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Continental Thoughts

A Radical Cure: Hannah Arendt & Simone Weil on the Need for Roots

Scott Remer thinks we arendt happy without a community and considers the complete reconstruction of the modern world to be well worth weil.

In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, German-Jewish émigré and political theorist extraordinaire, chillingly wrote: “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.” (p.459, Harvest edition 1979). Totalitarianism is decidedly different from garden-variety authoritarianism. But the cascading environmental, economic, and political crises we face as a species, and the rising tide of fascism and authoritarianism around the globe, make it clear that, although the present is grim enough, the future has the potential to be very dark indeed. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. So we must urgently answer the question of how to humanize modernity “in a manner worthy of man.” How can we create a world where all people feel grounded and truly at home? Arendt, and her French contemporary Simone Weil, may offer us answers.

Roots © Venantius J. Pinto 2018. To see more art, please visit flickr.com/photos/venantius/albums

Arendt’s Rootless Totalitarianism

One of the key characteristics of capitalist modernity, Hannah Arendt thought, was that people live as “isolated individuals in an atomized society,” in a world premised on the infinite expansion of profit and power and the ruthless marginalization of anyone considered disposable or superfluous (Origins p.235). Arendt noted that as a result, the first half of the twentieth century spawned “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth” (p.vii).

Warnings about the tremendous danger of rootlessness run throughout The Origins of Totalitarianism’s nearly five hundred pages. Arendt argued that people who feel themselves to be rootless or homeless will seek a home at any price, with possibly horrific results. For this reason, the “competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual” (p.317) in capitalist mass society can pave the way for authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Indeed, the atomized and individualized mass is a necessary precondition for totalitarianism (p.318). Languishing in a “situation of spiritual and social homelessness” (p.352), shorn of sustaining social bonds and ties, individuals are forced to live in a world where they cannot exist meaningfully and fruitfully. They try to escape this agonizing limbo and, in the absence of powerful inclusive left-wing alternatives, they look to exclusivist reactionary movements for succor. In this way, tribalism and racism are the bitter fruit of territorial rootlessness. They are wrongheaded attempts to secure roots. But rather than securing roots for the rootless masses, they simply create ‘metaphysical rootlessness’. Totalitarian and proto-totalitarian movements represent what Arendt calls a ‘fictitious home’ for people to “escape from disintegration and disorientation.” (p.381) Their ideology provides a psychic haven for the resentful, the enraged, and the fearful: “Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency… in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home…” (p.353). But as with tribalism and racism, totalitarianism intensifies the very rootlessness, isolation, and alienation that many people sought to flee in the first place. As Arendt wrote, loneliness constitutes “the essence of totalitarian government” (p.475), and the “isolation of atomized individuals provides not only the mass basis for totalitarian rule, but is carried through to the very top of the whole structure” (p.407). She observes that “What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness… has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.” (p.478)

Arendt also says that uprootedness and superfluousness have been “the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution” (p.475). Uprootedness is often the preliminary condition for superfluousness, and superfluousness leads to ‘the genocide of the superfluous’. The genocidal nightmare that destroyed Europe and culminated in the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was fundamentally caused by a psychological and spiritual crisis. This crisis was itself caused by a host of factors, primarily economic, but also philosophical, cultural, and social. The fabric of capitalist modernity was unsuited to human life, and the result of this maladjustment of social systems to the basic human need for rootedness, was death on an immense scale. For, according to Arendt, the principle of endless accumulation at the heart of capitalism, the principle which causes uprootedness and superfluity in the first place, is deadly: “its logical consequence is the destruction of all living communities” (p.137). This is because communities require boundaries and demarcation. Against the perpetual-motion mania of capitalism and its rejection of any limits, Arendt advocates stability, order, and borders – to be achieved through principles that ground, delimit, and root people physically and psychically.

