Outside In: Refugees and Arendt’s Agonistic Polity

This post is part of a symposium on Lyndsey Stonebridge’s Placeless People. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

Although inequality continues to skyrocket in the United States—whether in income, wealth, education, or healthcare outcomes—and the much-heralded revitalization of national infrastructure has yet to materialize, the current administration has placed its electoral wager on a loud and very public demand for $12.2 billion to extend the border wall with Mexico under the pretext of a national emergency.[1] While such a wall would not address even the problems it has been promised to fix, the political calculation seems to be that a voluble call to “Build the Wall” will more than offset the continuing disintegration of the social and economic fabric of the “Heartland.”[2] As with any flamboyant bet, whether it pays off or not remains to be seen: spending on the border wall is by no means overwhelmingly popular, but it retains a resonance for many and a solid if minority level of support.[3] Yet the wager on the wall is instructive in at least one respect. It reaffirms a linkage between an “outside”—the rhetorics of othering, the hardening of an affective “homeland,” and the empowerment of militarized security bureaucracies—and an “inside”—the crisis of politics and the disintegration of social texture within the polity.

The significance of Lyndsey Stonebridge’s Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees (2018) for contemporary politics becomes apparent within this predicament. The book focuses on what Stonebridge sees as “a generation of writers”—Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, Simone Weil, Samuel Beckett, Dorothy Thompson, and W. H. Auden—who “all used language to push refugees back into history,” as well as touching on the work of Bertolt Brecht, Franz Kafka, and the contemporary Palestinian poet Yousif M. Qasmiyeh (168). My purpose here is not to provide a comprehensive review of the book, and nor will I be able to capture or do full justice to its brilliant historical mapping of a constellation of literary representations of refugees. What I want to do instead is to pick out some of the ways that Stonebridge subtly and quietly challenges aspects of contemporary thinking, and in particular the way she draws attention to the connections between “outside” and “inside” in the work of Hannah Arendt, whose intellectual presence permeates the study.

A central concern for Stonebridge is tracing how these different writers sought “to forge a style capable of responding to the new rightlessness” that accompanied the mass phenomenon of stateless people (20). Her own writing responds to this impulse by dialing down hyperbolic claims—of endings and “posts” and epochal transformations—and by avoiding the sonorous pieties that can sometimes accompany academic discussions of ethics and human rights. But this more considered tone should not obscure the important theoretical shifts that are evident in her approach.

Against the residual verities of postmodernism, Stonebridge distances herself from Richard Rorty’s rejection of “meaningful geopolitical transformation” and registers a note of caution concerning the “over-estimation of literature’s ability to make the world” (90, 52). But perhaps more significantly, she charges that in the face of the “ethical turn” in contemporary theory, “ethics” must “traffi[c] with politics” and “Jacques Derrida’s ‘incalculable justice’ must be made accountable within historical and political terms” (14). While herself drawing on Giorgio Agamben, Stonebridge rejects the conclusion some have drawn from Agamben’s work: “that there is little point carrying on ‘infinite negotiations’ with discourses of rights and citizenship” and “that we might even dispense with political sovereignty altogether, and hedge our bets on post-humanism instead” (19). As she argues, “there is nothing inevitable about the fall into bare life for the refugee in Arendt’s account of rightlessness.” Indeed, the lesson to be learned from the cataclysmic collapse of universal rights in the mid-twentieth century is that it does “not necessarily follow that that was the end of a politics based on the exchange of rights and power” (20).

This opening to politics and political responsibility gives Stonebridge’s study a significance that goes beyond its immediate focus, although quite how we understand such a politics and whether it can move beyond the logic of “exchange” remain important questions. But the crucial linkage upon which this opening rests recurs as a persistent strand throughout the book, and is perhaps best articulated for Stonebridge by Amos Goldberg: “the refugee,” Goldberg writes, “is the ‘other’ of the political system made up of nation states.”[4] This relationship between the “outside” and the “inside”—between the asylum-seeker or migrant and the domestic polity that categorizes, excludes, recognizes, demonizes, accepts, imprisons, deports, or denies her—is in Stonebridge’s account a fundamental element in Arendt’s thinking.

In Stonebridge’s telling this vital connection was forged during Arendt’s internment in the refugee camp at Gurs in South West France in 1940. “Much of her thinking about political community began with the pariah communities she lived in,” writes Stonebridge, and “everything [she] would later affirm about political community derived from her own experience of that failure” (50, 55). Stonebridge convincingly argues that “the warmth and fraternity of closely packed human beings”[5] that Arendt experienced in Gurs fostered “‘a kind of’ universal humanity” (49) that looked “beyond the confines of national sovereignty” to envisage “new forms of political community” (41). Yet we should also add that this experience not only impressed on Arendt the need to think beyond the current confines of political community, but also emphasized that political thinking involves recognizing the violence and limitation of its own locatedness in political community. “Political concepts are based on plurality, diversity, and limitation,” she writes in her 1957 essay on Karl Jaspers, and “laws are the positively established fences which hedge in, protect, and limit the space in which freedom is not a concept, but a living, political reality.”[6]

The vital connection that Stonebridge’s study so powerfully insists upon—between “outside” and “inside,” between the construction of the refugee and that of the nation-state—suggests ways that we can bring to bear Arendt’s thinking on our contemporary political predicament, with its wager on the demand to “Build the Wall.” Alongside the book’s interest in imagining community beyond current political conditions, it is also concerned with the difficulty of representing the experience of refugees within the nation-state system. Within the narrative parameters of the nation, the refugee is either invisible or only visible in terms that deny her political actuality. What the refugee also reveals for Arendt, then, is the social and political configuration that frames these conditions of recognition/misrecognition. The “outside” tells us something about the “inside” that introspection alone cannot grasp.

