Quite a while ago, in October of 2006, I presented this paper to a conference on Hannah Arendt’s work in Brasilia. The participants in the conference were primarily philosophers and political theorists. I decided to address them by showing how Arendt’s thought has helped me to understand some of the major challenges of our times as I personally observed them, deferring to them as Arendt scholars. The paper was translated into Portuguese and published in a collection drawn from the conference. I am publishing it here in English for the first time. It highlights issues discussed in the last session of  The Social Condition seminar and addresses issues raised in the last post by Christoph Menke. As it happens, last week in the Social Condition seminar, we didn’t have time to adequately cover Arendt’s work and the ways it can inform our inquiry. This paper, thus, will serve as an opening of our next discussion.

Contrary to the suggestion of my informal title, I did not study with Hannah Arendt, nor were we ever colleagues, although I missed both experiences only by a bit. I was a graduate student in the early 1970s in one of the universities where she last taught, the University of Chicago, and my first and only long term position, at the New School for Social Research, was her primary American academic home. But when I was a Ph.D. candidate, she was feuding with her department Chair in the Committee on Social Thought, Saul Bellow, (or at least so it was said through the student grapevine), and she was, thus, not around. And I arrived at the New School, one year after she died. Nonetheless, she was with me as an acquaintance at the U. of C., and soon after I arrived at the New School, we in a sense became intimates.

A personal story

At the University of Chicago, I wrote my dissertation on a marginal theater movement on the other side of the iron curtain. I was studying alternative theaters in a polity, The Polish People’s Republic, which officially understood itself to be revolutionary, and that was analyzed by some critics, both internal and external, as being totalitarian. Thus, I read both On Revolution and The Origins of Totalitarianism. From the point of view of Arendt scholarship, the effects of these readings were minimal. From On Revolution, I came to understand her point about the difference between the French and the American revolutionary traditions, giving me insights into the Soviet tradition, but this barely affected my thinking back then. From The Origins, along with other works, I came to an understanding of the totalitarian model of Soviet society, a model that I rejected. My dissertation was formed as an empirical refutation of the model.

But then I went to the New School, and in the spring of 1980, I came to appreciate Arendt in a much more serious way. A student kept on asking odd questions in my course on political sociology. I would use key concepts, and he repeatedly challenged my usage. “Society,” “ideology,” “power,” “politics,” “authority,” “freedom:” I would use the terms in more or less conventional social scientific ways, and he would question me as an Arendt student. From me: society as a unit of human association; for him society as the confusion of the public and the private. I understood ideology as a distinctive metaphoric system that makes an autonomous politics possible (Geertz student that I was). He saw ideology as a specific historical development, a special type of modern thinking and of doing politics that connected past, present and future, and when linked with terror the cultural component of totalitarianism. I understood power, politics and authority, as all involving the interplay between culture and coercion, based in the latter, for him, careful distinctions should be made, showing that political power, based in freedom, is the opposite of coercion. I soon realized what was going on, and although he very much challenged my authority as a young assistant professor (31 at the time), teaching in a graduate course in which many of the students were both older than me and quite sophisticated, I was intrigued. What he was talking about suggested a way to understand something I was observing that I knew wasn’t properly appreciated.

That summer I read just about all of Arendt’s major works. I was especially moved by her approach to the problems of the public and her conceptualization of politics as the capacity for people to act in concert. This was an unusual time in my life, an unusual time in contemporary politics. The darkness of the twentieth century was being lightened from the margins, and only a few were able to see it.

I was then observing the beginnings of major transformations in the political landscape that were developing in Poland, but yet not broadly recognized. From this century, I can say now that I was observing the forces that ultimately led to the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Empire. When Arendt wrote about dark times, she referred to the era of modern tyranny, of the totalitarianism of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. This was a time when the illumination of public acts was dimmed. She observed that

“It is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished…” But, she also noted that “even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth….”[1] She celebrated the acts of great individuals who shed such light in her book Men in Dark Times. In everyday actions, I saw in Poland the constitution of an alternative public space for such appearance in an emerging opposition movement that was then rapidly developing, leading a few months later to the establishment of Solidarnosc, the first independent union, the broad societal movement, constituting a free and open public space in a totalitarian order.

Yes, after my summer reading I gave up on my critique of the totalitarian model, or more precisely, I refined it. I came to understand that although there can be no totalitarian society, that there were totalitarian movements and regimes and their oppositions, and that sometimes the oppositions come in the form of heroic individuals, what Arendt wrote about, but at other times they took on broader public form. Her postscript to The Origins on the Hungary of 1956 (the 50th anniversary of which was celebrated a week ago) was my guide. Hannah and I, then, became very close.

