Steve Bannon es católico, mientras que Donald Trump nació en una familia presbiteriana. La religiosidad personal de ambos es más que dudosa, como le sucedía a Maurras, hasta el punto de que fue el agnosticismo del escritor francés el que le condujo a la condena eclesial. Bannon se ha divorciado dos veces a pesar de la indisolubilidad del matrimonio católico, y de Trump se desconoce si practica o si tiene siquiera alguna idea religiosa. Pero en ambos cuenta la religión como visión política del mundo, y ahí es donde el Vaticano tiene algo que decir y lo ha dicho, uniendo además en una misma crítica al catolicismo integrista y al fundamentalismo evangelista que tan buen servicio les ha rendido al Partido Republicano para ganar en las elecciones presidenciales.
Aunque el mensaje es bien claro, en cuanto a quien lo emite y a lo que dice, la vía escogida por el Vaticano es sutil e indirecta. Ha sido la revista de los jesuitas Civiltà Cattolica la que lo ha transmitido, a través de un artículo, titulado ‘Fundamentalismo evangélico e integrismo católico en Estados Unidos, un ecumenismo sorprendente’, firmado por su director, el italiano Antonio Spadaro, y por el protestante argentino Marcelo Figueroa. Un católico y un protestante denuncian precisamente la colusión de católicos y protestantes extremistas estadounidenses en un mismo pensamiento al que califican de “ecumenismo del odio”. Según el diario italiano La Repubblica, el papa Francisco en persona, el secretario de Estado Pietro Parolin y el secretario para las Relaciones con Estados Unidos, Paul Richard Gallagher, han corregido y visado el artículo.
El papa Francisco rechaza la narrativa del miedo y de la inseguridad, sobre la que Trump y su derecha alternativa construyen muros ideológicos
La primera característica de esta desviación teológica es el maniqueísmo, un “lenguaje que divide la realidad entre el Bien absoluto y el Mal absoluto”, cuestión en la que los autores citan al propio presidente Trump y que sitúa a los inmigrantes y a los musulmanes entre las amenazas al sistema de vida de Estados Unidos.Una segunda característica que denuncian Spadaro y Figueroa es el carácter de Teología de la Prosperidad que comparten los dos extremismos católico y evangelista. Su evangelio para ricos, difundido por organizaciones y pastores multimillonarios, predica una idea autojustificativa de que “Dios desea que sus seguidores tengan salud física, sean prósperos y personalmente felices”. La tercera característica es una defensa muy peculiar de la libertad religiosa, en la que extremistas católicos y protestantes se unen en cuestiones como la oposición al aborto y al matrimonio entre personas del mismo sexo o la educación religiosa en la escuela, y propugnan un sometimiento de las instituciones del Estado a las ideas religiosas e incluso a la Biblia muy similar al que inspira al fundamentalismo islámico.
Esta visión del mundo proporciona una justificación teológica a la guerra y alienta la esperanza religiosa con la expectativa de un enfrentamiento apocalíptico y definitivo entre el Bien y el Mal. Las afinidades con la idea islamista radical de la yihad son bien claras. El artículo denuncia la web de extrema derecha Church Militant, que atribuye la victoria de Trump a las oraciones de los estadounidenses, propugna la guerra de religiones y profesa el llamado dominionismo, que es una lectura literalista del Genésis en la que el hombre es el centro de un universo a su entero servicio. Los dominionistas consideran anticristianos a los ecologistas y observan los desastres naturales y el cambio climático como irremediables signos escatológicos de un final de los tiempos apocalíptico, que no hay que obstaculizar, sino todo lo contrario.
