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Hum Rights Rev (2010) 11:451–467

DOI 10.1007/s12142-010-0157-8

The Relevance of Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on Evil:
Globalization and Rightlessness

Patrick Hayden

Published online: 25 February 2010
# Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Abstract The centenary of Hannah Arendt’s birth in 2006 has provided the catalyst
for a body of literature grappling with the legacy of her thought, especially the
question of its enduring political relevance. Yet this literature largely excludes from
consideration a significant aspect of Arendt’s legacy, namely, her account of evil and
its devastating political reality. This article contends that the neglect of Arendt’s
understanding of the dynamic reality of evil unnecessarily delimits the opportunities
her legacy affords to diagnose forms of evil today. In particular, I propose that
Arendt’s notion of evil and her unique insight into its dynamic reality remain very
much pertinent in light of a globalizing world where the conditions of extreme
deprivation and exclusion have become thoroughly bound up with the structurally
unequal conditions of the global political economy. The persistent global poverty
knowingly reproduced in and through policies and practices of economic
globalization effectively renders vast numbers of people superfluous and “rightless,”
resulting in a distinctive form of political evil. I conclude that more attention should
be paid to the deeper pertinence of Arendt’s concepts of evil, human superfluous-
ness, and rightlessness for contemporary political life.

Keywords Hannah Arendt . Evil . Globalization . Poverty . Rightlessness .


The centenary of Hannah Arendt’s birth in 2006 has provided the catalyst for a body
of literature grappling with the legacy of her thought. While scholars have for many
years engaged in the interpretation of Arendt’s oeuvre and debated its intellectual
importance, the question of the enduring political relevance of Arendt’s thought—

P. Hayden (*)
School of International Relations, University of St Andrews, St Andrews KY16 9AX, UK
452 P. Hayden

the question of why Arendt matters to us today, as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (2006)
recently put it—increasingly commands attention. Young-Bruehl suggests that
Arendt’s analysis of terror and ideology can prove useful in a post 9/11 world;
similarly her thinking about forgiveness may help to illuminate the dynamics of
recovery in post-conflict societies. Others have turned to Arendt’s critique of human
rights foundationalism in order to analyze the dilemmas of democratic citizenship as
well as of refugees in a new world of multiculturalism and post-nationalism
(Benhabib 2004; Parekh 2008; Somers 2008). Yet this literature largely excludes
from consideration an equally significant aspect of Arendt’s legacy, namely, her
account of evil and its devastating political reality. This marked tendency compels us
to ask whether it is possible to defend Arendt’s enduring relevance while
simultaneously neglecting her insistence on the political reality of evil.
Admittedly, not all Arendt scholars distance themselves from Arendt’s insistence
upon the place of evil in modern politics and society. Richard Bernstein (2002,
2005), for instance, has devoted several articles and books to Arendt’s contribution
to debates about evil and politics. In line with other attempts to grapple with
Arendt’s legacy, he recently posed the question whether Arendt’s reflections on evil
“have contemporary relevance” (2008, 65). Bernstein argues that Arendt’s insights
into “the meaning of evil in the contemporary world” remain highly pertinent and
unmistakably applicable today (2008, 75). Whether it is the plight of stateless
persons, the abdication of personal responsibility in a highly bureaucratized social
order, or the calculative political manipulation of quasi-Manichean distinctions
between Good and Evil in the so-called “War on Terror,” it would appear that
Arendt’s reflections on evil are tragically all-too-relevant to our own times. Yet even
as stalwart a champion of Arendt’s legacy as Bernstein treats her notion of evil
defensively, as if its relevance extends only to problems and crises readily
identifiable as similar to those that troubled Arendt, such as the spectre of potentially
new forms of totalitarianism. I suggest that this neglect of or distancing from
Arendt’s understanding of the dynamic reality of evil unnecessarily delimits the
opportunities Arendt’s reflections on evil afford to diagnose distinctive forms of evil
today. In other words, Arendt’s legacy in general, and her reflections on evil in
particular, remain even more pertinent, and more troubling, than many scholars
This article argues that Arendt’s notion of evil and her unique insight into its
dynamic reality remain very much pertinent in light of a globalizing world where the
conditions of extreme deprivation and exclusion have become thoroughly bound up
with the structurally unequal conditions of the global political economy. To develop
this argument, the discussion below first analyzes Arendt’s postmetaphysical
engagement with the question of evil and her assertion that evil is a reality found
in dehumanizing policies and practices that render people superfluous and
expendable. The cases that drew Arendt’s primary attention to the reality of evil
were the Holocaust and the stateless persons effectively rendered superfluous by
their condition of “rightlessness” in the modern international system. Section 2
elaborates on how the deprivation and exclusion inherent in the structural conditions
of economic globalization lead to and perpetuate pervasive forms of superfluous-
ness, most acutely in the case of global poverty. The aim of the article is not to be
comprehensive on matters of globalization, global policies and poverty, for much
The relevance of Hannah Arendt’s reflections on evil: globalization and rightlessness 453

more has been said elsewhere on these issues. Rather, I seek to distil and synthesize
key insights from Arendt’s work in order better to grasp that, although her concept of
evil derives from a specific focus on totalitarianism and genocide, it nonetheless
possesses a relevance that reaches beyond the atrocity of the Holocaust to new forms
of superfluousness proliferating under the conditions of globalization.