Arendt was with me as I went off to understand what was happening in “the other Europe,” as Philip Roth would name it. In that Europe, in small interactions, big things were happening. People met each other and formed spaces of appearance apart from party-state definition. They spoke and acted freely in each other’s presence, revealing themselves and constituting alternative public spaces. They did so in theaters, in underground publications, in independent unions (first very small, after 1980 nationwide), in unofficial theaters, literary salons, bookstores and clubs. As I observed these developments, Hannah was my guide. With her guidance, I understood that the end of the activities of the opposition was to create a public space. That the question of whether the activities would lead to reform of the system (no one imagined its collapse) was really secondary. The constitution of a free public space was primary. That was the major transformation itself. It made it possible for people to be free. It provided dignity. And it created power that clearly would be consequential, although the exact consequences were unknown.

I even took part a bit, Adam Michnik and I created a semi clandestine democracy seminar based at the New School in New York with branches in Warsaw and Budapest. Our first reading was The Origins. The three groups each read the book and discussed it. The discussions were recorded and the proceedings exchanged. We functioned as an opposition activity from 1985 to 1989, and for about five years after, we functioned around the old bloc as an open activity. I will be happy to describe this in detail after my presentation, if any one is interested.

At the time, there was an everyday mundane feeling about these activities. But after the fact, it is clear to me that they were truly revolutionary. They were little gems of the lost revolutionary tradition that Arendt wrote about, and they speak to our present circumstances. This is what I am working on these days. Her guidance endures.

So let’s fast forward for a moment, to the new configuration of dark times, remembering Arendt’s counsel, “Dark times…are not only not new, they are not a rarity in history, although they were perhaps unknown in American history…”. From the point of view of New York, the U.S. is an exception no longer. “Darkness has come when this light [of the public] is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is, but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.”[2]

I have been thinking about this since the days immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001, thinking that led to the publication of my most recent book: The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times. I try to accomplish a number of different things in my small book, things I attempted to very compactly express in its title. I have already explained quite a bit in this presentation. I have a feeling that in Arendt’s sense we do again live in dark times, but that they are different from the ones she knew. There are again struggles between gigantic forces of good and evil, in which both sides, moving both between East and West (think the war on terrorism), or North and South (think Chavez and Bush), darken the spaces of appearance. But, I also think that to appear, speak to each other, develop a capacity to act together, as theorized by Arendt, but also as described by Vaclav Havel, the former Czech dissident and President, in his greatest work “The Power of the Powerless,” presents an alternative, a still significant “politics of small things.” And that its power can be formed in every day interactions, both face to face interactions and virtual ones using the new media.

Mine is an attempt to find the men and women in dark times who present alternatives. I do this by using the work of Arendt and Erving Goffman to explain how the grand narratives of terror and anti terror are not the only or even the most effective ways to address the pressing problems of our times. Terrorism is not the only weapon available to the oppressed, and militarized anti terrorism is not the only or even the most rational way to fight the very real dangers of global terrorism. I can obviously not make the case here. What I would like to do is to look at some details of the argument, as Hannah is with me. In that I am looking at mico interactions as the location for alternatives to the oppressions of the new grand narratives, the key theoretical issue is how can we tell when micropolitics is really an alternative, and when it is a sort of enactment of disciplinary powers of one larger regime or another. In my book, this problem presented itself as I attempted to show that the micropolitics of the Christian right and the anti-war left and the Dean campaign in the United States were not just presenting competing partisan positions in 2004 during the Presidential elections. The alternative was between a new and efficient authoritarian unfreedom and a new and promising free democratic politics. To get at the issue and to the theoretical center of my presentation today, I propose we look at the way Arendt explains the relation between truth and politics, and the way Michel Foucault postulates the relationship between truth and power. Let me be forthcoming, I do not think that they present competing positions accounting for the same thing, but complimentary accounts of two very different, even opposite phenomena.

Alternative frameworks: Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt

Foucault analyzes the problem of knowledge and power as the problem of the truth regime. Truth is a production of social practices and their discourses. It produces power and is controlled by it. There is no distance between truth and the powers. There are alternative powers with alternative truths. Foucault explains: “It is not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.”[3] The analytic task is to explore truth regimes. The critical task is to do the “detaching.” The people developing the alternative publics around the old Soviet bloc, thus, can be understood as engaging in this sort of bodily detachment. But what is the value of it? Why choose one truth regime over another? Foucault does not explain. Arendt is critically suggestive in answering just these questions, as was my experience in the 80s. Now I will try to explain the crucial reason why she was such a help back then and how she provides a guide now.

