A few years after fleeing the fascist tidal wave in Europe and finding refuge in New York City, Hannah Arendt penned a letter to her mentor and confidant Karl Jaspers, commenting briefly on the peculiarities of American politics and society. She remarked, “The fundamental contradiction of the country is political freedom coupled with social slavery.”

This simple sentiment, which she affirmed until the day she died, is striking for three reasons. Most obviously, it suggests civil and political freedoms are not sufficient foundations for what we would consider a “good society.” Secondly, Arendt, a German Jew, obviously had no illusions about how low European society had sunk in its flirtation with fascism, but she apparently and rather damningly found the United States comparatively worse than pre-war Europe in terms of societal health.

Thirdly, Arendt is commenting in 1946, a time period which many Americans consider a social golden age. Largely untouched by the ravages of mechanized warfare, the United States was entering a period of unprecedented wealth and prosperity. The legacy of the New Deal was no longer in question, and networks of association, be they small communities or labor unions, were thriving relative to today. It’s interesting that Arendt would think of Americans as politically free but socially enslaved during a period inhabited by the so-called “Greatest Generation.”

This latter point seems to be the most puzzling, particularly since there has been a renewed emphasis by conservatives and liberals alike on recapturing a spirit or set of conditions that we most associate with the early post-war era. On the left, there is nostalgia for a stronger social welfare state. On the right, there is longing for a time when the traditional bases of American community (e.g. Christianity) were not contested the way they are now. Rightly or wrongly, as far as many Americans are concerned, there is at least something about American society during that time that is worth recreating or preserving. So why is it that Arendt, a newcomer to the United States, seemed to only see “social slavery”?

The answer lies in Arendt’s very specific conception of the social. Instead of looking to economic indicators like income equality, for example, to measure societal health, Arendt concerned herself with the ways in which Americans share a “public happiness,” relate to their neighbors, and engage with each other in political action. So, while modern commentators would emphasize a shrinking unemployment rate to indicate societal health, Arendt would prefer to analyze the degree to which citizens participate in decision-making processes, form organic networks of association and act alongside one another. Through this lens, “social slavery” is characterized by atomization, individualism, and apathy, while social health might feature a flourishing of participation in decision-making bodies such as town halls, community boards, unions, or social movements, all of which allow meaningful self-expression.

These participatory spheres play a very specific role for Arendt. Indeed, for Arendt “the potential of the human species is realized not through, but beyond the struggle for existence and wealth accumulation.”[1] Political participation should therefore not be thought of as a process by which associations can provide individuals with material benefits, but should rather be thought of as an end in itself, geared towards fulfilling the human need for participation in public life. Insofar as direct democratic and participatory decision-making was actually exercised in the United States, Arendt believed that it still prioritized “self-interest over public interest” or “private over public happiness.”[2]

The hollowing-out of the social sphere did not begin at the time when Arendt was writing. For Arendt, the origins of American “social slavery” could be traced back to the very founding of the United States, an event for which Arendt had the utmost admiration. While it is true that the American “revolution” granted Americans significant political freedoms, Arendt, echoing Jefferson, claimed that such freedoms were only capable of preventing tyranny rather than sustaining a vibrant political life, which is the means of self-expression in the truest sense. While Arendt was an admirer — almost to a fault — of American founding institutions, in her work On Revolution she recognized that the heart of a healthy polity lies in collective participation in grassroots “organs of action.”

Americans failed to preserve a revolutionary and participatory public life, even through the periods of American history we consider the most admirable. When Arendt came to the United States, during what we now consider a golden age, she saw that Americans on an individual level lacked the spirit to come together and act “in concert” to maintain the revolutionary dynamism that not only puts a check on political power, but creates the social bonds essential for human fulfillment.

This is not to say that Arendt was against the modern, social democratic welfare state. For Arendt, welfare states, as long as they don’t allow “economic concerns” to “enter politics as matters of administration or technical mastery,” serve as mediators that put a check on rampant expropriation and accumulation.[3] They have the potential to be “objects of political activity” if they allow for “democratic attachment” and participation like any other civic organization.[4] As a result, the task for activists is not necessarily expanding the welfare state as we know it, but making the welfare state a domain through which popular participation, rather than anonymous administration, can be exercised.

It is in this context that we can think about how to build a sense of social freedom in the United States. During social movements like Occupy Wall Street, we saw not only a renewed importance of alternative forms of civic participation, solidarity and grassroots decision-making, but also an initiative to contest the terms on which government (and non-governmental institutions) function and open a space for deliberation on economic matters that were considered unapproachable. Spaces for intellectual engagement that allow for this, such as unions, mass movements and political associations, can feature democratic participation and shared purpose. They empower individuals to directly exercise agency over their own conditions, which is something that Arendt stressed as a hallmark of social freedom. It is this spirit that needs to be recaptured.

During this period of deep uncertainty about the durability of the United States’ republican institutions, it’s important we understand that transcending “social slavery” in the U.S. will entail doing much more than voting and entrusting elected representatives to provide benefits and enact social policy. It will rather require that individuals develop networks of association to assert themselves as democratic agents and subject more of their social reality to political participation and deliberation. Arendt’s critique contains an implicit expectation or hope. The United States has been endowed with freedoms that other countries still envy. It permits a space through which human political potential can be realized. But realizing this potential will depend on us broadening our conception of what it means to act in the world as social and political beings.



[1] Brown, Wendy. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2015, p.43

[2] King, Richard H. Arendt and America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015, p.227

[3] Klein, Steven. ““Fit to Enter the World”: Hannah Arendt on Politics, Economics, and the Welfare State.” American Political Science Review 108, no. 04 (November 2014): 856-69, p.857

[4] p.858