One of the pivotal elements of the totalitarian movements of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as outlined by Hannah Arendt was that humans became atomized or isolated. This connects to Arendt’s concept of action in another of her major works The Human Condition. The atomized individual is one who has no political affiliations. They do not engage in politics, they are not part of any organization, they are not part of any labor union. A totalitarian movement is ripe for success when the masses are atomized like this. This atomization of the individual is what Arendt thinks is constitutive of the modern age, an age where the modern subject does not know how to act. Furthermore, Arendt connects action to natality, to beginnings. One can then make the simple assumption that inaction is tied to destruction, to destroy is not to act poorly or in an evil manner, but to not act at all.
The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.
It is no wonder that Arendt ties this inaction, this inability to act, towards labor. Capitalism, not in theory, but in this reality, this lived experience as a living and breathing American, is plagued by inaction. This lived experience of capitalism is one that gravitates away from the higher purposes of life, towards a life of freedom. Capitalism is not about prosperity, it is about survival. As long as this is true, that if you are not productive enough or valuable enough a human that you will not survive, we will never reach our full potential. We see this fetishization of labor as the ideal of life come to the fullest fruition in people like the President who part of his electability was his businessperson sales pitch. We also see it in Marc Andreessen who represent the large faction of intellectual elites who view the function of the government as one that is geared towards enabling the capitalism to build more efficiently and effectively. Both of these grossly misrepresent the fundamental distinction between labor and action, something the modern age has lost.
In the modern age, the modern subject does not know how to act. We see this manifested in many ways. We see it in the idea of moral outrage porn. We see it on Twitter, where people just think yelling at others or retweeting things is action. We see it on Instagram activism or petition drives. We see it in the hypocritical and useless ways company have reacted to things like the Black Lives Matter movements and racial injustice. We see things as individuals, and what we can do. We spend a lot of time at work and a lot of time on social media, so it is no wonder we see a lot of “activism” here. But how much are we really doing? Is this action?
This is by no means something that I am an expert on, I am fresh out of college, spending most of my time doing math, computer science, and programming in the early years and philosophy in the latter years. Over the course of college, I began to take a gradual interest politics. It is something I always wondered, what does it take to be engaged in politics?
Philosophy provided many answers to these for me, but mostly in the theory aspect, which is all too important and cannot be understated. To rephrase an Immanuel Kant quote that I think he would enjoy, “Theory without practice is empty, practice without theory is blind.” It is not that one can do practice with no theory, it is that we are always doing theory because we are practical beings. This is partly Kant’s aim in his philosophy of practical reason, encompassing ethics, right, legality, religion, politics, and many other things. To take an example of where theory and practice intersect, take Kant’s argument for unconditional poverty relief.
In this argument, Kant starts with what is called the Universal Principle of Right,
Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with universal law.
Kant argues that it is possible for people to come to own things, such as land. It is possible that I can own land that is my own. But to have a right to something is not just to be in possession of it empirically, but to have a claim that it is mine even when I do not empirically possess it. In other words, someone would wrong me if they used this thing I own without my consent. However, absent a civil condition, we could not have enforceable rights since in the state of nature, there is no rightful coercion since coercion would just be someone imposing their unilateral choice on another, which is wrong according to the Universal Principle of Right.
Say we are in a civil condition now, where we have a universal, omnilateral will. In this condition, coercion can be rightful if it hinders a hindrance to freedom. In other words, say someone wrongs me by taking my book. The state, which is none other than the omnilateral will of the people, can rightfully use coercion to get my book back. Another example of what the state can do is as follows. Say there are a bunch of landowners in some 3x3 block. In the 3x3 block, say all the 8 people on perimeter decide to bully the person in the middle. They tell him the person in the middle they are not allowed on their property. Now the middle person has no way to rightfully move about, they are made dependent on the wills of another. This dependence relation is what is wrong on the Kantian account, it is to not be free or autonomous beings. The civil condition is about reconciling everyone’s freedom, not just some. So on this account, the state must coerce people into having public roads or paths. This way, each citizen is able to go where ever they want without wronging another.
This same type of reasoning can be shown that citizens are entitled to unconditional poverty relief. If a person, by no wrongful act, falls into poverty, the state has an obligation to lift them out of poverty. The reason is the same as above : the person in poverty is put into a relation of dependence on other’s arbitrary wills, not universal law. It is left up to the church, wealthy people, passing strangers on the streets, and the chance employer if they are to survive. This line of reasoning is similar to the idea that someone who is starving should not be punished for stealing food. This is because poverty is a systemic choice, and each must be able to have access to means. If there was no state, stealing would not be a crime, and the starving person could take an apple from my tree or bread from the baker and wrong no one. In the civil condition, theft is a crime, but the obligation falls onto the state to unconditionally relieve poverty.
