hans Morgenthau to categorize herself in these terms: “What are you? Are you a conservative? Are you a liberal? Where is your position within the contemporary possibilities?”[96] To which Arendt replied: “I don’t know and I’ve never known. And I suppose I never had any such position. You know the left think that I am conservative, and the conservatives think that I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less. I don’t think that the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.”[97]


Following her answer to Morgenthau’s question in which she denied ever having been a socialist or a liberal, Mary McCarthy asked Arendt where she stood in relation to capitalism. Arendt replied: “I do not share Marx’s great enthusiasm about capitalism. If you read the first pages of the Communist Manifesto it is the greatest praise for capitalism you ever saw. And this at a time when capitalism was already under very sharp attack especially from the so-called right.”[98] Arendt is seeking to undermine conventions in political thought which automatically equate the Left with an anti-capitalist stance and the Right with a pro-capitalist position. Arendt also rejects the idea that capitalism and private property are synonymous. Capitalism began in the process of expropriation, and socialism—far from checking this process—takes it to its logical end: “In one sense Marx was entirely right: the logical development of capitalism is socialism. And the reason is very simple. Capitalism started with expropriation. That is the law which then determined [the development]. And socialism carries expropriation to its logical end and is therefore in a way without any moderating influences.”[99]


In The Human Condition Arendt had pointed out that the socialization of the private realm of household could be achieved by means other than an overt communism; it was in fact the inherent tendency of capitalism: “The invasion of privacy by society, the ‘socialization of man’ (Marx), is most efficiently carried through by means of expropriation, but this is not the only way. Here, as in other respects, the revolutionary measures of socialism or communism can very well be replaced by a slower and no less certain ‘withering away’ of the private realm in general and of private property in particular.”[100] Arendt suggests that socialism continued rather than countered the regressive collectivizing and property destroying trends inaugurated by capitalism. According to Arendt, in many respects Marx “only summed up, conceptualized, and transformed into a program the underlying assumptions of two hundred years of modernity . . . .”[101] In his attack on private property, says Arendt, Marx was merely echoing the fundamental assumptions of the society he thought he was criticizing. Arendt’s ‘conservative’ defense of private property reveals her to be more radical than the radicals—socialism did not counter the property destroying trends of capitalism but took them to their logical extremes.


Capitalism and socialism, far from being in opposition to one another, are two instances of the same process of expropriation, “twins, each wearing a different hat.”[102] Both are systems typified by vast concentration of wealth and centralization of power.  The real opposition, as Arendt saw it, was between a process of expropriation (whether capitalist or socialist) and a resistance to this trend which would seek to achieve a situation where widely distributed private property was the norm.  As Arendt declared in the 1972 discussion: “What we should encourage everywhere is property . . . . To make a decent amount of property available to every human being—not to expropriate, but to spread property—then you will have some possibilities for freedom even under the rather inhuman conditions of modern production.”[103]


Thus while Arendt believes that “the means of production should not be in the hands of a single man,”[104] she also rejects—citing the example of the press—socialization of property in the form of government ownership. To do so, Arendt protests, would be to take away “the few rights which the worker movement had actually acquired through the long struggle since the middle of the last century. . . .”[105] The net result of such a nationalization of the press would be that the worker would actually loses out in the power struggle: “If you were to expropriate the press you would have not 90 per cent for the government, but 100 per cent.”[106] Not further expropriation through socialism but, as she had already told Adelbert Reif in a 1970 interview, the re-appropriation of property was the real alternative to capitalism: “Our problem today is not how to expropriate the expropriators, but, rather, how to arrange matters so that the masses, dispossessed by industrial society in capitalist and socialist systems, can regain property.”[107]


