Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Political Agents as Relational Selves: Rethinking EU Politics and Policy-Making with Hannah Arendt

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Political Agents as Relational Selves: Rethinking EU Politics and Policy-Making with Hannah Arendt

Article excerpt

It is widely acknowledged in political science and political theory that the European Union is an odd and genuine political object, with its strengths and weaknesses. In general, the problems the EU faces (unemployment, migration, rising inequalities, lack of legitimacy, etc.) are analysed as shortcomings of its functioning. Consequently, recommendations often take the form of suggestions for reform. This article takes another perspective on the problems that the EU faces. It scrutinizes the conceptualisations underlying the shaping of EU policies. It undertakes a sort of mental radiography showing how the common modern conceptual framework fuels technocracy and populism, two faces of the same "coin," and proposes taking up Hannah Arendt's conceptual resources to embrace alternative framings that can, even without reforms, radically change EU policies.

In his "discourse of acceptance" for the Hannah Arendt Prize in Political Thought 2017, Étienne Balibar reckons that the causes for the "steady destabilization of the political foundations of the EU [are the] policies implemented to neutralize the financial crisis after 2007, which dramatically increased inequalities . . . throughout the continent" (Balibar 2017: 3).

This article suggests that the causes of the destabilization of the political foundations of the EU predate the financial crisis of 2007 and go back to the mid-1980s. The original purpose of the European endeavour, i.e., fostering interdependence through the common market, and thereby peace, mutated and became an issue of the size and efficiency of the European internal market to boost European industry's competitiveness in a global context. In Arendt's terms, these shifts can be seen as the catching up of the EU, originally a precursor of a post-Westphalian political order, in the traps of political modernity.

Paradoxically, what makes Arendt special and unique for inspiring EU policy-making nowadays may not be so much her explicit writings about postwar Europe in the 1940s, analysed notably by Peter Verovšek (2014) and William Selinger (2016), but instead her later conceptualisation of politics in The Human Condition in 1958. Indeed, in this seminal book, Arendt not only highlighted the drawbacks of political modernity, but also-and more importantly-provided a new conceptualisation of the human condition and the vita activa that provides nothing less than an alternative to the modern approach to both humanness and politics.

Hannah Arendt characterized the human condition as inherently tridimensional. First, human bodies are biological: human lives are bounded by birth and death and driven by basic needs for survival. Second, human existences are unnatural, as human beings build artefacts to protect themselves from the harshness of the natural surroundings. Third, human beings are plural; that is to say, "men, not Man, live on earth and inhabit the world" (Arendt 1998: 7).

Acknowledging the critical importance of underlying conceptual frameworks for politics and policy-making, this article aims to show how Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition with its labor-work-action ternary distinction provides an effective conceptual toolbox to pave the way for doing a different kind of politics at the EU level, one truly based on a relational approach to agency and power.

The article is divided into four sections.

In the first section, "Arendt, Political Modernity, and the EU," I shall explain the practical and performative way in which Hannah Arendt's work is mobilised in this article. The notion of (political) modernity is key in applying this practical and performative approach in the EU context. Indeed, I claim that the crisis of the EU can be understood as a crisis of the modern conceptual framework underlying policy-making at the EU level. As assimilated by EU policy-makers' imaginaries, this entrenched modern conceptual framework draws heavily from a transposition of Newtonian mechanical laws in the realm of human affairs. …

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