Weil’s Soul Food

Simone Weil, writing at the height of World War II in some of the darkest hours of the struggle against fascism, arrived at a similar conclusion in her oft-neglected but magnificent book, The Need for Roots (1943). The book was about the reconstruction of France and, by implication, all of Western civilization. In it she wrote that: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” (p.41)

Weil’s method for rerooting humanity is to identify fundamental human needs and devise ways of fulfilling each of them, detailing necessary social reforms. Arendt defined rootedness as having a “place in the world, recognized and guaranteed by others” (Origins, p.475). Weil defines rootedness similarly, albeit in more depth, saying that it is “real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future” (The Need for Roots, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1952 edition, p.41).

Weil is candid in admitting that it’s difficult to derive a general principle which tells us when we’ve discovered a need; but she quite rightly says that the needs of the body are obvious, that the needs of the soul are identifiable by introspection and careful thought, and that one hallmark of all needs is that they have limits (p.11). She takes it as morally axiomatic that biological needs generate obligations and social rights. It’s evident that all people need shelter, food, water, heat, clothing, healthcare, and other essentials to maintain themselves, and Weil says this creates a duty for society to provide them. Where her thought is more surprising is when she talks about non-biological needs, or what she calls ‘the needs of the soul’. Gently pushing back against materialists who might neglect such needs, she reminds us that “Everyone knows that there are forms of cruelty which can injure a man’s life without injuring his body. They are such as deprive him of a certain form of food necessary to the life of the soul” (p.7).

The analogy Weil draws between food for the soul and food for the body is instructive, as it underscores the thought that bodily and spiritual needs are equally important for human thriving. This isn’t to suggest that suffering an empty stomach is acceptable so long as the hungry person’s need for freedom of expression is met, for example. But it is a useful reminder for an age that, under the influence of utilitarianism and neoliberal economics, thinks about politics in strictly material terms. Politics must nurture body and soul.

The primary spiritual need is for order. But Weil uses the word ‘order’ in a rather unorthodox sense. Conventionally, a politics centered on order would be authoritarian and hierarchical. She does speak elsewhere of a spiritual need for ‘hierarchism’ – that is, a sense of being fitted into a definite position in a harmoniously ordered social mechanism; but her idea of order is more aesthetic and philosophical than it is explicitly political. Weil defines order as beauty, harmony, and the reduction of contradiction between an individual’s various moral duties. She believes that one measure of a society’s sickness is the level of dissonance that an individual confronts in trying to fulfill all her moral duties.

The second spiritual need is for liberty, which Weil defines as true, genuine, substantive freedom of choice. Anticipating behavioral psychology and existentialist philosophy, echoing classical critiques of luxury and license, and harmonizing with Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941), she writes, “When the possibilities of choice are so wide as to injure the commonweal, men cease to enjoy liberty. For they must either seek refuge in irresponsibility, puerility, and indifference – a refuge where the most they can find is boredom – or feel themselves weighed down by responsibility at all times for fear of causing harm to others. Under such circumstances, men believing wrongly that they are in possession of liberty, and feeling that they get no enjoyment out of it, end up thinking that liberty is not a good thing” (p.13). We live in an age of apparently unparalleled latitude of choice; but many of these choices are artificial, manufactured, and, to use Sigmund Freud’s term, based on the ‘narcissism of minor differences’. So here the tyranny of choice is undeniable; and as Weil’s discussion of excessive choice and its antagonism towards liberty itself suggests, the word ‘tyranny’ is more than a mere rhetorical flourish. A rooted society would instead restrict choice somewhat, in order to make our choices real. (She elsewhere advocates absolute freedom of expression.)

Opposites In Tension

Image © Bofy 2018. Please visit worldofbofy.com

Many of our spiritual needs are paired and opposite. This reflects Weil’s understanding that the soul has different needs at different times and that it may have contradictory needs at the same time.

