H Arendt, the Family, and Society

The rise of mass society . . . only indicates that the various social groups have suffered the same absorption into one society that the family units had suffered earlier; with the emergence of mass society, the realm of the social has finally, after several centuries of development, reached the point where it embraces and controls all members of a given community equally and with equal strength.

Here H Arendt combines a Schmittean critique of the social with a Burkean critique of equality. It makes little difference that the society against which she is directing her criticism—the postwar US bureaucracy of the 1950s against which F Hayek, L Strauss, and M Friedman would also inveigh—was itself a fleeting epochal construct, dependent as it was on reasonably high and evenly applied taxation of wealth and a social contract and social net that, at the time, still sought to keep pace with its European and Japanese counterparts.

More to the point, Arendt completely overlooks the profound inequality within this equality and therefore completely overlooks how “the social” against which she inveighs is none other than “the economic”; that is to say, the oikos, the private household itself. Aristotle made clear, already at the beginning of his Politics, that this inequality, and the despotism by which it was sustained, did not detract from the potential equality of households to one another.

However, did Arendt direct her criticism against the universalization of the oikos, she would then have to shift her object of critique away from the social to the economic; a shift made difficult not only because it would be universally decried by other members of the Committee on Social Thought, but also by H Arendt’s own predisposition to exempt excellence (aristoi) from socio-historical interrogation. N.B., if excellence arises from the substantive freedoms the aristoi possess—wealth, health, education, and leisure—then it stands to reason that their excellence, far from testifying to an inner quality, is itself a product of these material benefits.