At a time of existential threat, Hannah Arendt is, I believe, a good theorist to turn to in troubled times. Throughout her career Arendt addressed many existential themes, most notably, totalitarianism and the so-called “banality of evil”, in her study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
As a political theorist, however, Arendt was most interested in the positive meaning of human plurality, in particular the potential of people to act in concert in the public realm. In framing her theory of public action, Arendt employed two important distinctions which I think are particularly pertinent to the present crisis – the distinction between the private and public, and the social and political.
First, the private and public. Confined to our private domains, the present crisis has, like no other within living memory, heightened awareness of the contrast between the private and public. The stark images of empty public landmarks and spaces remind us of the significance of place and how much we perhaps take it for granted. We look out on a public world, both grateful that a powerful state can, to an extent, ameliorate the devastating impact of the virus, but also mindful of the way in which social divisions and inequalities have further been laid bare by the crisis.
As the journalist Emily Maitlis powerfully attested to recently on Newsnight, the virus does not affect everyone equally. It is the less well-off who will be most affected and who rely most on public goods and services. For those with sufficient private means, the crisis will have a less disproportionate impact. That said, the crisis has attuned us to how much we depend upon key workers, many in low status and low paid roles. The example of the tragedy, some might say scandal, of the plight of care homes during the epidemic will surely mean that it cannot be business as usual post-virus. Or will it?
This is where Arendt’s second and related distinction, between the social and political, is I believe, particularly apposite. Arendt was keen to protect the autonomy of the political from economic-social rationality, which has been the hallmark of neoliberalism over recent decades. According to Arendt the rightful place of the political is the public domain; the economic and social, what Arendt regarded as the realm of necessity; she assigned to the private realm.
She has been criticized by other theorists for what they regard as too rigid a demarcation between the social/economic on one side and the political, on the other. That said, I believe her distinction brings into sharp relief the very difficult choices that lie ahead. The social and economic impact of the epidemic, we are told, is likely to cause great damage for some time. The benevolence of government will not last. Clapping for NHS and key workers is an important gesture during a time of national crisis. The big question going forward is whether the good will of the people will translate to concerted and sustained public action to ensure that it is not business as usual post-crisis.
Paul Bunyan is a lecturer in Social Science and Programme Leader for Childhood and Youth Studies at Edge Hill University.