Arendt maintains that there are two fundamentally different types of truth, factual versus philosophical truth, which have two very different relationships to political power. Factual truth (which is not part of Foucault’s scheme) must be the grounds upon which a free politics (which is also not part of Foucault’s scheme) is based. Philosophical truth must be radically separated from politics, the possibility of which Foucault denies. Her distinctions are made to facilitate an understanding of the nature of totalitarianism and its alternatives. This is crucial for the present inquiry, both for scholarly and for normative reasons. It centers on the constitution of public freedom and the possibilities of a democratic culture. Such constitution and possibility exist in and through the domain of a free public. While Foucault cannot distinguish between totalitarianism and liberalism, Arendt reveals how in the relationship between truth and power this crucial distinction is made. And we can thus recognize dark times and places, and also recognize the sources of light as alternatives.

In order to make the contrast between the two different types of truth clear, Arendt reflects upon the beginning of WWI. The causes of the war are open to interpretation. The aggressive intentions of Axis or the Allies can be emphasized, as can the intentional or the unanticipated consequences of political alliances. The state of capitalism and imperialism in crisis may be understood as being central. Yet, when it comes to the border of Belgium, it is factually the case that Germany invaded Belgium and not the other way around. A free politics cannot be based on an imposed interpretation. There must be an openness to opposing views. But a free politics also cannot be based on a factual lie, such as the proposition that Belgium’s invasion of Germany opened WWI. Modern liberal democracy requires a separation of politics from philosophical truth, but it must be based upon factual truths, in order for those who meet in public to share a common world in which they can interact politically. In modern tyranny, factual truth is expendable as a matter of principle, while the tyranny is based on a kind of philosophical truth, an ideology, an official interpretation of the facts. When Arendt highlights Trotsky as a kind of totalitarian everyman in The Origins, she observes that he expresses his fealty to the truth of the Communist Party.[4] But that he could be air brushed out of the history of the Bolshevik revolution, contrary to the factual truth that he was a key figure, commander of the Red Army, second only to Lenin, also is definitive of totalitarianism.[5] This is the real cultural ground of political correctness, of official truth. The purported scientific understanding of history of the Party substitutes for the political confrontation, debate and deliberation. It is enforced by terror. As Hannah and I travel around the old bloc and as we spoke and acted with our opposition colleagues, we were involved in attempts by social actors to free themselves of the official truth and to ground themselves in the factual truth.

From the point of view of Foucault, or, for that matter, from the point of view of the sociology of knowledge and culture, there is much that is unsatisfying about Arendt’s position. The distinction between fact and interpretation, which she insists upon, is in practice hard to maintain, and empirically it is hard to discern. But, this is not the telling point from Arendt’s point of view. Rather, it is that the distinction needs to be pursued, so that a free public life can be constituted. A democratic public cannot be constituted if political questions are answered philosophically, nor can its citizens interact freely, speak and act in the presence of each other, if the grounds of their interactions is based upon state imposed lies.

The politics of race in America cannot proceed democratically if a politically correct standard of racial interaction were actually imposed. (This is of course far from the case, given the popularity of critics of political correctness) But, just as well, a democratic confrontation of the legacies of racial injustice in the U.S. could not proceed if the school texts instructed the young that blacks owned whites, rather than the other way around. For a free public life to exist, there needs to be space for speech and actions based upon different opinions, then the people, and not the theorists, philosophers, historians or scientists, can rule. And their rule can proceed on solid grounds if they share a political world together, which has some factual solidity.

The politics of truth is in the interaction. Factual truth is the bedrock of a free politics. Difference of interpretation and opinion is its process. That the factual sometimes fades into the interpretive does not mitigate against the requirement that an interpretive scheme or doctrine cannot substitute for politics. That the interpretive sometimes seems to the convinced to be the factual does not mitigate against the requirement that for people to meet and interact in a free public, they must share a sense of a factual world. That fact and interpretation get mixed up, is very much a part of the messiness of politics, a messiness, which is confronted in concrete interactive situations. This points us in Goffman’s direction, a direction I can’t go into here. For now, we need to consider a bit more closely Arendt’s position so that the historical context of our inquiry can be understood.

