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Pagina 239
The Sovereign and the Social:
Arendt’s Understanding of Hobbes1
Annelies Degryse
ABSTRACT. In this article, I claim that Arendt understands Hobbes not only
as the theoretical father of totalitarianism, but also of what Arendt calls ‘the
social.’ I do so by first presenting her view on imperialism and the rise of the
bourgeoisie as a general framework. Then, I focus on her reading of Hobbes’s
Leviathan. Hobbes gives birth to a state that asks for absolute obedience, depriving all his subjects of political, or (for Arendt) participation rights. This leads
to Arendt’s understanding of sovereignty as domination. According to Arendt,
Hobbes’s Leviathan not only gives rise to power politics, but also to totalitarianism. Hobbes’s new model of politics is reduced to a function of society and
has ‘socialized’ men. Politics is reduced to government, while human beings
are reduced to bourgeoisie. As I show, these changes give rise to another
monster, the social, or what Pitkin calls ‘the Blob.’ Thus, Hobbes is not only
the theoretical father of totalitarianism, but also of ‘the Blob.’ This leads me to
sketch Arendt’s metaphysics of presence, that is, how only actual acting brings
about the political. To do so, I contrast Arendt with Claude Lefort’s theory of
KEYWORDS. Arendt, sovereignty, Hobbes, the social, Schmitt, Lefort
ccording to contemporary political theory, the “Westphalian model
of state sovereignty” is in crisis. This model, which presupposes
“a dominant and unified political authority whose jurisdiction over a
clearly marked piece of territory is supreme,” has been put under
pressure by the recent developments of globalization and the increasingly
multicultural character of today’s society (Benhabib 2004, 116).
However, this is not the first time that the model has been put
under pressure, nor is it only now under scrutiny for the first time. In
1920, Hans Kelsen already formulated his alternative conception of
sovereignty as “supreme legal authority” and argued for a Grundnorm, a
© 2008 by European Centre for Ethics, K.U.Leuven. All rights reserved.
doi: 10.2143/EP.15.2.2032369
Pagina 240
hypothetical norm upon which all other norms (of a single legal
system) would be based (1960, 627). Hannah Arendt formulated another
critique of sovereignty. After World War II, she expressed the
widespread belief that sovereignty was no longer a workable concept. In
her work, Arendt refers to state sovereignty, national sovereignty, as well as to
popular sovereignty, but they all have one thing in common: the tendency
towards domination and control, possibly even leading to totalitarianism. In view of the more recent debates on sovereignty, I will address
Arendt’s understanding of the concept, focusing on Arendt’s reading of
Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, which can be found in The Origins of Totalitarianism.
The second goal of this article is to show how Arendt’s reading of
Hobbes not only leads her to her negative view of sovereignty, but also
to her understanding of what she will later call ‘the social.’ In 1998,
Hanna Fenichel Pitkin published her excellent book The Attack of the
Blob. Pitkin uses this metaphor, referring to the kitsch science-fiction
film The Blob (1958), to explain Arendt’s concept of the social and how
it seems to be “alive, eating and growing” in the work of Arendt. In
chapter five of her book, Pitkin argues that “the birth of the Blob” can
be traced back to Arendt’s masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Agreeing with Pitkin about its origins, I claim that Hobbes is the theoretical father of ‘the Blob.’ Or, to formulate things a bit more precisely:
by giving birth to the great Leviathan, he also brings forth the Blob,
“consuming human beings and grow[ing] with each meal” (1998, 4).
The Leviathan and the Blob are both monstrous creatures, making totalitarianism possible and threatening the political. Both deprive human
beings of the public-political domain and the possibility of having
genuine political experiences.
The third and final goal of this article is to show how this reading of
Hobbes also already entails (what Rudi Visker has called) Arendt’s metaphysics of presence, which I will explain by contrasting Arendt’s reading
of the Leviathan to Claude Lefort’s theory of democracy (2007, 424-5).
— 240 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 241
Arendt’s reading of Hobbes is part of “The Political Emancipation of the
Bourgeoisie,” the first chapter of the second part called “Imperialism,” of
The Origins. As Margaret Canovan puts it, “in a nutshell, Arendt’s claim
was that twentieth-century totalitarianism had been made possible by latenineteenth-century imperialism” (1992, 29). To make it clear how this is
the case, I will first sketch the broader argument of “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie.” In the next section, I go into Arendt’s reading of Hobbes’s Leviathan itself.