First, Weil thinks that the human soul has both the need to obey – that is, to freely bestow one’s consent to legitimate authority – and the need to exercise responsibility, which she links to the desire to “feel oneself useful and even indispensable” (p.14). This is reminiscent of the classical Athenian ideal that every citizen rule and be ruled in turn. Making decisions is tiring. After a while it can be quite a relief to delegate one’s decisions to a person or institution that you trust, secure in the belief that they will do the right thing. To dip into psychoanalysis a bit, for people fortunate enough to have loving parents, this hearkens back to infancy and youth, when you entrusted your parents with the task of looking after your needs. However, over-reliance on others can give rise to indolence and decadence, and having others trust and rely on you to a certain extent can be tremendously empowering. It is vital for human health and wellbeing to have the power to make a difference to another person or to the world at large. There’s a reason psychologists discuss people’s loci of control and their sense of self-efficacy: people who have autonomy and responsibility are happier. To take a simple example, elderly patients in nursing homes who care for plants have better health than those who don’t. Weil herself notes that unemployment confounds the need to feel useful, and consequently, she thinks unemployment must be abolished.

Another duality Weil identifies is the need for equality on one hand and the need for social prestige on the other. She isn’t a communist or socialist, so she doesn’t seem to believe in economic equality; but she does advocate the absolute equality of respect for all people regardless of their social station, and she deplores the pernicious influence on society of capitalism’s money-worship: “By making money the sole, or almost the sole, motive of all actions… the poison of inequality has been introduced everywhere” (p.17). Yet in addition to the need to be treated equally, people need to distinguish themselves, benignly, from their fellow citizens. We are all individuals, and our individuality demands respect.

Social recognition is one of our most fundamental needs as social beings, as Hegel famously recognized with his formulation of the master-slave dialectic. Weil also asserts that people have an innate longing for social prestige, the desire to belong to a “noble tradition enshrined in past history and given public acknowledgment” (p.19). Cultural and religious traditions, professional lore, and other forms of collective memory, must be preserved and transmitted, so we can enjoy a direct connection to our forebears and root ourselves in time. Donald Trump’s stunning election victory has illuminated the fraught relationship between equality and social prestige. The grotesque level of economic inequality in America, coupled with simmering cultural resentments towards political elites who are separated from working-class Americans of all races by immense social and economic chasms, has propelled both left- and right-wing populism. Part of what lifted Trump to the White House was undoubtedly fear of immigration and a reaction against progress towards equality for minority groups. (Unfortunately, such progress had been more symbolic and cultural than substantive anyway.) But these regressive elements of voters’ motivations cannot be easily disentangled from economic elements, partially because economic inequality aggravates racism and xenophobia by stoking anxieties about jobs and security.

Security & Property

Several other ideas Weil mentions are extremely relevant for present-day politics. She thinks human beings crave security, which she defines as freedom from fear and terror, most notably liberation from the threat of unemployment and ‘police persecution’ (p.32).

Fearful animals lash out; insecure people do the same. Weil wisely observes that “Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others. Whoever is rooted himself doesn’t uproot others” (p.45). Arendt agrees, writing that “rootlessness as a conscious aim was based primarily upon hatred of a world that had no place for ‘superfluous’ men, so that its destruction could become a supreme political goal” (Origins, pp.196-197). Weil calls unemployment “uprootedness raised to the second power” (p.43): it doubly destabilizes people’s lives, cutting them off from both money and social connections. Its specter constantly haunts the most vulnerable members of society. Weil identifies money-power and economic domination as two of the biggest causes of destabilization, declaring: “Money destroys human roots wherever it is able to penetrate, by turning desire for gain into the sole motive” (p.42). Capitalism injects instability and fear into every nook and cranny of social life. People rendered superfluous by the churning mechanism of an inhuman economic order want others to feel the sting they felt feel from ostracism and dehumanization. Insecurity breeds resentment; resentment breeds outright hostility. Weil opines, probably correctly, that risk is an ineradicable element of the human condition and the human soul in fact desires some level of risk; but she is adamant that knowing one’s basic material needs will be met is essential if people are to feel securely rooted in society.

Weil’s final pairing of needs is very thought-provoking: private property and collective property.