Superfluousness and the Reality of Evil

As the full reality of the Holocaust dawned with the defeat of Nazi Germany, Arendt
observed that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar
intellectual life” (1994, 134). Indeed few thinkers in the postwar era, with the possible
exception of Theodor Adorno, took this question more seriously than Arendt.1 Yet
what did Arendt mean by “evil,” and how does the “problem of evil” help to
illuminate our understanding of the pathologies of contemporary political life?
To start with, although Arendt grappled with the potential for state violence to
culminate in genocide following the Holocaust, her confrontation with the question
of evil was neither relegated to a discrete period of her work nor confined to just a
few pieces of her writing. In fact, Arendt’s concern with the human capacity for evil
pervades her life and thought. From the time of her “turn to the political” following
the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933 (Arendt 1994, 4–5), Arendt became
increasingly convinced that “the precondition of any modern political thinking” is
recognition of the “incalculable evil that men are capable of bringing about” (1994,
132). This sentiment runs like a red thread throughout Arendt’s entire body of work,
including her final (and unfinished) book, The Life of the Mind. There she remarks
that her enduring interest in the twin topics of thinking and acting was stimulated not
only by the Eichmann trial but more generally by the inability of the Western
philosophical tradition to come to terms with the “true reality” of evil (1978a, 3–6,
33–34). Hence, Arendt’s reckoning with evil had been shaped by the specific
experiences and problems occasioned by the Holocaust, but it was also the
expression of a lifelong attempt to understand the human condition and politics
generally. What is most distinctive about Arendt’s approach is that she challenges
two common assumptions of the metaphysical treatment of evil: that evil itself is
illusory or lacks reality in comparison to the good, and that evil actions result from
motives that are themselves monstrous or demonic.
In The Life of the Mind Arendt’s critique of the metaphysical approach to evil is
translated into a critique of the role which the Western philosophical and theological
tradition has played in devaluing the reality of evil (1978a, 84ff.). For much of this
tradition the problem of evil was how to reconcile belief in a benevolent and
omnipotent creator with the presence of suffering and cruelty in the world. Various
theodicies sought to resolve this apparent paradox by employing tactics that dilute
the existence of evil, including arguments that the place of evil in God’s plan
transcends human comprehension and that evil serves a functional role in driving
humankind towards ever greater moral progress. Such arguments ultimately obscure

See, for example, the writings collected in Adorno (2003). For an insightful comparison of Arendt and
Adorno on the Holocaust see Villa (2008, ch. 7).
454 P. Hayden

or indeed banish the reality of evil by shifting attention to the goodness of divine
providence and the advancement of human reason (Arendt 1994, 444). In Augustine,
for example, evil is the form taken by “non-being,” the privation or absence of
goodness (privatio boni) (1998). Evil ceases to have reality in its own right. The
terrible irony, of course, is that even as theodicies deny the reality of evil in
comparison to the good, they do so at the cost of justifying evil as part of God’s (or
Reason’s, or History’s) purpose. Such “dialectical acrobatics,” writes Arendt, “are all
based on the superstition that something good might result from evil” (2004, 570).2
In comparison, Arendt suggests that the historical and theoretical “break in our
tradition” symbolized by Auschwitz draws philosophical and religious accounts of
the problem of evil towards their own limits (1968a, 26ff.). Rather, the concrete
lived experience of evil—as embodied in the gas chambers and camps of the
totalitarian regimes—defies the metaphysical reduction of human suffering to
speculative logic and the presupposition of a triumphant highest good. The ethical
and political reality of evil suffered by vast numbers of Jews, Roma and other
innocent victims defines, in large part, the self-understanding of the post-totalitarian
age. Given this experience, Arendt argues that the problem of evil now concerns the
meaning of modern political life inescapably framed within the horizon of once
unimaginable acts and actors that have become all too real.3
Hence while Arendt was deeply knowledgeable of theodicy and the traditional
approach to the problem of evil (1998, 2003; Kohn 1996), her engagement with evil
was motivated by the political catastrophes of imperialism, totalitarianism, and
genocide. In struggling to comprehend modernity’s darkest moments, Arendt sought
to shed evil of its supernatural connotations by treating it as a secular, historical, and
political phenomenon mediated not through divine or demonic forces but through
the actions of ordinary individuals and the power relations of social institutions
within which these actions are inscribed. For this reason, Arendt stressed that neither
theologians nor philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (who coined the phrase
“radical evil”) were able to conceive the appearance of radical evil in the body
politic; the former because they “conceded even to the Devil himself a celestial
origin” and the latter because, even though he “at least must have suspected the
existence of this evil” he nevertheless “immediately rationalized it in the concept of
the ‘perverted will’ that could be explained by comprehensible motives” (2004,
591–92). For Arendt, the notion of radical evil only suspected by Kant became the
distinctive reality of modern society, as witnessed by the deliberate fabrication of an
“earthly hell” in the “concentration camps and torture cellars” perfected by the Nazis
(1994, 383). She also acknowledged that when “the impossible was made possible”
in the extermination camps evil “could no longer be understood and explained by”
the malice, insanity, or character defects of a few monstrous individuals (2004, 591).
Arendt re-engaged with these issues in Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she mounts
another profound challenge to the metaphysics of evil. Rather than stressing the

