Return(s) of history and a new law on Earth
“all nations share the onus of evil committed by all others.”
- Arendt, Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility
For Walter Benjamin, it is in the image of defeat, that of “enslaved ancestors”, and not some vision of future redemption, that the real meaning of history can be rescued for the purposes of political action on behalf of the oppressed. The life of the German Jewish intellectual itself stood as a metaphor for the defeated.
Exiled from his native Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War, Benjamin failed in his efforts to flee to the United States. In the Fall of 1940, he was denied an exit visa on the border between France and Spain at the behest of American authorities. After initially agreeing to take in Jewish refugees, the Roosevelt administration had again closed the border, before re-opening it about a week later.¹ By then, Benjamin had ended his own life. Shortly after his death, his friend Hannah Arendt would publish ‘We Refugees’ (1943), commenting on the plight of those rendered stateless by the outbreak of conflict.² Unlike Benjamin, and many other European Jews who failed to make the journey, Arendt did manage to reach America. It was there that she would pen her by now much-debated thoughts on totalitarianism, citizenship, and human rights in the nation-state.
As Jews, both figures occupied a unique vantage point. While a dark sense of foreboding encompassed much of the western world, it was particularly grim for minorities who had long been discriminated against. As liberal democracies were collapsing all around them, the real emptiness of their rhetoric around rights and freedoms supposedly tied to democratic citizenship, in which they had invested much hope, was starkly revealed. In a moment not unlike our own, millions had been displaced from their homes, embroiled in a genocide that sorely tested many of the pretensions at the heart of the purportedly civilised west. By attacking the most vulnerable members of the European community, Arendt noted, westerners had contributed to the demise of their own democracies — a legacy not entirely disconnected from the “racial thinking” embedded in the structures of western colonialism and imperialism from the very outset.³ For Jews, Roma, and other communities collectively targeted by fascist regimes within Europe itself, the distinction between the rights-bearing citizen and the internal enemy, stripped of all recourse to protective state authority, increasingly became a meaningless one. Even citizenship was no guarantee of personal security. Under the exceptional circumstances of war-torn Europe, minorities could be stripped of their citizenship to their countries of birth, rendering them stateless, and, by expelling them from the possibility of meaningful participation in any political community, also “world-less”.⁴
Fleeing not to, but away from, Europe, they were further subjected to the arbitrary power of a global system of borders and immigration bureaucracies.
It is not difficult to identify something of the Benjaminian mode in the images of failed escapes that haunt our present. Everywhere distrusted and nowhere welcome, they take on different names and speak different languages. The direction of flight has been reversed. They are in the numerous suicides of people from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific, some of them detained in Orwellian “processing and migrant screening centres”; others turned back or forced out by their own governments, across the globe. They are in the image of the lone body of the Syrian child Alan Kurdi, orphaned and unwanted on the borders of Europe. They are in the plight of various diasporas — Palestinians, Bosnians, Kurds, the Roma and the Rohingya, among many others — who have, de facto, been stateless for decades. Finally, they are in the rosaries, confiscated from asylum-seekers fleeing across Mexico-US border, whose images gained mass circulation on social media, standing in mute accusation of the violence done to the faithful who are nowhere to be seen.
Indeed, the current American administration’s policy of separating mothers from their children as a deterrent to asylum-seekers quite easily lent itself, among Americans themselves, to comparisons with Nazi Germany. Even with the best of intentions, historical analogies are clunky at best. Yet this eschatological imaginary that draws on the repertoire of past guilt deserves further unpacking for what it says about the west and its self-understanding. For B.D. McClay, commenting on the rosaries in the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, it is the Pieta, the mother and child united in their forced separation, that best represents the pathos of our time. The Madonna, holding the body of her son in a gesture of infinite resignation, raises several important questions for the onlooker, not least the question of responsibility for their plight.
