“The danger that politics disappears altogether from the world”



“The danger that politics disappears altogether from the world”


If we had to choose right now a single, concise term to characterize our time, we might well call it an age of uncertainty – in contrast to the ages of faith, of reason, of revolution, etc. that have come before it. But given the current, ambiguous state of things that denomination will itself seem uncertain and its all-inclusiveness of limited value. Every historical period is, after all, steeped in uncertainty – it is there in the midst of faith, reason, and revolution – and if ours is more deeply uncertain or is so in a distinctive manner, that needs to be specified. To this end we may note in a first, preliminary fashion that uncertainty pervades now all strata of our existence. It shows up in the precarious currents of our geopolitical balance, in the muddled confrontations of ideologies and world views, in “the irrational exuberance of markets,” in the alarming changes in our natural environment. It manifests itself likewise in the ever expanding circle of ever more unsecured life choices, in artistic arbitrariness as the only remaining rule, in our astonishing fickleness in taste, style, and interests. Uncertainty reveals itself, in another light still, in haunting insecurities and fears that disturb every sleep, in neurotic anxieties about past and future, in regular psychotic disruptions of our everyday routines. It manifests itself, in yet another register, in our patent inability to comprehend the complexities of our social and political reality, in our constantly losing track of the manifold forces and factors that determine our global existence. It appears, finally and most devastatingly, in the disintegration of the language in which we are used to speak of ourselves and our social and political reality. Our distinctive uncertainty is, in other words, factual, emotive, cognitive, and conceptual all at once.



Such broad observations call, naturally, for qualification. I invoke them here only to motivate the question why the concept of the political has become a matter of such intense concern to some recent political theorists – specifically Carl Schmitt, Hannah Arendt, and Michel Foucault, to name the ones that strike me most – when it has  received no such attention in the whole long history of modern political thought. We must, in fact, return to Plato and Aristotle and their efforts to pin down not only the concept of the political but with it also the notions of  polis, the polítes, and the politikós, to come across anything resembling recent preoccupation with the fundamental terms of the political discourse and specifically with the concept of the political. Characteristic of mainstream political thought is rather the attitude of John Rawls who declares his theory of justice to be political rather than moral but finds no need to explicate his use of the term political even though ongoing disputes (over abortion, euthanasia, or gay rights, and such matters) reveal the line between the political and moral to be heavily contested. This peculiar silence is explained by the observation that Plato and Aristotle at the beginning of our tradition of political philosophy advanced a formula that is still taken in many places to provide a sufficient explication of the meaning of the term “political.” According to that formula politics is the arché of the polis or, as we would say, government of the state – and, of course, whatever pertains to that.

If for some contemporary theorists this formula is no longer compelling, that is, so I want to argue, because the entire domain of our politics has become imbued with a new and higher degree of uncertainty. Politics presupposes, of course, at all times a dose of uncertainty. If the conditions of human life were fixed once and for all, there would be no space for and no need for political action. It is the insecurity of our situation that calls for political engagement and it is the malleability of human behavior that creates the potential for political intervention. At the same time, political life can flourish only when our uncertainty is manageable and circumscribed. In moments of unpredictable chaos political institutions fall apart and political actions prove ineffective. That the concept of the political should now be a matter of concern to the theorists when it had not been that before reveals, so I argue, a new kind of uncertainty in our situation – one which illuminates the specific conditions of our epoch.

After a long hiatus, the question of the concept of the political has come alive for us again, first of all, because a host of doubts now attaches to the idea of the state, its identity, its legitimacy, and its future. Why that should be is a question that takes us back finally, as Reinhart Koselleck has shown, to the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment’s critique of the absolutist state in the name of morality and individual rights, a critique that, in due course, engendered a crisis of the state itself.[1] By the mid-nineteenth century anarchists and socialists were, indeed, expecting the state to be on the point of falling apart and, since they still equated politics with government of the state, they also held that politics as such was approaching its end. In the midst of the 1848 revolutions, Michael Bakunin (the inveterate revolutionary) could thus write sarcastically to a friend: “I do not believe in constitutions and laws. The best constitution in the world would not be able to satisfy me. We need something different: inspiration, life, a new lawless and therefore free world.” One is reminded also of the Communist Manifesto where one reads: “When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of associated individuals, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”[2]

A generation later, Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human also forecast “the decline and death of the state” though on different grounds.[3] He argued that the state had maintained itself in the first instance always as an object of religious veneration, that, in particular, “the interests of tutelary government and the interests of religion go hand in hand together, so that when the latter begins to die out the foundations of the state too are undermined.” The resulting decline, Nietzsche wrote, had a number of stages: first, the privatization of religion, then the turn of the religious against the state, next the appearance of an “almost fanatical enthusiasm for the state,” and finally the emergence of democracy as “the historical form of the decay of the state.”  Nietzsche saw this process as inevitable but as yet incomplete. He put his own trust, in fact, in “‘the prudence and self-interest of men’ to preserve the existence of the state for some time yet and to repulse the destructive experiments of the precipitate and the over-zealous.” Still, he was certain that men would eventually reach “the resolve to do away with the concept of the state.” At that point, he wrote in what strikes us now as prescient, “private companies will step by step absorb the business of the state: even the most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of government (for example its activities designed to protect the private person from the private person) will in the long run be taken care of by private contractors.” But, in contrast to the anarchists and socialists, Nietzsche did not believe this development marked the end of politics itself. He pointed out, rather, that all kinds of systems of political organization had once existed but had then dwindled away, from the racial clan to the Roman family. “Thus a later generation will see the state too shrink to insignificance in various parts of the earth – a notion many people of the present can hardly contemplate without fear and revulsion.” Chaos was the least likely outcome of this development. More probable was the emergence of new and as yet unforeseeable forms of political organization. This made clear that state and politics were for Nietzsche, by no means the same. The impending death of the state opened, instead, the possibility of new forms of politics such as a “great, new politics” of the future. But how was the political to be conceived if it could no longer thought of as subsumed under the concepts of government and the state. A new conception of the political was evidently called for. It was here, at this moment in Nietzsche’s thinking, that our understanding of the concept of the political was first severed from the traditional Platonic-Aristotelian formula and where the project of determining that concept became once again a live, philosophical issue. Everything that has been said about the concept of the political since then stands, indeed, in the shadow of this Nietzschean turn.