See also Arendt (1970, 56): “Marx’s great trust in the dialectical “power of negation”... rests on a much
older philosophical prejudice: that evil is no more than a privative modus of the good, that good can come
out of evil; that, in short, evil is but a temporary manifestation of a still-hidden good.”
See Arendt’s discussion of Hermann Broch and the break between the pre- and post-totalitarian
generations in Men in Dark Times (1968b, 125–27).
The relevance of Hannah Arendt’s reflections on evil: globalization and rightlessness 455

reality of evil per se, here she proposes the famous and controversial notion of the
“banality of evil” as a contrast to another traditional explanation of evil in terms of
monstrous or diabolical motives. With this phrase, Arendt succinctly refutes Kant’s
characterization of radical evil according to which the doer of evil deeds is wicked,
perverted or demonic, offering a more nuanced account of evil which emphasizes
that terrible atrocities are committed even when “evil motivations” are absent,
precisely because such atrocities are “normalized” within powerful political regimes
and social discourses (1978b, 417). Arendt’s crucial point is that it is best to
conceive of evil actions not as external manifestations of innately corrupt properties
of human nature, but rather in terms of the concrete social and political actions of
specific individuals even if the motives for these actions often are mundane (1978b,
245). For instance, although Eichmann seemingly was motivated by the most banal
careerism, he nevertheless intended to coordinate the transportation of millions of
innocent people to their deaths and acted so as to make this happen. His actions were
evil despite the absence of “demonic” motives; to put it another way, he did evil
without being evil. He was, Arendt argues, “ordinary, commonplace, and neither
demonic nor monstrous” (1965, 3–4; 1978a, 4).
It is clear, then, that Arendt employed the term “banality of evil” in order to describe
the concrete origin of evil and thus defy conventional metaphysical assumptions about
the radically defective and perhaps even “inhuman” nature of evil individuals and their
actions. It is also meant to convey the lesson Arendt took from the Eichmann trial that
attributing the magnitude of mass extermination to a few deviant “monsters” serves to
conceal the fact that so many “ordinary” people are required for such evil to happen
(1965, 276). Appealing to the pathological natures of abnormal individuals simply is
inadequate to explain evil as a historical, political and systemic phenomenon. In
making this claim, Arendt returns once more to the theme of the reality of evil. A
metaphysics of evil that locates its source in either supernatural (devilish) or subhuman
(bestial) motives and instincts merely makes it possible to ignore the material reality
and political significance of the systematic extermination of millions of people (Arendt
2004, 592). The failure to recognize that evil actions are thoroughly human is a way of
being cut off from reality. Similarly the banality of evil points to the terrifying condition
of the modern human character which makes the appearance of evil possible—
thoughtlessness and an uncritical reliance upon conventional attitudes as a shield
against reality.4 It was the abdication of judgment and the failure to imagine the world
of the other as a fellow human being that Arendt found typified in Eichmann.
Eichmann resorted to stock phrases, stereotypes, routine procedures, and standardized
codes of conduct in order that he might regard himself as a mere “cog” in a machine
that he was otherwise “helpless” to control or affect. He simply did what any other

While Arendt employed the term “radical” (or “absolute”) evil in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she
later came to the conclusion that to speak of evil as “radical” is misleading since it implies some
unfathomable metaphysical depth or “roots” beneath evil as it appears in human action (see 1978b, 251).
Yet the “banality” of evil is not merely a substitute for “radical” evil. This is because Arendt continues to
refer to “extreme” evil as well as the banality of evil. For Arendt, extreme evil refers to the actual
dehumanization of people that makes them superfluous, while the banality of evil refers to the condition of
“thoughtlessness” that enables “ordinary” persons to participate in policies and practices that result in
extreme evil. For more on thoughtlessness as a lack of critical judgment and “enlarged thought,” see
Arendt (1992).
456 P. Hayden

“normal” actor in his situation would do, for the same reasons. He failed to exercise
independent thinking and judging, and to make reasoned decisions which included the
standpoint of other persons. Such “remoteness from reality,” Arendt affirms, can
“wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together” (1965, 288).
Finally, to understand the full significance of Arendt’s attempt to challenge
traditional explanations of evil, we have to consider the substance of her
understanding of what makes certain actions evil. The specific nature of Arendt’s
postmetaphysical conception of evildoing, as she proposed to Karl Jaspers, is
defined in terms of “the following phenomenon: making human beings as human
beings superfluous” (Arendt and Jaspers 1992, 166).5 Actions are evil insofar as they
produce the systematic destruction of people’s human status by means of rendering
their particularity, that is, who they are as unique human beings, superfluous. The
logic of superfluity—what Arendt referred to as the “modern expulsion from
humanity” (2004, 384)—is not merely to kill people, but to dehumanize them, to
strip them of all dignity and to treat them as nothing more than manipulable and
expendable matter. Superfluous people are those cast out of a common world
through the destruction of their political, legal, economic, and moral status.
Arendt was drawn to formulate the notion of human superfluousness by the “chain of
catastrophes touched off by the First World War” culminating “in the actual event of
totalitarian domination” (1968a, 27). However, the novelty introduced by “the structure
and conditions of the twentieth century,” which Arendt insists constitute the “horizon of
experience” for the world after the Final Solution, is that “killing is far from the worst
that man can inflict on man” (1968a, 127). The evils that can be visited upon human
beings involve not only murder but more significantly the widespread and thoughtless
treatment of certain persons “as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them
were no longer of any interest to anybody, as if they were already dead” (2004, 574).
Killing people is not the primary issue; generating and perpetuating human
superfluousness as a normal condition of the socio-political order is. To forestall any
misunderstanding, Arendt is not suggesting that the mass killing of human beings
carried out by the Nazi (or any other) genocide is not evil. What she is suggesting,
however, is that the meaning of this atrocity is located in the experiential space opened
up between the actual killing itself and the preparatory dehumanization carried out
independently of it. How can we make sense of the moral and political distinction
between murder on the one hand and exclusion from humanity on the other? More than
murder itself, which Arendt regards as “a limited evil” (2004, 570), the deprivation of
human status that excludes superfluous persons from a common world is the most
terrifying possibility we can now too easily imagine. Whereas murder destroys a life,
superfluity destroys reality, “the fact of existence itself” (2004, 571).
Arendt was particularly concerned about two types of evil within modern international
politics: genocide and statelessness. From the “administrative massacres” of colonial
imperialism to the systematic annihilation of racial, ethnic, religious and political
“undesirables” by the Nazi and Soviet regimes, Arendt exposed the ways that modern
states have all too frequently resorted to genocidal practices when establishing and
consolidating political organization as a legitimizing framework for the use of violence
(see King and Stone 2007). In The Origins of Totalitarianism, for instance, Arendt

