More than sixty years ago, in 1959, Dissent’s editors decided to publish Hannah Arendt’s “Reflections on Little Rock,” emphasizing that they nevertheless found the piece “entirely mistaken.”[i]
Arendt’s essay had been written more than a year earlier, on the occasion of nine Black Americans enrolling in a racially segregated school in Little Rock, Arkansas, which put to the test Brown v. Board of Education, a 1954 unanimous Supreme Court decision which had ruled segregation in public schools as unconstitutional.
In defiance of the Supreme Court ruling, the Governor of Arkansas summoned the state’s National Guard to prevent Black students from entering the school. In response, President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent in additional troops to escort Black teenagers to the school. The news seized public attention across the United States.
Submitted initially to Commentary but withdrawn later, by the time Arendt’s piece on “Little Rock Nine” was published in Dissent, it had already caused a stir among the New York intellectuals.
In her essay, Arendt proposed that the federal government’s power had to be curtailed within the political, as opposed to the social and the private, realm. She stated that the education of children, other than where it concerns bringing them up as citizens, does not belong in the political realm. The federal government’s decision to enforce racial integration in education, thus Arendt argued, violated citizens’ social and private rights.
It is not difficult to see why Arendt’s viewpoint provoked such a controversy, and why it was mistaken. By placing a theoretical wedge between the social and political, Arendt meant to protect political liberties from social encroachment and social liberties from political coercion. Far from being as distinct as Arendt wants them to be, however, the social and the political are inextricably linked. As Arendt herself conceded a few years later in a letter to Ralph Ellison, she “simply didn’t understand the complexities in the situation.”
Yet, Arendt never dropped the distinction between the political and the social, a conceptual division which she often drew upon to make sense of her adopted country vis-à-vis the old European nation-states.
As a refugee from the war-stricken Old World, where ethnic homogeneity had remained the defining principle of every citizenry, Arendt saw in the American republic the promise of a body politic, which absorbed newcomers without forcing them to adapt to a pre-determined homogeneity—even though she became increasingly critical of the cultural conformity of American “mass society.”
In 1973, two years before her passing, when Arendt was asked in an interview with French television about her impression dominante of America as a European, she replied in English:
“Mon impression dominante…Well, see, this is not a nation-state. America is not a nation-state, and Europeans have a hell of a time to understand this simple fact which, after all, they could know theoretically. This country is united neither by heritage, nor by memory, nor by soil, nor by language, nor by origin from the same. There are no natives here. The natives were the Indians. , and these citizens are united only by one thing—and that is a lot. That is, you become a citizen of the United States by simple consent to the Constitution.”
As Robert Bernasconi has argued, this idealized picture of the American republic is deeply problematic. Arendt’s idea that the Founding Fathers secured political liberties from the encroachment of the social better than any European nation-state ignores, or at least downplays, how this achievement relied on depriving enslaved people in America of their right to have a right.[ii]
For Arendt, the political realm must be governed by the principle of equality. The Greeks could establish themselves as equals in the polis because they were free of the necessities of life. And what freed the Greek citizen from the necessities of life was indeed the labor carried out by women and slaves, who were thus excluded from politics.
Similarly, the American republic was founded by men who, as Arendt herself wrote, had “no overwhelmingly urgent needs that would have tempted them to submit to necessity.” Arendt, however, refused to give to slavery in America the same role it played for the Greek polis, ignoring even the fact that the majority of the Founding Fathers were themselves slave-owners. Slavery in America, Arendt thought, was a remnant of European imperialism, and imperialism was, she wrote, “one great crime in which America was never involved”[iv]—although when Arendt wrote this sentence in the fifties, American-backed coups were overthrowing governments across the world, in the Middle East and South America.
While Arendt’s valorization of the American republic shows the limits of a historical analysis that takes its clues from the abstractions of political theory, her appeal to the distinction between the social and the political yields valuable insights into the experience of being a mid-twentieth-century European refugee in the United States. And it can teach us how being a migrant in our time is different from hers.
