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The Return of Political Liberalism

Hannah Arendt

Vanessa Kaiser
Santiago, Chile. Á - N.3

The ideals of liberalism often present themselves with a tinge of enmity toward the world of politics. We can explain this situation by analyzing various factors. Following Hannah Arendt’s perspective, we will hold our magnifying glass up to the two most important ones. The first manifests itself as the liberal rejection of a political praxis whose meaning is reduced, almost exclusively, to correcting what are believed to be “market imperfections”.

In this context, the politician emerges as a kind of hero whose maxim is social justice, although under his pompous exterior —and this is well-known to liberals— is a hidden, unstoppable desire to stay in power. His ambition can lead him to extremes, including the destruction of the very foundations of democracy, which is the basic condition for the political power he so values. The promise of “security and happiness from cradle to grave” is a familiar story, which doesn’t seriously damage the stability of institutions unless it also creates unviable medium-term expectations. This is the origin of the general frustration that often results in the election of populists whose governments are bad omens for a liberalism that well-knows the terrible consequences of “market corrections”.

The second relevant factor in the distance liberals keep from the public sphere is their distaste for collectivism. The idea of grouping together in flocks, where everyone has to sing the same hymns to secure positions of power, deeply wounds liberal dignity, based on respect for the individual.

Seen this way, liberalism seems condemned to remain outside the public sphere where institutions are designed and implemented which condition, and sometimes even determine, the various projects of individual lives. But this is only the superficial appearance, since as we will see throughout this analysis, possibilities for a renaissance of political liberalism emerge from the Arendtian perspective, whose ideals are consistent with its principles.

When Arendt’s criticism of modern democracy is studied closely, one observes that it coincides on several points with the liberal critique. That thinker was also bothered that the public sphere was used as a means to distribute goods. Such activity, from her perspective, responds to the demands of animal laborans. This expression refers to a type of life that has become generalized, whose hallmark is understanding happiness as the product of a certain effort/consumption relationship where the former is inversely proportional to the latter. In other words, whoever lives in the style of animal laborans will demand their representatives design institutions that allow the ostensible increase of consumption, unrelated to the scarce effort being made.

From the perspective of Hanna Arendt a public sphere intended to redistribute material goods loses its properly political meaning, which is the realization of human dignity. Arendt describes the destruction of the public sphere in the following terms:

“The rather uncomfortable truth of the matter is that the triumph the modern world has achieved over necessity is due to the emancipation of labor, that is, to the fact that the animal laborans was permitted to occupy the public realm; and yet, as long as the animal laborans remains in possession of it, there can be no true public realm, but only private activities displayed in the open. The outcome is what is euphemistically called mass culture, and its deep-rooted trouble is a universal unhappiness, due on one side to the troubled balance between laboring and consumption and, on the other, to the persistent demands of the animal laborans to obtain a happiness which can be achieved only where life’s processes of exhaustion and regeneration, of pain and release from pain, strike a perfect balance”.[1]

Dignity whose realization depends on the existence of the public sphere is based in the human condition, which is that every individual is unique and unrepeatable.[2] Hence, destroying it by granting it a collective purpose —like the attainment of the type of happiness imposed by the society of animal laborans— makes the value that every citizen has in the everyday world invisible. And it is true that, outside of the public’s own light, individuals remain hidden from others, without the possibility of realizing those civil rights on the basis of which the only type of equality that Arendt is willing to accept is founded: that enjoyed by equally free citizens.[3]

So Arendt thinks of a direct democracy in the style of the first American citizens’ councils.[4] We can clarify her political project without losing coherence with her principles, by promoting a liberal democracy with an active citizen participation within the framework of a public space whose borders are not trespassed by the other spheres.

Arendt puts emphasis on a public sphere where economic, social, private or intimate concerns have no place, in view of the fact that this is the only way to maintain the political centrality of the individual and the recognition of his rights and dignity from his contribution to the common world. Only in a public sphere like that will the question “who are you?” become relevant.[5] This is a political space that liberalism can embrace, since it appreciates the individual and respects basic rights.

From the Arendtian perspective, when it stops mattering who this “someone” is with whom I share this common world, the conditions are established for the advent of totalitarian solutions. Because where each particular individual is irrelevant, we confront two situations which, in her opinion, lead to totalitarianism or democratic tyranny. The first, linked to totalitarian tendencies, has individuals whose opinions are meaningless and actions ineffective, the product of the absence of a public sphere like that considered by Arendt. Under this form of existence, the human being is superfluous to his world, from which it follows that his annihilation by the political powers that be meets no great resistance.[6]

“Arendt considers the market as a space whose ends have no relation whatsoever to politics. While the market’s end is the interchange of objects, in the public sphere citizens realize their civil rights and, together with others, establish institutions that transcend their lives to forge the common world that welcomes generations to come”.