For an excellent discussion of postmetaphysical conceptions of evil see Lara (2007).
The relevance of Hannah Arendt’s reflections on evil: globalization and rightlessness 457

constructs a genealogy of “race-thinking” and its role in the ideological splintering of
humanity into “naturally” superior and inferior races pitted against each other in an
international “state of nature” played out within modern sovereign politics (2004, 208).
It is here that Arendt implies that the genocidal logic of modernity emerges, linking
diverse ideas such as Darwinism, eugenics, and other “naturalistic doctrines” aimed at
governing the health or degeneration of ideal forms of life, virtually all of which
“denied any relationship between human ‘races’” and “followed the path of the old
might-right doctrine” (2004, 234). Arendt’s key theme fundamentally is that in tracing
the historical movement from imperialism to totalitarianism, we find a corresponding
pattern of European encounters with and policies towards the “radically other”: from
colonization and integration, to discrimination, marginalization, and finally extermina-
tion. For Arendt, this is the necessary starting point for understanding the Holocaust in
particular, but the lessons she draws implicate the modern sovereign nation-state more
generally in the logic and practice of genocide.
What Arendt has to say about statelessness is also characteristically prescient. As she
notes in her essay, “We Refugees,” the special significance of statelessness for Arendt
consists in the absence of a distinct place in the world, the loss of home, occupation,
language, family, and rights induced by the deprivation of legal and political status (2007,
264). For Arendt, statelessness is so profoundly disturbing because it exemplifies a
much larger pattern of political catastrophe since the twentieth century and is
symptomatic “of underlying structures which today have come into the open” (1994,
74). Contemporary history, as Arendt has it, shows how statelessness is not an aberrant
or accidental phenomenon occurring despite the best efforts of states to prevent it, but a
normalized systemic condition produced by an international order predicated upon the
sovereign power to exclude as the essence of statist politics. Stateless persons are not
simply found “outside” society but instead are a by-product of the society of states, an
“inevitable residue,” to borrow a phrase from Arendt (2004, 247), of the inter-state
system which persistently produces superfluous human beings. In ceasing to belong to
any rights-guaranteeing community whatsoever, stateless or “rightless” persons stand in
stark contrast to citizens located in the public sphere (2004, 372–76). Whereas the latter
become fully human in a common world shared with others, the former are alienated
from this world and lose their relevance to others: their human status has been denied
recognition and political and socioeconomic exclusion has reduced them to
“disposable, dispensable creatures.” The political realities of statelessness observed
(and indeed experienced by) Arendt have not disappeared but have instead become a
characteristic feature of the international system. Recent research suggests, for instance,
that there are at least 11 million stateless persons around the world (United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees 2006a). According to the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees, the deprivation of rights that accompanies statelessness
typically leaves stateless persons “in a Kafkaesque legal vacuum” which reduces them
to “non-persons, legal ghosts” (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
In sum, what the “the structure and conditions of the twentieth century” threw into
relief for Arendt is that evil is a form of action that results in radical dehumanization,
insofar as it deprives large numbers of individuals of their moral, juridical, and political
standing within a community founded on reciprocal recognition of equal status and
rights. In addition, actions that produce widespread superfluousness frequently are
458 P. Hayden

consistent with ordinary or “banal” social attitudes and public policies. Making human
beings superfluous as human beings, on the basis of the most mundane motivations and
socially acceptable modes of behavior, is crucial to understanding the appearance and
functioning of evil on the modern political landscape. Further, Arendt’s principal
message is that the process of making human beings superfluous is evident not only in the
extreme case of genocide, but in a variety of interconnecting historical, political, and
socioeconomic circumstances pervasive in the modern international system. The
expansive entrenchment of these conditions makes human superfluousness not only
possible, but indeed ever more likely.