Before she arrived in America in 1941, Arendt lived for about eight years as an émigré in France. These were turbulent years. As refugees were flooding the streets of Paris, xenophobic and antisemitic sentiments flared up among the French public. In those years, which ended in a period in internment camp, Arendt by no means felt at home.
By the time she reached the East Coast of the United States, Arendt knew French well but barely spoke English. Nonetheless, from the beginning she felt more accepted in America than in France. In America, as opposed to Europe, she wrote years later to Jaspers, “the fact that there is no national state and no truly national tradition creates an atmosphere of freedom”—a fact which she attributed to “the strong need the various immigrant groups feel to maintain their identity.”[v]
To be sure, there is a grain of truth in Arendt’s observation, even in our time. It is probably still easier for a migrant to become “American” than to become “French” or “German.” To be American is still somewhat ideologically charged; it means something. Hence, “Americanized.” But what does it mean to be, say, a “Dane,” besides belonging to an ethnic group? On the front of exclusivism, however, United States seems to be getting rapidly Europeanized.
The citizens of Europe and America, and more generally of the global north, are less interested than ever to accept as their “equals,” either socially or politically, a migrant from the south. Arendt could promote America as a political experiment and downplay the racial violence on which America was founded precisely because she was socially accepted in the United States. Far from being considered an economic burden, the post-war European migrant communities in the United States, particularly intellectuals, became an effective instrument of the cultural Cold War, a testimony to America’s superiority. In our twenty-first-century post-industrial, rentier capitalism, however, migrants are not welcome in the north. We would rather have them in their home countries, where they can extract the minerals that we need for our smart devices and produce our genetically modified vegetable seeds. Perhaps, we need a few care workers and a few technicians, but that is all.
Though sometimes undeclared, this attitude towards migration is present across most of the political spectrum. The cages used by Trump, it must be remembered, were built by Obama. And Biden, it seems, is planning to continue certain anti-immigrant policies of the previous administrations. The “multiculturalism” which right-wingers constantly use to fearmonger, thus, barely means anything more than diversity management and quotas.
Such an implicit anti-migrant attitude can be found not just among the American and European neoliberal elite, but among a considerable part of the left. Some leftists simply want to avoid dealing with the moral difficulties of the question of the global divide and migration; others believe that migration is a plot of economic globalism; others fear, and understandably so, the electoral ramifications of being truthful about it; and still others, like Social Democrats in Denmark, have made this attitude explicit for electoral purposes, openly adopting an anti-migrant rhetoric.
With unprecedented climate-related mass migrations on the horizon, there is only reason to believe that the attitude of many in the global north towards migrants will probably become worse.
But those who want to approach the question of migration truthfully must ask the question which Arendt asked about the Greek democracy but failed to answer when it came to the United States. To what extent does our freedom from the necessities of life rely, and has historically relied, on the labor of people living thousands of miles away? Just as America’s political ideals were founded on enslaved people’s labor, just as Europe was enriched by looting the colonies, today too, our freedom relies, at least partly, on exploiting other parts of the world.
So, as it turns out, to be a “Dane” does in fact have a meaning. The price of Denmark being named “the happiest country in the world” is paid not just by Danes, but also by others whom the global economy exploits. No political citizenry, despite what Arendt’s consecration of the political presupposes, can be stripped from its enabling social and economic conditions.
To be sure, migration is not the solution to the north-south divide. There is no simple solution—especially as long as we live in nation-states and political blocks. It is nonetheless startling how we, caught up in our local struggles, so easily forget that, as Arendt’s friend Walter Benjamin famously wrote, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”[vi]
[i] Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” Dissent 6 (Winter 1959), 45.
[ii] Robert Bernasconi, “The Double Face of the Political and the Social: Hannah Arendt and America’s Racial Divisions,” Research in Phenomenology 26 (1996): 3–24.
[iii] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1963), 90.
[iv] Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” 46.
[v] Hannah Arendt, “Letter to Karl Jaspers, January 29, 1946,” in Hannah Arendt – Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926–1969, edited by Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner, translated by Robert and Rita Kimber (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), 30.
[vi] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), 256.