We can say quickly how Nietzsche himself proposed to reinterpret the concept of the political. Politics was for him, in a word, a system of domination and political activity the exercise of power of a stronger party over a weaker one. “The oldest ‘state,’” he wrote in On the Genealogy of Morals, “made its appearance as a terrible tyranny, as a crushing and ruthless machinery… Some pack of blond beasts, a race of conquerors and lords, … organized in a warlike manner and with the power to organize, unhesitatingly lays its paws on a population enormously superior in numbers perhaps, but still formless, still roaming about. It is in this manner, then, that the ‘state’ begins on earth.”[4] Nietzsche was, of course, capable of more differentiated formulations, but this short, sharp, and eloquent passage will suffice to give us the tenor of his view and also to reveal why it has proved unsatisfactory to subsequent theorists. Nietzsche’s problem is, in short, that he conceived of the exercise of power – in a quasi-Platonic, quasi-Christian fashion – as always proceeding outwards from some center (or centers) of power, that is, as the domination of the strong over the weak. But this view cannot account for the always unstable balance of power in the political field nor can it adequately explain our capacity for collaborative political action. That left later theorists like Schmitt, Arendt, and Foucault with the task of finding a more adequate characterization of the concept of the political. They certainly shared Nietzsche’s conviction that the traditional political order was coming apart. They also believed that the traditional concept of the political had lost its grip. They were, like Nietzsche, convinced that a new concept of the political was needed but that such a concept could not be defined by reference to particular political institutions and their operation. Instead, they thought like Nietzsche, that such a concept required us to speak, first of all, of political activities and processes. For all that they disagreed with Nietzsche over the terms in which a new concept of the political should be cast. Instead of seeking to understand politics in terms of relations of domination, they spoke of acts of decision or acts of deliberation, or of mobile relations of power and care for the self as definitive of the political. Each one of these attempts carried, however, its own burden. It is with these attempts to rethink the nature of the political that I will concern myself in the following lectures.



Carl Schmitt spoke of the concept of the political in almost all of his writings but most notably in his well-known and controversial essay The Concept of the Political.  Its complex publication history gives evidence of Schmitt’s pronounced and life-long preoccupation with its subject-matter. First published in 1927 as a journal article, the essay appeared in expanded, classical form as a monograph in 1932, next in a  modified version in 1934 adjusted to the political realities of that moment, and finally twenty-nine years later again in its classical 1932 form supplemented now with a preface, three corollaries, and a series of detailed notes.[5] It is clear from all this that Schmitt never thought that he had once and for all settled the question of how the concept of the political was to be understood. In a postscript to the 1932 edition he had, indeed, commented: “What I have said here about the ‘concept of the political’ is meant to provide a theoretical framework for an uncharted problem. The individual propositions are intended as points of departure for a material discussion; they are meant to assist scholarly examinations and exercises since [only] these are appropriate for the consideration of such a difficult subject-matter.”[6]

In exploring this subject-matter, Schmitt proceeded along a series of different trajectories that, however, all led him back again and again to the question of the concept of the political. In 1932 he had still believed in the future of the state and he had concluded his essay affirming that “state and politics cannot be exterminated.”[7]  But by the mid-nineteen thirties, he was beginning to think that the modern nation state would soon be replaced by global empires and trans-oceanic alliances, foreseeing, so it seems, such contemporary formations as the US imperium and NATO. Still later, in the 1950’s and 60’s, he wrote of “partisan” (i.e., guerilla or “terrorist”) warfare as pointing to a new kind of politics not circumscribed by the established order of the state.[8] In the last edition of The Concept of the Political he concluded accordingly that “the field of relations that constitutes the political is constantly changing, depending on the powers and forces that combine and separate in their effort to maintain themselves.” And he predicted unambiguously that “the epoch of states is now waning.” In its heyday, he added, the modern state had “succeeded in something quite improbable, to create internal peace, to exclude enmity as a legal concept, to abolish the feud, an institution of medieval law, to make an end to the confessional wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which on both sides were conducted as particularly just wars, and to procure quiet, security, and order inside its territory.”  This “masterpiece of European form and Western rationalism,” this “model of political unity” was now being dethroned; but it was pointless to bemoan the fact since it was part of an inevitable historical process. Looking backwards, he wrote: “Considering the ancient polis, Aristotle reached an understanding of the political that is different from that of the medieval scholastic who adopted the Aristotelian formulations literally but who faced something quite different, namely the opposition of the spiritual-ecclesiastic and the worldly-political; in other words, a system of tensions between two concrete historical orders.”[9] And a corresponding logic could be expected to transform our own politics. There would, in fact, be new forms of political order, new models of political unity and conflict, and as a result new understandings of the concept of the political.