Expulsion from Humanity: Superfluousness and Globalization

In her confrontation with the Holocaust, Arendt quickly recognized that the problem
of evil referred to the inadequacies of our traditional moral, legal, and political
categories to account for the historical reality of humanity being rendered
superfluous, rather than the metaphysical problem of the ineffability of a
transcendent evil. Central to Arendt’s understanding of the reality of evil were the
increasingly common practices of exclusion and deprivation within domestic and
international politics. Arendt’s account of evil at once embraces human superflu-
ousness manifested in overt forms of direct violence such as genocide, domination
and torture, and probes how the generalized and often overlooked “structure and
conditions” of late modernity perpetuate superfluousness in “indirect” forms of
violence such as statelessness and rightlessness.6 Arendt’s approach, in other words,
urges focus on both how superfluousness is directly enacted and how it is derived
from and maintained by political, economic, and social structures, attitudes and
beliefs that normalize and legitimize extreme deprivation and exclusion.
The political events and crises of the latter half of the twentieth century led
Arendt to the critique of violence insofar as it masquerades as power, threatens the
human capacity for freedom and diminishes the human status. Violence, Arendt
maintains, is characteristically instrumental; it assumes the forms of domination and
coercion employed against others treated as mere objects and denied entry into
properly human community (1970, 4, 46). In this way, violence in its manifold forms
is a necessary element of making human beings superfluous. Arendt’s thinking on
violence and the need to protect the human status was informed by her awareness of
the ways in which racism, imperialism, colonialism, militarism, and the calculative
rationality of bureaucratic domination are intimately intertwined with the develop-
ment of “conditions under which men are dehumanized—such as concentration
camps, torture, famine” (1970, 63)—in modern society and politics.7
In light of the above discussion are there other ways in which Arendt’s reflections
on evil remain germane to the contemporary political landscape? In this section, I
deploy some of Arendt’s theoretical insights in order to argue for recognition of evil

The distinction between direct and indirect or structural violence, with the latter defined as avoidable or
preventable oppression and death attributable to institutions and systems of power legitimized by
prevailing norms, was first made by Johan Galtung; see Galtung (1969).
This is a theme taken up recently by McCarthy (2009) in his analysis of neoracism and neoimperialism.
The relevance of Hannah Arendt’s reflections on evil: globalization and rightlessness 459

within the context of globalizing capitalism. As Bernstein (2005, 2008, 66, 74)
reminds us, concern with evil in the post-Second World War period has been
dominated by overt forms of direct violence, culminating in the seemingly exclusive
focus on (non-state) terrorist violence since the attacks of 11 September 2001. Yet
although Arendt’s main concern was to identify and condemn overt forms of
violence, she nonetheless cleared the way to comprehending that evil can find
expression in myriad types of human deprivation and exclusion. This is particularly
true in the era of dehumanizing bureaucratization, as violence is increasingly
facilitated by banal causes, motivations, and thoughtlessness. In an instructive
passage, Arendt alludes to the way that the characteristics of totalitarianism parallel
the conditions of modern society:
The totalitarian attempt to make men superfluous reflects the experience of
modern masses of their superfluity on an overcrowded earth. The world of the
dying, in which men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in
which punishment is meted out without connection with crime, in which
exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without
product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew. (2004, 589,
emphasis added)
In whichever form they take, Carlos Nino points out, evil acts involve “offenses
against human dignity so widespread, persistent, and organized that normal moral
assessment seems inappropriate” (1996, vii). Thus the common ground of all forms
of evil is the systematic destruction of people’s humanity, by means of rendering
them superfluous. It is my contention that the process of making human beings
superfluous is realized in the global poverty knowingly perpetuated in and through
the structure and conditions associated with economic globalization.
The dehumanizing effects of global poverty have become crucially intertwined
with contemporary economic globalization, and should be seen against this
background. Although economic globalization clearly has generated great wealth
for some, according to the UN Development Program (UNDP) widening global
inequalities in income and living standards have reached “grotesque proportions”
(1999, 104). The UNDP cites the fact that in 1960, the income of the richest 20% of
the world was 30 times that of the poorest 20%, in 1990 it was 60 times as great, and
by 1997 it was 74 times as great. It has also noted that the world’s wealthiest 500
people share an annual income that is more than the combined incomes of the
world’s poorest 416 million persons (United Nations Development Program 2007,
37). Along these same lines, the richest 20% of the world’s population hold 75% of
the world’s income, while the poorest 40% hold just 5%. More starkly, around 1.2
billion human beings live on less than $1 a day, and another 1.5 billion people live
on less than $2 a day (on the basis of purchasing power parity). Nine out of every ten
citizens of affluent countries are amongst the world’s richest 20%, and “the gap
between the average citizen in the richest and in the poorest countries is wide and
getting wider” (United Nations Development Program 2007, 37).
The widening inequality gap between the world’s rich and poor, and the vast scale
of poverty in the present world, increase the vulnerability and exclusion of the
world’s poorest. It is estimated that approximately one third of all human deaths,
some 50,000 daily, are due to poverty-related causes, and of these more than ten
460 P. Hayden