First, she thinks that every person or family should own their own house, land, and tools. That is, to be independent, every person should control their own means of subsistence. Moreover, psychological research attests to the fundamental importance we attach to objects. The objects we own aren’t simply things we use: we invest beloved objects with spiritual and symbolic value; they become parts of the self. Ensuring that every person owns certain goods that they can call their own makes good psychological sense. However, in isolation, this might feed into a false sense of social independence. On the contrary, we are all dependent on other people throughout our lives. Our interdependence is an inescapable, if sometimes irritating, aspect of what it means to be human. People might be tempted to deny this if the economy is entirely structured around the ideal of independence. Yet some recognition of the importance of private property is perfectly compatible with an economy that acknowledges the irreducibly social nature of our communal life.

While not calling for nationalization or collectivization as some might well do, Weil balances the need for private property with the need for collective property. In her view, individuals require a sense of genuine ownership of public and communal goods in order to identify with the collectivity. The alienation and dehumanization that comes with modern workplace conditions make this sense of identification impossible for workers in large factories and corporations. So Weil calls for the abolition of large industrial enterprises and the “dispersion of industrial activity” (p.74). She recommends a return to small-scale industry, artisanal production, and craftsmanship. Working to realize Weil’s ideal of everyone having private ownership of their means of production would require a massive, yet massively beneficial, redistribution of wealth and power from Wall Street to the working class and the poor. Indeed, in our age of mostly unchecked global warming and colossally concentrated corporations, such a non-reformist reform is crucial.

Radical Conclusions

The Need for Roots isn’t beyond criticism. Weil’s heavy emphasis on Christianity is somewhat unsuited to the spirit of our pluralist age (and probably wasn’t entirely in tune with the spirit of the age in 1943, either). Secularism may indeed need some rethinking: part of the problem of modernity is excessive rationalization. The disenchantment of the world is unhealthy, and modern life needs to be respiritualized. But most of us can no longer take Christian principles as given. Weil’s elevation of physical labor to the pinnacle of civilized values is related to her social Catholicism, and seems dated today. It has a reactionary flavor and poses distinct problems for those of us who wish to champion increased leisure as we think about reconstructing our society for an age whose technological possibilities are incomparably greater than in the 1940s. But, setting such minor difficulties aside, Weil’s book is a masterpiece, and her thought is refreshingly clear and free from modern cant.

Weil’s analyses of the human soul’s many needs are united by two essential motifs: spirituality and connectedness. She wants to reintroduce spirituality to modernity, enabling the earthly realm of politics to at least partially reflect the “realm situated high above all men” (p.18).

People exist in space and time, and Weil dwells on the importance of rooting ourselves temporally as well as physically. We need to feel connected to the past and its resources; the sense of continuity in time we derive from history is an essential nutrient for the soul (p.96). Cautioning us against facile progressivism, Weil notes: “It would be useless to turn one’s back on the past in order to simply concentrate on the future. It is a dangerous illusion to believe that such a thing is even possible” (p.48). She also movingly comments: “Loss of the past, whether it be collectively or individually, is the supreme human tragedy” (p.114). The uprooting of culture is a problem that must be combated via educational reforms if we are to establish ourselves securely on the planet. We must learn to see ideas and concepts as living nodes in a grand interconnected web of knowledge and wisdom. In this context, the disjointed jumble of disconnected facts and desiccated data that these days often passes for education is itself a threat to rootedness.

Weil wrote prophetically that “Four obstacles above all separate us from a form of civilization likely to be worth something: our false conception of greatness; the degradation of the sentiment of justice; our idolization of money; and our lack of religious inspiration” (p.209). If we read the word ‘religious’ generally, or substitute the word ‘spiritual’, she is absolutely right. She also wrote that the task facing the Western world was “transforming society in such a way that the working-class may be given roots in it” (p.46). More than seventy-five years later, our task has not changed.

© Scott Remer 2018

Scott Remer studied Ethics, Politics, & Economics at Yale and received a master’s in political thought and intellectual history from Cambridge. He has published in OpenDemocracy, the LA Review of Books’ Philosophical Salon, and International Affairs.

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