Schmitt’s concerns over the future of the state are understandable but like the earlier anarchist, socialist, and Nietzschean doubts about that future, his anticipations remain largely speculative. States are, after all, still with us and many new ones have been formed in the last sixty years. We are certainly getting nowhere closer to the voluntary, social associations that the anarchists and socialists expected to appear with the end of the state. Such a development is, indeed, more and more inconceivable. In our increasingly complex, technological, industrialized, wired-together world such associations may spring forth occasionally as moments of protest, as marginal deviations from political normality – as the hippie communes of the 1960’s – but they are not likely to prove a match to the contemporary state with its endless resources. This does not mean that the state is the end-point of our political development but the successor-formations to the modern state are as yet unforeseeable and somewhere beyond the horizon. If doubts about the future of the state are getting us to reflect on the concept of the political, it is not because of an actual, imminent threat to the existence of the state but because the very possibility, however dim, reminds us that the state is, after all, a historical and thus contingent formation, that there was politics long before there was ever a polis (as in Homer’s world) and that there is the possibility of a politics after the state. This is sufficient to tell us that the concept of the political cannot be grounded on the concepts of the polis or the state.

Schmitt’s work on the concept of the political is certainly not exclusively motivated by such speculations. Long before he had come to his doubts about the future of the state, he had conceived of the necessity of concerning himself with that concept. He had granted at the beginning of The Concept of the Political that for long periods the concept had not called for explicit consideration and classical political philosophy had been able to operate therefore unreflectively with the equation politics = the state. “The general definitions of the political which contain nothing more than additional references to the state are understandable and to that extent also intellectually justifiable,” he had written, “for as long as the state is truly a clear and unequivocally eminent entity confronting nonpolitical groups and affairs – in other words, for as long as the state possesses the monopoly on politics.”[10] But he was sure that these conditions were no longer fulfilled. In the modern world, state and society had come to penetrate each other and the boundaries between them had become less and less determinate. This showed itself, on the hand, in emergence of systems in which everything was politicized (the radically democratic “total” state) and, on the other, in that of political systems in which more and more aspects of life were becoming de-politicized (the liberal “neutral” state).

How realistic were those worries? Is the state not still with us in more or less its traditional form, neither turning into a total state nor becoming completely minimized? We might point out, for instance, that the American Constitution is still operative after more than two hundred years and that the integrity of the republic, though threatened, is still assured. But we will appreciate Schmitt’s concerns about the status of the state perhaps more when we consider the following two points. (1) Where cities and states once had real and natural boundaries – or were, at least, assumed to have such – the boundaries of today’s state are porous and more or less conventional. They are, in fact, crossed by a complex network of social, cultural, and economic relations and the populations of more and more states are today drawn from all over the globe. The ancient city state could believe that it was, in principle, autarkic, i.e., politically independent and economically self-sufficient and the classical modern state could once define itself in terms of the nationhood of its people. Both assumptions may have been somewhat fictitious but even so they provided the institutions with a sense of identity. But these fictions have today become ineffective and the identity of the state is in consequence now more and more reduced to a rhetorical fact. Where the state could once be conceived as a positive order that bound those in power together with its citizens, it has become today a mere address for our private demands and complaints. With that, our traditional conception of citizenship has also fallen apart and with it any definite sense of our relation to government and the state.

(2) While government was once the unquestioned center of political life, there have emerged new structures below, above, and beside it that have begun to coalesce with government, increasingly appropriating its functions; these structures have, moreover, their own momentum and power:

below the level of government – a complex and semi-autonomous system of

bureaucratic administration;

above the level of government – a tangle of supranational associations;

and beside government – a system of corporate organization.

Our relations to these new structures cannot be defined in terms of the traditional rules of citizenship. Citizens could at least once entertain the thought that they were essential and organic components of the state and that in one way or other they participated in government. But in relation to bureaucracy, we are either employees or clients; in relation to corporations we are workers or customers; and in relation to the supranational associations, we have no standing at all. The state itself persists, of course, but now surrounded by these new realities. It maintains the bureaucratic apparatus, it participates in supranational associations, it cooperates with corporate organizations. But its operations are circumscribed by these new systems and orders. Even though the state may retain its appearance, its constitution, and its distribution of offices and may preserve more specifically all the accoutrements of a democracy or a republic, actual power relations are inevitably transformed by these additional structures.

In order to assess the situation of the contemporary state and its government correctly, we must come to understand that the functioning of an institution is never determined exclusively by its structure. An adequate systems theory will, indeed, have to recognize that a system may drastically change its function even when its structure remains more or less the same. This holds, in effect, in a wide range of fields such as biology, linguistics, and technology but particularly also in politics. The reason is that a system’s structure is an intrinsic property whereas the system’s function is a relational one. In the case of a machine, let us say, the structure can be fully laid out in a blueprint but whether and how the machine will perform depends on the environment in which it is placed. The function of even the most unmovable political structure is similarly dependent on conditions outside the institutional framework. It is here where the radical changes in the world around our apparently stable institutions bear on them very directly. The functioning of our political institutions is, thus, undergoing deep transformations even where the stability of their structure suggests a picture of normality and solidity. And there is, indeed, no question, that in consequence everywhere in the world (including the “stable” West) our traditional understanding of the political has become unmoored.

