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Hannah Arendt on the Stateless

(Richard J. Bernstein, Parallax, 11:1, 2005)

When we lose our sense of – or are forcibly kept from – sharing a common world from a plurality of perspectives with our fellow human beings, we lose something of our humanity. The fundamental deprivation that occurs when one is stripped of the right to have rights is that an individual no longer has the opportunity to act. This right is even more basic than those of freedom and justice in the sense that a presupposition of becoming a citizen (where freedom and justice are relevant) is the ability to act, to initiate, and to form opinions on a shared, common world.

The most basic right is ‘the right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community’. The full shock of witnessing what happened when millions of people suddenly appear who have lost, and cannot regain, this ‘right to have rights’ taught Arendt how the sudden loss of home, of one’s place in the world, of one’s political status, ‘[became] identical with expulsion from humanity altogether’:

[W]hat we must call a ‘human right’ today would have been thought of as a general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away. Its loss entails the loss of the relevance of speech (and man, since Aristotle, has been defined as a being commanding the power of speech and thought), and the loss of all human relationship (and man, again since Aristotle, has been thought of as the ‘political animal’, that is one who by definition lives in a community), the loss, in other words, of some of the most essential characteristics of human life.[…] Not the loss of specific rights, then, but the loss of a community willing and able to guarantee any rights whatsoever, has been the calamity which has befallen ever-increasing numbers of people. Man, it turns out, can lose all the so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity itself expels him from humanity.