Academic journal article Human Rights & Human Welfare

Hannah Arendt in a Global Age: Political Evil and International Theory

Academic journal article Human Rights & Human Welfare

Hannah Arendt in a Global Age: Political Evil and International Theory

Article excerpt

Political Evil in a Global Age: Hannah Arendt and International Theory. By Patrick Hayden. New York: Routledge, 2009. 145 pp.



While justifying an Allied alliance with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin during World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill quipped publicly that "if Hitler were to invade Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons." The logic echoes prior calculations of the "lesser of two evils" principle: Liever Turks dan Paaps ("better a Turk than a Papist"), the rallying cry of the Dutch during their sixteenth to seventeenth century revolt against Spanish absolutism, was an adaptation of an earlier Christian adage heard in the Balkans--"Better the turban than the mitre"--when faced with imperial Ottoman expansion.

Patrick Hayden does not take such platitudes for granted, but interrogates them and thus reveals not only hidden truths, but also tensions and fictions bound up in them. The book is in many respects a response to, or elaboration of, Hannah Arendt's rejection of the concept of the "lesser evil," which, in conventional thought, had been equated with "homelessness, rootlessness and the disintegration of political bodies and social classes" in contradistinction to "'the greater evil'" of totalitarianism (Arendt 1994: 271-72 quoted on Hayden: 7). If the lesser evils "do not directly produce totalitarianism," she thought, they "have invariably led us to" greater evils (Ibid.).

Arendt offered not a systematic treatise on the matter, but "thought fragments" wrested from the past (Arendt 1968c: 205) that can be read as an outline for future study. Hayden, too, engages in a form of "pearl-diving," a term which Arendt reserved for the brilliant insights of her dear friend, Walter Benjamin, who, having fled with other Jews into Spain but was denied transit by the franco regime, committed suicide as he confronted inevitable detention and, ultimately, transfer to the Nazis. "Like the pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea," she analogizes,

not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past--but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization ... [and that] some things 'suffer a sea-change' and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living--as 'thought fragments', as something 'rich and strange' (Ibid.: 205f).

Patrick Hayden's form of pearl diving offers a compelling, rich, and carefully argued treatise on political evil in a global age, which he examines with respect to genocide and crimes against humanity; poverty and radical economic inequality; global refugees, displaced persons, and the stateless; and, finally, (predatory) neoliberal economic policies. His cases illustrate why in the Arendtian / Hayden framework evil cannot be graded into lesser and greater forms: precisely because evil at its base refers to making humans superfluousness, dehumanizing them, or obliterating "personhood through several perversions of power" (Hayden 2009: 3). But for Hayden, evil is not simply a description of a process or an act, but "a necessary and potent tool for both critique and change" (3). Calling something evil is not a banality--contra flippant uses of the term in contemporary political discourse--but a call to action. International political theory, in his reading, is at heart normative, genealogical, critical theory insofar as theory must not take structures, institutions, and processes as they are, but examine how they came to be and how they may be changed. …

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