The second situation speaks of democracy as “a government of nobody”,[7] “a ‘domestic organization’ of national scope”[8] where a single perspective is imposed, the product of a modern equality founded on conformism that empties individuals of any singular trait.[9] That is when the common reality disappears:

“The point is, rather, that we know from experience that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it. If someone wants to see and experience the world as it ‘really’ is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates and links them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it […]”.[10]

The idea that reality emerges from the meeting of an endless number of perspectives is in dialogue with liberalism, which affirms truth as the emergence of different points of view. While, at the same time, it understands individual lives in a dynamic way, rejecting the possibility of fixing human affairs once and for all in order to plan out results.

Thus, Arendtian political theory responds to the liberal concern about the misuse of the public sphere from a different perspective. In summary, for the philosopher, the separation of different spheres of life is fundamental not only in view of the contribution of each individual and the realization of their particular type of life but also because their appearance in the common world though discourse is necessary for a proper understanding of reality.

In contrast to the public sphere captured by animal laborans, Arendt follows Aristotle in considering the market as a space with a purpose unrelated to politics.[11] While the market’s end is the interchange of objects, in the public sphere citizens realize their civil rights and, together with others, establish institutions that transcend their lives to forge the common world that welcomes generations to come.

It’s necessary to add to Arendt’s critique of the public sphere that conformism and equalization (or collectivization) under which animal laborans lives convert democracy into government by nobody, where “nobody” is responsible, because the individual as such does not exist. There are only subjects emptied of all uniqueness, incapable of breaking codes of conduct and inert to the development of any thought that escapes the imposed discourse. This inhabitant of the blighted public sphere is the opposite of the citizen, whose basis is selbstdenken or thinking for himself:

“The ‘enlarged way of thinking […] is done by comparing (our) judgement with other judgements that are no so much real as merely possible, and putting (us) in the place of any other person’. […] Critical thought can only be done when the perspectives of the others are open to examination”.[12]

It is interesting to note the emphasis on the enlarged nature of a type of thinking capable of helping itself and the imagination to recall experiences of the other citizens in order to develop its own opinion that serves politics. And, for Arendt, not all matters reach the rank of “the common”, that politics demands. So private aspects, problems and life interests have no place in the public sphere. Among them it’s worth mentioning the demands for social rights that represent the achievements of the animal laborans ideal of happiness, and signals the withering of the private sphere as much as the destruction of the public sphere:

“The invasion of the private by society, the ‘socialization of man’ (Marx), is done more efficiently by means of expropriation, although this is not the only method. Here [in modern democracy] as in other aspects, the revolutionary means of socialism or communism have been replaced by the slower, though no less safe means of ‘withering’ the private sphere in general and private property in particular”.[13]

“It seems to be the nature of the relationship between the public and private spheres that the final stage in the disappearance of the former is accompanied by the threat of the latter’s liquidation. It’s no coincidence that all debate has finally become an argument over the desirability or undesirability of private property”.[14]

Especially interesting for the liberal tradition is the Arendtian distinction between wealth and property. She aims her barbs clearly against those states which are benefactors of “rich” countries where the population lacks private property and “the wealth of the individual consists in his participation in the yearly income of the society as a whole”.[15]

It would be unserious to think of Arendt as an admirer of capitalism, precisely because she observes that this has served the consolidation of a mass society where the public sphere is at the service of social demands, and not aimed at the realization of human dignity. It can be argued that in this context the problem is not capitalism, but there is no doubt that many capitalists lead the animal laborans type of life. This explains why they share that ideal of happiness —less effort, more consumption or purchasing power— and make use of the public sphere in order to attain the equivalent of social rights in sections of the market that state coercion reserves exclusively for them. This is an aspect of contemporary politics that liberalism, committed to the free market, competition, Schumpeterian processes, competitive advantages and meritocracy, rejects. That is, at this point, Arendt’s theory contributes toward opening the dikes that currently prevent the return of liberalism to the public sphere.

Collective Man

Finally, it is possible to take up again the liberal rejection of politics as the neccessary product of collectivization. A quick look at the ideas of the promoters of the collective man —among them Rousseau, Gramsci, Carl Schmitt and Pierre Bourdieu— allows us to highlight those collectivizing conditions which Arendtian political praxis seeks to set limits.