Arendt uses the term imperialism very specifically, referring to a
historical phenomenon that took place between 1884 to 1914 (OT, 123).
With the term, she does not refer to the (in her view) historically earlier
empire-building and colonial conquests, but to a kind of political rule
necessitated by capitalism and its adherents, the bourgeoisie (OT, 130).
According to Arendt, this new social class was, at first, not interested
at all in politics and government, but was well contented “with every type
of state that could be trusted with protection of property rights” (OT,
138). As we will see later, this disinterest is in fact caused by the Hobbesian state. As capitalism ran into the boundaries of domestic markets, it
needed new territory to expand capital and wealth. As Arendt puts it,
“when the nation-state proved unfit to be the framework for the further
growth of capitalist economy,” the bourgeoisie turned to politics, making
the limitless expansion of territory its main foreign policy goal. By
turning to politics, the bourgeoisie not only imported the language of
successful businessmen, but also economic dynamism, into the political
realm, making expansion the ultimate goal of foreign policy (OT, 124):
The bourgeoisie turned to politics out of economic necessity; for it did
not want to give up the capitalist system whose inherent law is
constant economic growth, it had to impose this law upon its home
governments and to proclaim expansion to be an ultimate political goal
of foreign policy (OT, 126).
— 241 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 242
The introduction of the economic principle of “never-ending accumulation of property,” brought about the “aimless accumulation for power”
(OT, 137). Only by accumulating power could property be protected.
“Only the unlimited accumulation of power could bring about the unlimited accumulation of capital” (OT, 137).
According to Arendt, it was the parliamentary system that “allowed
the liberal bourgeoisie to gain control over the state machine,” a thesis that
she shares with Marx (OT, 97). But the bourgeoisie never won “a
decisive victory” in the state:
National institutions resisted throughout the brutality and megalomania of imperialist aspirations, and bourgeois attempts to use the state
and its instruments of violence for its own economic purposes were
always only half successful (OT, 124).
However, by conquering foreign peoples, the nation-states “aroused national
consciousness and desire for sovereignty among the conquered people,
thereby defeating all genuine attempts at empire building” (OT, 127). This
nationalism would ultimately catch up with the conquering nation-states,
destroying their own rule of law and giving way to totalitarianism.
Arendt’s account of imperialism at first glance seems somewhat Marxist, and is definitely indebted to Marxist ideas. However, it is distinct from
Marxism in that, in her account, the originally economic principle
becomes a political principle in its own right. For Arendt, imperialism is
not an economic phenomenon, but a political one: “Imperialism must be
considered the first stage in political rule of the bourgeoisie rather than
the last stage of capitalism” (OT, 138).
For Arendt, the political theorist who formulated the theoretical framework of this ‘new’ political phenomenon of power accumulation was
— 242 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 243
Thomas Hobbes. He was the philosopher who expressed the values of the
new social class, sketching “an almost complete picture, not of Man but
of the bourgeois man, an analysis which in three hundred years has
neither been outdated nor excelled” (OT, 139). Let me now present to you
Arendt’s reading.
Arendt understands Hobbes’s Leviathan as a careful theoretical
construction of a new body politic out of “the political needs of the new
social body of the rising bourgeoisie” (OT, 140). To do so, Hobbes starts
from what is, in Arendt’s eyes, a deformed conception of human being.
He depicts man as having only one passion, the desire for power, as being
driven only by his individual interests, which he needs to defend against
others. For Arendt, this “being without reason, without the capacity for
truth, and without free will – that is, without the capacity for responsibility” is no longer human, and she emphasizes that this being would never
be able to found any body politic whatsoever, since he feels no loyalty to
his country or fellow-man (OT, 139). This solitary and private being cannot create lasting bonds between himself and his fellows, let alone build
a community. His relations are limited to temporary and limited exchanges
of goods and power.