But if the Judeo-Christian themes of guilt, responsibility, and (possible) redemption are recurring motifs, so is the perception of the stranger as an enduring threat. In 2018, migrants are a force of nature. One cover in the German weekly Der Spiegel would prove less than charitable. The asylum-seekers, who are riding on a boat in a desperate flight across the Mediterranean, are faceless and silent, dissolving into a wave crashing, as it were, upon the fragile bastion of western civilisation. Once isolated to the political fringes, rhetoric drawing on the generalised fear of contamination by the coloured masses is increasingly occupying centre stage, forcing its way into the actions of respectable members of the establishment. Defenders of the xenophobic undercurrent of the European Enlightenment are again making an appearance. If the world is in the west, then the west must seal its borders by any and all means necessary, including authoritarian ones, before the wretched of the Earth flood into societies where a residual liberalism hangs on to dear life.
In Libya, the slave trade is enjoying a renaissance, a country whose elites are as complicit as European politicians seeking to externalise responsibility for refugees to despotic regimes that are, in turn, Europe’s ex-colonies. In Algeria, once the epicentre of anti-colonial hopes, thousands of African asylum-seekers seeking refuge in the west are being sent back on marches across the Sahara, with many dying along the way. While such atrocities are being done at the behest of EU governments, supposedly responding to the demands of their voting citizens, they are being carried out at gun point by the Algerian authorities.
There is little doubt that structural discrimination against migrants, who are fleeing either political persecution or debilitating poverty, and often both, in their home countries, is a legacy of colonialism carried into the present. In addition to persistent global inequalities, however, the crisis also relates to the failures of post-colonial states that have been unable to improve the lot of their own citizens who have consequently taken flight, and by fleeing, are transmogrified into the figure of the barbarian at the gate. Moreover, the internationalisation of populist nationalism and authoritarianism, in their various permutations, is revealing of just how closely these countries, sharing a common history, are still bound together.
The question of universal responsibility presents itself here. It has been noted repeatedly that the refugee “crisis” is not a real one for receiving countries in the west that are more than capable of absorbing and integrating more immigrants. Migrant flows into both Europe and North America have been at their lowest point in at least a decade. Through cynical manipulation of the facts, western politicians have used immigrants, not for the first time, as scapegoats to win votes. At the same time, the crisis is surely a real one for those human beings unlucky enough to have inherited citizenship, by pure coincidence of birth, into some of the poorest or most politically unstable countries on the planet.
In that regard, the Pieta is not the only valid metaphor for our times. Another is the apparition of Benjamin’s Angel in a world order (whose order?) collapsing amid the failed hopes of the 20th century. The first relates to international responsibility for the current impasse. The second is reflected in the failures of the globalisation of a political economy supposedly designed to uplift the majority of the world’s population, while trapping them in a hierarchy of nation-states characterised by stark differences in quality of life. The situation is particularly acute in post-colonial and post-Communist societies still caught up in the historical traumas of authoritarian rule. As these pathologies are increasingly reflected in western democracies, however, few appear willing to admit to the shared paths that have led us all to this moment, nor to accept the responsibilities that come with that recognition.
This paper places Benjamin and Arendt in conversation, mobilising some of their insights for a re-reading of our moment of “crisis” that recalls the limits of western self-understanding already hinted at by both intellectuals. It expounds on some of their ideas while refracting them through the lens of contemporary events. Significantly, their thoughts on modernity, revolution, and the nation-state might be usefully applied to the post-colonial condition or what is broadly conceived as the non-western world. The paper concludes with the possibility, and necessity, for solutions global in scope that are adequate to our present condition.
In his 8th thesis on the philosophy of history, Benjamin comments on the “tradition of the oppressed”, stressing that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule”. Written in exile at the height of the Second World War, his theses are a treatise on the importance of the recovery and re-articulation of historical memory in the resistance to fascism. Deliberately enigmatic, they partly underscore a desire to reveal to his readers that the barbarism that was then engulfing Europe was part and parcel of western modernity and not external to it. In fact no matter how awful the present seemed for many Europeans at the time of writing, there were always groups of people, perhaps even the vast majority of humanity, labouring under extreme conditions of state violence or poverty.
