Hannah Arendt’s political thought and its relevance to understanding “Development” and Public Policy – Kumudu Kusum Kumara
“For Arendt, the private sphere is the realm of necessity where life in the household and family life, sustained by labour, production and consumption, take the centre. In contrast, the public sphere is the realm of freedom and action, with its focus on the world rather than life; it is the realm of public discourse preserved for individuality achieved through excellence, creating memory and thereby culture. It is the public political realm that stabilizes the world, preserves worldliness through friendship of discourse among citizens. Technical issues such as “poverty” are mattes for the experts, whereas politics is about determining what form of government we need to have.
Arendt has observed that the moderns misunderstand and equate the polis, or the political ream with the social realm, whereas in the understanding of the ancients, the private sphere, the realm of household and family and the maintenance of life, was clearly distinct from the public sphere, the polis, the political realm that attends to the affairs of the common world. The ‘emergence of the social realm, which is neither private nor public, occurs with the emergence of the modern age which lasted from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century which found its political form in the nation State (Arendt, 1958: 28).”
Hannah Arendt’s political thought and its relevance to understanding “Development” and Public Policy: Some Preliminary Observations – Kumudu Kusum Kumara
“Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living.”
(Arendt, 1958: 5)
“It seems to be taken for granted today that the political problem “par excellence” is organizational not moral. As critics of Karl Popper have observed, Popper’s ‘social engineer’ is charged with the improvement of society, but he has none of the characteristics of the great legislators, who are said to have the ability of writing their laws on people’s hearts … In the ancient view, the most ingenious social organization and the best set of laws will not allow the state to transcend the limitations of its human material. But in Hobbes’s view, as Strauss understands him, the State can be constructed like a machine that flourishes, not despite its morally flawed human material, but because of it …[Hobbes bequeathed the idea] that a technological society would provide a successful means to the realization of the modern end of politics, namely, the maximum satisfaction of desires”.
(Drury, 1988: 138-39)
In the strong critique of modernity that Hannah Arendt has developed in her theorizing, modernity, rather than being a civilization that brings stability to the human world, is taken to be destroying its stability. It dissolves civilization through consumption, turning even culture into consumables (Canovan, 1998:110). Hannah Arendt would have identified the notions of “Development” and Public Policy as modern phenomena, which are the outcome of what she calls ‘the rise of the social’ or the need to fulfill life requirements of members of mass society taking over the public political realm. In its place, governance, economic activity and looking after household needs on a national scale, or what she calls national accounting, is substituted. It is in this context that what the moderns call Development and Public Policy take over, and which are taken to be the key to politics. Thus, under modernity, politics or the human capacity for action is displaced from the public realm. Arendtian distinctions of the private and the public, drawn from ancient Athenian democracy, and her phenomenological analysis of labour, work and action are key to understanding Arendt’s thinking, which would help us draw out its implications to understand “development” and public policy (Canovan, 1998: ix).
From an Arendtian perspective, the notion of Development stems from the modern belief that everything is possible, which relates to an attitude that the Greeks called hubris.
The moderns also believe that humans are subjected to laws of nature or history (Marx) in the service of which individuals are entirely dispensable. Arendt believes that for civilized existence to last, it is important to have a durable human world. It is such a world constructed by the humans that protect us from nature and provide a stable setting for our mortal lives (Canovan, 1998: xiii).
Politics, Development, and Public Policy
What underlies the modern idea of public policy is the belief in the ability of policy prescriptions to solve problems (which are also known as “Social Problems”, another modern ‘sociological’ category) that becomes the task of experts. Arendt would have said that with modernity, in “development”, humans are treated as raw material where there is no place for human agency or what she calls ‘action.’ Simultaneously, we need to be aware of the unintended and unanticipated consequences of our action that can be the outcome of Development and Public Policy. The negative impact of “development” on our environment is a case in point. She would have reminded us to be cautious of the notion of the omnipotent planner who seeks to re-fashion the world in one’s own image ignoring the negative impact of such grand plans on the lives of helpless individuals.