million annually are children under 5 years old; in fact, “98% of children who die
each year live in poor countries” (United Nations Development Program 2007, 24).
One hundred million children live on the streets; one million a year die of malaria
and two million of tuberculosis (World Health Organization 2004); and more than 40
million people are infected with HIV/AIDS, nearly two thirds of whom live in sub-
Saharan Africa (United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and World Health
Organization 2005). Despite such widespread yet preventable misery, total external
debt for the world’s poorest countries in 2003 stood at $2.43 trillion (World Bank
2004), virtually preventing any chance of addressing many of these issues. In light of
this radical inequality, the Human Development Report 2005 remarks that more
“than 40% of the world’s population constitute, in effect, a global underclass”
excluded from equal access to the benefits of globalization and marginalized in
terms of political participation and social belonging (2007, 24).
Zygmunt Bauman reflects on the problem of global poverty in terms that help
illuminate how Arendt’s characterization of evil as making human beings
superfluous may be relevant. The era of neoliberal globalization, Bauman contends,
exposes how the project of modernity—or more accurately, of compulsive
modernization—necessarily produces “human waste” (2004, 5). Here three historical
strands of modernization converge: order-building, economic progress, and capitalist
globalization. For Bauman the modernization process is defined by the drive to
design, engineer, and administer society, most fundamentally in terms of the
“freedom” to consume. The corollary of this process is that whatever cannot be
assimilated into the model of modernization (or “development”) as consumption
must be treated as unfit, undesirable, redundant, useless, and disposable. Immigrants,
stateless persons and refugees, and the impoverished are simply superfluous
populations who, if they cannot be directly eliminated in the post-totalitarian era,
at least can be made to disappear from our consciousness. In Bauman’s words, we
“dispose of leftovers in the most radical and effective way: we make them invisible
by not looking and unthinkable by not thinking” (2004, 27). The wasted lives of
human refuse are stripped of dignity, driven to the farthest margins of society, and
eradicated from the public realm while hidden in plain sight. In this way the global
poor have no part to play in a common world of human togetherness.
Arendt once cautioned that:
Political, social, and economic events everywhere are in a silent conspiracy
with totalitarian instruments devised for making men superfluous. . . . The
Nazis and Bolsheviks can be sure that their factories of annihilation which
demonstrate the swiftest solution to the problem of overpopulation, of
economically superfluous and socially rootless human masses, are as much
of an attraction as a warning. 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. (2004, 592)
Bauman’s argument, couched in language that evokes the parallels drawn by Arendt
between totalitarian systems and the basic conditions of modern capitalist society,
suggests that global poverty “erases” the global poor, excludes them from
recognition as fellow human beings, and denies them standing as equals within a
The relevance of Hannah Arendt’s reflections on evil: globalization and rightlessness 461

shared public world. Simply put, global poverty makes a vast portion of humanity
superfluous. The global poor have become, to borrow Arendt’s phrase for those who
are made rightless, “the scum of the earth” (2004, 341), because of who they are (or
where they are born) rather than what they have done. As Dana Villa observes, in
today’s world “untold millions will have to suffer the crushing fate of being no use
to the world economy” (1999, 12). Along these lines, Thomas Pogge has proposed
that extreme global poverty may constitute “the largest crime against humanity ever
committed, the death toll of which exceeds, every week, that of the recent tsunami
and, every three years, that of World War II, the concentration camps and gulags
included” (2005, 2).
Pogge maintains that global poverty offers evidence of what he refers to as
“radical inequality” (2002, 198). Pogge condemns not only the extreme (both
absolutely and relatively), pervasive, and persistent characteristics of global poverty,
but most importantly that it is avoidable. As Pogge notes, if global poverty were
simply a matter of “bad luck,” of the uncontrollable consequences of natural events
and simple chance, then while it might be unfortunate it would not necessarily be
wrong. Contrary to this, he counters that while it “is bad luck to be born into a
family that is too poor to feed one...the fact that a quarter of all children are born into
such families is not bad luck but bad organization” (1998, 531). Advancing what he
calls an “institutional” understanding of human rights Pogge argues that the grave
harm of global poverty arises from the fact that it is produced by shared global
institutions with which, under conditions of economic globalization, we all are
engaged in some form. In other words, within the global political and economic
order we are all connected to extremely powerful institutions such as the IMF, the
World Bank, and the WTO, which determine and mediate our relationships to one
another to a significant degree insofar as they govern markets, and dictate trade and
foreign affairs. Because these institutions and the governments through which they
operate constitute a highly integrated whole that designs and coordinates policies,
decisions, and actors for the purpose of producing specific consequences, the
outcomes of this scheme must be ascribed to identifiable social structures, conditions
and agents. The crucial point—typically ignored or dismissed—is that global
poverty is a human-made event, arising from the interplay of colonization, military
enforcement, private trade and “unequal relationships of power and commerce” that
took root during the era of European imperialism (Lines 2008, 3, 34–35).8
Pogge contends then that radical inequality foreseeably and avoidably results
in the severe impoverishment of billions of human beings. Global poverty is not
due simply to unavoidable extrasocial factors (although such factors, like natural
disasters, may exacerbate the conditions of poverty) but most fundamentally to
institutional design, policy decisions, and coordinated actions. What is crucial to
note here is that feasible alternative decisions and actions can be taken;
alternative institutional schemes can be implemented which do not produce