No es posible comprender esta fuerte arremetida del Vaticano contra la extrema derecha estadounidense sin recordar la intervención de Steve Bannon en una conferencia celebrada en el Vaticano en 2014, en la que denunció la secularización excesiva de Occidente y anunció “la proximidad de un conflicto brutal y sangriento, (…) una guerra global contra el fascismo islámico”, en la que “esta nueva barbarie que ahora empieza erradicará todo lo que nos ha sido legado en los últimos dos mil o dos mil quinientos años”. También hay que situarlo en el marco de tensiones entre la Casa Blanca y el Vaticano a propósito de Oriente Próximo, especialmente tras el primer viaje de Trump en el que pretendió conectar con las tres religiones, islam, judaísmo y catolicismo, pero terminó convirtiéndose en un reforzamiento de la alianza con Arabia Saudí y un estímulo al enfrentamiento con Teherán, con consecuencias inmediatas en el bloqueo a Qatar.
El pontífice no solo discrepa de sus propuestas sobre ecología, inmigración o impuestos, sino que rechaza su estrategia en favor de Riad
Curiosamente, Spadaro y Figueroa defienden las raíces cristianas de Europa, pero con una argumentación inversa a la que se escuchaba en tiempos de Ratzinger, de la que ha desaparecido el supremacismo cristiano y blanco. “El triunfalismo, la arrogancia y el etnicismo vengativo son exactamente lo contrario del cristianismo”, aseguran. El artículo termina recordando que el papa Francisco combate la narrativa del miedo y la manipulación de la inseguridad y de la ansiedad de la gente, evita la reducción del Islam al terrorismo islamista y rechaza la idea de una guerra santa contra el islam o la construcción de muros físicos e ideológicos. Con la denuncia del ecumenismo del odio, el Vaticano sitúa a Steve Bannon y Donald Trump en un infierno ideológico análogo al que abrió las puertas a Maurras en 1927, ahora hace justo 90 años, en el que se encuentran condenados los políticos que utilizan la religión para dividir en vez de unir a los seres humanos.
How should we understand these sweeping powers that employers have to regulate their employees’ lives, both on and off duty? Most people don’t use the term in this context, but wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in some domain of life, that authority is a government
We usually assume that “government” refers to state authorities. Yet the state is only one kind of government. Every organization needs some way to govern itself — to designate who has authority to make decisions concerning its affairs, what their powers are, and what consequences they may mete out to those beneath them in the organizational chart who fail to do their part in carrying out the organization’s decisions.
Managers in private firms can impose, for almost any reason, sanctions including job loss, demotion, pay cuts, worse hours, worse conditions, and harassment. The top managers of firms are therefore the heads of little governments, who rule their workers while they are at work — and often even when they are off duty.
Every government has a constitution, which determines whether it is a democracy, a dictatorship, or something else. In a democracy like the United States, the government is “public.” This means it is properly the business of the governed: transparent to them and servant to their interests. They have a voice and the power to hold rulers accountable.
Not every government is public in this way. When King Louis XIV of France said, “L’etat, c’est moi,” he meant that his government was his business alone, something he kept private from those he governed. They weren’t entitled to know how he operated it, had no standing to insist he take their interests into account in his decisions, and no right to hold him accountable for his actions.
Over time, national governments have become “public,” but in the US workplace governments remain resolutely “private”
Like Louis XIV’s government, the typical American workplace is kept private from those it governs. Managers often conceal decisions of vital interest to their workers. Often, they don’t even give advance notice of firm closures and layoffs. They are free to sacrifice workers’ dignity in dominating and humiliating their subordinates. Most employer harassment of workers is perfectly legal, as long as bosses mete it out on an equal-opportunity basis. (Walmart and Amazon managers are notorious for berating and belittling their workers.) And workers have virtually no power to hold their bosses accountable for such abuses: They can’t fire their bosses, and can’t sue them for mistreatment except in a very narrow range of cases, mostly having to do with discrimination.
Why are workers subject to private government? The state has set the default terms of the constitution of workplace government through its employment laws. The most important source of employers’ power is the default rule of employment at will. Unless the parties have otherwise agreed, employers are free to fire workers for almost any or no reason. This amounts to an effective grant of power to employers to rule the lives of their employees in almost any respect — not just on the job but off duty as well. And they have exercised that power.