According to Arendt, Hobbes was aware of the shortcomings of his
picture of man. She claims that “[i]t would be a grave injustice to Hobbes
and his dignity as a philosopher to consider this picture of man an attempt
at psychological realism or philosophical truth” (OT, 140). He depicted
man as such for a specific reason: so man would fit the needs of the
Leviathan. Only by depicting man as such, could Hobbes derive the public good from private interests:
Hobbes’s Leviathan, exposed the only political theory according to
which the state is based not on some kind of constituting law – whether
divine law, the law of nature, or the law of social contract – which
determines the rights and wrongs of the individual’s interest with
respect to public affairs, but on the individual interests themselves, so
that ‘the private interest is the same with the publique’ (OT, 139).
— 243 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 244
By depicting men as power-thirsty animals, Hobbes could create his state
of nature and presume that all men share a common private interest: security. For “[t]heir equality as potential murderers places all men in the same
insecurity, from which arises the need for a state” (OT, 120). Out of this
state of nature, he developed the raison d’être of the state. In exchange for
security, men are willing to give up (what Arendt calls) their “political
rights” (OT, 141).
The Leviathan arises as a new body politic demanding absolute
submission. This Hobbesian state acquires a monopoly on killing and
violence, in exchange for which it provides: security against being killed
or losing one’s goods. This security is provided by the law, “which is a
direct emanation from the power monopoly of the state (and is not established by man according to human standards of right and wrong)” (OT,
141).2 “In regard to the law of the state – that is, the accumulated power
of society as monopolized by the state – there is no question of right or
wrong, but only absolute obedience, the blind conformism of bourgeois
society” (OT, 141). (This partly explains what one might call Arendt’s
blindness to law.) But not only law is redefined through Hobbes’s description of the Leviathan; equality, power, freedom, and politics are redefined
as well. All political concepts are modified into ‘modern’ concepts, which
also explain our understanding of these concepts. Power is understood by
Hobbes as “the accumulated control that permits the individual to fix
prices and regulate supply and demand in such a way that they contribute
to his own advantage” (OT, 139). It is an economic concept referring to
the markets, and in the struggle of all men for it all men are ‘equal’ according to Hobbes. They all have the same goal – power – and the same
opportunities to reach this goal, as “[w]eakness can be compensated for
by guile” (OT, 140). According to Arendt, “only chance can decide who
will succeed” in such a society (OT, 141). As a consequence, the meaning of freedom is also changed. This is without a doubt the most important modification for Arendt. In the essay “What is Freedom?,” Arendt
summarizes this nicely as follows:
— 244 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 245
The highest purpose of politics, “the end of government,” was the
guaranty of security; security, in turn, made freedom possible, and the
word “freedom” designated a quintessence of activities which occurred
outside the political realm (BPF, 148).
Freedom is understood as freedom from politics, the liberty not to engage
in politics. Politics is reduced to the state and to government:
[F]or government, which since the beginning of the modern age had
been identified with the total domain of the political, was now considered to be the appointed protector not so much of freedom as of the
life process, the interests of society and its individuals (BPF, 148).
To better understand Arendt’s reading of Hobbes and to put it into
perspective, I will present two other interpretations of Hobbes’s Leviathan.
The first is one from C. B. Macpherson, presented in his book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. The original article, titled “Hobbes
Today,” appeared six years before Arendt’s first publication of The
Origins in 1951.3 The second interpretation is from Arendt’s controversial
compatriot Carl Schmitt, in his book The Leviathan in the State Theory of
Thomas Hobbes. I end this section with some general critiques that could
be raised against Arendt’s understanding of Hobbes.
Together with Leo Strauss, but for different reasons, Macpherson
argues that “Hobbes was a characteristic representative of ‘modern’
thought” (Tuck 2002, 113). In his book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Macpherson argues how Hobbes envisioned the rise of market
capitalism as a model for his Leviathan. Instead of describing the English
Civil War, Hobbes describes, with his state of nature, the first representation of market society. Macpherson claims that there are several assumptions common to the leading seventeenth-century political theories, most
clearly and fully expressed in Hobbes, which are still relevant to the
— 245 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 246
problems of later liberal-democratic society. One of them is that “[t]he
individual is essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities,
for which he owes nothing to society” (1962, 263). Political society is
assumed to be “a human contrivance for the protection of the individual’s property in his person and goods, and (therefore) for the maintenance of orderly relations of exchange between individuals regarded as
proprietors of themselves” (1962, 264).
