Hannah Arendt’s Desert

Globalised contemporary life constitutes a new kind of desert, a new totalitarianism. It stands for the withering away of everything between us. The fact that we live in a desert is not new. Nietzsche already intimates as much in his own reading of life in the nineteenth century, but it is Hannah Arendt who gives us the most incisive interpretation of this phenomenon. Contrary to Nietzsche, Arendt doesn’t believe the desert is in ourselves, that we all suffer from some inner void, an empty malaise that can only be remedied by turning ourselves into uber-men. For Arendt, the desert is a terrible force that coerces us into the most barren social landscape and this even if we live in the densest of urban environments. The crucial aspect of Arendt’s point is the fact that there is not one thing—government, corporation—that creates this desert amongst us. There is no centralised or dictatorial centre of power that coerces us into the desert. The desert stems from the multitude itself. In other words, we create it for ourselves, we are the totalitarian regime, albeit one diffracted to infinity.

The question I would like address in this brief post is simply this: How is one to understand this globalised and self-generated desert that we create for ourselves and what can be done about these oases that allow us to live unencumbered by its advances? I will address this by reading a few short passages from Arendt’s interpretation of this desert. There will be no analyses of Arendt’s work in comparison to other, more contemporary, takes on the issue. The aim is simply to reflect with Arendt on what constitutes without doubt the most disturbing aspect of our lives today, this diasporas of absolutes that leaves us stranded in the harshest of deserts, this socially empty space increasingly devoid of human contact because taken over—to generalise quickly (too quickly, of course)—by industry, technology, and consumerism. Let’s start with some simple observations.

Firstly, it is clear that although we live in a desert, its creators—this multitude—feel good about it. This is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Arendt’s interpretation of this desert: the totalitarianism of the desert generates pleasure amongst its creators. This is the first condition of any totalitarian regime that is neither centralised nor dictatorial: the group work abolishes the anxiety of having created a monster and gratifying pride immediately takes over. No one is responsible. We are all free of guilt. The problem with this “feel good” is that it expresses a much graver issue: we’ve become immune to the horrors it generates: global warming, inequalities, mass poverty, pollution, etc. As Arendt warns, “the danger lies in becoming true inhabitants of the desert and feeling at home in it.”[1] We love our totalitarian home with all its ostentatious gadgets, unprecedented wealth, and prodigal consumption. We revel in it. We cherish its monstrosity. We are the desert’s proud inhabitants.

Another disturbing characteristic of our current desert-like globalised lives is that it primarily revolves around individuals who value their privacy above any form of sociality. This is not the condition of life under tyranny where people set their privacy aside and rally together to oppose a tyrant. In the case of a totalitarian regime governed by the multitude, men and women become exclusively private, that is, protective of their own experiences of the world over and beyond those of others. Arendt explains this quite simply: “under conditions of mass society or mass hysteria… men become entirely private, that is, they [are] deprived of seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them. They are all imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience…”[2]  Imprisoned in individual experiences, the world becomes a desert precisely because, except through economically driven mechanised or digitised means, no one actually sees or experiences the other.

Feel good and privacy are not the only phenomenon brought on by the desert. It also brings about extreme forms of isolation. This is, as Arendt says, the most salient hallmark of a totalitarian regime: “It has frequently been observed that terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other and that, therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainty is its most fertile ground; it always is its result.”[3] In this way, any men or women acting in concert or together to effect a political or social change jar as an incongruity in this desert we have created for ourselves. Isolation is the only true mode of operation, it is the iron-band of terror that bans as unprofitable—in the strict financial sense of this term—any form of collective action.

What makes the desert of our globalised world so difficult to bear is not the vast number of people involved—or at least not primarily—but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to address itself. Even those who in the multitude are able to speak and be heard, can only fail in the context of a totalitarian regime ruled by the multitude. This is evident in the way the multitude excels in generating inauthentic debates in democracies, these oligarchical forms of power that serve, as Arendt rightly remarks, as “very efficient instruments through which the power of the people is curtailed and controlled.”[4] In such a system, any form of public debate is characterised by an “obvious phoniness.” People are forced to consent or refuse to ratify a choice which is clearly made without them and the “relationship between representative and elector is transformed into that of a seller and a buyer.”[5] Amidst the desert, we are pulled apart and speak only a bogus language leaving us irremediably stunned and speechless with only purchase-power at our disposal.

Another characteristic of our desert is that it forces us all to an uprooted and superfluous life. Again, Arendt explains this two-side of our current existence quite straightforwardly: “To be uprooted means to have no place in the world, recognised and guaranteed by others; to be superfluous means not to belong to the world at all.”[6] The condition of our desert life is therefore one in which we no longer relate to any spatial or historical referent, forcing us to dwell in unnecessary pleasures totally unanchored from the immediate exigencies of life. Again, this is not something that has been imposed on us by some dark force. This superfluous existence devoid of roots is very much our own making.

