Seven years ago, I wrote a Thoughtleader entry on Hannah Arendt’s understanding of forgiveness. The concern then was to understand the role of forgiveness in relation to the crime against humanity, which Arendt designates as unforgivable because – as a crime against the human as such, against the very concept of the human – it falls outside the realm of human affairs.
The crime against humanity is a form of willed, radical evil and, as such, cannot be forgiven. Arendt was on sound theoretical territory when she made this claim, for it was Immanuel Kant himself from whom Arendt had borrowed the term “radical evil”.
I was arguing at the time with those who read in Jacques Derrida’s presentation of the Abrahamic history of forgiveness (as confronting thought with a contradictory and opposing logic of conditional and unconditional forgiveness), the ethical support for a normative instruction to forgive the unforgivable. This “forgiveness” of the unforgivable as the crime against humanity, was sometimes referred to as forgiveness beyond Hannah Arendt.
As a country, I suppose, we were still basking in the afterglow of the ‘forgiveness and reconciliation’ years then; and my concern was, as it still is, what the ideology of transitional justice’s promotion of unconditional forgiveness, was doing to the survivors of apartheid, especially in the absence of even the slightest gesture of reparation for the unforgivable – a reparation that would, moreover, always already be deficient, incomplete, partial, no matter how enormous.
In short, I was interested in what it means psychically to feel an institutional injunction to forgive, even if that was not exactly what transitional justice intended? On the other hand, and at the same time, who am I to say that the forgiveness of unforgivable things at the TRC and after, was not really forgiveness? What if people really did forgive the unforgivable – and unconditionally so?
Whatever the case, it seems that forgiveness these days has taken a back seat in politics. In South Africa, it is certainly no longer prominent in political discourse. The discursive pendulum appears to have swung fully in the other direction so that today it is the relation which always undergirds the crime against humanity that once more runs the show in politics. That political relation is the relation of enmity.
It seems, thus, that our times have moved away from a “politics of friendship” (which was Arendt’s concern in the 1950s and perhaps the concern of the “rainbow” years) and that it is now loudly testifying the Foucaultian mantra – via Clausewitz – that politics is the continuation of war by other means. What remains of the politics of friendship is no more than Carl Schmitt’s insistence that the only distinction that matters in politics is the one between enemy and friend. The result of reading Foucault and Schmitt together here is that the Schmittian concept of enmity is narrowed down to its essence in war: permanent hostility or antagonism. This is today the disposition of the politics of enmity.
All over the world, political formations based on the distinction between enemies and friends proliferate. From the intensification of unexamined forms of essentialist identity politics (on the Left and on the Right), to the blatant declaration of war by means of apartheid style law, to the worldwide spike in hate crimes, to the extra-judicial execution of innocents, simply because of who they are or are thought to be, to the ever more vicious forms of micro-fascism – the politics of enmity is (re)structuring and (re)configuring the political in profound ways.
Whilst it is also the case that a cynical form of the politics of friendship is, at the same time, being performed (for instance, Trump meets Kim Jong-un, Trump meets Putin, Ramaphosa hosts a jovial farewell party for Zuma), these media spectacles should not distract our attention from the multiple declarations of virtual and actual war that proliferate at the same time, often in the form of the permanent antagonisms and steely defences that propel the Twitter machine.
The distinguishing features of the politics of enmity lies first, in its ultimate goal and second, in the means it is prepared to use in order to achieve that goal. If, for the politics of enmity, the political realm is no more than a stage for warfare, then the ultimate goal is clear: eliminate the enemy. And once the aim is elimination, violence announces itself as the means.
In the most severe forms of the politics of enmity, there is, further, no place for indecision, indeterminacy, provisionality, tentativeness or what is these days called “criticality”: one is either an enemy or a friend and those (nations) that hesitate, who do not rush to nail their colours unequivocally to a mast, are the enemies of both the enemies and the friends.
It is a matter of historical record that the most likely outcome of the politics of enmity is actual, all out war. We should take Achille Mbembe’s term, the “necropolitical”, literally here, for the politics of enmity produces the corpse, delivers death – literally and figuratively. This is not simply the case where the political relation consist of the neoliberal State, on the one hand, and the legal subject over whom it claims jurisdiction, on the other, where this jurisdiction at bottom translates into the State’s right to “make live and let die” (Foucault, again). This sovereign iteration of power is, and perhaps always has been, supplemented by other applications of power, most importantly in our time, the multi-national corporation, on the one hand, and human habitat itself, on the other.