When Arendt first presented her diagnosis, the central critical thrust of her work involved her identification of the National Socialism of Germany with Soviet Communism. Although using traditional political categories, these regimes appeared to be opposites, one of the right and the other of the left, she underscored that in their use of ideology and terror, in their mode of governance, in their projects of total control, their similarities were much more important than their differences. They were regimes systematically organized to eliminate a free public life (her central normative concern). While the Origins can be read as a “dialectic of the enlightenment” with the teleology taken out, it is also an account of the destruction of free public space in political life. Arendt presents a sort of decline and fall of public life or as Richard Sennett has put it, a story of “the fall of public man.” [6] Her story of decline and fall takes the reader from the heights of antiquity to the depths of totalitarianism.

She starts with her classical ideal. Pre-Socratic Greece represents for her the time when freedom beyond necessity flourished in the polis.

The Greek polis once was precisely that “form of government” which provided men with a space of appearances where they could act, with a kind of theater where freedom could appear…. If, then, we understand the political in the sense of the polis, its end or raison d’ etre would be to establish and keep in existence a space where freedom as virtuosity can appear. This is the realm where freedom is a worldly reality, tangible in words which can be heard, in deeds which can be seen, and in events which can be talked about, remembered, and turned into stories before they are finally incorporated into the great storybook of human history.[7]

The history of Western thought, for Arendt, is the history of the decline of the appreciation of this ideal situation, with catastrophic consequences in modernity. The Greek turn to political philosophy meant that the philosopher, the intellectual in contemporary language, sought to substitute the truth for political governance. The Christian identification of freedom with free will turned freedom into a private and not a public matter. This confusion of public and private, from Arendt’s point of view, explains the identification of freedom with sovereignty as articulated by such thinkers as Hobbes and Rousseau.[8] Structurally this is manifest with the rise of society, as the place where she sees the public and the private confused as a matter of principle.[9] Modernity intensified this loss of a distinctively political capacity, even as independent democratic and republican political forms were invented. Arendt notes, with approval, the Anglo-American conception of political party, especially as defended by Edmund Burke. Competing parties presented alternative notions of the common good. Continental parties serving the interests of particular classes, she understands, as movements that confuse the particular interests with the public good, the interests of property, real and capital, and the interests of labor, rural and urban, with the interests of the public.[10] Anti-Semitism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism, the three parts of the Origins, each involve developments that destroy political capacity, as they are central to the history of European civilization. Totalitarian movements and regimes are the culmination of this story of radical de-politicization.

Arendt argues that what is distinctive about totalitarianism is its unique conflation of culture and coercion, ideology and terror.[11] The problem with her position is that it requires what appear to be utopian beliefs about the relationship between truth and politics: that interpretive truth and politics can be radically separated and that the factual truth can be the basis of politics. While her critique of the substitution of philosophy for politics may be cogent, and while it may be crucial for intellectuals and artists not to confuse their insights and imaginations for democratic deliberation and decision,[12] her ideas about the separation of politics from truth may still seem unrealistic. Every political movement after all has its ideology, it can be observed.[13] Further, it is quite unclear how to maintain this separation while maintaining a commitment to factual truth. In these postmodern times, we are very much aware that one person’s interpretation is another’s factual truth. Indeed, the sociology of knowledge, at least since Mannheim, points in the same direction. It would seem that Foucault with his ideas about truth regimes is on the empirical mark. Yet, as I have already tried to demonstrate, there is a normative problem with Foucault’s position. He cannot distinguish between Trotsky and Wilson, between a totalitarian and a liberal. Further, there are also empirical grounds for rejecting the Foucaultian position.

This is where small things matter. It is a question of appearances, working to sustain realities. Truth and politics, knowledge and power, do not have a general relationship in modernity, as Foucault maintains. Rather, as we have already noted, social agents constitute the relationship in concrete interactive situations. The authorities of the old bloc tried to maintain an ideological definition of the situation. They did conflate knowledge and power. They presented an official truth and demanded that people appeared to follow its edicts. But in the alternative publics in the Soviet order, the imposed relationship was questioned. In official space people pretended to believe the official ideology, but they found places where it could be questioned.