Benjamin’s understanding of the historical process reverses any linear view of the forward march of human progress. Scorning in equal measure the ideological hubris of the liberal optimist and the devotees of actually-existing Marxism, for him the fact of the matter was that for every apparent march forward, there is a consequent strengthening of the violent underbelly of social decay. It was in a spirit of urgency that he called for a critical reappraisal of the past for the redemption of a recognisable civilisation. His approach compels us to give consideration to the defeated or oppressed of history; those often unseen and neglected in its writing. By this time a revolutionary socialist, he paradoxically saw the revolution not as a leap forward toward a utopian future, but rather as a movement of arresting the catastrophe of history as observed by Klee’s Angel.
Elsewhere he notes that the world-historical role of the proletariat was to stop humanity’s own self-destruction. In One-Way Street, he spurns the classic image of a class struggle akin to a wrestling match between labour and capital, with one side aiming at a final resolution. Rather, he saw the necessity of a revolutionary rupture that would dissolve that relation altogether. Capital estranges humanity from itself; organised labour and the bourgeoisie are locked in a suicidal pact until the system is stopped. “Before the spark reaches the dynamite,” he stresses, “the lighted fuse must be cut”.⁵ One might even detect something of a conservative impulse in this strain of thought, if we accept “revolution” in its original sense of celestial motion coming to return to its starting position (Lat., revolvere).
Benjamin’s tragic sensibility can be located in the historical context in which he was writing. Compounding his experience of displacement by German fascism, the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 completed the betrayal of the political hopes of many, including his own, that had been invested in its apparent antithesis in the Soviet Union.
By contrast, the necessary agency of the working class in creating a radical rupture in a decaying bourgeois society is more clearly foregrounded in a much earlier essay, Critique of Violence (1921). Violence (Germ. Gewalt) here can roughly be translated to mean authority or power.
Benjamin begins by challenging the relationship between means and ends in conventional legal philosophy which tends to judge any exercise of violence on the basis of its ends or objectives. He enacts a similar distinction between natural and positive law, therefore contesting whether there is any inherent ‘justice’ behind the creation of a law or institution. Freed from these limits, he then proceeds to question whether violence can ever be justified on the basis of a given end. For Benjamin, it is only a “divine” arbiter — by definition external and independent of all human affairs — that can decide on the merits, justice, or indeed the righteousness, of any given act or law. If the power to judge is not available to mere mortals, we can only glean something of the just character of violence by suspending the relation between means and ends altogether, and focussing only on the realm of means.
Indeed, all violence or authority is “mythic” if it aims at a particular end — namely the accumulation or preservation of power which will, in turn, always depend on a relationship of inequality. Such violence is, for Benjamin, especially illegitimate. For him all bourgeois law falls under this category, to the extent that it really aims at the perpetuation of a relation of unequal authority between two parties, especially one built on class (and, one might add, racial) differences. Despite its democratic pretences, the bourgeois state is the singular institution which, from the moment of its founding, utilizes law solely for its own defence and self-preservation. This is revealed in moments of exception when the state justifies extreme police violence as a matter of national security, or carries out the death penalty (a punishment typically restricted to, in this period, revolutionaries or those accused of high treason). Yet even under the “normal” operations of law, individuals made vulnerable by reason of their economic marginality or foreign status are always in an exceptional state vis a vis state authority.
In the same essay, he offers the example of the demarcation of borders in a peace treaty after war as merely an extension of mythic violence. He was, after all, writing at a time when Germany itself was struggling with the implications of the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire after the First World War. The Third Reich would later tap into the sense of nationalist resentment and victim-hood building up in the wake of that defeat. It was also around this time that the League of Nations and the minority treaties had been established. While not explicitly discussed by Benjamin himself, surely the foundational contradiction at the heart of these well-meaning efforts would have been clear to him: international law now sought to protect the rights of stateless minorities while simultaneously reifying the rule of borders and nation-states invested with the sovereign authority to protect those rights.⁶
Opposing itself to mythic violence was its divine counterpart which worked toward full redemption by dissolving the very parameters within which such mythic institutions and laws were created. In Benjamin’s formulation, the latter are categorically “demonic” — his odd theological bent offers no room for second thoughts. As an example of divine authority, he cites God’s judgement on the company of Korah in the Hebrew Bible. By swallowing up the guilty into the Earth, redemption is complete in the sense of eliminating altogether the relationship of guilt which bound both innocent and guilty together even as it divided them. This is justice, in other words, that seeks no particular end in vengeance, apart from ending that which separates one from the other.