American public discourse doesn’t give us helpful ways to talk about the dictatorial rule of employers. Instead, we talk as if workers aren’t ruled by their bosses. We are told that unregulated markets make us free, and that the only threat to our liberties is the state. We are told that in the market, all transactions are voluntary. We are told that since workers freely enter and exit the labor contract, they are perfectly free under it. We prize our skepticism about “government,” without extending our critique to workplace dictatorship.
The earliest champions of free markets envisioned a world of self-employment
Why do we talk like this? The answer takes us back to free market ideas developed before the Industrial Revolution. In 17th- and 18th-century Britain, big merchants got the state to grant them monopolies over trade in particular goods, forcing small craftsmen to submit to their regulations. A handful of aristocratic families enjoyed a monopoly on land, due to primogeniture and entail, which barred the breakup and sale of any part of large estates. Farmers could rent their land only on short-term leases, which forced them to bow and scrape before their landlords, in a condition of subordination not much different from servants, who lived in their masters’ households and had to obey their rules.
The problem was that the state had rigged the rules of the market in favor of the rich. Confronted with this economic situation, many people argued that free markets would promote equality and workers’ interests by enabling them to go into business for themselves and thereby escapesubordination to the owners of capital.
No wonder some of the early advocates of free markets in 17th-century England were called “Levellers.” These radicals, who emerged during the English civil war, wanted to abolish the monopolies held by the big merchants and aristocrats. They saw the prospects of greater equality that might come from opening up to ordinary workers opportunities for manufacture, trade, and farming one’s own land.
In the 18th century, Adam Smith was the greatest advocate for the view that replacing monopolies, primogeniture, entail, and involuntary servitude with free markets would enable laborers to work on their own behalf. His key assumption was that incentives were more powerful than economies of scale. When workers get to keep all of the fruits of their labor, as they do when self-employed, they will work much harder and more efficiently than if they are employed by a master, who takes a cut of what they produce. Indolent aristocratic landowners can’t compete with yeoman farmers without laws preventing land sales. Free markets in land, labor, and commerce will therefore lead to the triumph of the most efficient producer, the self-employed worker, and the demise of the idle, stupid, rent-seeking rentier.
Smith and his contemporaries looked across the Atlantic and saw that America appeared to be realizing these hopes — although only for white men. The great majority of the free population in the Revolutionary period was self-employed, as either a yeoman farmer or an independent artisan or merchant.
In the United States, Thomas Paine was the great promoter of this vision. Indeed, his views on political economy sound as if they could have been ripped out of the GOP Freedom Caucus playbook. Paine argued that individuals can solve nearly all of their problems on their own, without state meddling. A good government does nothing more than secure individuals in “peace and safety” in the free pursuit of their occupations, with the lowest possible tax burden. Taxation is theft. People living off government pay are social parasites. Government is the chief cause of poverty. Paine was a lifelong advocate of commerce, free trade, and free markets. He called for hard money and fiscal responsibility.
Paine was the hero of labor radicals for decades after his death in 1809, because they shared his hope that free markets would yield an economy almost entirely composed of small proprietors. An economy of small proprietors offers a plausible model of a free society of equals: each individual personally independent, none taking orders from anyone else, everyone middle class.
Abraham Lincoln built on the vision of Smith and Paine, which helped to shape the two key planks of the Republican Party platform: opposition to the extension of slavery in the territories, and the Homestead Act. Slavery, after all, enabled masters to accumulate vast tracts of land, squeezing out small farmers and forcing them into wage labor. Prohibiting the extension of slavery into the territories and giving away small plots of land to anyone who would work it would realize a society of equals in which no one is ever consigned to wage labor for life. Lincoln, who helped create the political party that now defends the interests of business, never wavered from the proposition that true free labor meant freedom from wage labor.