As we shall see in the following chapter, here Arendt is very close to Chesterton’s distributist vision which would encourage genuine private property against either capitalist or state ownership.[108]  Evidently, Arendt had difficulty in convincing her fellow participants in the 1972 discussion who still clung to the theoretical ‘banister’ which portrayed a radical difference in the character of capitalist and socialist economies and the concomitant Left-Right axis of political alignment. A sense of frustration can be detected in her reply to Morgenthau’s questioning of her political allegiance: “this business between capitalism and socialism seems to me the most obvious thing in the world. And nobody even understands what I am talking about, so to speak.”[109]


As we have seen, with the rise of ‘society’ those activities which are properly conducted in the private household become a public concern. A household economy in which labor is limited so as to serve the maintenance of something external, a “common world,” is replaced by a ‘social’ economy (capitalism) oriented purely around private gain which expropriates property from the masses (who become rootless laborers) and overruns the higher concerns of the public common world. Politics  becomes swamped with social concerns over activities previously confined to the household. When household concerns were taken out of the private realm and into the social sphere they took on a different existence however. Both needs and wealth accumulation come to be viewed as unlimited within the social context of market exchange. Natural existence becomes itself unnatural: the rise of society coincides with an ‘unnatural growth of the natural’.


A society of perpetual consumption, lacking any sense of permanence, erodes the human artifice of the world and undermines the capacity to perceive reality. A conformist society marked by ‘behavior’ rather than action is, however, not inevitable. Revolutionary council forms of democracy show the way to establishing a decentralized direct form of democracy in which ordinary people would have the opportunity to enter public spaces to discuss and determine the course of their collective life—exercising their public freedom and developing the capacity for common sense in a world common to all.


Yet Arendt’s ideal also involved the widespread ownership of private property as an anchor for freedom. In this way the economic life process could be placed within limits—the walls and fences—of the ‘privately owned share in the world’ and so not overrun the public realm with ‘social’ concerns. In identifying the begetting dimension of laboring, Arendt herself appears to see the intimate connection between human sexuality and laboring with the earth as two dimensions of the same life process. Yet when she charts the “liberation of the life process” which coincides with the modern age and the ‘rise of society’ she only mentions one side of that life process—the ‘reproduction of one’s own life’ through labor. Arendt makes no mention of the fate of ‘begetting’.  Obviously, any account of modern society which aimed to be faithful to ‘phenomenal reality’ would have to engage with the liberation of the sexual life process—something which has become so marked in recent years. That both the sexual and property-management dimensions of economy had been wrenched from any teleological framework was a central concern of Chesterton, and we shall now take a look at his distributist vision.



[1] The following discussion of ‘worldlessness’ relates to that aspect of ‘world alienation’ which arises from the transformation of stable property into fluid wealth and is deeply entwined with what Arendt understands as the rise of ‘society’. Other dimensions of ‘world alienation’ which relate to the discovery of America, the invention of the telescope and to modern developments in science will be dealt with in Chapter Five.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989 [1958]), p. 73

[3] Ibid., p. 64.

[4] Ibid., p. 106.

[5] Ibid., p. 96.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 19.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 199. Arendt is quoting from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. That today’s businessmen lack a sense of reality (i.e. that the world of business is emphatically not ‘the real world’) is a point that Chesterton made and we shall discuss this in the following chapter.

[10] Ibid., p. 7.

[11] Ibid., p. 50.

[12] Ibid., p. 59.

[13] Ibid., p. 71.

[14] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Crisis in Education [1958],’ Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1993 [1968]), p. 192.

[15] Ibid., pp. 191-2.

[16] Ibid., p. 193.

[17] Ibid., p. 192. Compare G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: The Bodley Head, 1927 [1908]), pp. 210-1: [A]ll conservatism is based upon the fact that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post.  If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things.”

[18] Margaret Canovan, ‘Hannah Arendt as a Conservative Thinker,’ in Larry May and Jerome Kohn (eds.), Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later (London: MIT Press, 1996), pp. 11-12.