In a striking but generally neglected passage in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt identifies the nation-state as emerging from the failure of politics to negotiate social antagonisms under the atomizing conditions of the market:

The relationship between state and society was determined by the fact of class struggle…. [Yet] society was pervaded by liberal individualism which wrongly believed that the state ruled over mere individuals, when in reality it ruled over classes, and which saw in the state a kind of supreme individual before which all others had to bow. It seemed to be the will of the nation that the state protect it from the consequences of its social atomization and, at the same time, guarantee its possibility of remaining in a state of atomization…. Nationalism, then, became the precious cement for binding together a centralized state and an atomized society, and it actually proved to be the only working, live connection between individuals and the nation-state.[7]

The impulse for armoring the “outside” points to political failures “inside,” failures that emerge from the flickering appearance and disappearance of social antagonisms within the polity under the conditions of capitalism’s atomization (only intensified in neoliberalism) and what Arendt terms “the secret conflict between state and nation.”[8]

Recognition of the connections between “outside” and “inside” helps to fracture the seeming conceptual solidities of the national state and to return its antagonistic character. Stonebridge is quite right to object to Michael Walzer’s account of “hospitality” as “goodwill,” noting that “goodwill is something that is granted to others, and the giving or withholding of hospitality remains the privilege of the powerful”; but we might also add, not all within the nation-state are as privileged or as powerful (41). And while these disparities can give rise to resentments directed against the “outside,” they might also generate forms of struggle that engender collectivities and solidarities that cut across the atomization and apparent integrity of the “inside.”

For this to happen, such modes of struggle require ways of mapping the political terrain and of recognizing the connections between “outside” and “inside.” This was in part what Arendt hoped to articulate in her conception of the “right to have rights.”[9] As Roy Tsao argues, this formulation means more than simply the enjoyment of a right to be recognized (and misrecognized) by the law, to be judged as either “inside” or “outside.” Rather, it must also involve “the right to claim rights, and if need be to fight for them…through participation in this political struggle.”[10] It is, in Arendt’s words, the right for the refugee to participate “in the struggle of his time.”[11]


[1] See for example “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017–May 2018,” Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, June 19, 2018, www.federalreserve.gov/publications/2018-economic-well-being-of-us-households-in-2017-dealing-with-unexpected-expenses.htm (accessed August 28, 2019). Peter Baker and Jim Tankersley, “Defying Congress, Trump Plans to Renew Fight for Border Wall Funding,” New York Times, March 10, 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/03/10/business/economy/trump-budget-wall.html (accessed August 28, 2019).

[2] Linda Qiu, “Trump’s Rationale for a National Emergency Is Based on False or Misleading Claims,” New York Times, February 15, 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/02/15/us/politics/fact-checking-trump-emergency-border.html (accessed August 28, 2019).

[3] See for example “Most Border Wall Opponents, Supporters Say Shutdown Concessions Are Unacceptable,” Pew Research Center, January 16, 2019, www.people-press.org/2019/01/16/most-border-wall-opponents-supporters-say-shutdown-concessions-are-unacceptable/ (accessed August 28, 2019).

[4] Amos Goldberg, “Empathy, Ethics, and Politics in Holocaust Historiography,” in Empathy and Its Limits, edited by Aleida Assman and Ines Detmers (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 70–71; quoted in Stonebridge, Placeless People, 91.

[5] Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968), 16; quoted in Stonebridge, Placeless People, 49.

[6] Ibid., 81–82.

[7] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1973), 231.

[8] Ibid., 230.

[9] Ibid., 296.

[10] Roy T. Tsao, “Arendt and the Modern State: Variations on Hegel in The Origins

of Totalitarianism,” Review of Politics 66, no. 1, 2006: 129.

[11] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 301.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Graham MacPhee

Graham MacPhee is Professor of English at West Chester University. He is the author of Postwar British Literature and Postcolonial Studies (Edinburgh University Press, 2011) and The Architecture of the Visible (Bloomsbury, 2002), and co-editor with Prem Poddar of Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective (Berghahn, 2007). He co-edited a special issue of the journal College Literature with Angela Naimou on “The Banalization of War” (2016) and edited another on “Arendt, Politics, and Culture” (2011).

One thought on “Outside In: Refugees and Arendt’s Agonistic Polity

Comments are closed.