The rise of “the social”
For Hannah Arendt, with the rise of the “social” realm under modernity (Arendt, 1958: 38-49), the tasks of serving the needs of the private life of individual citizens come to occupy the public realm. Arendt’s position is that “with the rise of society, that is, the rise of the household or of economic activities to the public realm, housekeeping and all matters pertaining formerly to the private sphere of family have become a “collective” concern” (1958:33). Politics has been reduced to a function of society, and political activity has been taken to be based on social interest. Here, politics loses its vitality as the political order takes the form of administration and management of the household economy at a national level, what Arendt calls “collective housekeeping”. Hence, citizens have no significant place in political life except as clients of the State and as recipients of welfare, representing their self-interest in politics through voting. The modern idea of a national economy administered and managed by the State makes the central political issue in collective life a previously essentially private concern: the maintenance and survival of life in the household and the family. The political order is turned to serve and protect the private interests of individual citizens taken together.
Arendt’s view is that the rise of the social meant that “[T]he point is, not that for the first time in history labourers were admitted and given equal rights in the public realm, but that we have almost succeeded in levelling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance. Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of “making a living”” (1958: 126). Arendt takes the position that the rise of the “social realm has transformed all modern communities into societies of labourers and jobholders” in the sense that all members of society “consider whatever they do primarily as a way to sustain their own lives and those of their families” (1958: 46).
Arendt observed that Greeks did not consider the essential need to have social companionship as being ‘among the specifically human characteristics.’ They shared this need ‘in common with other animals.’ The need to be social is imposed upon humans by their biological life, which ias located in the oikia, the home, the natural association and the family. This was perceived to be in ‘direct opposition to human capacity for political organization’. Hence, the ancients made ‘a clear distinction between private life and bios political’ (Arendt, 1958 : 24).
The social and the political: economic concerns and politics
Arendt made an effort to show the distinction between the social and the political (1963: 86). For her, social matters, however much they have come to occupy the centre stage under modernity where everyone has been incorporated into society and thus making social demand imperative on the political agenda, are not political in its stronger understanding. Hence, they ‘were matters of administration to be put into the hands of experts rather than issues to be addressed through discussion and persuasion’ which is the mode of addressing political matters.
Arendt analyses the events that led to the substitution of economic concerns for politics. With this, governance, rather than action, has come to dominate the political realm. Arendt would compare modernity with the ancient Athens and observe that the modern situation is the result of the animal laborans – whose main object is maintaining life – taking over the public realm.
From an Arendtian perspective, Development and Public Policy are linked to notions of progress, an Enlightenment legacy. Within this legacy, economic development is taken to be inevitable, and our fate is taken to be to move in that direction, whereas the State is considered a means of reform to that end.
Arendt reminds us that Moderns have come to consider politics as ‘making,’ exemplified by [Marx’s thinking on the subject. (Canovan, 1998: ix,)
Under Capitalism, automation has turned ours into ‘a “society of laborers” where all occupations are conceived of as ways of making a living’ (Canovan, 1998: x). Humans are alienated from the world where “modern automated societies engrossed by ever more efficient production and consumption encourage us to behave and think of ourselves simply as an animal species governed by natural laws” (Canovan, 1998: xi).
Politics as Making: Marx
Arendt critiques Marx for misconceiving political action in terms of a mixture of work and labour. Understanding political action as making something (work) as Marx did is a dangerous mistake (Canovan, 1998: xi) as it leads to the displacement of politics with governance, development and public policy.
Making is the work of a craftsman – forcing raw material to conform to a model where raw material has no say in the process. Marx has a similar notion of creating a new society, of making history. Politics as making ignores human plurality in theory and coerce individuals in practice. Marx understood history in terms of processes of production much closer to animal life, i.e. labour (Canovan, 1998: xi).