These developments, Schmitt was convinced, made it, in any case, impossible to go on to identify politics with the state. They have brought into the open that the concept of the political is different from and independent of the concept of the state and that, indeed, as the first sentence of Schmitt’s essay declares, “the concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political.”[11] Schmitt therefore set out to replace the old Platonic-Aristotelian formula that politics is the rule of the polis or government of the state with one that sought to characterize the political without reference to any particular institutional order. In his famous and notorious formulation “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”[12] Schmitt commented that “thereby the inherently objective nature and autonomy of the political becomes evident by virtue of its being able to treat, distinguish, and comprehend the friend-enemy schema independently of other antitheses.”[13] By contrast the state is not an independent concept for Schmitt and the antitheses that define it (e.g, those of citizen and foreigner, of internal territory, its border, and the territory abroad, also those of parties and factions within the state) all derive on his view from the basic friend-enemy schema.

There is yet a third trajectory of thought that makes the examination of the concept of the political so urgent for Schmitt. On this line of thought it is neither the future of the state nor its uncertain identity that elicits this concern. It is, instead, the worry, first expressed in Political Theology of 1922 that “today nothing is more modern than the onslaught against the political.”[14] Schmitt was to elaborate on this theme in a lecture he delivered in Barcelona in 1929 under the title “The Age of Neutralizations and De-politicizations” which he then made part two of the 1932 version of The Concept of the Political.[15] He argued in that lecture that the central domain of Western culture has changed repeatedly over the course of the last four hundred years and that the content and meaning of Western politics has changed in unison. As the culture has become dominated in sequence by theological, metaphysical, humanitarian-moral, and economical ideas, its politics has come to be reshaped each time in terms of these same ideas. But with this, so Schmitt concluded, the concept of the political must also have changed every time. To illustrate that point, he drew attention to the fact that religious differences between various Christian churches ands sects had been highly politicized in the 16th and early 17th centuries but that they had become politically neutralized in the middle of 17th   after the treaty of Münster. “The content of the words ‘politics’ and ‘political’,” he wrote in 1936, “depends thus evidently on the changing situation… Historical experience shows that in the disagreements between nations and parties small and subsidiary matters can turn into main points of conflict and thus become highly political questions… One must note that everything can potentially become political.”[16]

That Schmitt thought of the concept of the political as historically variable has generally not been appreciated by readers of the English translation of The Concept of the Political. One reason for this is that their text has, till the most recent edition, omitted the Barcelona lecture, i.e., part 2 of Schmitt’s original essay. In the translated first part the thought is just barely discernible in Schmitt’s assertion that his friend-enemy formula is meant to provide only an explication of the concept of the political, a Begriffssbestimmung, not a full definition. But even that distinction has been obscured for English readers since their translation makes Schmitt say quite confusingly that the friend-enemy formula “provides a definition in the sense of a criterion not an exhaustive definition or one indicative of substantial content” whereas, according to the original German, it should have said that the formula provides “a conceptual explication in the sense of a criterion and not a definition or a table of contents.”[17] There are in addition substantive reasons that stand in the way of appreciating Schmitt’s historicist take on the concept of the political. Does his friend-enemy formula not after all provide some kind of a-historical characterization of the nature of politics? Schmitt’s Barcelona lecture sought to answer this question by postulating a distinction between the form and the content of the concept of the political. While the content of politics changes over time, he had argued, its varying constellations all exhibit a friend-enemy constellation. Politics, Schmitt wrote, concerns “the intensity of an association or dissociation of human beings whose motives can be religious, national (in the ethnic or cultural sense), economic, or of another kind.”[18] There is, of course, something unsatisfying in the view of history as a process of filling an invariant schema with variable content. Schmitt was not unaware of the problem and in his Political Theology acknowledged “the confusion spreading in philosophy around the concept of form,” but his attempt to clarify the form-content distinction led him unfortunately nowhere.[19] Schmitt might have been more successful in distinguishing between what is variable and what is invariant in our concept of the political, if he had had the notion of family resemblance at his disposal.

But these difficulties were only incidental for Schmitt. The point he was after in his Barcelona lecture was rather that everything politicized can also become later on de-politicized. He diagnosed, in fact, an accelerating trend towards such de-politicization extending to all spheres of Western culture. “Following the hopeless theological disputes and struggles of the 16th century, Europeans sought a neutral sphere [the absolute state of the 17th century] in which there would be no conflict.”[20] That hope was, of course, disappointed but it set in motion a process of ever progressing political neutralizations. This may appear a doubtful claim since we have also seen apparently de-politicized matters (such as questions of religions) becoming once again re-politicized. Why then assume a linear process of ever-expanding neutralization? We can understand this only by paying attention to Schmitt’s turn towards a philosophy of technology. Under the suggestive impact of modern technology there developed, he argues, a “religion of technical progress,” a technological form of thinking that believes all human problems to be manageable purely technical means and calculations. Such a thinking, Schmitt held, was in consequence, “no longer capable of perceiving a political idea.”[21] There existed for it no longer any political problems but “only organizational-technical and economic-sociological tasks” and the state was for such thinking nothing but “a huge industrial plant” and a “rigid mechanism” for accomplishing such tasks.[22] Technology, far from being politically neutral, was in reality, however, a powerful tool for every kind of politics. With an eye to the newly industrializing Soviet Union which Schmitt saw as willing to use technology as a powerful new political weapon, he declared the Western faith in the purely technical solvability of political problems to be a dangerous illusion that needed to be fought in the name of a “philosophy of concrete life” – a philosophy, that is, which recognized politics with its struggles and conflicts to be essential to our humanity and, indeed, unavoidable. Nothing less than human nature was at stake. We needed to recognize that we are by nature not harmless, but risky, and “dangerous” beings who can become fully human only in confrontation with existentially other human forms of life. “Spirit struggles with spirit, life with life and out of the power of an integral understanding of this arises the order of human things.”[23]

