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.
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