Marx had a vision of human history as a predictable process – the collective life process – of a species not of unique, mortal individuals, which would make politics ignore its consequences on individual lives, and hence consider humans as inconsequential in the processes of progress or development.
For Marx, the inevitable process of unfolding history towards its predetermined climax would lead to the realm of freedom through revolution. It is a process where individuality submerged in the collective life of human species devoted to production and consumption and moving inexorably on its way. Marx’s view of human evolution, as it was, taken as a totality, represents how moderns have come to think of their society today. It shows how economic concerns have come to dominate both politics and human self-understanding.
For Arendt, this denotes the rise of “a ‘labourers’ society,’ where social concerns dominate the political agenda and create a ‘conformist materialism’ in society.
Furthermore, for Arendt, this indicates the dangers of human action. It is human action that has brought about modern society and not the inevitable march of history as Marx conceptualised.
For Arendt, it is economic modernization, rather than improving things in the human world, that acts as the main threat to the human world destroying all stability by setting everything in motion as suggested by Marx’s famous quotation “all that is solid melts into air”.
While Marx saw this as an inevitable process of history unfolding in the form of a telos, or a pre-determined outcome, for Arendt, the development of Capitalism is consequent upon human action, which brought about expropriation of ecclesiastical and peasant land. While those who were evicted from their land had no option but to become labourers in factories in the city, the property thus expropriated was turned into capital.
Arendt observes that under modernity everything – objects, furniture, houses themselves – has become items of consumption and that economic concerns come to the centre of public attraction (and therefore, by implication public policy). The costs of this transformation to humanity are immense. It not only leads to the devastation of the world, which is supposed to provide us with a stable habitat, but also, perhaps more significantly, humans have come to ‘conceive of themselves in terms of their desire to consume’, thus undermining any effective resistance to the destruction of the world (Canovan, 1998: xiv).
Politics: a different understanding
Arendt presents us with a notion of politics that is opposed to our present day understanding of politics as governance (Canovan, 1998: viii – ix). For her, the fundamental condition of politics is “that it goes on among plural human beings, each of whom can act and start something new”, the results of which are contingent and unpredictable. “[M]atters of practical politics [are] subject to the agreement of many; they can never lie in theoretical consideration or the opinion of one person” (Arendt, 1958: 5). Arendt reminds us that ‘the most salient political feature of human beings is that they are plural, each capable of new perspectives or actions and thereby cannot fit a tidy predicable model’, which is the basis of politics (Canovan, 1998: viii – ix ).
Arendt reminds us of the dangers involved in the capacity for human action that can unleash forces that we cannot control, which in modernity has lead to ‘an unnatural growth of the natural.’ (1958:47) For her, the development of capitalism, which has assumed a logic of its own, is the result of such human action, expropriation of ecclesiastical and peasant land.
Arendtian distinction of the private and the public, drawn from ancient Athenian democracy, and her phenomenological analysis of labour, work and action is the key to understanding her thinking in relation to Development.
The private- public distinction
For Arendt, the private sphere is the realm of necessity where life in the household and family life, sustained by labour, production and consumption, take the centre. In contrast, the public sphere is the realm of freedom and action, with its focus on the world rather than life; it is the realm of public discourse preserved for individuality achieved through excellence, creating memory and thereby culture. It is the public political realm that stabilizes the world, preserves worldliness through friendship of discourse among citizens. Technical issues such as “poverty” are mattes for the experts, whereas politics is about determining what form of government we need to have.
Arendt has observed that the moderns misunderstand and equate the polis, or the political ream with the social realm, whereas in the understanding of the ancients, the private sphere, the realm of household and family and the maintenance of life, was clearly distinct from the public sphere, the polis, the political realm that attends to the affairs of the common world. The ‘emergence of the social realm, which is neither private nor public, occurs with the emergence of the modern age which lasted from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century which found its political form in the nation State (Arendt, 1958: 28).