[19] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 46

[20] For the purposes of this chapter I am concerned with Arendt’s understanding of ‘society’ as it appears in The Human Condition and, to a lesser extent, On Revolution (London: Penguin, 1990 [1963]). Arendt concedes a legitimate place for society as a realm of ‘discrimination’ in her essay ‘Reflections on Little Rock [1959]’, The Portable Hannah Arendt, edited and with an introduction by Peter Baehr, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000), pp. 231-46. Commentary on Arendt’s Little Rock essay can be found in Richard H. King, ‘American Dilemmas, European Experiences,’ The Arkansas Historical Quarterly Vol. LVI No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 314-33. For an interpretation of the various forms in which the ‘social’ realm appears in Arendt’s work see Hannah Fenichel Pitkin, The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998). Amongst the numerous recent discussions of ‘civil society’ are John Keane, Democracy and Civil Society (London: Verso, 1988) and Jean L. Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge: MIT press, 1992). For a Marxist critique of recent deployments of ‘civil society’ as a means of side-stepping the problem of capitalism see Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Civil society and the politics of identity,’ Democracy Against Capitalism: Rethinking Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 238-63.

[21] As we shall see in Chapters Four and Six, Chesterton was himself deeply concerned by the modern tendency to see human beings as interchangeable.

[22] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 65

[23] Ibid., p. 253.

[24] Ibid., p. 255.

[25] Ibid., p. 33 n. 2.

[26] Ibid., p. 257.  Chesterton also had little time for notions of a ‘world government’. See G. K. Chesterton ‘The World State [1932],’ The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (London: Methuen and Co., 1948 [1933]), p. 16.

[27] Ibid., p. 70

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., p. 47.

[30] Ibid. pp. 46-7.

[31] Aristotle, The Politics (London: Penguin, 1992), Book I Chs. vii-xi. See the discussion in John O’Neill, Ecology, Policy and Politics: Human Well-Being and the Natural World (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 168-181.

[32] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 47.

[33] Ibid., p. 45.

[34] Ibid., p. 307.

[35] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, p. 220.

[36] Ibid., p. 219.

[37] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (London: Penguin, 1970), p. 28. As we shall see below, Arendt believes that economic growth is desirable as a means to solving the ‘Social Question’. Presumably, she understood that the ‘growth’ of the modern ‘consumer’s society’ had exceeded the levels required to satisfy necessity, had become an end in itself, and was now (in its abstraction from maintaining a durable public world) a core element of the ‘fictitious’ or ideological character of modern society.

[38] Arendt, Human Condition, pp. 125-6.

[39] Ibid., p. 97.

[40] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto [1848],’ in David McLellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988 [1977]), p. 224.

[41] Arendt, Human Condition, pp. 118-9.

[42] Ibid., p.  209. See the discussion in Sandra. K. Hinchman, ‘Common Sense and Political Barbarism in the Theory of Arendt,’ Polity Vol. 17 No. 2 (1984), pp. 317-39. For a discussion of the severance of thought from reality in relation to the management of the Vietnam war see Hannah Arendt, ‘Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers [1971],’ Crises of the Republic (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 [1972]), pp. 9-42. The context of a superpower engaged in a war against a small undeveloped country together with the theme of an elite’s disdain for reality as such gives this essay a very Chestertonian flavor—though it is written in a very non-Chestertonian style.

[43] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 53

[44] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Concept of History [1957/8],’ Between Past and Future, pp. 89-90.

[45] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 40.

[46] Ibid., p. 42.

[47] Ibid. Chesterton believed that the science of economics was fundamentally ideological: the busiest people during the transformation to an industrial capitalist society “were the political economists, who were proving on paper that the machinery that had made people poor must really have made them rich.” G. K. Chesterton, William Cobbett (London: Hodder and Stoughton, n.d. [1925]), p. 109.

[48] Ibid., pp. 42-3.