Along the same lines, it is the role of the proletariat to create a new law or state of affairs, one that cannot be planned for or predicted in advance, that would overcome the mythic violence of which the state is the ultimate expression. The preconditions for this moment are latent in bourgeois society that has reached such an advanced state of decay that violence commensurate with that decay becomes justifiable. This decay comes with the eclipse of the emancipatory impulses behind the establishment of Europe’s democratic states, as evidenced in post-Revolutionary France or the troubles of Weimar Germany. With the waning of revolutionary memory, political institutions are corrupted and society again becomes vulnerable to fascist barbarism.
A large chunk of the essay expounds on the general strike as the singular act by the working class with which to complete this revolutionary break. Paradoxically, Benjamin notes that the overthrow of the state, presumably implied by the general strike, is in fact the supreme act of nonviolence. For only this can usher in a messianic epoch where justice of the kind rendered unto the company of Korah is finally possible. Only possible, for in the pursuit of that rupture, justice should never be assumed as guaranteed. Revolutionary violence is a moment of divine intervention, as it were, that can only be appreciated by future generations in retrospect.
Progress and its discontents
Some of the same questions that Benjamin wrestled with are again at the forefront of contemporary events. Everywhere, there is a sense that the international institutions, laws, and norms fashioned in the aftermath of the Second World War and the formal break-up of western Empires, are being sorely tested after having been taken for granted for so long. His themes of decay, crisis, and revolution are identifiable in the collective panic over these institutions that were, in part, founded on the memory of modern western civilisation’s “original sins” of colonialism and genocide which haunt us less than a century later.
Of course, the politics of authoritarianism and exclusionary nationalism have always been with us — there has been no shortage of genocidal regimes beyond the usual geographical limits of western moral concern. Blame for the corruption of democratic institutions in various states is often directed at sources external to their countries of manifestation, linked to the intervention of this or that superpower, be it Russia, China, or the United States. While there is some truth to these claims, they are overdrawn. The growing family resemblance between political entrepreneurs with a xenophobic agenda in western states and equally atrocious regimes in the global south is the outcome of more than mere conspiracy or coincidence.
It is striking, then, that real alarm about the state of the post-war order emerged only when the image of barbarism has come to be reflected in countries that had erstwhile seen themselves as standard-bearers of freedom, human rights, and democracy. Right-wing populists have begun to chip away at the foundations of that self-image: Hungary, Italy, Poland, the UK, and most notably, the United States. The beating heart of the post-war liberal order yielded Trump to the world.
Behind all the chest-beating was the question: how could it happen here? How could it not?
Europe’s own sense of crisis was evident in the words of German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, in a speech delivered shortly after the G7 meeting this summer. Speaking on behalf of a country that had seen this sort of thing before, he warned that the United States could no longer be relied upon to shore up the free world, as political developments threatened to further strain the trans-Atlantic alliance.
His was a spirited call for internal unity in the face of the rise of populist insurgencies within the continent and beyond. Ever aware of its imperial heritage, and accustomed to taking on the burden of responsibility for the world’s affairs, Europe must be made aware of the threat posed by the reconfiguration of the international order with China and Russia at the helm. As these formerly Communist regimes espouse a brutish kind of values-free authoritarianism at home and abroad, all the more is there need, he implied, for a committed defence of liberal democracy and human rights as singularly European values. Europe’s role in the world, in turn, can only be secured through its own solidarity and the strengthening of those institutions that have held its peoples together. “Surrendering sovereignty to the EU,” he remarked, “enables us to win back the political influence we have long since lost as nations.” He added that the present weaknesses of the European Union stem partly from the failings of technocrats overly committed to a “neoliberal” dogma at the expense of internal cohesion, evident in the response to Greece’s debt crisis. A better way forward can be found in burden-sharing over the economy and the question of responsibility for refugees, mostly flowing in from the Middle East and North Africa.