Within the nation state, peoples and political communities were formed ‘in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic nationwide administration of housekeeping’, thus giving rise to the notions of a ‘national economy’ or a ‘social economy’ and to ‘collective housekeeping.’ A ‘collective of families’, known as ‘society’, comes into being with its political form organized as a nation (Arendt, 1958: 28-29).
For the ancients, economic affairs were non-political and belonged in the private realm, whereas for the moderns they have become “political” and, hence, the importance we give to public policy (Arendt, 1958: 29).
While the household (or the later national economy) is tied with necessity, polis was the realm of freedom. As a result of the rise of the “social” in the modern world, the social and the political realms have become much less distinct. Since the rise of “society, the household, oikia, economic activities to the public realm, housekeeping and all matters pertaining to the private sphere have become a “collective concern” (Arendt, 1958: 29-33).
Under modernity, what makes public policy relevant is the rise of the social – the nation state and collective housekeeping. The prevalence of public policy under modernity is an indication of how we have displaced politics from the public sphere and substituted governance for politics, or displaced what Jean Luc-Nancy call the political, by politics.
The rise of the social has its implications for the political realm. Society demands conformism generating a common interest, a single opinion among its members. It is this assumed one interest of society as whole that comes into operation in economics, which treats the nation as a single entity (Arendt, 1958: 39).
While the early form of society, which prevailed only among the elite assumed one opinion of polite society in the life of the salon, under modernity ‘the most social form of government, bureaucracy, the last stage of government in the nation state’ manifests this desire for conformity. (Arendt, 1958:40)
Under modern democracies, the ruling power in reality rests on a ruling elite of which technocracy and the bureaucracy are the key components. The political implication of the rise of society is that, ‘society excludes the possibility of action’ and ‘it normalize(s) through rules’ and ‘excludes spontaneous action or outstanding achievement’ (Arendt, 1958 :40)
The individual is equated with his/ her social status, and ‘mass society judges people on the basis of their function’, rather than on their unique individuality, as opposed to simply being an individual uprooted from one’s own community. Mass society equalizes by all means and, under conformity, men behave rather than act with each other.
Politics – the dangers of action
Arendt recognizes action as the central political activity, as opposed to labour and work. For Arendt, the essence of being human lies in the ability of human beings to act above and beyond engaging in labour and work. While labour is the means of sustaining humans biologically as animals, work, the preoccupation of the fabricator, is what creates the “thing-ness” or the material character of the artificial world of objects that human beings build, which make the world a place habitable for humans. The realm of work is exemplified in works of art, which last beyond all the fabrications in so far as they are treated as cultural objects to be preserved for posterity. Action corresponds to our plurality as distinct individuals (as opposed to the liberal individualism based on the notion of autonomous or the ‘deontological’ individual) (Canovan, 1998: ix,).
Arendt also reminds us of the dangers involved in the capacity for human action that can unleash forces that we cannot control, which in modernity has lead to what she calls an “unnatural growth of the natural.” She would have reminded us that in Development and Public Policy we seem to think that we can substitute them for politics.
Arendt emphasised the importance of politics, and for her, there is a clear distinction between what we would call policy today and politics, which for her was the realm of action. She was keen to understand not only the potential for action, i.e. human political capacities, but also the dangers and opportunities they offer. For her, humans in acting ‘bring about self inflicted catastrophes’ (Canovan, 1992: xvi) .
Arendt argues that the drastic changes which occurred during the modern age from the 17th to the early 20th century, the most significance among them being the radical economic processes that led to what is known as the development of capitalism, were set off by human action. Humans who have been concerned with these processes unleashed by the action of humans themselves have increasingly come to consider themselves as ‘helpless flotsam on the currents of socioeconomic forces’, thus denying their own capacity for action (Canovan, 1998: xvi).