Arendt’s reading of Hobbes and the rise of the bourgeoisie is in line
with Macpherson’s. They both detect and describe the many connections
between the conceptual model of Hobbes (and other natural law theories,
such as Locke’s) and the coming bourgeois society. The most striking
connection between Hobbes and the rise of bourgeois society is found in
Hobbes’s descriptions of humans and human relations. Human beings
are described by Hobbes as individual agents enjoying full autonomy. The
relations they have in the state of nature are simple, immediate, that is,
economic relations. One can easily understand this description as the
theoretical reflection of the rise of a new kind of society, standing in
contrast to feudal society, with its overlapping economic and political
spheres. As we have seen, Arendt refutes this description of humans and
their relations as one-sided and unrealistic.
However, Arendt’s understanding of Hobbes moves away from
Macpherson’s. Where Macpherson’s view of the Leviathan sees nothing
more than the regulating market commission, securing and guaranteeing
the necessary order for business, Arendt’s reading brings her closer to
Carl Schmitt’s interpretation of Hobbes in Leviathan in the State Theory of
Thomas Hobbes. She shares Schmitt’s interpretation of the Leviathan, as an
absolute state taking over all power and demanding absolute obedience.
Quoting Schmitt:
The ‘relation between protection and obedience’ is the cardinal point
of Hobbes’ construction of state. It permits a very good reconciliation
with the concepts and ideals of the bourgeois constitutional state (1996,
— 246 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 247
Arendt envisions this state, just as Schmitt does, as “an irresistible and
overpowering huge machine” (Schmitt 2007, 46).4 And, like Schmitt,
Arendt ignores ‘the right of resistance’ in the Leviathan.5 Hobbes’s theory
enhances the passivity of citizens and their self-limitation to the private
sphere, in exchange for security. Schmitt and Arendt share a disdain for
the bourgeoisie. As Schmitt puts it in The Concept of the Political:
The bourgeois is an individual who does not want to leave the apolitical riskless private sphere. He rests in the possession of his private property, and under the justification of his possessive individualism he acts as an individual against the totality. He is a man who
finds his compensation for his political nullity in the fruits of freedom and enrichments and above all in the total security of its use
(2007, 62).
Schmitt reminds us of the fact that, before Tönnies’s interpretation of
Hobbes as the theorist of the positiven Rechtsstaates, Hobbes was understood as the theorist of the absolutistischen Machtstaates. In a footnote,
Schmitt refers to Vialatoux’s earlier treatise on Hobbes as the father of
l’état totalitaire (1996, 76). Again, Arendt agrees. Although the decline of
politics already starts with Plato, Hobbes sketches with his Leviathan not
an early blueprint of the nation-state, but a blueprint for totalitarianism,
as is made clear through a footnote in The Origins (Brunkhorst 1999,
64). In footnote 36, Arendt explains the difference between the
Hobbesian state and the totalitarian state. Although she tries to give
Hobbes some credit, it seems clear to her that he paved the way to totalitarianism:
The coincidence of this identification with the totalitarian pretense of
having abolished the contradictions between individual and public interests is significant enough…. However, one should not overlook the
fact that Hobbes wanted most of all to protect private interests by pretending that, rightly understood, they were the interests of the body
politic as well, while on the contrary totalitarian regimes proclaim the
nonexistence of privacy (OT, 139).
— 247 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 248
So, for Schmitt as well for Arendt, social powers have disturbed the state.
They both see a threat of ‘depoliticalization’ in social powers. However,
the resemblances between Schmitt and Arendt stop here. For Schmitt,
depoliticalization is a reason to reinforce the state (and to promote the
third Reich). Arendt chooses the opposite path. She will regenerate the
human experience of politics, emphasize the human ability of action and
try to avoid the danger of totalitarianism.
The least one can say is that Arendt’s interpretation of Hobbes is a bit
one-sided. That might also explain why Arendt’s reading of Hobbes has
been mostly ignored by scholars. Without discussing it in depth, I offer
some general arguments against her reading.
Arendt seems to perceive correctly that, according to Hobbes,
security is the principal end of the state and that freedom and security are
in conflict with each other (Jaume 2007, 207, 203). It is true that Hobbes
fights for authority and not for liberty. As Norberto Bobbio puts it in his
book Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law Tradition:
Hobbes never had the slightest hesitation in choosing between the
excess of freedom, and the excess of authority. He fears the former as
the worst of all evils; he is resigned to the latter as the lesser evil. No
matter what commentators say, all his system is founded on the
mistrust of liberty (1993, 66-67).