Uprooted, but feeling good; lonely, but stuck in superfluousness; isolated, but forced into phoney discourses; we, desert dwellers, are progressively left with only one solution: invent endless games of escapism. Seeking distractions (social media), engaging in fantasy (film streaming), or pursuing value-less entertainment (online games) is what provides the only relief of desert-life. But this is not to our advantage. As Arendt warns us: with escapism we are letting the totalitarian aspects of the desert into our own lives, into the tiny oases that shelters us from the tyranny. She writes: “Escapism: to escape from the world of the desert… is a less dangerous and more subtle form of ruining the oases than the sandstorms that menace their existence, as it were, from without. In attempting to escape, we carry the sand of the desert into the oases.”[7] Contrary to what it pretends to do, escapism destroys the space that exists between us. Escapism is the new iron fetter that shackles us to the desert, again and again, click, bait, click.

With this bleak picture of our contemporary lives, the question is, of course, how to stop the desert, how to prevent it from eroding our oases, these fragile sanctuaries where life still maintains itself? This question is obviously not directed towards finding an alternative to desert life. We now know there is none. The multitude create its own totalitarianism, it cannot therefore escape its own tyrannical hold. This question is simply put forward so as to foster a less deserted life, creating a new form of togetherness. This is a fragile suggestion, an insecure proposal that stems from Arendt’s reading. Inevitably, it can only disappoint because it provides no immediate pragmatic, economic, or political solution, only a timid pointing to what could be a way of preventing the furthering of our own desertification.

As a way of answering this difficult question, Arendt tells us that what counts above all is the love for the world—no doubt, an unacceptable statement. Let’s hear her rightly. She insists that the love for the world is not the love for man as a finite being but for something far greater precisely because it exceeds man’s finitude: “In the last analysis, the human world is always the product of man’s amor mundi, a human artifice whose potential immortality is always subject to the mortality of those who build it and the natality of those who come to live in it.”[8] The love for the world is therefore a love that extends beyond the mere present; a love that refuses a return here, now, in this life. This love for the world is not therefore a simple emotional impulse to save the planet, for that necessarily implies a return: “for my children.” A real love for the world is a concern for a shared object that will remain alive way beyond our mere passing here, now, on this earth.

This love for the world clearly indicates that what is at stake here is not a sense of community or collectivity, but a togetherness that knows no circumscription because it is always already structured by open-endedness. This is evident when Arendt compares the world to a table. A table brings people together, for negotiations, for talk, for sharing. As she says: “To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”[9] The table doesn’t just bring people together. It can also divide. The important thing here is the fact that there is a table at all, that there is indeed a world besides globalisation. It is this “in-betweenness” that makes the world into a table around which we gather to agree or disagree. Against the desert, we must therefore recognise that the world is our table; a table bringing us together and inviting new speech.

This clearly shows that what interests Arendt is above all to re-emphasise the importance of the space of appearance, that is, the space in which people come together for the purpose of acting and speaking together. As she says, referring to the Greek polis, this other space for encounters alongside Arendt’s world-table: “[The Polis] is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things, but make their appearance explicitly.”[10] This space of appearance in which people come together and co-appear is a way of making the world happen, making them withstand the sandstorms and the advances of the desert. This does not aim to eradicate the desert or build a resilience to it. This aims instead to enlarge the fragile oases, force the desert to accommodate another form of life, and give space the possibility of appearance for all isolated and uprooted members of the multitude.

But how is one to enlarge our fragile oases, build more tables to congregate around, generate more spaces of appearances without seeing them immediately engulfed in desert sand? How is one to create these life-giving sources where one can co-appear and love this artifice that is the world? The answer is obviously that there is no map of the desert in which all oases “ready to be enlarged” can be situated and there is no ready-made factory somewhere in the desert to make new convivial tables. This is not a programmable political or economic project against desertification. Because we are all intrinsically complicit in the making of the desert, in the creation and maintenance of our own totalitarianism, the enlargement of oases or the multiplication of gathering tables, need to return to an old principle that will make a few reader cringe or recoil in horror: charity. It is by practicing charity that we enlarge the oases, that we allow ourselves to congregate around our new-built tables.

Charity should not be understood as raising money to help those in need or kindness and tolerance towards others. Charity is this love for the world in as much as it emphasises what happens between members of the multitude and this irrespective of who they are or what they do. If we are all complicit in our totalitarian regime, then we are all criminals. Amongst such a band of criminals, charity is the only thing that survives because in the end, as Arendt says, “every robbers have between them what they call charity.” The bond of charity indeed does not discriminate between tyrant and oppressors. It happens even amongst robbers. It might not create new oases, but it is what helps, as Arendt says, “to carry a group of essential worldless people through the world, a group of saints or a group of criminals, provided only it is understood that the world itself is doomed and that every activity in it, is undertaken with the proviso quamdiu mundus durat (as long as the world lasts).”[11] Loving the world, that is, undertaking charity is the only way to stop the spread of the desert, prevent sandstorms, and rekindle with each other. No doubt, a difficult undertaking in the fight against the darker consequences of our globalised life.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics (London: Schoken Books, 2005), p. 201.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 58.

[3] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1976), p. 474.

[4] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), p. 269.

[5] Arendt, On Revolution, p. 276.

[6] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 475.

[7] Arendt, The Promise of Politics, p. 203.

[8] Arendt, The Promise of Politics, p. 203.

[9] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 52.

[10] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 198.

[11] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 53.

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