Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hannah Arendt And The Banality of (Corporate) Evil

In this world of ongoing financial turmoil and unrest against the current form of capitalism it is interesting to see how the search for intellectual resources to fuel our thinking about a changed world is taking us to new shores.

This week, as part of the Holocaust Education Week, an exhibition about the philosopher Hannah Arendt started in Toronto. In many ways, this could not have been a timelier moment to have her heritage reinvigorated. Arendt is a staple in many discussions over 20th century history and philosophy. Of Jewish origin, born in Germany in 1906, she emigrated to the US during the Nazi regime and became a vocal analyst on how oppression, totalitarianism and violence affects the individual and what the conditions and options of resistance are.

Now much of this seems to be a far cry from the life of many of us in the 21st century. But it gets much more colorful if we add Arendt’s voice audible in later phases of her work: most notably, her book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in the 1960s. It is here where the famous phrase of the ‘banality of evil’ was coined. It adumbrates the fact that Eichmann – in today’s lingo the ‘logistics-zsar’ of the holocaust – talked about his ‘job’ in his trial in Israel just like any Fed-Ex or UPS manager would describe her/his work today. It was just about ‘getting the job done’. That he was managing a ‘supply chain’ that started in ordinary people’s home and ended in a gas chamber was just a minute detail for Eichmann – otherwise a (more or less) faithful husband and a loving father of four. It was just a slight ethical glitch that his nine-to-five-job happened to be in the business of delivering some six million people to the gas chambers as smooth, efficient and cost-effective as possible. And boy, he was good at that!

Here is where Hannah Arendt’s unique vantage point kicks in: she was not so much interested in the individual’s guilt, evilness or criminal inclinations. In fact she thought that those aspects were rather marginal. The evil of Eichmann’s actions was in fact ‘banal’ as it occurred to amount just to some ‘executive decisions’ of an individual who never questioned the ethical nature of the wider organization he was operating in.

It is indeed a rather contemporary perspective. We are in the middle of a ‘financial crisis’ which has dominated our lives and attention now for more than three years. The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests have taken over globally and – despite a cacophonic range of claims – have highlighted the fact that our current economic and political system produces outcomes that are patently unethical by most available standards of judgment. And apart from Bernie Madoff or Raj Rajaratnam we had a hard time to attribute this mess to any particular individual.

Hannah Arendt’s legacy speaks to the fact that ethical agency of individuals is intricately interwoven and embedded in the social systems in which they are enacted. Fine. Maybe not that much of a spectacular finding, some of us might think. But it nevertheless raises the question of how ethical the systems are in which we live and work. What I like about Arendt is that she was not just stopping to blame the specific historical contingencies of the holocaust. It was never about just taking fascism, the Nazis or, for that matter, Germany as a culprit to task. Her central analytic take-away was that societies are able to ‘rationalize’ all sorts of atrocities. Consequently, in the 1970s, when the creeping ecological destruction of our planet reared its first signs of appearance, she talked about the capitalist system as a form of ‘economic totalitarianism’ which rationalizes the destruction of the planet. She plainly coined it as ‘eco-cide’ (as a pun on ‘genocide’).

In the current situation, Arendt’s vantage point highlights many of the questions, the ‘Occupy...’ movement elucidates. These are ongoing questions which will, it has to be said, occupy us a little longer than this blog can last. However, Arendt also raises the important question (initially with regard to her study of Adolf Eichmann):
‘The moment you come to the individual person, the question to be raised is no longer, how did this system function, but why did the defendant become a functionary of this organization?’
This is in some ways the more compelling question. How do we individually act in a system that, by many people’s conviction, has created blatant inequality, ecological destruction, and a public largely disenfranchised from democratic decision making? Arendt in this sense is a master optician alerting us to the ‘grey zones’ of human ethical existence. But also lets us never get off the hook in terms of questioning our role in the wider societal or organizational contexts we are embedded in.

Monday night in Toronto the opening of the ‘Hannah Arendt Denkraum’ (= thinking space) took place. In some ways it was an event riddled by irony. Located in the German Consulate it appeared, in language and in ritual, like yet another atonement for the empirical backdrop of Arendt’s work. This contextualization in some ways could not be further from Arendt’s initial ideas. Equally ironic, the speaker rather skillfully highlighted the general implications of Arendt’s work, and its damning view of contemporary capitalism etc. – while the entire event was sponsored by the German multinational Miele whose executives were rather uncomfortably clinging on to their wine glasses hoping the speech would be over rather sooner than later. What all those millionaire-sponsors of the Holocaust Education Week, listening to a fairly astute reading of Arendt’s anti-capitalist messages were thinking – I could hardly guess. I am very sure though what Arendt - hardly ever photographed without a cigarette in her mouth - would have thought of the oppressive North American 'ethics' on smoking indoors if she would have ever dared to light a fag on this event in her honour in the German Consulate...

The picture on top is from the 'Hannah Arendt Denkraum' exhibition by ovit, the picture below was taken from G4Gti - all reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence.

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