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Putting Politics Back Into Social Issues: Arendt's Critique of the Social and Political Ethics

Arendt’s critique of the rise of “the social” and the concomitant vanishing of political action is a contested one. It has been problematized by many of Arendt’s interlocutors and critics, among them Richard Bernstein and Hannah Pitkin. Central objections to Arendt articulate concerns that her conception of the political inscribes and requires stark definitional distinctions between the private and the public, between pre-political violence and political power, and between labor, work, and action. As a consequence Arendt’s critique of the social has often been criticized as problematic at best and as misguided and dangerous at worst, because her conceptual distinctions seem to remove social concerns, matters of labor and economically sustaining lives from what should be properly considered as matters of political action. Moreover, her critics worry that there is a conception of true politics which is established through a narrow circumscription of human action that can enables political action.

In this paper I do not want to rebut Arendt’s critics nor join them. Instead I would like to return to Arendt’s critique of the social in The Human Condition and read it together with some of her later essays on political life, judgment, and responsibility to show how her critique of the social—reread differently—is still meaningful today to think critically about the increased involvement in philanthropy and community service in the contemporary U.S. that is accompanied by a disaffection with the political process. I will show how Arendt offers a way for understanding how a particular manner of engaging with social concerns leads to an evacuation of the vocabulary and sites for meaningful political action. Arendt argues that this depoliticization owes itself because questions of the household and sustaining life have taken over the public and thus broken down the distinction between public and private. Consequently, the public as proper sphere of politics beyond the household and mere life has been turned into the sphere of administrating bodily life rather than forging political life. At an angle to Arendt, I reread her analysis by shifting the emphasis from the concern over this elimination of distinct spheres to understanding as key factor in the social evacuation of politics that social matters have been turned into matters of individual and collective morality.

Through taking up Arendt’s essay “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” I will then argue for rethinking the moral charge given to community service and charitable giving in order to elaborate political responsibility as a question of ethics in politics that remains irreducible to one’s service in and commitment to social justice projects. Rather we can articulate political responsibility with Arendt as a question of judgment that emerges and has to grasped in concrete situations of social justice concerns as political judgment about how to organize the structures of our living together. Rereading Arendt’s critique of the social in conjunction with her work on judgment thus makes possible a critical perspective on a charity and community service culture that evacuates the specifically political stakes and thus abets the narrowing of political culture to entrenched partisan binaries. Moreover, this paper will demonstrate how Arendt’s work allows for reframing social justice concerns in a way that enables us to engage justice as a question of political as much as ethical debate and judgment.