Maas’ comments are striking for at least two reasons. First, they come as the EU’s unique experiment in post-national or pan-continental citizenship is being subjected to its strongest test yet. The construction of a European community was in part a prophylactic treatment against the strong tendency toward ethnonationalism among Europeans that came in the wake of the collapse of empires that led to the Second World War. Of course, the continent was never so neatly divided into monolithic nation-states. Yet right-wing populists are increasingly banking on a politics of resentment, mobilising felt grievances over assaults to their national particularity and sovereignty — that is, the right to govern their own affairs, by which is meant the right to exclude perceived threats to a homogenous ethnos. Opposition to the EU was clearly expressed in Brexit, rising in tandem with the resurgence of antisemitic and anti-immigrant sentiments across the continent.
Second, present trends are revealing of the extent to which migrants and refugees, who are by definition excluded from the European project, continue to be the constitutive Other through which the west defines itself, and not only as convenient scapegoats for the populist right. Indeed Maas’ speech subtly reinforces a European identity through a transcontinental sovereignty that simultaneously reifies a relationship of difference between Europe and the non-European world. ‘Our’ values are not theirs. Our laws and our borders are designed to protect our own. Our welfare state, as one hears increasingly across the spectrum, is for our (preferentially white) working class — a principle carried out in practice in the sequestering of asylum-seekers in what are openly dubbed “ghettos” in Denmark’s fine social democracy, in the toxic rhetoric of left and right-wing variants of Brexit, and expressed in terrifying echoes of the “national social” by a minority faction of the German left.
While Maas rightly critiqued the manipulation of the refugee issue by demagogues seeking easy electoral victories, the non-European, and especially the non-European Muslim, continues to stand in for deep insecurity over long-held moral and political certainties. The rest of the world has not come to adopt the core tenets of the Enlightened Democratic West, as it had once hoped. Indeed very many post-colonial countries, from which migrants are fleeing, appear to be falling apart under the weight of successive political, ecological, and economic crises. Meanwhile, nobody dares to imagine extending the parameters of European social democracy beyond the continent’s borders. The dominant paradigm is one of management and security, not inclusion in any sort of internationalist vision that might better address the root causes of forced migration. It is in the barbaric treatment of asylum-seekers struggling on the borders of Europe — a continent that pioneered humanitarianism as a response to its own crimes — that the gap between its self-conception and what it does in practice is most apparent.
Having said all this, it would be a mistake to depict this moment as a clash of civilisations, locating blame for the present zeitgeist of exclusionary nationalism solely in the western hemisphere. Dehumanising rhetoric toward minorities and refugees moves from west to east and back again, targeting vulnerable populations in unexpected contexts. In Myanmar, close to a million Rohingya have relocated to Bangladesh, fleeing genocidal slaughter perpetrated by Buddhist nativists whose Islamophobic rhetoric is of a piece with contemporary Europe’s far right. Up to a million Uyghurs have also been locked up in China’s “re-education” camps, mirroring the actions of the Indian state, where resurgent Hindu nationalism has inspired lynchings targeting the country’s Muslim minority amid fears of stripping millions of citizenship. Elsewhere in the region, a politics of extermination is based less on the targeting of groups on the basis of distinctive ethnic or religious markers. Demagogues instead feast on feelings of grievance and resentment over entrenched inequality, extreme poverty, and poor governance blamed on the legacies of colonialism. In the Philippines, a purificatory class war against the poor, cloaked in the rhetoric of a battle against drugs, is taking on the tragic registers of a mutant anti-western nationalism.
