Rob Riemen: What would have been the com­ment of Hannah Arendt on what’s going on now? What would she say?

Roger Berkowitz: [laughs] Well, I run the Hannah Arendt Center, I found­ed the Hannah Arendt Center. One of the pit­falls of being in this posi­tion is peo­ple ask you what would Hannah Arendt say, and I haz­ard to speak for her. So what I try and do is speak for myself, but informed by her think­ing and hope that that’s good enough. I’m not going to chan­nel Hannah Arendt from the grave.

Hannah Arendt loved it when unex­pect­ed things hap­pened in pol­i­tics. She thinks and thought that spon­tane­ity, new­ness… She used the word natal­i­ty,” which is often mis­used and abused in her work by oth­ers, but it means birth, birth­li­ness. And she thought that what made human beings dif­fer­ent from oth­er ani­mals is not that we were ratio­nal, but that we could start things new. That we were free. And it’s that amaz­ing free­dom which she says that in even the dark­est times gives us hope that some­thing good can emerge, some­thing new. 

And so she always was attract­ed to moments in his­to­ry, moments in pol­i­tics, when a new thing broke out. So, the Hungarian Revolution was very mean­ing­ful and attrac­tive to her. The protest move­ments in the 60s were very mean­ing­ful and attrac­tive to her, both in the United States and also in Europe. The civ­il rights move­ment was some­thing she was very engaged in. Inevitably, she found things to wor­ry about and not like about a lot of these move­ments. They often had neg­a­tive out­comes or neg­a­tive attrib­ut­es or char­ac­ter­is­tics that she found troublesome.

But she always found the new excit­ing. And to the extent we’re in a moment, around the world…in Europe and else­where, but also the United States, where there’s a real sense around the world that lib­er­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy is fail­ing and is ille­git­i­mate, and that this way of gov­ern­ing our­selves that has real­ly been the great suc­cess sto­ry of the last 250 years is ceas­ing to hold peo­ple and con­vince peo­ple that it works, there’s no doubt that we’re in a moment when lots of new ideas are going to emerge. And she would like that. I think she would be skep­ti­cal of many of the ideas that have emerged. 

So, on the right, I think she would be excit­ed by a lot of what the Tea Party rep­re­sents. One of the most impor­tant aspects of her work was her real fear and belief that cen­tral­iza­tion, the cen­tral­iza­tion of pow­er into one insti­tu­tion or to a pow­er­ful cen­ter, was the great­est threat to free­dom. And I think she would see the Tea Party, in its fear of and oppo­si­tion to cen­tral­iza­tion and bureau­cra­ti­za­tion and fed­er­al pow­er, she would see a lot to like in the Tea Party. But in its sort of low-class racism and anti-immigrant stances, she would be very fear­ful of it.

I think on the left, with Occupy Wall Street or with Bernie Sanders’ cam­paign, there’s a lot she would like about it. She loved it when young peo­ple had fun in pol­i­tics. And by the way, both on the left and the right; the Tea Party with their uni­forms and their hats, but also Occupy Wall Street with its sort of…really just being togeth­er and hav­ing fun talk­ing about pol­i­tics, I think she would—I’m sure she would have found very welcome.

But the sort of single-minded focus on inequal­i­ty and mon­ey, both of which are impor­tant and are with­out a doubt prob­lems in our soci­ety— The idea that we’re going to solve those prob­lems through a kind of social­ism, or demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism, she would, I think, large­ly have found again prob­lem­at­ic. She thought social­ism or ideas that had been tried and failed through­out the world gen­er­al­ly led to tyran­ny and total­i­tar­i­an­ism. She thought that it was fair­ly obvi­ous at this day and age that as bad as cap­i­tal­ism was because it expro­pri­at­ed peo­ple by the rich, social­ism was just as bad in that it expro­pri­at­ed peo­ple by the gov­ern­ment. And I think she would be very wor­ried that the sort of simple-minded return to, in her mind, dis­cred­it­ed ideas on the left was not lead­ing toward some­thing new. It was actu­al­ly lead­ing to some­thing stale and old. 

Further Reference

Democracy Today in the USA event page