The Industrial Revolution, however — well underway by Lincoln’s time — ultimately dashed the hopes of joining free markets with independent labor in a society of equals. Smith’s prediction — that economies of scale would be less important than the incentive effects of enabling workers to reap all the fruits of their labor — was defeated by industrial technologies that required massive accumulations of capital. The US, with its access to territories seized from Native Americans, was able to stave off the bankruptcy of self-employed farmers and other small proprietors for far longer than Europe. But industrialization, population growth, the closure of the frontier, and railroad monopolies doomed the sole proprietorship to the margins of the economy, even in North America.
The Industrial Revolution gave employers new powers over workers, but economists failed to adjust their vocabulary — or their analyses
The Smith-Paine-Lincoln libertarian vision was rendered largely irrelevant by industrialization, which created a new model of wage labor, with large companies taking the place of large landowners. Yet strangely, many people persist in using Smith’s and Paine’s rhetoric to describe the world we live in today. We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control — but most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government. A vision of what egalitarians hoped market society would deliver before the Industrial Revolution — a world without private workplace government, with producers interacting only through markets and the state — has been blindly carried over to the modern economy by libertarians and their pro-business fellow travelers.
There is a condition called hemiagnosia, whose sufferers cannot perceive one half of their bodies. A large class of libertarian-leaning thinkers and politicians, with considerable public following, resemble patients with this condition: They cannot perceive half of the economy — the half that takes place beyond the market, after the employment contract is accepted, where workers are subject to private, arbitrary, unaccountable government.
What can we do about this? Americans are used to complaining about how government regulation restricts our freedom. So we should recognize that such complaints apply, with at least as much force, to private governments of the workplace. For while the punishments employers can impose for disobedience aren’t as severe as those available to the state, the scope of employers’ authority over workers is more sweeping and exacting, its power more arbitrary and unaccountable. Therefore, it is high time we considered remedies for reining in the private government of the workplace similar to those we have long insisted should apply to the state.
Three types of remedy are of special importance. First, recall a key demand the United States made of communist dictatorships during the Cold War: Let dissenters leave. Although workers are formally free to leave their workplace dictatorships, they often pay a steep price. Nearly one-fifth of American workers labor under noncompete clauses. This means they can’t work in the same industry if they quit or are fired.
And it’s not just engineers and other “knowledge economy” workers who are restricted in this way: Even some minimum wage workers are forced to sign noncompetes. Workers who must leave their human capital behind are not truly free to quit. Every state should follow California’s example and ban noncompete clauses from work contracts.
We should clarify the rights that workers possess, and then defend them
Second, consider that if the state imposed surveillance and regulations on us in anything like the way that private employers do, we would rightly protest that our constitutional rights were being violated. American workers have few such rights against their bosses, and the rights they have are very weakly enforced. We should strengthen the constitutional rights that workers have against their employers, and rigorously enforce the ones the law already purports to recognize.
Among the most important of these rights are to freedom of speech and association. This means employers shouldn’t be able to regulate workers’ off-duty speech and association, or informal non-harassing talk during breaks or on duty, if it does not unduly interfere with job performance. Nor should they be able to prevent workers from supporting the candidate of their choice.
Third, we should make the government of the workplace more public (in the sense that political scientists use the term). Workers need a real voice in how they are governed — not just the right to complain without getting fired, but an organized way to insist that their interests have weight in decisions about how work is organized.
One way to do this would be to strengthen the rights of labor unions to organize. Labor unions are a vital tool for checking abusive and exploitative employers. However, due to lax enforcement of laws protecting the right to organize and discuss workplace complaints, many workers are fired for these activities. And many workers shy away from unionization, because they prefer a collaborative to an adversarial relationship to their employer.
Yet even when employers are decent, workers could still use a voice. In many of the rich states of Europe, they already have one, even if they don’t belong to a union. It’s called “co-determination” — a system of joint workplace governance by workers and managers, which automatically applies to firms with more than a few dozen employees. Under co-determination, workers elect representatives to a works council, which participates in decision-making concerning hours, layoffs, plant closures, workplace conditions, and processes. Workers in publicly traded firms also elect some members of the board of directors of the firm.