It is alarming that few of the wealthier Asian countries have taken meaningful responsibility for these human rights atrocities nor for the growing numbers of displaced people within their own neighbourhood. Much like their European counterparts, it is equally on the basis of sovereignty that many regional governments have attempted to justify inaction or violence against marginalised communities. The principle of non-intervention covers for what is a strictly business-oriented foreign policy. Countervailing forces are even weaker in societies where a democratic humanitarian tradition has never really taken hold, and where civil society is severely repressed.
What appears as a clash of civilisations between east and west, the north and south, “globalists” and nationalists, feels more like a convergence toward a form of authoritarian oligarchy. For a long time this has, in fact, been the default mode of governance for those parts of the world that are generally marginal blips in the consciousness of average citizens in western democracies. With the return of fascism as a viable political force in the old metropoles, there is belated recognition that this pathos is universally felt.
History returns in the collapse of distinct narratives of progress from the 20th century, revealing the extent to which various countries are implicated in one another, bound together by troubled pasts and problems in common. Anti-colonial nationalism, communism, as well as the post-Cold War moment of (neo)liberal hubris steered by the United States: all envisioned a stepwise process toward emancipatory modernity. Instead, we bear witness to the slow violence of failed hopes. Most obvious is the betrayal of the promises of decolonisation, evident in the various despotisms and kleptocratic regimes that rule many parts of the third world. Tragic parodies of the radical democratic and internationalist aspirations of the founders of the early Bandung, no longer does their anti-western rhetoric serve the purpose of modernisation or any hopeful vision of progress for their people.⁷ Some societies have given way to complete breakdown. Syria is only the most extreme case of a nihilistic anti-politics of genocidal dictatorship wielding the rhetoric of counter-terrorism against all opposition, as state repression and religious extremism feed off each other in a mutual “logic of extermination”.
Similarly, it is no small irony that the utopian aspirations of global communism have been laid to rest in what have become deeply conservative, if not neo-fascist, regimes represented by Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China. In Hungary, memories of past atrocities under Soviet rule are mixing into a toxic brew of conspiratorial ultra-nationalism mobilised against refugees and a fictive global liberalism. A direct result of actually-existing communism’s own internal contradictions and the traumas of authoritarianism, what these societies have become can equally be traced to the failures of the democratic transition pushed by many who were thoroughly committed to a dogmatic neoliberalism.
In some of the wealthiest capitalist cores of the democratic west, meanwhile, the plight of the homeless — surplus to the needs of capital and victims of the stark inequalities it reproduces at a global scale — is mirrored in the stateless, who are everywhere targets of a language of crisis: pushed out by desperate circumstances within their own countries of citizenship and then persecuted even in places where they have sought refuge.⁸ As projections of the west’s existential anxieties, those from war-torn, climate-stricken, and impoverished locales stand as bitter reminders of its own historical role in producing the conditions from which millions seek an exit pass.
A “new law on Earth”
Rana Dasgputa, writing for the Guardian, presciently traces the rise of populist nationalism globally to the sense of powerlessness attached to being governed under political systems whose horizons are still limited to the national scale. It is not simply that the post-war liberal order is collapsing; it is rather that citizens of various states, driven by a sense of alienation from governments that purportedly represent them are turning to an idealised image of the nation-state. It is nostalgia for what never was, expressed in the attraction to authoritarian leadership and the retreat to isolationism in the face of the glaring absence of a coherent global vision.
There is an elective affinity between a new generation of right-wing populists in the west and their authoritarian equivalents abroad. While fanning the flames of exclusionary nationalism at home, they are products of a class of rootless oligarchs who have no lasting loyalties to any country, democratic constituency, or set of moral or humanist values. If the often violent means they undertake in pursuit of political power are attached to any recognisable ends, they are certainly bereft of the utopian elements of the past. Despite inflammatory rhetoric about defending this or that civilisation, this or that ‘way of life’, there is only a meeting of the minds and a mutual gesture toward barbarism.