Hauke Brunkhorst criticizes Arendt for not having understood how
Hobbes founds a Rechtsstaat and how he introduces freedom of opinion
by making a strict distinction between morality and law (1999, 65). However, this interpretation of Hobbes is not shared by Bobbio. The latter
claims that “Hobbes does not believe in freedom of conscience,” nor
does he admit “freedom of thought” (1993, 70-71).
Another argument that can be raised against Arendt’s reading is that
Hobbes is not the ideologue of the endless accumulation of wealth, nor of
power. Tuck points out that Hobbes defends a fundamental natural right
— 248 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 249
for every individual to possess the material objects necessary for survival.
“As long as men teeter economically on the edge of survival, therefore, it
is morally wrong (according to Hobbes) for some people to amass more
than they need” (Tuck 2002, 82).
An argument brought up against Macpherson can also be posed to Arendt.
She understands ‘modern’ man as essentially bourgeois, whereas anti-bourgeois attitudes can also be recognized as part of modernity (Tuck 2002, 116).
Many more arguments could be presented against Arendt’s reading. This
is not my primary aim, however. Instead, I focus on Arendt’s reading of
Hobbes in respect of her later philosophical work, because Arendt’s reading of Hobbes is crucial to her understanding of modernity. With the birth
of the Leviathan, scrupulous power politics is born, demanding absolute obedience from its subjects, for a specific aim: wealth accumulation. Domination is its strategy, over its subjects as well as over other states. Its birth not
only gives rise to all our modern political notions, but also makes totalitarianism possible. But Hobbes’s fatherhood goes beyond the Leviathan:
He [Hobbes] outlined the only new body politic which could correspond to the new needs and interests of a new class. What he actually
achieved was a picture of man as he ought to become and ought to
behave if he wanted to fit into the coming bourgeois society (OT, 143).
Hobbes does not describe man as he is, but as he should be. Hobbes’s
Leviathan is also the beginning of the ‘socialization’ of men into bourgeois
men. Hobbes designs the new blueprint as well as the concept of man
who fits into it. Therefore, he is also the father of (what Arendt describes
as) the social or the Blob.
As already mentioned, in the book The Attack of the Blob, Pitkin uses the
metaphor of the Blob, referring to the kitsch science-fiction film The Blob,
— 249 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 250
to address Arendt’s concept of the social. She traces Arendt’s problematic concept of the social in her work, describing the different meanings
that can be found. Pitkin’s reading presents a fruitful way to rethink the
concept. She summarizes it sharply as follows:
The real-world problem that Arendt intended her concept of the social
to address … concerns the gap between our enormous, still-increasing
powers and our apparent helplessness to avert the various disasters –
national, regional, and global – looming on our horizon (1998, 6).
My aim is not to summarize or criticize Pitkin’s understanding of Arendt,
but to argue that Hobbes is the theoretical father of what she calls the
Blob. While Pitkin gives an extensive overview of Arendt’s thought on the
social throughout her work, I will instead focus on a particular section of
Arendt’s work, to show how the Blob already obtains its vital characteristics through her reading of Hobbes. In my view, these characteristics are
twofold. First, politics is reduced to a function of society. Second, men
are socialized as ‘bourgeois men.’
In his book Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law Tradition, Bobbio
begins by contrasting the new model of natural law thinkers, introduced
by Hobbes, with the earlier ‘Aristotelian model.’ Both models envision an
initial, pre-political moment of social life against a later (and hierarchically ‘higher’) moment of political rule. But while this is family life in the
Aristotelian model, it is the state of nature in the natural law model:
In the modern model, the family has thus been suppressed or set aside
as the prepolitical society by definition, and it has been replaced by the
state of nature. The latter progressively assumes the features of the
society in which the network of elemental economic relations develops
(1993, 14).
In the natural law model, the economic domain is treated as distinct from
the political domain. A pre-political and anti-political society arises, guided
by its own laws. “This society is the basis upon which political society is
— 250 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 251
built. The latter is an artificial entity, created by the will of the owners of
resources who wish to see their property secured” (1993, 11). Since the
modern state was informed by the fundamental ideas of natural law, it is
in fact not hard to detect connections between the natural law model and
bourgeois society.