Against these proposals, libertarian and neoliberal economists theorize that workers somehow suffer from provisions that would secure their dignity, autonomy, and voice at work. That’s because the efficiency of firms would, in theory, drop — along with profits, and therefore wages — if managers did not have maximum control of their workforce. These thinkers insist that employers already compensate workers for any “oppressive” conditions that may exist by offering higher wages. Workers are therefore free to make the trade-off between wages and workplace freedom when they seek a job.
This theory supposes, unrealistically, that entry-level workers already know how well they will be treated when they apply for jobs at different workplaces, and that low-paid workers have ready access to decent working conditions in the first place. It’s telling that the same workers who suffer the worst working conditions also suffer from massive wage theft. One study estimates that employers failed to pay $50 billion in legally mandated wages in one year. Two-thirds of workers in low-wage industries suffered wage theft, costing them nearly 15 percent of their total earnings. This is three times the amount of all other thefts in the United States.
If employers have such contempt for their employees that they steal their wages, how likely is it that they are making it up to them with better working conditions?
It’s also easy to theorize that workers are better off under employer dictatorship, because managers supposedly know best to govern the workplace efficiently. But if efficiency means that workers are forced to pee in their pants, why shouldn’t they have a say in whether such “efficiency” is worthwhile? The long history of American workers’ struggles to get the right to use the bathroom at work — something long enjoyed by our European counterparts — says enough about economists’ stunted notion of efficiency.
Meanwhile, our false rhetoric of workers’ “choice” continues to obscure the ways the state is handing ever more power to workplace dictators. The Trump administration’s Labor Department is working to roll back the Obama administration’s expansion of overtime pay. It is giving a free pass to federal contractors who have violated workplace safety and federal wage and hours laws. It has canceled the paycheck transparency rule, making it harder for women to know when they are being paid less for the same work as men.
Private government is arbitrary, unaccountable government. That’s what most Americans are subject to at work. The history of democracy is the history of turning governance from a private matter into a public one. It has been about making government public — answerable to the interests of citizens and not just the interests of their rulers. It’s time to apply the lessons we have learned from this history to the private government of the workplace. Workers deserve a voice not just on Capitol Hill but in Amazon warehouses, Silicon Valley technology companies, and meat-processing plants as well.
Readers would be forgiven for thinking that the announcement, on Oct. 29, 2015, that China was changing its one-child policy would have turned this book from an account of the daily lives of Chinese people into a work of history. Not so. The event itself came rather late for Mei Fong’s “One Child.” But she makes disconcertingly clear that the repercussions of population control will continue to reverberate throughout China. The policy itself remains a monument to official callousness, and Fong’s book pays moving testimony to the suffering and forbearance of its victims.
It is often assumed that the limitation to a single child was an act of Maoist despotism. In fact, as Fong shows, it was associated with the post-Mao opening. Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader after 1978, had set a target of quadrupling the country’s per capita national income by 2000. China’s planners decided that they could achieve this goal only if, in addition to increasing the size of the pie, there were fewer people to share it.
So they determined, in their words, to “adjust women’s average fertility rate in advance.” The man who ran the program that treated women as if they were production functions was a rocket scientist, Song Jian, who had worked on ballistic missiles. Song went on to help manage the giant Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. His was a world in which unintended consequences were not important.
Population control was not unusual in the 1980s. India also had a fertility-control program. The United Nations gave its first-ever population award to the Chinese minister for population planning in 1983 (along with Indira Gandhi). But China’s application of population control was particularly ruthless.