None of this would have been a surprise to Benjamin, who warned against an understanding of history infused with the pretensions of linear progress. It is by arresting false images of the past that these latter-day demagogues subvert the emancipatory hopes that had once been attached to the various future-oriented visions of the 20th century. While nationalism, now well past its due date as an instrument for human progress and incompatible with the realities of the global economy, still retains its unique capacity to mobilise people, it can only do so toward regressive and ahistorical political ends.
Observing similar trends already in the 1950s, as fascist undercurrents in German society persisted in the lukewarm attempts to come to terms with its own past — evident in the impunity with which members of the Nazi regime still held positions in the state — Theodor Adorno remarked that the seeds of fascism will always be present to the extent that its preconditions, both structural and those locked deep within the social psyche, remain. At the most basic level, it is fear, driven by the fundamental insecurities of modernity, that drives people toward comforting caricatures of their own respective national pasts.⁹ Today, the self-destructive retreat to nativism in many parts of the west will surely find its echo in the global south, where hopes once invested in the emancipatory potential of the nation-state have been all but subverted by deeply corrupt and irredentist regimes: “the fascist wish-image unquestionably blends with the nationalism of the so-called underdeveloped countries, which now, however, are instead called “developing countries”.¹⁰
It is only by linking the experiences of these two world communities that we can come to a clearer understanding of our current situation. The difficulty is that these are societies that have known each other only through the traumatic and violent encounter of the colonial relationship and the contentious moment of their separation, which is rather misleadingly referred to as “decolonisation”. For surely the colonial relation, carried over across generations, still operates through a politics of geographic separation and racial segregation on a global scale; a hierarchy of nation-states and modes of citizenship with differential rights and privileges. The irony of the liberal world order, whose collapse is either mourned or celebrated by many, is that it never extended beyond about a quarter of humanity who are citizens of functional democracies, where basic rights and freedoms are protected, and even there they are under threat.
For that minority, the crises of the vast majority beyond their borders are locked far away, and best kept at a distance. Is it any surprise, then, that the language of demagogues targeting “those” impoverished and war-torn masses who threaten “our” way of life appeal to so many? Walls already exist, but they are more imagined than real, dividing those who occupy fundamentally different realities, separated by the pure accident of birth. These divides were further reinforced by the Cold War whose end, prematurely declared by a triumphant west, has only left a world reeling from the betrayals of utopian promises and clinging to the past for solutions.
In attending to our “fascist moment”, Yassin al-haj Saleh urges us instead to hold to a view of the world as a “single unit”, bound together by overlapping historical wounds. Of these wounds, the racialised dynamics of colonialism and fascism are not only still with us, but are being reproduced internationally.“One wants to break free of the past,” continues Adorno, “rightly, because…there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.” The assumption that one has moved beyond history triggers its repetition; just as fascist paeans to the glories of western civilisation mobilise only its most barbaric equivalent.
So what is to be done? The current moment has opened the door for new thinking, but we are only beginning to feel our way toward an adequate diagnosis of our global problematic, of which this article has only been an attempt at a very sweeping portrait. Even as it is clear that our intersecting political, ecological, and socio-economic challenges can only be solved at an international scale, the search for solutions is hardly helped by the persistence of a binary geopolitics and a toxic realpolitik fostered by right-wing (but also authoritarian and left-wing nationalist) governments supposedly acting in the best interests of their own populations. It is a realpolitik that depends on artificially creating conditions of permanent crisis and a permanent Other against which the rule of these regimes, or the equally undemocratic rule of technocratic elites, appears preferable to any positive vision for the future. Stark inequalities both within and between countries continue to foster an environment of mutual resentment, ignorance, and fear. All this is fuelled, in turn, by a transnational oligarchy with no stake in creating conditions for reconciliation or a shared sense of international responsibility.
Arendt, observing a moment much like our own, correctly refracted some of the most pressing questions of the century through the condition of statelessness. She was critical of well-meaning appeals to human rights on the basis of abstract universals like a global “humanity”, because she believed that rights could only be secured within the delimited framework of a democratic polity. That is, membership within a state was the only guarantee of meaningful protections for vulnerable minorities and targeted groups who could otherwise be excluded from it. Totalitarianism operated, in part, through this basic principle of exclusion.
