The Market Value of Violence
The Meaning of Life

The Human Condition (2): Public versus Private

Distinctions are at the heart of how Hannah Arendt explores political issues, and one key example is that of the public realm versus the private realm. Possessing an erudite knowledge of history, Arendt is able to explore changes in subtle perspectives throughout Western history, often by examining the use of language in different accounts. Usually, subjects are traced back to an origin in ancient Greece, and Arendt provides many examples of ideas still extant in modern thought that originated in the Greek polis, or city-state.

In ancient Athens, the distinction between the private realm and the public realm was very clearly defined. Citizens has their own households, within which they were effectively despots (having authority over both their family and their slaves), and collectively these citizens ran the polis by coming together and discussing the political affairs of the city-state. The public realm was home to the political realm – the realm of action and speech.

However, in the modern age we have seen something emerge which is neither private nor public, namely the social realm, the political form of which is the nation-state. Arendt suggests that what we call “society” is akin to a “collective of families economically organised into the facsimile of one super-human family”. She ties the rise of society to an emergence of housekeeping activities from the “shadowy interior of the household” (the private realm) into “the light of the public sphere” – resulting in a blurring of the borderline between private and public, since the social realm stands between the two, unable to be either. 

Arendt claims that the rise of society corresponds to the decline of the family; people have become absorbed into social groups (nations) which have taken the traditional role of the family. And much like the members of a household in ancient Greece, there is a kind of equality that results – but it is not the equality of peers, so much as it is the kind of equality the members of an Athenian household had before the despotic power of their household head.

With the rise of society, it is bureaucracy that has emerged as the dominant ruling system, which Arendt terms “the most social form of government” and accuses of being rule by no-one. She notes: “But this nobody, the assumed interest of society as a whole… does not cease to rule for having lost its personality,” and warns that “the rule by nobody is not necessarily no-rule” – indeed, she notes, it can be one of the cruellest and tyrannical forms of government. 

Arendt is often criticised for her reliance upon the distinction between private and public. Modern feminists complain that constraining the political to exclude the private realm has been part of the manner in which women’s concerns have been dismissed from political importance, and Marxists make similar claims about placing economic concerns in the private realm and not the public (and hence political) arena. These criticisms have some validity, but do not blunt the core concerns that Arendt is raising.

If we allow our lives to become secondary to society, we in effect lose the capacity for action associated with the public, and hence political, realm, and we equally lose the privacy inherent to the notion of a private realm. By regaining these distinctions, we can reconsider the nature of modern life, and judge to what degree we are willing to surrender our political freedoms to the rule of no-one implicit in bureaucracy. 

Next week: Labour


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Pretty engaging stuff; I don't think I've considered/encountered many critiques of modernity that approach from this angle, but there's definitely a lot here. Much of current social and cultural values profess to be open-minded and non-judgmental, yet are often under heavy influence of the "rule of no-one". Looking forward to more!

Arendt's analysis of the economy of the "polis" is a somewhat weak point, in my view at least. Yet, speculating about the socio-economic reality of a couple of small tons 3000 years ago does not tend to be an easy-going topic for factual deliberations ;)

Also, while her analytical approach (life and labour, production and work, speech and action) is a powerful tool for analysing (and also writing about) the history of "the human condition" it remains strangely static when one tries to apply it to the dynamic interactions one sees in the reality around us.

Analysing each individual dimension has to be somehow accompanied by the analysis of the dynamics - and this is where Arendt's approach has a lot to gain from a combination with the game-theoretical ideas discussed here and elsewhere!

I feel that what one gains from Arendt is a way to shift one's perspective; to think around issues and examine them in a new light. It is not the foundation of a grand political system, but rather a way to examine the systems we have under a different light.

Best wishes!

Here's a sub-topic on the public vs. private meta-topic that's been vexing me, in the case of economics, particularly a depression like the kind America is about to undergo, is the cause excessive privatization and does reactionaly nationalization exacerbate the problem or salve it?

Check out The Shock Doctrine.

Patrick: the US economy always looks like its on the brink of a depression, but manages to avoid it most of the time - China buying US debt helps. For two countries that do not publically express themselves as allies, the US and China are actually surprisingly 'intimate' with each other: the collapse of the economy of one would lead to the collapse of the economy of the other, barring other circumstances.

This issue of nationalised versus privatised industry is a fascinating and controversial one. Privatising all industry doesn't work, is the first point. There are certain industries that must be nationalised - such as public transportation. It is not possible to run public transport for a profit and stil get a high quality service: government funding is required for this to work. Every country (France, Japan etc.) with good public transportation does so as a nationalised industry.

But the flipside to this is that nationalising all industry doesn't work either. The State is often lousy at running things, so there are benefits to letting industry that runs under its own steam do so.

What's needed is more discussion on this subject - but since it is economics, most people are not really able to engage in a debate of this nature. Nonetheless, in democracy nothing beats discussion as the forerunner of action.

Thanks for mentioning The Shock Doctrine - I suspected many of the things this book reports, and am horrified but not surprised at its content. I will have to do some more research into this area before I get to politics.

Best wishes!

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