The contrast between the Aristotelian and the natural law model helps
us to better understand Arendt’s reading of Hobbes. Arendt seems to
reject the natural law model as such, which becomes clear through The
Human Condition, which presents Arendt’s own model. Two reasons, more
extensively considered in The Human Condition, are already present in The
Origins. First of all, she disagrees with the natural law model in its depiction of human beings and their relations. This model reduced human
beings and their relations reduced to economic relations between solitary
beings, according to her. In strong contradistinction to Hobbes, Arendt
emphasizes that men are not born equal, but become equal through political organization (OT, 301). It should be clear that Arendt does not deny
economic relations as such, but rather, for her, they only represent one
kind among many other possible types of relationships. One can envision family relations, such as the relations between husband and wife,
parent and child, but also the relations between teacher and pupil, between
students, between employer and employees, as well as those among merchants. For Arendt, these pre-political relations stand in contrast to the
relations among peers that can only arise in the political realm. Arendt
presents her idea of human relations extensively in The Human Condition.
The whole of all these relationships form the “web of human relationships” (HC, 181). Seen from Arendt’s perspective, Hobbesian society is
a reduction of human relations to merely economic ones. What Arendt
calls “the rise of the social” in The Human Condition is in fact (for Arendt)
the unnatural growth of this kind of relationship.
The second reason hangs together with the first. Based on The Human
Condition and other texts, one could claim that, for Arendt, the decay of
the political already started in antiquity with the disappearance of the polis.
— 251 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 252
In fact, Arendt claims that even in Athens, democracy was already in
decay by the time of Plato and Aristotle (see “Philosophy and Politics”
1990). In this regard, Hobbes is no different from his predecessors. What
makes Hobbes different and ‘modern’ is his reduction of politics to a
function of society. Even the medieval, Christian attitude still regarded
politics as serving a common good distinct from the private good. In
Hobbes, this common good is reduced to the sum of all private goods
(HC, 35). As we saw earlier, totalitarianism is the reverse of this model:
all private goods are reduced to the common good. For Arendt, this
reduction of politics gives rise to ‘the social.’ Hobbes introduces the servitude of politics to what we call society, “that curiously hybrid realm where
private interests assume public significance” (HC, 35). It is exactly this
reduction of politics to a function of society that made it possible for the
economic principle of wealth accumulation to become a political principle of power accumulation.
Hobbes not only reduces politics to a function of economic society; he
also depicts man “as he ought to become and ought to behave if he
wanted to fit into the coming bourgeois society” (OT, 143). What Arendt
calls the “socialization of man,” referring to Marx, became a reality in her
opinion. In the essay “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility”
from 1945, Arendt deals with the question of German support and cooperation with the Nazis. Arendt’s answer refers to a transformation of men:
The transformation of the family man from a responsible member of
society, interested in all public affairs, to a “bourgeois” concerned only
with his private existence and knowing no civic virtue, is an international modern phenomenon (EU, 129).
According to Arendt, this transformation from a responsible member of
‘society’ (Arendt uses the word here in its traditional sense) to a ‘bourgeois’
enjoyed particularly favorable conditions in Germany, due to the deprivations of the first World War. But the message is clear: not only Germans
— 252 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
Pagina 253
were susceptible to the dangers of totalitarianism. All people could have and
still can fall into this trap when behaving as merely ‘bourgeois.’ Again,
Arendt observes the starting point of this transformation in Hobbes:
Deprived of political rights, the individual, to whom public and official life manifests itself in the guise of necessity, acquires a new and
increased interest in his private life and his personal fate (OT, 141).
The quotation also indicates how Arendt understands ‘political rights.’
For her, they are participation rights.6 By describing the Leviathan as the
guarantor of security, human beings are deprived of their right to enter
the public-political realm. Deprived of their political rights, people have
only the private sphere left in which to manifest themselves. Therefore,
humans begin focusing on property and wealth accumulation. They no
longer compete in words and deeds in the public-political realm, but
instead compare their private life and wealth with each other. They are
‘socialized’ to become bourgeois. When they reclaim their participation
rights, they do so as bourgeois, not as citizens; that is, they do so for economic reasons, when the nation-state limits further economic growth. As
mentioned before, this was possible through the parliamentary system.7
Thus, Hobbes’s Leviathan does not only give rise to totalitarianism, but
also gives rise to the men who give in to totalitarianism. With the
Leviathan, the Blob is born as well, as the subordination of politics to
society and the ‘socialization of man.’ And while Arendt focuses on the
Leviathan in The Origins, she focuses on the Blob in The Human Condition,
where she strongly rejects the subordination of politics to society.