As it was in her time, so it is today. It is in acting on behalf of those without a political community, alienated from their own countries of origin and seeking refuge elsewhere — an unprecedented number of exiles today — that we might find the seeds for a viable and humane future. But our political horizons must be international, if we are to address the root causes of their rootlessness, in a world where it is increasingly obvious that one’s life chances are tied directly to where one is born. Numerous examples of this internationalism exist already in humanitarian efforts in the Mediterranean, where many are rethinking the global right to the freedom of movement. Other possibilities may lay in advancing the institutions of global governance, short-circuited by the Cold War, that would nurture radical democratic experiments at various scales. While we are still obliged to work on the territorially delimited scale of the nation-state, it is only at the local level and on the smallest scales that we can recognise one another’s humanity most intimately. Arguably, the specific ends that we seek are of less importance than the mutual recognition produced through the process of acting together in concert, which can ward off the most regressive impulses of fascistic nationalism.
For Benjamin, it was above all the ghosts of the past that should inform political action. Nothing was inevitable or determined, apart from this drive toward absolute catastrophe and the consequent necessity of acting to resist it. But as we have seen, his idea of justice was also tied to an appeal to divine authority, or a higher law, against which all our efforts might be judged. In one of her later essays, Arendt would paradoxically return to the theme of humanity, as a kind of universalism richly refracted through the particular experiences — crimes as well as achievements — of every national community, and the consequent duty to humanity that this lay upon each one, as it responded in kind to the burden of their respective histories. “Shame at being a human being”, not any member of a particular race or nation, was for her the necessary starting point in responding to the mass crimes of her century.¹¹ The shame extended to an understanding of our radical responsibility for humanity as such, even as she weighed all societies carefully on the scales of guilt and responsibility:
In political terms, the idea of humanity, excluding no people and assigning a monopoly of guilt to no one, is the only guarantee that one “superior race” after another may not feel obligated to follow the “natural law” of the right of the powerful, and exterminate “inferior races unworthy of survival”; so that at the end of an “imperialistic age” we should find ourselves in a stage which would make the Nazis look like crude precursors of future political methods.
As the voices that had declared an end to history are exposed for their empty hubris, it is important to insist upon our shared histories, our shared trajectories, and the real possibility of a lurch toward barbarism for which the past offers no solutions apart from dire warning. A new humanism worthy of its name must aim toward a universal guarantee; a “new law on Earth” that would grant the minimum possibility of a dignified life for everyone, everywhere, without exception. But the end of all false hopes must be the starting point.¹²
¹ Young-Bruehl, E., For Love of the World (1982), pp. 160–161.
² Arendt, H., The Jewish Writings (2007), pp. 264–274.
³ Arendt, H., Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), pp. 158–184.
⁴ ibid, pp. 274–285.
⁵ Benjamin, W. in One-Way Street, p. 80.
⁶ Loeffler, J. describes efforts around the minority treaties in Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (2018).
⁷ In stark contrast to the third world’s early postwar legacy, where the struggle against colonialism was by and large seen as entirely consonant with the internationalisation of human rights and democracy. See Burke, R., Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (2010).
⁸ There have been attempts to expound on Arendt’s (largely underdeveloped) thoughts on the “right to have rights” to draw links between the experiences of non-citizens and refugees, as well as impoverished citizens of western democracies — opposing efforts to pit both groups against one another. See DeGooyer, S., et al; The Right to have Rights (2017).
⁹ Adorno, T., ‘The Meaning of Working Through the Past’ (1959 lecture) <https://signale.cornell.edu/text/meaning-working-through-past>
¹¹ Arendt, H., ‘Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility’ ( , in Arendt, H. and Kohn, J. Essays in understanding, 1930–1954: formation, exile, and totalitarianism (2005), pp. 121–132.
¹² Arendt, H., Origins, Preface to the First Edition.