Lines points out that standards of living around the world were broadly similar until the imperial era, and
that existing severe global disparities have been deliberately produced and extended only throughout the
past two hundred years. Also see Arendt’s extensive analysis of imperialism and its legacy within the
modern international system, notable for its melding of power politics with the interests of capital and its
expansionistic logic “based on maldistribution,” in the second volume of The Origins of Totalitarianism
(2004, 168–209).
462 P. Hayden

pervasive, persistent, and radical inequality. That such alternatives are not
adopted means that the worse-off are knowingly being excluded and
impoverished, as the foreseeable and avoidable conditions of extreme poverty
continue to be imposed upon them.
To put this all another way, the foreseeable and avoidable infliction of global
poverty is an evil, in the Arendtian sense that it arises from a coordinated
institutional scheme which recurrently makes huge numbers of human beings
superfluous. While it may not be the explicit intention or motivation of political
leaders, and heads of multinational corporations and transnational financial
institutions such as the World Bank and IMF to make a large portion of humanity
superfluous, that fact that such a systemic outcome is knowingly perpetuated allows
us to judge as evil the institutional design and policies of the global political
economic order. For this reason, global poverty cannot be regarded as a “non-moral”
form of natural evil, that is, as a terrible event “that is not caused by human agency”
or that results from “unchosen” human action (Kekes 1990, 47).9 This claim
overlooks that it is precisely the structural nature of global poverty today that makes
it possible to trace back to specific institutional contexts the agents and policies
responsible for creating or continuing extreme inequality. Consequently, as George
Kateb argues, “deliberate impoverishment or neglect or correctable misery” may be
properly regarded as a moral and political evil, and more specifically “evil as policy”
(1992, 201).
We have seen that the banality of evil identified by Arendt refers to a specific
condition which makes evil deeds possible, namely, the normal, matter-of-fact
motives associated with an overriding personal ambition pursued within the context
of a bureaucratized social system. Such motivations are not demonic, yet they
nevertheless serve as a kind of preparation for and acceptance of the occurrence of
human superfluity. In this respect, Arendt’s work is useful because her conception of
the banality of evil draws attention to the central role played by organizational
structures, institutions, and policies. While Arendt’s analysis of the ordinary
motivations exhibited by individual perpetrators of evil has been widely recognized,
insufficient consideration has been given to the fact that her analysis of modern
society exposes structural factors that impede the ability of normal citizens to
identify and resist policies and institutional schemes that destroy the human status.10
Arendt was highly attuned to the structural conditions that enable large numbers of
people to support and implement dehumanizing policies. This follows from her
insight that blaming the appearance of evil on a few deviant and pathological
individuals obscures the fact that so many people, to varying degrees of complicity,
are required for such evil to occur at a structural level. If we cannot account for the
scope of evil simply on the basis of a few deviant actors then we must look to
structural conditions that normalize and validate actions which are nevertheless
preventable. As Hanna Pitkin observes, “even these structural conditions are
continually reproduced only by human activity. They are not inherent inevitabilities.
The joint-stock, limited-liability corporation, for example, is a human creation,

For a trenchant critique of the way in which poverty is naturalized by the “market epistemology” of the
global political economy, see Da Costa and McMichael (2007).
A notable exception is Larry May (1996).
The relevance of Hannah Arendt’s reflections on evil: globalization and rightlessness 463

sustained only by what we are continually doing” (1998, 26). Regarding human-
made poverty as, instead, a natural inevitability allows for it to be reinscribed within
discourses of historical or economic necessity. Such discourses mirror the theodicies
critiqued by Arendt: poverty is cast as a kind of “necessary evil” whose cause and
purpose remain inscrutable, yet with suitable faith it will eventually be overcome
with the arrival of a highest good—such as the endless “development” celebrated by
capitalist economics. The reality of poverty is thus eroded, and it becomes literally
unbelievable that our ordinary economic policies and practices are responsible for its
dehumanizing outcomes. The apologia for political exclusion through poverty is
thereby maintained.
Here it may be worth pausing briefly to consider the common perception that
Arendt was either indifferent or hostile to matters of economic inequality, as found in
her critique of “the social” (see Pitkin 1981). I believe however that Arendt’s
distinction between the political and the social is meant primarily to publicize the
ways that powerful anti- or de-politicizing tendencies threaten the prospects for
effectively realizing our basic rights, and by extension, our freedom and capabilities
to become human. For Arendt, this means it is crucially important to resist the
annexation of political life to the means and ends of economic rationality and
“privatized” interests. That is why she attempts to differentiate the particular
meaning and lived reality of the political from that of the social. Yet Arendt has been
criticized on a variety of levels for this distinction, particularly in her treatment of it
in On Revolution. It has been argued, for instance, that, whether or not it is explicitly
recognized in classical thought, the essence or end of politics is to address social
issues. It is implied, then, that Arendt’s attitude to the “social question” is marked by
a profound insensitivity to the economically exploited and a lack of concern for
poverty (see Wolin 1994).
To the contrary, Arendt considered the social question—or “the terrifying
predicament of mass poverty” (1963, 24)—deserving of serious attention. But this
serious attention to the relationship between socioeconomic matters and political
freedom must resist the temptation to confound the end of politics with solving the
social question. In On Revolution, she observes that liberation or emancipation from
socioeconomic deprivation “is indeed a condition of freedom,” that is, a condition of
political action (1963, 32). Despite this interdependence of liberty and freedom,
Arendt’s point is that there is a relevant difference between the two. Whereas liberty
is negative insofar as it refers to “freedom from” want and economic deprivation,
freedom is positive inasmuch as it refers to “freedom to” initiate joint action with
other individuals considered as political equals. Hence, as Sidonia Blättler and Irene
Marti point out, Arendt “certainly knows that freedom is incompatible with social
misery, that freedom presupposes not only liberation from political domination but
also from poverty” (2005, 92). Arendt made clear that, apart from the misery of
material deprivation, poverty is abject and dehumanizing because it places the
human person under the permanent despotism of physical need (1963, 60). But it
was also important for Arendt that the “ignominy” of poverty and economic
exploitation were not simply reduced to an inevitable consequence of necessity or
nature. Doing so would render the political little more than administrative
handmaiden to the “natural laws” and bureaucratic techniques of economic
“science,” and freedom would succumb to necessity (Arendt 1958: 40–44).
464 P. Hayden