This line of thought appears at first sight curiously at odds with the argumentation in the part one of Schmitt’s essay. There it is not technological thinking that is said to force a reassessment of the concept of the political but the rise of an anti-political liberalism. Schmitt’s anti-liberal stance is notorious. In The Concept of the Political he writes: “In a very systematic fashion liberal thought evades or ignores state and politics and moves instead in a typical always recurring polarity of two heterogeneous spheres, namely ethics and economics, intellect and trade, education and property.”[24] But the Barcelona lecture can help us to put such strictures into perspective. The liberal conception of the neutral state, so Schmitt in that lecture, belongs, in fact, “to a general tendency of intellectual neutrality characteristic of European history in the last century.”[25] While Schmitt’s attack on liberalism has its own multiple causes and his concept of the political as based on the friend-enemy schema is meant by him to define a counter-position to the liberal stand-point, liberalism must also be seen as part of the larger history of the West in which the positive value of the political is increasingly lost from view.


Like Schmitt, Hannah Arendt is motivated throughout her work by anxiety over the plight of the human condition. This anxiety, manifest already in her historical study of The Origins of Totalitarianism. The nature of that anxiety becomes when she turns to political theory, immediately after completing that work, and her focuses her attention immediately on the question “What is politics?” and the answer she provides at this point will stay with her. Human politics, she declares, comes from human plurality. Out of the chaos of our differences we sometimes succeed in freely relating to each other; we create a common world in which it is possible for us to work and live together. What is at stake for her with the rise of totalitarianism is, indeed, nothing less than politics itself. Her continuing concern with the concept of the political is evident in her whole body of writing, from the first diary entry in 1950, through her book on The Human Condition, the essays collected under the title Between Past and Future, her book On Revolution. I want to draw here, in this connection, on some less well-known writings of hers, fragments of a book in German that was to be called either “Was ist Politik?” or “Einführung in die Politik” (“What is Politics?” or “Introduction to Politics.”) that were published posthumously in German in 1993 and has finally become available in English as the major part of a volume entitled The Promise of Politics. This text is of interest for three reasons. First, Arendt develops in it an account of “prejudice” that I have found nowhere else in her writings. Second, she makes clear that there is for her more than conception of politics rather than the one Greek conception with which she is always identified, and third, she writes at length about her anxieties over the state and status of our politics. Since the three themes are closely intertwined in her exposition I will have to say something about each of them.

The first two fragments of the text are both drafts of a first chapter that was meant to set out a theory of prejudice.  In Arendts’ terminology prejudices are not judgments, they are rather, she writes in the first draft, common opinions “that we share, that are self-evident to us, that we can throw at each other in conversations without having to explain ourselves at length.” (G, 17) To this she adds in the second draft of chapter 1 that “genuine prejudices are normally recognized by their unabashed appeal to a “one says” or “one holds.” (G, 18) Her phrasing indicates here her reliance on Heidegger’s notion of “das Man,” the “One” or “They” of everyday, inauthentic existence. She goes further than Heidegger, however, in affirming that prejudices play an indispensable role in all social and political life (whether authentic or not). According to Arendt, “there exists really no form of society that does not rest more or less on prejudices,” she writes. (G. 18) She adds that “the more someone is free of prejudices the less he is suited for the purely social.” We cannot, in fact, live without prejudices and that is true also in politics. One of the essential tasks of politics is at the same time “to illuminate and dispel prejudices” for we cannot really move politically without judgment. Political thought is, in fact, grounded in our capacity for judgment. But this does not mean that we can ever do entirely away with prejudices or that those who are concerned with bringing about enlightenment from prejudice could ever themselves be completely unprejudiced. No age is, in fact, without its specific political prejudices.

In order to understand our own political situation, we must therefore look at current prejudices for they may “draw on undeniable realities” and “faithfully reflect the really existing current situation.” This leads to Arendt’s observation that “if one wants to talk today about politics, one must begin with the prejudices that we all have against politics – unless we happen to be professional politicians.” (G, 17) Thus, we all tend to believe today that “domestic policy is a fabric of lies and deceptions woven by shady interests and even shadier ideologies, while foreign policy vacillates between vapid propaganda and the exercise of raw power.”[26] This kind of prejudice, she continues, “indicates that we have got into a situation in which we precisely do not know or do not yet know how to move politically. The danger is that politics disappears altogether from the world.”