In 2012, Feng Jianmei, a factory worker pregnant with her second child, was taken to a clinic, forced to sign a document consenting to an abortion and injected with an abortifacient. She was in her seventh month. Pictures of her lying next to her perfectly formed seven-month dead fetus went viral. But hers was hardly an unusual case. In the 1990s, population targets became a major criterion for judging the performance of officials. It is no surprise that they carried out the one-child policy ruthlessly. Reading this account, one wonders why rape as a weapon of war is (rightly) seen as a war crime, whereas the forcible violation of women’s bodies in pursuit of government policy wins United Nations awards.
As Fong makes clear, the one-child policy was not just a crime. It was a blunder. Fertility would have fallen anyway, as happened in other Asian countries, albeit not quite so far and fast. But the policy further distorted sex ratios, resulting in more boys than girls. And it changed expectations: Most people now want only one child. That is why the policy may prove to be hard to reverse.
The greatest strength of Fong’s book is her reporting (she was a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in China). Fong meets Liang Zhongtang, who fruitlessly attempted to dissuade China’s leaders from adopting the policy in the 1980s. She interviews people at adoption agencies that are suspected of seizing second children and selling them to Westerners. She sees Tough Pig, a boar that survived for 36 days without food or water under the rubble of a vast earthquake in Sichuan Province. The earthquake highlights how unexpected are the tragedies of China’s population policy: Thousands of only children were killed when shoddily built schools collapsed, leaving their stricken parents childless — a disaster in a country where the importance of family has survived even the one-child restrictions. Unlike the earthquake, that policy was — and remains — an unnatural disaster.
What Hannah Arendt’s philosophy can teach us about Trump, Brexit and the dangers of isolation
After Donald Trump was elected president, lots of people started buying books by Hannah Arendt: In December, her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianismwas selling at 16 times its normal rate.
Why Arendt, a political theorist who died in 1975? She’s an important philosopher but not exactly a popularly read writer. The answer is simple enough: She has a lot to say about what’s wrong with the world today.
Arendt theorized about the nature of totalitarian societies — how they work, what they prey on, and why they spring up. America is not currently under the yoke of totalitarianism, but the preconditions are there, namely a hollow and fractured society full of dislocated, angry people.
This is what most concerned Arendt, and it ought to concern us today.
I reached out by phone to Lyndsey Stonebridge, a Hannah Arendt scholar who wrote a book about Arendt’s influence, The Judicial Imagination: Writing After Nuremburg. We talked about Arendt’s legacy and how her ideas speak to our present political moment. We also discussed Donald Trump, Brexit, and what Arendt meant when she defined totalitarianism as a form of “organized loneliness.”
Our lightly edited conversation follows.
Why do you think so many people are suddenly interested in Arendt?
I think the resurgence in the last year has been around the phenomenon of totalitarianism and that sense that something like a crisis is occurring and we don’t know how to address it. It’s very interesting that it’s The Origins of Totalitarianism that’s being cited and read.
I read that book in graduate school and was sort of bowled over by it. Her idea that totalitarianism is essentially organized loneliness seems awfully relevant now.
I’ve made the point quite a few times that Arendt was very important as a 20th-century thinker. I’m trained as a literary scholar and a historian at the same time. That’s my dual background. What’s brilliant about The Origins of Totalitarianism is she’s saying you need to invent new methods for understanding new things. That’s why she was blasted for writing The Origins of Totalitarianism, because she wouldn’t give a big historical narrative. She insisted that we pay attention to what was new and what was different.
Let’s linger on that thought for a second. What was it about totalitarianism for Arendt that was new? Why was it uniquely a product of the modern world?
There’s a reason she refused to give some grand historical narrative about the roots of totalitarianism. She believed that certain things had to be in place for totalitarianism to take shape — racism, capitalist expansion for the sake of expansion (what we might call globalization today), the decline of the traditional concept of the nation-state, and anti-Semitism.
Arendt said those things conspired to create a constellation which could produce totalitarianism in the form that she was talking about then.
What strikes you when reading The Origins of Totalitarianism now?