On this reading the major problem for Arendt is not the social question as such,
but the social realm from which the attitude of “economism” emerges and the
consequent modern definition of politics as the functional struggle for economic
power. We must then understand Arendt’s critique of the social not as dismissing
claims to emancipation from socioeconomic deprivation but as an “attempt to defend
the notion of political freedom against the usurpation of the public sphere by
powerfully organized private interests” (Blättler and Marti 2005, 93). It may not be
the case that politics by itself can bring about an end to poverty, but it is certainly
true that the political arena can be utilized by powerful private interests to protect
wealth for few and perpetuate poverty for many. Thus while Arendt disagreed that
politics ultimately must be about socioeconomic matters, she nevertheless agreed
that “poverty, hunger and illiteracy create powerlessness” (Arendt and Benedict
2009, 304). Poverty and radical inequality are therefore inherently inimical to the
recognition of equal status and participation in the building of a common world that
are constitutive of human dignity (Arendt 2004, 590-91). In framing the social
question this way, Arendt remarks that it is darkness—“remain[ing] excluded from
the light of the public realm”—rather than want that is the most fundamental “curse
of poverty” (1963, 69). In other words, what makes poverty evil is not misery per se,
which can exist in any natural condition, but the violence of institutionalized socio-
political exclusion. In bringing Arendt’s insights into the context of contemporary
international affairs, I would suggest that the global political economy has advanced
in such a way that “darkness” has become an integral part of its functioning through
a surplus of people who are vulnerable and marginalized enough to be superfluous.
Superfluousness, the “experience of not belonging to the world at all” (Arendt 2004,
612), has become a characteristic feature of economic globalization. This is what I
take Arendt to mean for us today when she says that “private interests” have intruded
upon “public rights” in “the most brutal and aggressive form” (1977, 108).


Arendt’s reflections on evil begin from the premise that the Western moral and
political tradition could not provide the intellectual and normative resources needed
to grasp the concrete experience of the “overpowering reality” of the modern evils
committed by the Nazi regime (2004, 591–92). She further insisted that, in contrast
to the received wisdom which conceived evil as having its origin in “wicked” desires
and behaviors that contradicted conventional social morality, the great atrocities of
totalitarianism and the Holocaust were produced only because vast numbers of
dutiful, rule-following citizens in fact failed to question or challenge social
convention. The worst horrors imaginable were produced by the masses of “good”
ordinary citizens of respectable society, not by the perverted or demonic few. For
Arendt evil assumes a tangible reality manifested in the radical dehumanization of
individuals and populations rendered superfluous in ways that often rest comfortably
with “normal” structures and conditions of everyday life. So it is today.
I have argued that Arendt’s approach to the problem of evil has greater
contemporary relevance than merely alerting us to the crimes of totalitarianism past
or the spectre of totalitarianism future. While Arendt’s concerns regarding the
The relevance of Hannah Arendt’s reflections on evil: globalization and rightlessness 465

dehumanizing functions of evil were prompted by the horrors of totalitarianism, her
conception of superfluousness as radical dehumanization cannot be limited only to
the case of totalitarianism. Indeed, although totalitarianism proved itself to be the
“one supreme and radical evil” of the twentieth century, compared to which all other
evils appeared to be “lesser,” Arendt maintains that this type of comparison is
actually “meaningless, because this may be true of all evils in our entire history”
(1994, 271). What is more significant, she explains, is that the “greatest danger of
recognizing totalitarianism as the curse of the century would be an obsession with it
to the extent of becoming blind to the numerous small and not so small evils with
which the road to hell is paved” (1994, 271-72).
While insisting on the imperative of facing up to the evil character of the manner in
which human beings were made fully superfluous in the extermination camps of
totalitarian government, Arendt also persistently claims that we must recognize both the
broader implications of the superfluity of humans for modern political life and the ways
in which evil confounds “our traditional tools of understanding” by taking new, original
or unexpected forms (1994, 310). Following Arendt, it is the “horror of contemporary
political events, together with the even more horrible eventualities of the future” that
must serve as the basis for our reflections on evil today (1994, 444-45). The disturbing
political experiences of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, I have
maintained, have increasingly assumed a distinctive reality wrought by the considered
policies and institutions of economic globalization. This is not the same reality as
totalitarianism or genocide, of course, but it is a reality defined precisely by the
knowing production of superfluousness and rightlessness in connection with the global
political economic system. Arendt writes that “excessive poverty in a society of great
wealth” quite rightly should arouse “anger and indignation because these conditions
are against the dignity of man” (1994, 403). Even further, I would add, because they
force upon millions an obscurity, exclusion, and less than human status that ought to
be regarded as a peculiar evil in a globalizing world. In this way I hope to have shown
that the continuing relevance of Arendt’s thoughts on evil goes well beyond the
ramifications of totalitarianism and the Holocaust, to new forms of human
superfluousness in our political present.


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