We need to remember here that Arendt, like Schmitt, thinks about politics historically and not – in the classical, Aristotelian fashion – as the unfolding of a determinate and fixed human nature. In opposition to Aristotle she notes early on in her philosophical diary that the individual or species man “is apolitical.” Politics, she argues there, arises, instead, “between men, and so quite outside man.”[27] As such it is neither natural to us as organic beings nor historically inevitable. In order for there to be such a thing as human politics there has to be, in particular, a public sphere or, as Arendt also calls it, a “world” in which we can interact politically. And “the world and the things of this world, in the midst of which human affairs take place, are not the expression of human nature, that is, the imprint of human nature turned outward.”[28] It is, rather, that human beings must produce and maintain this world, if there is to be political life, and we can therefore conceive as possible “a catastrophe so monstrous, so world-destroying, that it would likewise affect man’s ability to produce this world and its things, and leave him as a worldless [and, hence, apolitical] animal.”[29] Arendt considers it, indeed, quite possible that such fallbacks into a pre-political state have happened repeatedly in the prehistoric past and that “certain so called primitive peoples are their residue, their worldless vestiges.”[30] Where modern political philosophers speak of politics perhaps as an ineluctable necessity and hence have no worry about the persistence of our political practices, Arendt consider the belief that politics has existed always and everywhere to be a mere prejudice. She is, in fact certain that “the atrophy of the political realm is one of those objectively demonstrable tendencies of the modern era” and Marx’s belief in a future without state or politics is for her accordingly “not at all utopian” but “simply appalling.”[31] This does not mean that the end of politics is, for Arendt, inevitable. Her pessimism is always balanced by her conviction that just like the appearance of politics is a historical and contingent fact so its end is also not “inherent in the nature of things and thus inevitable.”[32]

Arendt certainly knows that our political realities change with the historical circumstances and that the Greek polis, in particular, is no longer a possibility for us. The latter is sometimes not seen and she is then accused of a nostalgic view of the political according to which there is only one concept of the political available to us, that embodied in the Greek polis. It is true that Arendt consider the Greek polis to have been an exemplary place and that its fall signals a vanishing of “man’s highest potentialities in the world.”[33] But she understands that other forms of politics have developed since and she singles out among them the Roman one. While the Greeks were concerned first and foremost, she writes, with the internal life of their cities and thus failed to recognize their external relations as strictly political, Roman politics was from the start directed towards foreign affairs. The Greeks sought to shield themselves from outsiders and did not hesitate to destroy their enemies; the Romans, on the other hand, pursued alliances and treaties with them and thus created an empire. The Romans thought of the making of laws as an integrally political process whereas the Greeks understood it only as one of the preconditions of political life.[34] I leave aside here the question of the accuracy of these contrasts. The important thing is that Arendt is right in differentiating between the Greek and the Roman concept of the political and she is also right in thinking that we have been the heirs of both. But our political thought is shaped in addition by yet another conception of the political, as Arendt also understands. It is due to Augustine who interpreted politics in the light of the Christian concern with the other world as being only a means to a higher end. Finally, there is the modern conception of politics in which it is seen in relation to an ever more complex and ever expanding civil society. It is here also where politics becomes for Arendt most directly imperiled.

Arendt advances, in fact, two stories of the endangered state of our politics: one early and simple, the second characteristic of her mature thought and highly complex. In her book on twentieth century totalitarianism she argues straightforwardly that this novel form of government undermines the basis for our being political. Totalitarianism differs from ordinary tyranny, she maintains, in that it destroys not only public but also private life. In the totalitarian system “the iron band of terror leaves no space for such private life and …the self-coercion of totalitarian logic destroys man’s capacity for experience and thought just as certainly as his capacity for action.”[35] This new form of government, so Arendt fears, is moreover no passing historical phenomenon but likely to stay with us “as a potentiality and an ever-present danger.”[36] In the preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism she writes accordingly in the most pessimistic tones that we can no longer hope “for an eventual restoration of the old world order.”[37] She speaks of the fearful anticipation of a third world war, of “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth,” of “political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest,” of “the essential structure of all civilizations … at the breaking point,” of “desperate hope and desperate fear,” and “an unavoidable gloom.”[38] But while she acknowledges the prevalence of such anxieties, she distances herself in the end from both “reckless optimism and reckless despair” in the name of “a new guarantee” of human dignity which can be discovered, however, “only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth.”[39]

From the historical distance of the early twenty-first century, Arendt’s account of the political situation after 1945 looks, like the photographs and films from that time, too stark in its contrasts of black and white. The third world war she expected certainly never occurred; instead, states reorganized themselves according to long-established patterns; meanwhile, the attempt to create a new world order bore only limited fruit in the United Nations and no new political principle, no new law on earth made itself manifest. How large, we may ask furthermore, was really the difference between the new totalitarianism and traditional forms of tyranny? It is true that we can distinguish between regimes that set out to destroy public life and those that aim to destroy both the public and the private sphere and it is also true that Nazi and Soviet policies aimed in the latter direction. But we can see now that twentieth century totalitarianism never succeeded in fully controlling their peoples’ private existence. There remained a political opposition even under the most extreme repression; there remained an underground that agitated and disrupted; there remained oppositional circles that engaged in political debate and drew up plans for the future. Just as lawful governments have never as yet managed to stamp out crime, the totalitarian regimes never managed to stamp out political opposition. The truth is that every society that has ever existed has contained within it a counter society and that the two are usually tied together by a complex web of interrelations. Not that we can ignore the dangers of the totalitarianism that Arendt describes. But its full realization would surely require technical means that are not yet in place.