Action, like a double edged sword, is the only hope humans have to resist capitalism, while Arendt cautions us against the character of action that brought about capitalism itself with its disastrous character.
Coupled with a helpless sense in the face of what is perceived to be a historical inevitability of social and economic change is the modern ‘focusing of public attention on economic activities that had traditionally been private matters of the household’ (Canovan, 1998: xvi).
Arendt’s emphatic position is that while ‘we cannot consciously make our future’, neither are we mere victims of historical necessities imposed on us.
It is a condition of the human world that it is gifted with the miracle of beginning, human natality; the fact that newcomers arrive in this world, thus making it possible that humans can intervene in the affairs of this world – that is, they can act. However, for Arendt, the human potential to act is not a warrant to go out and seek to change the world at one’s own wish as action also contains the element that humans lack control of over the effect of their own action.
We may usher in grand public policy programmes for “development,” but we need to remember that once intimated, we are not in control of the plans we embark on implementing. The outcome of human action is always unpredictable (Canovan, 1998: xviii). Hence, the now well known sociological observation that human action always have unintended, unanticipated consequences. It is not only that our action can bring about consequences we did not intend to generate, we also have no control over how other people respond with their own ‘initiatives to our own action.’
Hence, in contrast to the idea of ‘politics as making’ (Canovan, 1998: xi), which treats humans as raw material for one’s own political project and therefore has to impose its dominance over humans, politics in its stronger sense operates on the basis of accommodation among humans reached in actual practice of politics in public arenas. Politics practiced in the public realm is ‘haphazardly contingent’ and thereby sustained on the basis of ‘contracts, treaties, constitutions’, which are covenants entered into as the outcome of action, which is subject to continuous review. In this sense, the essence of politics is in agreeing to work together on realising common grounds.
Economics, the handmaiden of “development”
Economics, as it is understood in the modern usage, following on the model of modern science came into being with the rise of society, having as its chief technical tool, statistics. Traditionally, economics was initially part of ethics and politics and, hence, was not considered as possible of explaining human behaviour on its own. With the rise of the social and economics as a discipline on its own, the idea emerged that ‘men act with respect of their economic characteristics’ and that the study of such behaviour could achieve a scientific character. In other words, what the emergence of economics as a separate discipline signified was that, under modernity, men become conformist social beings who follow certain patterns of behaviour and those who do not follow the rules would be considered asocial or abnormal (Arendt, 1958: 42).
Policy and behaviouralism
It is with such developments that laws of statistics, which can be applicable where larger numbers appear, assumes a significant status in the discourse on economics. With the increase in population, larger the population, the more likely it will be the social rather than the political that will constitute the public realm. With large numbers of people coming to occupy the political realm, there is inclination towards despotism under majority rule, and behaviour tends to replace action, bureaucracy and personal rulership (Arendt, 1958: 45).
The idea of policy generally assumes behaviourism and the validity of its laws. Society’s victory in the modern age, the emergence of its initial science of economics to be followed by the rest of the social sciences, mark the beginning of studying human behaviour as found in modern mass society. “ “[B]ehavioural sciences” aim to reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal” (Arendt, 1958: 45).
Mass society has incorporated all strata of the nation and “social behaviour” has become the standard for all regions of life. In mass society, man as a social animal reigns supreme. Through the process of capitalist development, the life process itself has been channelled into the public realm. The rise of the ‘social realm transformed all modern communities into societies of labourers and job holders’ and whatever humans was to it, was understood ‘primarily as a way to sustain their own lives and those of their families’, that is, the sheer survival of biological life (Arendt, 1958: 46).
It is as if the modern society unleashed a process of ‘unnatural growth of the natural’, that is, the requirements of the life process through capitalism, which is a human creation rather than an inevitable product of history.
The ‘constant increase of productivity of labour’, which became the hallmark of capitalism, gave rise to the invention of models of ever increasing divisions of labour as the basis of capitalist production, substituting the labouring activity with the excellence in public performance, which was at the centre of the public political realm.