Now this is a very brief exposition of a more complex and nuanced theory, but the point stands. It reconciles considerations of private right ( I own this, you cannot take this away from me no matter what) and public right (we have a duty to provide public goods to the people, sucks that we must take your things). Each of these claims that they cannot be violated, no matter how nice it would be to have the other. But on the Kantian account, the conflict disappears.
This was one of the earlier philosophical arguments I read that made me fascinated with theory and philosophy. Since then, I have dove very deep into the Kantian system in general, but I have read many other theorists as well. I took classes from philosophers like Helga Varden and David Sussman, spending many hours discussing intimately with them about practical philosophy. I learned from Colleen Murphy about the intersection of morality, law, and politics and how one can use theory with great impact in all spheres adjacent to politics. From other canonical political philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rosseau, to more modern thinkers like Arendt, Rawls, MLK, and Angela Davis. I have read from political leaders like Václav Havel. I cast my support for Bernie Sanders and admire his commitment to what is right, something very little politicians have ever done in America. I read political thinkers and pundits like Ezra Klein or Briahna Joy Gray. I have discovered other people through Twitter who have great things to say such as Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, Jason Stanley, and Liam Kofi Bright. I started paying more attention to the legal scholars in our country. I even ventured into the sphere of political art, such as Our Death by Sean Bonney. I even wrote two substantial research papers, one on a Kantian critique of transitional justice focused on punishment and another on Kant’s concept of the ethical commonwealth and Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism.
By no means is the theory done and will ever be done, but time comes to practice this theory. Now is most definitely the time for me to act, to practice, along with everyone else. With theory in hand, I feel confident in what people and organizations are doing the right things, driving our country towards a better future, to a “more perfect union”. Now, democracy and action are not to be done alone, it cannot be done alone. So the question should not be phrased as “what can I do?”, instead the question should be phrased “what organization should I join?”. The former question is daunting, and since we live in a society that is overly individualistic, it is the one we most likely ask ourselves. Asking this question leads us to answers like, doing some minimal activism in our capitalist, profit driven companies or shouting into the void on Twitter, the nuance destruction machine (the only thing I will agree with Bezos on most likely).
To me, this was easy to see where to go was through Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA focuses on many topics that are largely consistent and strive for the same Kantian aims. They address the same ills of all the isms (capitalism, racism, sexism, it goes on). The DSA is focused on making action possible, in this age of inaction. Some of the problems that are deeply disturbing, if you take freedom in the strong Kantian sense to be more or less correct, is the massive amounts of poverty in this nation in the form of food, health care, housing. Other problems are the bloated police departments that seem more and more not to work for the people. The bloated military that is contradictory towards any perpetual peace as Kant argues (even in the late 1700s!). The continual exploitation of regular working class people, from people I grew up with in rural America to the people I see all the time in New York City. Reading about the state of prisons in the United States from Davis makes one immediately on board with the DSA prison policies.
There are many other things that the DSA does and supports as well, but you can go find more information on their websites. The DSA has working groups, where you can participate in and figure out what you can do related to the issues you are most passionate about. The DSA has independent news sources as well, such as podcasts/radio shows or newsletters about DSA activity.
Now to show some examples of things you can do are some things I do. First, I am going to be moving to NYC permanently soon so I joined the NYC DSA. I try to stay up to date about politics through news sources, but also am following The Thorn and Revolutions Per Minute. I am a patron of RPM as well since I believe it is a worthwhile endeavor. The working groups I am mostly interested in our the anti-war and climate change related ones. Since I have a decent salary as well due to the grind of computer science I did at college, I donate more money as well. Other things I do is occasionally emailing any of my current representatives about issues I am concerned about.
The DSA provides another alternative what seems like the only two options in the country. There is a third choice, one that acknowledges what has been long known by thinkers that capitalism is inconsistent with democracy, it inevitably leads to fascism and imperialism. This third choice also asks you to not just labor for them, but to act. This is nothing other than what a democracy requires and asks of our citizens. Through an organization like this, it seems possible to put aside the worries that you are not doing enough to counter the evil in the world that we see every day. By acknowledging this distinction between labor and action, while recognizing the importance of both, this frees humanity up for other things as well, namely, realizing freedom in its highest pursuits, that there is more to life than just laboring away.
This post was inspired by the call to join this fall and recruit more members. If you have any more questions or you join and want to tell me, please message me through email or phone or where ever. Also, DSA wants us to use this referral link to when we invite our friends to join, so please do.