Two things. She said studying totalitarianism was like trying to unpack a crystal. She insisted that she wasn’t a “traditional historian” because historians usually write about things because they want to preserve them, whereas she wanted to write about something “I wanted to destroy.”
She thought she could destroy an idea which is both totalitarian but also endemic to lots of ideological thinking, and that is the idea there is a “telos,” or a grand purpose or struggle, and that everything has to be in service of that idea. She didn’t want to replace the totalitarianisms of her day with another master narrative.
She wanted to explode the belief in master narratives altogether.
I’m glad you went there because that’s something that interests me as well, this belief in grand stories about history or justice — all ideologies have something like this at the center. Why did Arendt believe people were vulnerable to these narratives? Why was modern life making them so attractive?
For Arendt, it was about the isolation of modern life, the emptiness of it all. What she understood — more than someone like [George] Orwell — is that you don’t need to be a totalitarian state to exhibit the characteristic features of totalitarianism. Her focus was on modern loneliness, the isolated individual who loses a kind of rootedness in the world and therefore is prime material for the takeover of ideology, for the total narrative that gives life direction and meaning.
What is the political and social price we pay for allowing society to fracture in this way?
I’d like to answer that by raising a couple of things that Arendt didn’t really wrestle with. The big price we pay for mass loneliness is the loss of a shared reality. Arendt disagreed with Orwell that everyone knows two plus two doesn’t make five. We’re not idiots. We know a lie. But the problem is when people decide they don’t have to accept this reality. Then everyone begins to inhabit their own world, and that loss of a shared reality is what produces the loneliness, and that’s what makes the chaos of post-truth and willful lies so politically and existentially traumatic.
Draw a line for me. How do we get from a loss of shared reality to totalitarianism?
Once you’re uprooted from your sense of reality as a community, that allows all sorts of other uprootings to take place. We lose our human connection to other people, and that’s when the conditions are in place for tribalism and mass violence, for the extermination of “superfluous people,” for “others.” This something Arendt understood all too well.
So obviously we’re dealing with this problem right now, this loss of a shared reality. We’re in this bizarre “post-truth” climate in which our president lies with impunity, fake news and misinformation are pervasive, and much of the country is cocooned inside self-affirming information bubbles. At the same time, there’s a resurgence of racism and ethnonationalism, both here and in Europe.
I take it Arendt would have anticipated this?
Absolutely. The relationship between that kind of politics and violence was inextricable for Arendt. One of the things people do when they’ve become uprooted is to retreat into us-them fictions, and that often means dividing the world racially.
I think the politics of Trumpism and politics of Brexit, the politics of the new right, have deliberately merged, and so you cannot pull them apart. What we’re also getting as a product of this organized loneliness is a valorization of race politics and even violent racism.
Can you give me a concrete example of what you mean by violence there? Because I suspect a lot of people will assume that political violence has to be explicit or overt, but that’s not always the case.
Sure. So we’ve just watched a tower block in London kill 79 people, and that’s a very conservative estimate. That tower block was full of asylum seekers, migrants, poor, working-class, black people. It burned down because there’s a politics that has said in our council and in our country for a long time that the interests of the bourgeois elite and their monetary interests come above those people. There are now criminal proceedings, but it’s an act of murder, and it can’t be divorced from the politics that made it possible.
Let’s connect this back to Trump and Brexit if we can. How are Trump and Brexit direct responses to the loneliness and the uprootedness?
I think these movements give people a coherent fiction. My sense is that it gives them a kind of fantasy, and in both Britain and America it’s a nostalgic fantasy, a belief that we can return to some glorious past in which the middle class boomed and everyone had stable incomes and simpler lives.
Britain has the same economic divisions that America has, and in both countries the liberal elites haven’t fully come to grips with the fact that the economic policies of the last 20 or 30 years have produced a monster, a monster that we created.
So you see Trump and Brexit as twin political phenomena?