[49] Ibid., p. 45. According to Chesterton, the claim to the ‘scientific’ nature of sociology was its basis in the belief that social actions were determined—it claimed the power of prediction. Sociology was thus attempting the impossible and ignored three vital truths: “(1) That humanity is far too complex to have such calculations made about it.  (2) That humanity is afflicted with original sin.  (3) That the will of man is free.” G. K. Chesterton, ‘On the Science of Sociology,’ Avowals and Denials (London: Methuen and Co., 1934), p. 163. That social science is “pseudo-science” is revealed to both Arendt and Chesterton by the fact that the revolutionary political events of the twentieth century came as a total surprise to the social scientists. See Chesterton, ‘On the Science of Sociology,’ p. 162; David Luban, ‘Explaining Dark Times: Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Theory,’ Social Research Vol. 50 No. 1 (Spring, 1983), p. 225.

[50] Hannah Arendt, ‘What Is Authority? [1956/8],’ Between Past and Future, p. 96

[51] Ibid., p. 95.

[52] Hannah Arendt, ‘Tradition and the Modern Age [1954],’ Between Past and Future, p. 40.

[53] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 322.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., p. 247. For a discussion of the role of ‘natality’ in Arendt’s thought see Patricia Bowen-Moore, Hannah Arendt’s Philosophy of Natality (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).

[56] Which, of course, Arendt believed was itself unprecedented.

[57] See Arendt, On Revolution, pp.  59-114.

[58] Ibid., p. 60.

[59] As quoted in ibid.

[60] As quoted in ibid.

[61] Ibid., p. 90.

[62] Ibid., p. 88. Chesterton also contrasts pity with solidarity in ‘Slum Novelists and the Slums, Heretics (London: The Bodley Head, 1928 [1905]), pp. 268-86. More recently, the contrast appears in Christopher Lasch, ‘Communitarianism or Populism?  The Ethic of Compassion and the Ethic of Respect,’ The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995), pp. 92-114.

[63] Quoted in ibid., p. 65.

[64] Arendt here assumes the political neutrality of technology. For a discussion of this controversial assumption see Andrew Feenberg, Critical Theory of Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[65] Arendt, On Revolution, p. 235. For a condensation of Chesterton’s own rejection of party politics and of his belief in the fundamentally undemocratic nature of a representative democracy  which excluded the freedom of discussion by ordinary people see his letters to the Nation of January 17th, 26th, and February 2nd 1911 which are reproduced in Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945 [1944]), pp. 271-4. See also G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (London: Cassell, 1912 [1910]), pp. 95-109; and Margaret Canovan, G. K. Chesterton: Radical Populist (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), pp. 76-119; 129-33. Chesterton also had great sympathy for both the American and French revolutions, unlike Arendt however he had a clear preference for the French Revolution which he believed embodied a sense of limits and stability—precisely what Arendt thought it lacked.  See Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 70-71.

[66] Ibid., p. 253.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Hannah Arendt, ‘Thoughts on Politics and Revolution [1970],’ Crisis of the Republic p. 189.

[69] Ibid., p. 190

[70] Ibid.

[71] Hannah Arendt, ‘Epilogue: Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution [1958],’ The Origins of Totalitarianism second enlarged edition (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1958), p. 492.

[72] Ibid., p. 494.

[73] Ibid., p. 495.

[74] Ibid., p. 496. Arendt’s understanding of the motivation of the Hungarian revolution as the desire for ‘Freedom and Truth’ echoes her earlier interpretation in ‘Christianity and Revolution’ of Chesterton’s genuinely revolutionary demand for “freedom for the people and reason for the mind.” See the Introduction to the present thesis, p. 7.

[75] Ibid., p. 497.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Arendt, ‘Thoughts on Politics and Revolution,’ p. 191

[78] Ibid.

[79] See Christopher Lasch, ‘Introduction,’ to special issue on Arendt, Salmagundi 60 (Spring-Summer, 1983), pp. ix-x.

[80] Arendt, On Revolution, pp. 273-4.

[81] Ibid., pp. 274-5.