Hobbes’s model became the model of modern politics, making all political terms ‘modern.’ For Arendt, Hobbes does not treat the economic
domain as distinct from the political domain, but in fact blurs “the old
— 253 —
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 2
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borderline between private and political” (HC, 38). Arendt describes this
‘blurring’ as “the rise of housekeeping, its activities, problems, and
organizational devices – from the shadowy interior of the household into
the light of the public sphere” (HC, 38). Arendt’s reading of Hobbes
points out one of Arendt’s most important features: her metaphysics of
presence. I will explain this by contrasting her view with the theory of
democracy of Claude Lefort. Let me start again with Bobbio.
Explaining Hobbes’s absolute notion of sovereignty, Bobbio claims
that “[b]efore the institution of the sovereign power there is no people,
but instead a multitude, a group of isolated individuals” (1993, 54). The
birth of the Leviathan unites the single unities into a whole, that is, the
people. With the assignment of every individual to a common representative, not only does the sovereign first appear, but also the people and
the first separation between the state and society. In the words of Claude
Lefort: “Power was embodied in the prince, and it therefore gave society
a body” (1988, 17). Through the figure of the prince all individuals are
united into the people, represented by the prince. However, this distinction between the locus of power and society “reveals the revolutionary
and unprecedented feature of democracy” according to Lefort (1988, 17).
For when the prince was beheaded and popular sovereignty came on the
scene, the locus of power became “an empty place” that could no longer
be occupied by one individual or one group (1988, 17). This empty place
allows representatives of the people to address the people. However, no
one can take over the stage as a whole. “[T]he exercise of power proves
to be bound up with the temporality of its reproduction and to be subordinated to the conflict of collective wills” (1988, 18). Struggle in society is represented as conflict on stage. As such, the political as a stage and
its conflicting actors make the struggles in society visible and through
these struggles, society can envision and understand itself. Through the
formal rules of suffrage, putting new actors with conflicting wills on stage
every x number of years, the conflict is instituted in the democratic system: “The erection of a political stage on which competition can take
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place shows that division is, in a general way, constitutive of the very
unity of society” (1988, 18).
Lefort recognizes that what he calls ‘the model of democracy’ hangs
together with bourgeois society, as “it made possible the development of
commodity relations and rationalized activities in a manner that paved
the way for the rise of capitalism” (1988, 17). However, the same critique
that Lefort raises against Marx can be raised against Arendt:
What he [Marx] calls bourgeois society is certainly characterized by the
strengthening of the state, but it is also characterized by the representative system and by the fact that the government must emanate from
society as a whole (1988, 35).
Arendt’s understanding of Hobbes stands in direct contrast to Lefort’s.
For her, the birth of the Leviathan does not give rise to the people and a
separation of society and the state. In fact, as we have seen, according to
Arendt, it blurs the line between the two. The subordination of each individual to the authority of the common representative is nothing other
than the surrender of one’s political, that is, participation rights. For
Arendt, the political only comes about where the people themselves are
present on stage, speaking and acting. Only then can they experience the
public freedom and happiness that action brings. This constitutes what
Derrida calls the metaphysics of presence (See also Visker 2007). Derrida
uses this term to describe what he considers the fundamental way of
thinking of the Western philosophical tradition, that is, that presence is
preferred over absence. Throughout her work, Arendt thinks of politics
in terms of presence and participation. This makes it almost impossible
for her to consider representation. For Arendt, representation stands in
opposition to action and participation and is therefore a sign of absence
and even indifference towards the political (OR, 273). As she claims in
On Revolution: “For political freedom, generally speaking, means the right
‘to be a participator in government,’ or it means nothing” (OR, 218). This
metaphysics of presence explains many of her (sometimes disturbing)
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views on modern politics. It explains, for example, her critical understanding of democracy:
That representative government has in fact become oligarchic government is true enough, though not in the classical sense of rule by the
few in the interest of the few; what we today call democracy is a form
of government where the few rule, at least supposedly, in the interest
of the many. This government is democratic in that popular welfare and
private happiness are its chief goals; but it can be called oligarchic in
the sense that public happiness and public freedom have again become
the privilege of the few. (OR, 269)
It also explains her alternative preference for a political structure based on
‘elementary republics,’ which “would spell the end of general suffrage” (OR,
278-279). For Arendt, elementary republics offer multiple stages, allowing
more people to act and to experience public freedom. “[O]nly those who
as voluntary members of an ‘elementary republic’ … would have a right to
be heard in the conduct of the business of the republic” (OR, 279). Only
then would the negative freedom as ‘liberated from the political’ be meaningful as the self-chosen absence from the public-political stage.