From Rousseau on, collective man has been the result of legislation that destroys the independence of individuals by transforming them into “a part of a larger whole”, from which they receive “in a way, life and being”.Such that the most perfect legislation manages to destroy the individual’s own strengths “in order to give him others, which are further from him, and of which he can make no use without the help of his fellows.”[16] We are facing the totalitarian character of lawmakers who destroy the uniqueness and independence of citizens by weakening them to the point of making them dependent on the collective. The clear division of spheres that Arendt demands from democracies curbs the equalization and weakening of citizens. And in the Arendtian ideal of a public sphere, politicians do not situate themselves above the lives of others, disposing of them as if they were puppets, but are merely citizens without any type power that distinguishes them from the rest. In addition, it is precisely because participation involves the realization of consensus that collectivization, understood as the emptying of individual thought and experience, finds no place.

“Ideally, politicians do not situate themselves above the lives of others, disposing of them as if they were puppets, but are merely citizens without any type power that distinguishes them from the rest. In addition, it is precisely because participation involves the realization of consensus that collectivization, understood as the emptying of individual thought and experience, finds no place”.


Thus Arendtian theory, in its defense of uniqueness and a public sphere that serves the realization of that uniqueness, gives to the liberal tradition a properly political meaning. This takes life from the ideal of a world where politics serves the discovery of shared reality and the human condition of citizens whose dignity is based on their unrepeatable characters. Both are relevant enough aspects of existence to become moral pillars of a political liberalism that puts limits on the interference of the State in order to promote diverse types of life. The individual is destroyed not only by the power exercised by Rousseauian legislators, but also when new generations are homogenized under an educational umbrella based on conformism. Gramsci states that such conformism must predominate in the form of hegemonic discourse. This collectivizes individuals starting with the exercise of law and those activities which are the domain of civil society, which “operates ‘without sanctions’ and without stringent ‘obligations’, but never ceases to exercise collect pressure and obtain objective results in the formation of customs, ways of thinking and acting, morality, etc.”[17] We are in the world of Bourdieu, who thinks of education not as a means for individuals to acquire tools and develop skills, but as a system that manages to empty them of all individual experience, to achieve the dream of equalization the eliminates differences due to talent and social or family capital.[18]

We conclude that the return to a political liberalism that springs from ideals which challenge institutions is necessary, which breaks the conditioning that destroys the individual and even turns him into the collective man. Collective man serves Schmittian fascist politics, the basis of which is the extinction of all dissident thought and the formation of collectives which destroy society aside from political dynamics based on the friend-enemy relationship,[19] impairing the trust necessary for the constitution of a common world where every individual can pursue his ends and experience his dignity

[1] Arendt, H. (2010) [1958]. La condición humana. Paidós, Buenos Aires. Pages 140 – 141.

[2] “[…] nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.” Ibid. Page 22.

[3] Arendt, H. (2009) [1963]. Sobre la revolución. Alianza Editorial, Madrid. Page 39.

[4] A deep analysis can be found in her work On Revolution.

[5] Arendt, H. (2010) [1958]. La condición humana. Paidós, Buenos Aires. Pages 202 – 203.

[6] Both the manipulators of the system who “believe in their own superfluity as much as in that of others, and the totalitarian assassins” who “don’t care whether they end up alive or dead, nor even whether they ever lived or were never born”. In Arendt, H. (2011) [1951]. Los Orígenes del Totalitarismo. Alianza Editorial, Madrid. Page 616.

[7] “As we know from the most social form of government, that is, from bureaucracy […] the rule by nobody is not necessarily no-rule; it may indeed, under certain circumstances, even turn out to be one of its cruelest and most tyrannical versions.”. Arendt, H. (2010) [1958]. La condición humana. Paidós, Buenos Aires. Page 51.

[8] Ibid. Page 69.

[9] “The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.” Ibid. Page 69.

[10] Arendt, H. (2008) [1993] ¿Qué es la política?, Paidós, Barcelona. Page 174.

[11] Arendt, H. (2010) [1958]. La condición humana. Paidós, Buenos Aires. Page 178

[12] Arendt, H. (2000) [1977]. La vida del espíritu. Paidós, Buenos Aires. Page 455.


[13] Ibid. Page 77.


[14] Ibid. Page 69.


[15] Ibid. Page 70.

[16] Rousseau, J.J. (2012) [1762]. El contrato Social, Editorial Taurus, España, 2012. Pages 48-52.

[17] Gramsci, A. (1980) [1949]. Notas sobre Maquiavelo, sobre la política y sobre el estado moderno, Madrid: Ediciones Nueva Visión. Page 100.

[18] Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J. C. (2009) [1964]. Los herederos, los estudiantes y la cultura, Siglo XXI Editores, Buenos Aires. Pages 22-28.

[19] Schmitt, C. (2014) [1932]. El concepto de lo político, Alianza, Madrid.