In her mature writings of the late nineteen-fifties, in The Human Condition and in the manuscripts of an unpublished Introduction to Politics, Arendt gives a new and more complex account of why politics is now in danger of disappearing altogether from the world by developing a number of themes foreshadowed in earlier diary entries. The first and predominant theme in The Human Condition is the claim that politics is threatened in its existence by what Arendt calls “the social realm” or simply “society.” This realm, she writes, has “an irresistible tendency to grow, to devour the older realms of the political and private.”[40] Her thoughts intersect here with those of Hegel on the evolution of civil society and with Constant’s thoughts on the emergence of the sphere of commerce and entertainment. But she takes an altogether dimmer view of the meaning of these developments. In contrast to Hegel and Constant, she does not see civil society as merely redefining the role of the state but as threatening the very possibility of politics. The ancient Greeks had known both a public and a private realm, the polis and the household, she writes, but household life had existed for them only for the sake of the life in the polis. We live today, however, under the auspices of modern society, a peculiarly hybrid sphere that has room for both work and labor but not for action in the political sense. In the course of modernity men first separated themselves from their shared public world in a spirit of individual craftsmanship and entrepreneurship. This new type of man, homo faber still had his public arena, the market place where products could be shown and exchanged. The craftsman-entrepreneur, a man of economic independence and intellectual self-reliance, became in due course the model for the citizen of the liberal-democratic state understood as a community of autonomous human beings determined to assure their own individual happiness. Eventually, though, homo faber was surpassed by laboring man, tied to the machinery of industrial-technological life, a constant cycle of “vital necessities produced and fed into the life process.”[41]  Arendt considers Marx the most acute analyst of this new human type but she also believes that he utterly misinterpreted the meaning of its appearance. “Marx predicted correctly, though with an unjustified glee,” she writes, “the ‘withering away’ of the public realm under conditions of unhampered development of the ‘productive forces of society’.” He was certainly consistent “when he foresaw that ‘socialized men’ would spend their freedom from laboring in those strictly private and essentially wordless activities that we now call ‘hobbies.’”[42] But he failed to understand that in this process free action would come to be replaced by “conformism, behaviorism, and automatism in human affairs” and a “rule by nobody.”[43]

The last stage of the laboring society, the society of job holders,

demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though

individual life had actually been submerged in the overall life process

of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual

were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still

individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed,

“tranquillized,” functional type of behavior.[44]

We can hear in these words the pessimistic voice of Martin Heidegger transposed into politics as well as Nietzsche’s strictures on “the last man” as the inheritor of a devastated and flattened earth. But Arendt’s words also raise the same doubts as Heidegger’s and Nietzsche’s critiques of the modern age. Do they not oversimplify a multi-faceted situation? Are they not extreme and alarmist in their stark delineation of where we are? Arendt’s vivid descriptions of the growth of the social realm, of the appearance of homo faber and of animal laborans, do certainly nothing to establish that the political realm is now dissolving. It is evident that productive and laboring men will not be political in the ancient sense of the term. This had been recognized already by Hegel and Constant. But they had also been convinced that our political practices would gain a new meaning in this situation. We have a right to complain that Arendt’s account does not tell us why such hopes are mistaken and why the growth of the social realm can have only a destructive effect on politics.

Arendt would, presumably, respond to this challenge by drawing on another thought in The Human Condition which once again mirrors Heideggerian concerns. According to this line of thinking, it is modern technology which is most responsible for both the growth of the social realm and the decline of the political one. Society, as Arendt understands it, has come about with the inventions of the tools and machines that made first craftsmanship and then modern industry possible. With it came new and more elaborate forms of economic activity, new forms of forms of employment and new leisure activities. It is also plausible to argue that technology lies behind the appearance of twentieth century totalitarianism. Technological means were certainly needed to carry out the policies of Nazi and Soviet regimes. Both regimes were focused on industrial development and both used technological means to control their populations, to carry out surveillance, spread terror, and engage in mass deportations. Hitler’s anti-Semitism would surely have proved less deadly without a modern transportation and communication systems and the technical instruments of mass extermination.

In her posthumously published Introduction into Politics Arendt is also concerned with the destructive power of modern technology, the new weaponry; the refocusing of politics on violence, and, in particular, the nuclear bomb. With this weapon mankind has not only a tool for the extermination of whole populations but also for the extinction of the mankind itself. In the face of the devastations of the Second World War and the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Arendt contemplates “the disaster politics has wrought in our century and the still greater disaster that threatens to emerge from politics” and she goes on to raise the question “whether politics and the preservation of life are even compatible under modern conditions” and whether politics has still “any meaning at all.”[45] But her reminder of the destructive potential of modern technology is, of course, insufficient to explain our disdain for politics, as Arendt herself came eventually to understand. While the destructive potential of modern weapons may admittedly turn us away from politics, it may also energize us to engage more intensely in political matters as the antinuclear agitation of the nineteen fifties showed so vividly. Technology has, moreover, not only a destructive potential. Arendt admits, in fact,  as much in The Human Condition where she writes: “Foremost in our minds at this moment is of course the enormously increased human power of destruction, that we are able to destroy all organic life and shall probably be able one day to destroy even the earth itself. However, no less awesome and no less difficult to come to terms with is the corresponding new creative power.”[46] But this productive power may itself once again threaten our political practices. Thus one of the products of technology is modern bureaucracy and other forms of technological organization. This development, she thinks, may eventually lead to the disappearance of a genuinely political world through the creation of “a world government that transforms the state into an administrative machine, resolves political conflicts bureaucratically, and replaces armies with police forces.”[47] In the bureaucratic system “nobody” would rule and that would be more fearsome than any traditional despotism, “because no one can speak with or petition this ‘nobody’.”[48]

