25 June 2010

Arendt and the Necessity of the Transcendent

In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt traces the emergence of totalitarian regimes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. she discusses the implication of making man the source of the rights of men and suggests the real implications of disconnecting rights and the rule of law with some thing (purposefully written as two words) above and different in kind to man as one of the final steps on the road toward totalitarianism. She writes: "A conception of law which identifies what is right with the notion of what is good for - for the individual, or the family, or the people, or the largest number - becomes inevitable once the absolute and transcendent measurements of religion or the law of nature have lost their authority."

Some form of "religion or the law of nature" is necessary in the formulation of rights and responsibilities, and these must also necessarily be "transcendent" as well. If, in the final analysis, man is accountable to that which is beyond his full comprehension, then man must accept rights and responsibilities as they are. These rights and responsibilities simply are. They are beyond man to change. And while their source is ultimately incomprehensible to man - knowing the mind of God or the source of nature is beyond man's capabilities - the rights and responsibilities are nearly tangible and immutable. The stability of such laws are preferable to what inevitably occurs once man allows himself to shirk the divine and distribute rights and responsibilities as he chooses. As Arendt concludes:
"For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically - namely by majority decision - that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof. Here, in the problems of factual reality, we are confronted with one of the oldest perplexities of political philosophy, which could remain undetected only so long as a stable Christian theology provided the framework for all political and philosophical problems, but which long ago caused Plato to say: 'Not man, but a god, must be the measure of all things.'"
Arendt's assertion that the final arbiter of human matters must have as its source that which transcends man - which is different in kind and which is as opposed to which is created by man - is just as important, indeed vital, today as when The Origins of Totalitarianism was first published in 1951. If man as a political entity is only answerable to himself, if man is the source of all law and all rights, then what passes for rights - even what Arendt calls "the right to have rights" - is arbitrary. Rights and responsibilities become fully mutable depending on what is needed at the particular moment by the designated giver of rights, be that one person or a political body.

There is plenty of evidence today that once the distribution of rights and responsibilities becomes the tool of whomever is power, all certainty is put into jeopardy. It is, at the moment, paradoxical that the US government is creating vast amounts of individual and communal uncertainty at the same time that it institutes policies which are supposed to ensure individual security. Car companies - sources of pollution and horrendous debt liabilities - are demonized, bailed-out, and taken over by the granters of rights in Washington. This is done supposedly to save jobs, the environment, the economical viability of the country. What is consumed by those in power thus is transmuted - it becomes a "good". The health care industry is demonized as well, while government bureaucrats craft the specifications of a "reform" law which will result in (at the very least) a stranglehold on health care nationwide, thereby internalizing it and transmuting it as well. This "reform" is deemed not only good for the every individual in the nation, but for the fiscal health of country as well. Banks have been demonized as well, and bailed out, and reformed (with the notable exceptions of semi-federal entities). These are piled on top of retirement assurance and insulation against all natural catastrophes - one a Ponzi scheme and the other an infantilizing fantasy.

The shift away from personal responsibility and toward government surety, which also becomes the grantor of rights, is sold to be a net good - good for the "little guy", whom the government claims to look out for; good for main street, which is supposedly always the target of Wall Street. Government, after all, can assure equality and evenness - even if it cannot ensure either in reality. The right to health insurance, the right to inviolable economic security, the right to never be inconvenienced by disaster - these instruments are results of man-generated rights and therefore cannot end in surety.

For just as the government of man by man-as-grantor-of-rights begins its headlong lurch forward in the US, it is clearly evident that the push is bankrupt - ideologically as well as economically. The country cannot afford, in a strict sense of dollars, what the government supposes it can accomplish though its programs. The country cannot ideologically afford what the government has instituted; the electorate cannot survive as a lively, innovative body if it simultaneously rejects higher law for the seemingly sure yet ephemeral rights as granted and guaranteed by man. What remains to be seen is if this push has already hidden the transcendent from the electorate so completely that it has nothing left to turn to but what it has before it now: man-as-grantor-of-rights, man-as-god.

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