“The social question”
From an Arendtian perspective, under modernity, we live in a mass society in which the State has taken over the job of “development”, the need for human welfare, notions of alleviating, eliminating, eradicating poverty and misery and, relatedly, considering politics as manifesting solidarity with the poor, i.e. fraternity. Arendt makes a distinction between poverty or scarcity and misery. Poverty alleviation, for Arendt, is a matter of technological change. The French revolution, which began with the political quest for freedom, turned into one of seeking solidarity to overcome misery, whereas the American Revolution takes freedom as its object (see “The Social Question” in On Revolution, 1963). We believe that the role of the State is to protect the needy from the market forces of capitalism. Even in developed capitalist countries, there are welfare schemes such as unemployment insurance and welfare payments. We believe that the redistribution of wealth, rather than technological improvement, can solve the “problem of poverty.”
In the French Revolution, what brought the social question or the poverty issue to the top of the political agenda, pushing its original slogan of freedom and the rights of man aside, was the prevailing widespread poverty and the demand on the part of the masses to free themselves from necessity, thus binding the political realm to necessity rather than freedom (Arendt, 1958: 53). It is here that the welfare and the rights of the needy come to the forefront as the object of politics, rather than the freedom and the rights of man. Marx himself considered that mass uprising was also for freedom and not necessarily restricted to the freedom from hunger (Arendt, 1958: 56). It is the French Revolution that thus transformed the social question into a political force, taking poverty not as a natural, but a political phenomenon.
As Arendt understands, poverty is an issue related to scarcity and overcoming scarcity is a technical matter. It is when life, rather than the world, is taken as the highest good that the life process of society comes to occupy the very centre of human effort. Treating life as the highest good is not an essential feature of humanity, but the outcome of a particular understanding of what it is to be human (Arendt, 1958: 57).
While the French Revolution aimed at creating abundance in France in the face of the misery and want that prevailed in the country, its absence in America caused the American Revolution focus on the social order of society and the political form of government. Whereas poverty wants the darkness of fraternity to console itself, it is excellence in the public light that the desire for political freedom seeks.
Arendt acknowledges that people should have a certain standard of living to enable them to become active citizens. She suggests that we need to strive to free the public political realm from its preoccupation with development and policy making. How we are going to do that, she says, is a political matter to be decided among citizens. (In these terms there are some similarities between Arendt’s thinking and that of the British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (see, his essay “Rationality in Politics”, 1991). Arendt reminds us that ‘the most salient political feature of human beings is that they are plural, each capable of new perspectives or new actions and thereby cannot fit a tidy predicable model’ (Canovan, 1998).
Arendt, Hannah. 1998 (1958). The Human Condition, (Second Edition). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
——. 1963. On Revolution. New York: The Viking Press.
Drury, Shadia. 1988. The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Oakeshott, Michael. “Rationalism in Politics” in Oakeshott, Michael. 1991. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Indianapolis: Liberty Press. 5 – 42.
Canovan, Margaret. 1998. “Introduction” in Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, (Second Edition). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: vii – xx.
Suggested Supplementary Readings
Arendt, Hannah. “The Crisis in Culture” in Arendt, Hannah, 1968. Between Past and Future: Eight exercises in political thought. London: Faber & Faber. 197-226.
——. “On Humanity in Dark Times, Thoughts about Lessing” in Arendt, Hannah, 1968. Men In Dark Times. New York: Harcourt, 1968, Pp.3-31.
——. 1963. On Revolution. New York: The Viking Press.
——. 1990. “Philosophy and Politics” in Social Research, Vol. 57 No. 1. (Spring). 73-103.
Berman, Marshal. 1988. All that is solid melts into air: The Experience of Modernity New York: Verso.
Drury, Shadia. 1988. The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Sachs, Wolfang (ed.). 1992. The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. London: Zed Books.