Defending democracys symbolic dimension : a Lefortian critique of Arendts Marxist assumptionsDefending democracys symbolic dimension : a Lefortian critique of Arendts Marxist assumptions
Faculty of Law
2012Cambridge, Mass., 2012
Constellations: an international journal of critical and democratic theory. - Cambridge, Mass.
19(2012):1, p. 63-80
Hannah Arendts (19061975) work can be read in part as an attempt to break with Marxist assumptions. Yet, I will seek to show that in light of Claude Leforts (19242010) political theory, Arendt has more in common with Marx than many of her readers would care to concede. Admittedly, this sounds counter-intuitive. After all, Lefort and Arendt are amongst the most prominent critics of totalitarian ideologies. Moreover, they both argue that a genuine political community allows people to act freely and unexpectedly, and resists reducing the plurality of the people to an essence, plan or blueprint. Arendt applauds the notorious uncertainty ( ...) of all political matters and Lefort likewise describes a democratic society as characterized by a fundamental indeterminacy. Their common appreciation for open-ended pluralistic politics comes as no surprise as they both tried to understand totalitarian attempts to destroy plurality. Methodologically, they were both influenced by Heideggers phenomenology Arendt directly, and Lefort via his mentor Merleau-Ponty. Arendt and Lefort, however, accused the phenomenological tradition of forgetting politics and plurality. And yet, as I will argue, Arendt comes in many respects much closer to Marx than to Lefort. My main thesis is that, from a Lefortian perspective Arendt and Marx hardly pay any attention to a symbolic dimension of politics and society that transcends the factual level and shapes it. I will show how this explains why both Arendt and Marx interpret politics, the legal system, modern societies, equality, human rights and allegedly non-alienated societies in a reductive way. I will also demonstrate how Lefort is instead able to offer a richer and more complex interpretation of these phenomena. It follows that if we want to conceptualize a defence of modern democracy that remains critical of both Marx and of traditional liberalism Lefort may prove more useful than Arendt. This point is especially worth making given the imbalanced reception of Arendts and Leforts work in the Anglophone world, where thus far countless books have been devoted to Arendt, yet only one study to Lefort. I will mainly use Arendts and Leforts writings to make my case. While Arendt knew Marxs work very well, Lefort in turn was a careful and charitable reader of Marx and, from the 1980s onwards, also of Arendt. Given that Leforts essays on Arendt have hardly been examined, this article also aims to reconstruct Leforts reading of Arendt while exploring its promise. Additionally, it will show how Leforts critique of Marx can be used to criticize Arendts ideas as well.