Totalitarianism, technology and technological modes of thinking, the destructive potential of modern weaponry, and the evolution of a vast administrative bureaucracy all contribute for Arendt to the decline of the political. But there are for her in addition some other and historically variable factors that threaten our status as political beings. If politics is to be understood as the exercise of freedom, our sense of the boundlessness, uncertainty, and calamities of action may lead us disvalue the political. This is, indeed, what made Plato and Aristotle think so much about constitutions and laws in their so-called “political” writings “because they wished to turn against politics and against action.” They preferred poiēsis over praxis because of its greater reliability.[49] From Plato onwards philosophy (and, in particular, political philosophy) has been staunchly anti-political. In Plato’s case this was motivated by the bitter experience of the persecution of Socrates. This event opened up an abyss philosophy and politics which is still not closed. Next, we must recognize “Christianity’s rejection and misrepresentation of politics, which although it superficially resembles the Platonic degradation of politics, is in fact far more radical.”[50] It is true that Augustine, “the only great philosopher the Romans ever had,” provided a new, though limited meaning to a Christian politics, but the Christian distrust nevertheless remained. All these factors contribute to our distrust of political matters and they all contribute to the now visible decline of politics.  Arendt holds, in fact, that “politics as such has existed so rarely and in so few places that, historically speaking, only a few great epochs have known it and turned it into a reality.”[51]





Schmitt and Arendt, I hope to have shown, draw a vast panorama of twentieth century uncertainties. These all circle around the state of our politics. But what is at stake for them is not the persistence of this or that political institution for they are both skeptical about the traditional view of politics as a specific organizational structure. Their tireless effort to determine the concept of the political anew derives, rather, from their deep anxiety over the fate of a political mode of being under current, unfavorable conditions. That the concept of the political is of such concern for them throws thus, I have argued, undoubtedly, a disquieting light on the distinctive uncertainties of our epoch.


[1] Reinhard Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: The Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1988, passim.

[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in David McLellan, Karl Marx: Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1988, pp. 237-238.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human,” transl. by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambrisge University Press, Cambridge 1986, vol. 1, 472, p. 173.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen, Hackett, Indianapolis 1998, second treatise, 17, p. 58.

[5] Carl Schmitt, “Der Begriff des Politischen,”in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, vol. 58, 1927, pp. 1-33, reprinted in Positionen und Begriffe im Kampf mit Weimar-Genf-Versailles 1929-1939, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin, third edition 1988, pp. 75-83. Der Begriff des Politischen, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1932 and Hanseatische Verlagsgesellschaft, Hamburg 1934; Der Begriff des Politischen. Text von 1932 mit einem Vorwort und drei Corollarien, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1963. The Concept of the Political, translated by George Schwab, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1996.  Since it will be necessary to refer to both the German text and the English translation I will identify the German 1963 edition in the following as “BP” and the English translation as “CP.” Where necessary, I will sometimes emend the English text.

[6] Postscript to BP, p. 96 (not included in CP).

[7] CP, p. 79.

[8] Carl Schmitt, Theorie des Partisanen. Zwischenbemerkungen zum Begriff des Politischen, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1963.

[9] BP, p. 10.

[10] CP, p. 22.

[11] CP, p. 19.

[12] CP, p. 26.

[13] CP, p. 27.

[14] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology. Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, translated by George Schwab, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1988, p. 65. I refer to this text hereafter as “PT.”

[15] For obscure reasons this second part of Schmitt’s essay was omitted from the English translation of the 1932 text. It appeared in English in and has since been included in the latest edition.

[16] Carl Schmitt, “Politik,” in Staat, Großraum, Nomos. Arbeiten aus den Jahren 1916-1969, edited by Günter Maschke, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1995, pp. 134-135. Emphasis in the original.

[17] See CP, p. 26 and BP, p. 26, respectively.

[18] CP, p. 38.

[19] PT, p. 27.

[20] BL, p. 137.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Loc. cit., pp 65 and 15. Translation emended.

[23] BL, p. 142.

[24] CP, p.70.

[25] AND, p. 137.

[26] Ibid., p. 98.

[27] Hannah Arendt, Introduction into Politics in The Promise of Politics, translated by Jerome Kohn, Schocken Books, New York 2005, Ibid., p. 95. Arendt wrote these remarks initially in her Denktagebuch in August 1950, loc. cit., p. 17.

[28] Ibid. p. 106.

[29] Ibid., p. 107.

[30] Ibid., p. 107.

[31] Ibid., p. 153.

[32] Introduction to Politics, p. 97.

[33]Introduction to Politics, loc. cit., p. 188.

[34] Introduction to Politics, pp.

[35] Ibid, p. 474.

[36] Ibid., p. 478.

[37] Ibid., vii.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid, p. ix.

[40]Ibid., p. 45.

[41] Ibid., p. 7.

[42] Ibid., pp. 117-118.

[43] Ibid., pp. 43 and 40.

[44] Ibid., p. 322.

[45] Arendt, “Introduction into Politics,” pp. 108 and 109.

[46]  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago University Press, Chicago 1958, pp. 268-269.

[47] Ibid., p. 97.

[48] Ibid.

[49] The Human Condition, p. 195.

[50] Introduction to Politics, p. 135.

[51] Ibid., p. 119.

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