[82] For criticism of Arendt’s rigid distinction between the social and the political see Richard J. Bernstein, ‘Rethinking the Social and the Political,’ Philosophical Profiles: Essays in a Pragmatic Mode (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986), pp. 238-59; and Sheldon S. Wolin, ‘Hannah Arendt: Democracy and The Political,’ Salmagundi 60 (Spring-Summer, 1983), pp. 3-19.

[83] Arendt, Human Condition, pp. 71-2.

[84] Ibid., p. 63.

[85] Ibid., pp. 63-4.

[86] Ibid., p.p. 115-6. For Chesterton’s juxtaposition of the stability of property ownership to the flux of consumerism and mere natural drives see his essays ‘Reflections on a Rotten Apple,’ and  ‘Sex and Property,’ in The Well and the Shallows (London: Sheed and Ward, 1937 [1935]), pp. 220-31; pp. 232-6.

[87] See Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1996).

[88] Hannah Arendt, ‘Civil Disobedience,’ Crisis of the Republic, p. 64. See also On Revolution, pp. 223-4.

[89] Margaret Canovan, The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), p. 98.

[90] Arendt, On Revolution, p. 41.

[91] See Canovan, ‘Hannah Arendt as a Conservative Thinker,’ pp. 11-2. Canovan points out that Arendt was not, as some perceive, a celebrator of unlimited action but concerned with elaborating a ‘politics of limits’.  Indeed, such a concern with limits was central to Chesterton’s thought and, as we saw in our introductory chapter, this was one reason why Arendt admired his work.

[92] Ronald S. Beiner, ‘Hannah Arendt on Capitalism and Socialism,’ Government and Opposition Vol. 25 No. 3 (Summer, 1990), p. 366. Richard King describes Arendt as a ‘conservative revolutionary’. See Richard H. King, ‘Hannah Arendt,’ in David Murray (ed.), American Cultural Critics (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995), p. 217. For Chesterton’s views on the fundamental compatibility between democracy and tradition see Orthodoxy, pp. 82-4.

[93] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 67 n. 72.

[94] Ibid., pp. 66-7.

[95] See Arendt, ‘Thoughts on Politics and Revolution,’ pp. 164-91 and Hannah Arendt et al., ‘Hannah Arendt on Hannah Arendt [1972],’ in Melvyn A. Hill (ed.), Hannah Arendt: the Recovery of the Public World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), pp. 303-39. The former is based on an interview which took place in the summer of 1970 between Arendt and the German writer Adelbert Reif. The latter is based on some of Arendt’s exchanges with the participants of a conference in November 1972 on the subject of ‘The Work of Hannah Arendt’ organized by the Toronto Society for the Study of Social and Political Thought. Those who contributed to the conference were: C. B. Macpherson; Christian Bay; Michael Gerstein; George Baird; Hans Jonas; F. M. Barnard; Mary McCarthy; Richard Bernstein; Albrecht Wellmer; Hans Morgenthau; and Ed Weissman.

[96] Arendt et al., ‘On Hannah Arendt,’ p. 333

[97] Ibid., pp. 333-4.

[98] Ibid., p. 335.

[99] Ibid.

[100] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 72.

[101] Ibid., p. 60.

[102] Arendt, ‘Thoughts on Politics and Revolution,’ p. 175. Chesterton personifies the capitalist and socialist as ‘Hudge’ and ‘Gudge’.  See Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, pp. 61-7; and pp. 272-5. I discuss Chesterton’s own sense that socialism merely continues the process of expropriation inaugurated by capitalism in the next chapter.

[103] Arendt et al., ‘On Hannah Arendt,’ p. 320.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Ibid., p. 321

[106] Ibid.

[107] Arendt, ‘Thoughts on Politics and Revolution,’ p. 175. See the discussion of this and other relevant issues in Beiner, ‘Hannah Arendt on Capitalism and Socialism,’ pp. 359-70.

[108] See G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity (London: Methuen and Co., 1926).

[109] Arendt, Human Condition, p, p. 336. 




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