It is exactly this metaphysics of presence that gives rise to many of
the general critiques on Arendt, “as the antimodernist lover of the Greek
polis.” As Seyla Benhabib summarizes these critiques, “[i]t is said that she
views modernity simply as initiating a decline of the ‘public sphere’ of
politics” (2000, xxxix). It is also exactly this metaphysics of presence that
makes it so difficult to apply her concepts to the contemporary world.
In this article, I have tried to make clear three features of Arendt’s thought.
First, I have tried to show how Arendt understands sovereignty as domination. I have done so by presenting her view on imperialism and the rise
of the bourgeoisie as a framework. Inside this framework stands her understanding of sovereignty, through her reading of Hobbes. Hobbes gives birth
to a state that asks for absolute obedience, depriving all its subjects of political, or for Arendt, participation rights. In doing so, it not only gives rise to
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the Blob, but also makes totalitarianism possible. According to Arendt,
Hobbes’s new model not only reduces politics to a function of society, but
it has also ‘socialized’ men. Politics is reduced to government, while human
beings are reduced to bourgeoisie. To demonstrate that the Blob was born
through Arendt’s understanding of the Leviathan has been my second goal.
This has lead me to my third goal: to sketch Arendt’s metaphysics of presence, that is, how only actual acting brings about the political.
Arendt, Hannah. 1990. “Philosophy and Politics.” Social Research 57 (1):73-103.
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York: Schocken Books.
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Benhabib, Seyla. 2000. The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt. Lanham: Rowman &
Littlefield Publishers. Original edition, 1996.
—. 2004. The Rights of Others. Aliens, Residents and Citizens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bobbio, Noberto. 1993. Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law Tradition. Translated by
D. Gobetti. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Original edition, 1989.
Brunkhorst, Hauke. 1999. Hannah Arendt, Beck’sche Reihe: Denker. München: Beck.
Canovan, Margaret. 1992. Hannah Arendt. A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought.
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Jaume, Lucien. 2007. “Hobbes and the Philosophical Sources of Liberalism.” In The
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Kelsen, Hans. 1960. “Sovereignty and International Law.” The Georgetown Law Journal 48
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—. 2007. The Concept of the Political. Translated by G. Schwab. Chicago: University of
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1. I wish to thank all the members of the Centre for Political and Social Theory for their
guidance, support and friendship. Also thank you to Hauke Brunkhorst, Seyla Benhabib, Rudi
Visker, Remi Peeters, Marieke Borren, and Ralph Palm for useful comments and insights.
2. Compare with Schmitt: “All other conceptions of truth and justice are absorbed by decisions promulgated in legal commands” (1996, 45).
3. It remains unclear to me if Arendt knew of this article; she never refers to it in the
4. Compare with Schmitt: “The leviathan thus becomes none other than a huge machine, a
gigantic mechanism in the service of ensuring the physical protection of those governed” (1996,
5. Compare with Schmitt: “Resistance as a ‘right’ is in Hobbes’ absolute state in every respect
identical to public law and as such is factually and legally nonsensical and absurd” (1996, 46).
6. The most explicit statement concerning this can be found in On Revolution: “For political
freedom, generally speaking, it means the right ‘to be a participator in government,’ or it means
nothing” (OR, 218).
7. Arendt shares this criticism on parliamentarism with Schmitt: “The old adversaries, the
‘indirect’ powers of the church and of interest groups, reappeared in that century as modern political parties, trade unions, social organizations, in a word as ‘forces of society.’ The seized the legislative arm of parliament and the law state and thought they had placed the leviathan in harness”
(Schmitt 1996, 116).
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