Around the kitchen table people, something I explore intensively in my book, in small gatherings of close friends and relatives, the pretense was dropped. People presented themselves to each other in a different guise. They constituted a clandestine public space where they could speak and act together, free of the demands of officialdom. A real escalation of the struggle against the official order was evident when this hidden space of free interaction came out into the open. Foucault would explain this development in a sort of value neutral way. One truth regime, that of dissidents, was emerging from another. Perhaps, we would even want to go so far as saying that the regime of the new hegemonic order of globalization could be observed in the detaching of embodied practices from the truths, that is the ideology, of the old regimes. Note how much more we observe using Arendt as our guide.

In the positions of Foucault and Arendt, we observe two distinct understandings of political culture, two different ways of understanding the relationships between power and knowledge, truth and politics. While both get us beyond the lazy use of stereotype, e.g., all Russians seek a strong central authority, Americans are flexible, the British are more formal, the French more rational, (Brazilians are not quite modern?) etc., they do so with very different formulations. Where Foucault sees an identity, Arendt sees a variable relationship. For Foucault, political culture is about truth regimes, about the particular way that power and knowledge are united. For Arendt, political culture is about how and how far power and culture are distinguished and related. I think both analytic approaches provide insights into important aspects of political experience.

In fact, I am not sure that we could decide which one is more accurate. Foucault reveals an important part of the story, generally not sufficiently appreciated. The powers are revealed and operating in the activities of daily life and there is a form of knowledge that both accounts for this and makes it difficult to inspect critically. Knowledge and truth discipline. But there are different kinds of truth and they have different relationships with power, politics, Arendt forcefully maintains. This is a critique of Foucault’s position, but more significantly, it highlights a domain that Foucault ignores. The political implication of this is great. It means that there is a domain for freedom which Foucault does not recognize. This provides the grounds for normative judgment, making it possible to contrast tyranny with freedom. It makes it possible to discern real alternatives in dark times.

Seeking light in dark times

In conclusion, I would like to summarize what I have learned in my political travels with Hannah Arendt and point to some implications as they have shaped my most recent and future research:

  • After being confronted by my student, I learned to think about politics differently and appreciate the significance of the democratic opposition in Central Europe as it was developing. It then became possible to understand that there was developing a major political power emerging in opposition to totalitarianism, that this power was based on simple interactions of people set apart from the official order. A small example is the democracy seminar I took part in. The large and historically significant example was Solidarnosc. There was back then the confrontation between the totalitarian and the free world, between socialist and progressive forces and the forces of capitalism, between the geopolitical forces of good and the Evil Empire, but the political transformation from within the old order came from a political force not recognized in the grand clash however it was depicted. It was a political force in Arendt’s sense.
  • This suggests a different way to think about our present darkness, about the world of the war on terrorism and the world of globalization. It suggests that we need to look at what I call a politics of small things as it presents alternatives to terrorism and anti-terrorism, to globalization and anti-globalization. Terrorism is not the only way for the weak to resist. And militarized anti terrorism is not the way to meet the threat of the terrors of fundamentalism (of all sorts). Politics in Arendt’s sense stands as an alternative.
  • This led me to analyze how the internet, as a domain for politics in Arendt’s sense, has been used by opposition forces to the war on terror in American politics. I analyze this in my book in an ethnography of the virtual politics of the Dean campaign and the anti war movement.
  • And it is now leading me to continue my journeys in darkness with Hannah. We are spending time in the Middle East, trying to identify alternative political forces, in the Palestinian territories and Israel, in special places where Palestinians and Israelis meet as equals, speak and act in the presence of each other, revealing themselves, and creating the capacity to act together, doing politics in dark times, at the heart of darkness.

I am looking forward to talking to you further about these travels, if you have any questions.


[1] (Men in Dark Times, p. viii and p. ix).

[2] (Men in Dark Time, p. ix).

[3] Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in Paul Rabinow ed. The Foucault Reader, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 74-75.

[4] Hannah Arendt,. The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 307.

[5] Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics” in Between Past and Future, p.256.

[6] Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, New York: WW Norton and Company, 1992.

[7] Hannah Arendt “What is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future, New York: Penguin Books, 1977, c1968, pp.154-5.

[8] Ibid., 156-165.

[9] See Hannah Arendt The Human Condition, ed. By Robert Cummings; forward by Peter L. Berger. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001, pp.38-50.

[10] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, pp.250 – 266.

[11] This is how she concludes The Origins. It is highlighted in her key chapter “Ideology and Terror.”

[12] Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, Civility and Subversion: The Intellectual in Democratic Society, Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1998 .

[13] I actually have reservations about this common observation, because I believe that the term ideology has more specific meaning than such an assertion assumes. See Civility and Subversion, pp.13-16.