I’m slightly more worried about the Trump fantasy than the Brexit fantasy, because Trump’s cult of personality is built on power and narcissism, and I’m not sure the Brexit fantasy is quite as mad as that.
But I don’t want to turn this into a competition!
If it’s a madness competition between Britain and America right now, I’ll take America.
So if Arendt were to emerge out of a void and survey our current political landscape, what do you suppose she would say?
“Think! Think! Think!” I imagine she would also tell us to be scared, but I think she’d have been saying that for the last 10 or 20 years. And she’d say to not just be scared of Trump or Brexit, because those are manifestations of something that’s been happening for a very long time.
You seem to imply that the intellectual class has been blind to this brewing chaos. Is that right?
That’s right. There’s a certain type of left intellectual, both in the US and the UK, that simply doesn’t get it. First, we had Brexit. Then we had Trump. The distinguishing feature of that was an absolute incredulity among certain people to understand what had happened, to understand that something totally spontaneous seemed to have happened that we couldn’t predict and that we didn’t like, that we thought was mad and we didn’t understand.
I think Arendt would’ve said this is what politics does. It’s around the space of interruption. It’s around the spontaneous. And whoever owns that space owns the direction it goes, and so you have to be watchful at all times, especially when the signs of disruption are so clear.
Apart from the elections, what sorts of signs do you have in mind?
I think Arendt would point to things like the prison system in the States, to the housing estates in London, to the forgotten spaces in Middle America with no role to play in this booming global economy — Arendt would say these are the new homes for superfluous people. But they’re real people, and people in power are blind to them.
These are also totalitarian features. When you crowd people into spaces, declare them invisible, declare them immaterial, those are the new spaces of what used to be the totalitarian camp.
Political spontaneity works both ways, though. Are there not also encouraging developments?
Sure. I think Arendt would be enthusiastic about other forms of politics that are coming together in the face of all this. Whereas lots of people are troubled that the Democrats don’t have a central narrative, and until three weeks ago it didn’t seem like the left did in Britain either, I think she’d have been very interested to watch the different groups that are coming together — there’s local community groups and political groups, different international groups — that together form a kind of counter-politics.
Arendt would call this an example of natality, an example of the new, the positive creation that can happen in the face of bad politics. So I think she’d be excited about that.
I want to go back to the concept of thinking, which had a particular meaning for Arendt, a political meaning. When you say that Arendt would look at our current moment and tell us to think, what do you mean? What would she mean?
Well, actually, thinking for Arendt isn’t always political by itself. Thinking is something you do by yourself. It is loneliness. It is isolation. It’s always tricky in Arendt’s work to see how she gets from thinking to politics, which I can talk about in a second. But thinking for Arendt was really a way of being; it’s about the dialogue we have in our head. She wanted to valorize that because it’s an internal check, in the moral and political sense.
Which is why she insisted that all totalitarian societies were defined by a kind of thoughtlessness. They were full of men and women who were smart but stopped thinking in this sense.
Right. She was writing in response to what she saw as totalitarian thoughtlessness. What she noticed about [Nazi leader Adolf] Eichmann when she went to see him [on trial] in Jerusalem was that he spoke purely in clichés, in banalities. She said he could only do that because he hasn’t got the inner voice, he hasn’t got that second voice in his head. He’s a human machine, a thoughtless tool. His thoughts were the thoughts drilled him into via the propaganda and the slogans.
Which is why she always cautioned against banal or clichéd speech; this was a sign that people had stopped thinking for themselves, and once that happens, totalitarianism isn’t far behind.
Let’s close with something useful for readers who are interested in reading Arendt as a way of making sense of the present. Where should they start?
The essays that I go back to are the “Thinking and Moral Considerations” essay, which she wrote coming out of the Eichmann trial. The book on Eichmann is wonderful just for its sense of narrative and indignation. But the “Thinking and Moral Considerations” essay is especially interesting because it was written during the Watergate scandal. There was a real sense of America tearing itself down and a belief that something different was happening.