Arendt on Labor Movements: Taking Up the Social Question Politically

Hey y’all,

I’ve been thinking a bit about some of the conclusions we seemed to reach last class in regard to Arendt on the social question.  As Sean helpfully pointed us to the passage at the end of chapter 2 in which Arendt says “Nothing, we might say today, could be more obsolete than to attempt to liberate mankind from poverty by political means; nothing could be more futile and more dangerous” (104) and Gabriel drew our attention to a passage in which Arendt says that poverty is natural (I don’t have the citation for this one in my notes), we seemed to reach the conclusion that Arendt offers an articulation of what Gabriel called “the blackmail of the gulag” which is the idea– a popular one during the Cold War– that trying to change social relations through political means always leads to violence.

There are a number of problems with this exclusion of social relations from political action or, put differently, with the assertion of the autonomy of the political (of a political “realm” in which social issues are excluded).  Nancy Fraser has a nice article on this constellation of problems in an article “Politics, Culture, and the Public Sphere” (I’ll try to see if I can post a link to it on here later today) where she says that the concept of an independent, autonomous public realm, specifically in Arendt, rests on a few faulty assumptions: “1) the assumption, that social equality is not a necessary condition for political democracy. 2) the assumption that discourse in the public spheres should be restricted to deliberation about the common good, and that the appearance of “private interests” and “private issues” is always undesirable” Fraser concludes that socioeconomic equality is a necessary precondition for political engagement as Arendt defines it. The problem here is that if politics is impossible under conditions of socioeconomic inequality and furthermore, if resolving socioeconomic inequality is cannot to be taken up as a political project, we are left to either reject Arendt’s framework wholesale or wait around until the day when, through some kind of technological advancement, full social equality makes possible political engagement…and at that point, like, what would even be the point?… What would motivate political action or revolution if not social and economic inequality?  I am totally sympathetic to this quandary…

But I want to briefly draw our attention away from On Revolution and to Arendt’s analysis of the Labor Movement in The Human Condition. By the “Labor Movement,” Arendt refers to a wide-ranging political struggle, “from the revolutions of 1848 to the Hungarian revolution of 1956” (215). On Arendt’s account, the Labor Movement was able to fight a “full fledged political battle” (219) even though it was concerned with the social question.  Arendt says specifically of the sans culottes that “despite all the talk and theory they were the only group on the political scene which not only defended its economic interests but fought a full-fledged political battle” (219).   This is because of the “decisive role of mere appearance, of distinguishing oneself and being conspicuous in the realm of human affairs is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the fact that laborers, when they entered the scene of history, felt it necessary to adopt a costume of their own, and the distinction was directed against all others” (218). I’m not totally sure what to make of this but Arendt seems to be suggesting that there are ways in which the social question can motivate political action but that the mode in which such a project is done has to be political and not instrumental.  Whatever it means to “be political” is not entirely clear but it seems to be dependent upon this notion of appearance.  In the chapter in The Human Condition that is dedicated to articulating what it is that Arendt means by political “action” she turns to a group that is intimately bound up with the social question… but whose engagement with these issues retains a level of discourse that emphasizes the discursive calling into question of the political body itself (think here of Ranciére’s notion of dissensus). The main worry, on the reading of Arendt I’m beginning to flesh out here, is that by conflating the project of alleviating poverty (a fundamentally means/ends kind of project) with all political activity we lose an important possibility, an importantly distinct mode of engagement with our political communities.


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