There are those who believe that the relation between the multi-national corporation and the affected habitat will ultimately determine the course of this century and they are probably right. But we cannot afford to yield to the ideological temptation that would have us neglect the necropolitical power of the state as if it is already in the dustbin of history. We live in a time when it is still possible to discern from daily news, fake (ie imagined) or otherwise, that the sovereign and even supra-sovereign power of the State remains alive and well.
The politics of enmity as the distinction between enemy and friend seems also more and more to structure our “horizontal” political relations with each other. By “political relations”, I quite simply mean the relations that concern the polis as the political community, as a commonality that survives, or is, at least, intended to survive, any one of its individual members. Inter partes, we seem to have once again elevated the distinction between enemy and friend to the governing distinction of our political affairs in the new millennium – as if that distinction has no history. The affective trait of the politics of enmity is, quite obviously, hatred. Julia Kristeva once wrote that, unlike the object of love, the object of hatred never disappoints.
Psychoanalytically and politically, the problem becomes near intractable: because it doesn’t disappoint, we become deeply invested in the object of our hatred – we come to love it, because we can hate it. We hang on to it, we feed it, we cherish it. We will not let it go. And what if the object of hatred becomes that object which is in me more than myself, the object-cause of my desire, the guarantee of my place in the Big Other (as Žižek would say)?
It should be clear that, in the politics of enmity, we are very far removed from the Arendtian understanding of politics which took as its cornerstone the Aristotelian definition of the human being as a speaking being, as the creation with a voice. From this definition the Ancients developed an understanding of language as the pact that ends the relationship of enmity with its resort to violent means; and out of this understanding of language, politics emerged as the art of persuasion, as the realm of “words that are not empty” and “deeds that are not brutal”. Arendt emphasised that plurality – the fact of the many different human beings who inhabit the earth – is the fundamental condition of and for this form of politics and, moreover, that in the political realm they are equal to one another.
As for the affective trait of this politics, Arendt was clear that it must be respect. She writes: “Respect, not unlike the Aristotelian philia politike, is a kind of ‘friendship’ without intimacy and without closeness; it is a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us, and this regard is independent of qualities which we may admire or of achievements which we may highly esteem.”
The etymology of respect points to the act of “looking at” someone, in other words, the act of seeing someone as some one, as a singular other. I am no expert on ubuntu, but from what I understand, this regard for the person as a unique one amongst others by whom she is co-constituted as a singular plurality in a plurality of singularities, is part of ubuntu. As Ramose points out, the word itself consists of two: ubu and ntu and these two are “mutually founding” – a plural singularity.
Arendt, of course, was no utopian. She was well aware of the fact that things often go wrong in politics, because the political is also the realm of action, the sphere in which the human being initiates, or begins, something (radically) new. The consequences of action, are, by its very nature, as irreversible as they are unpredictable. For this reason, Arendt introduces forgiveness as “the exact opposite of vengeance”. She describes forgiveness as the power to release someone from the trespass (or transgression) which they have unintentionally, even “unknowingly”, perpetrated (we are clearly many strides away from the crime against humanity here). “Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men [sic] remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new”.
Arendt insisted that forgiveness is itself a form of action, not simply a reaction, because – as action – forgiveness is unpredictable, it “acts anew”, it is not conditioned by ‘the act that provoked it’. And the reason why we forgive is inherent in this politics founded upon and grounded in the speaking human being: we forgive for the sake of the person, we forgive what has been done for the sake of who did it; because that who is another speaking being, like me and also unlike me, for no two human beings ever have the same voice. But forgiveness is not simply a one-way street and this is so because the one who forgives is herself released from the “natural, automatic reaction to transgression”, namely revenge.
Ultimately, though, we forgive for the sake of the condition of this form of the political itself. In other words, we forgive for the sake of plurality, for the sake of a world that consists of more than one. (It goes without saying that, because of this umbilical tie to plurality, the politics of respect cannot be further removed from what has been called in our time “respectability politics”).
In this age of retaliation, of “war on (fill in the blank)”, of nail your colours to the #, Arendt’s thinking about politics nonetheless sounds highly utopian, especially at a time when language itself (including, perhaps most importantly, its digital forms) has become an effective instrument of warfare. At the same time, however, this fairly “traditional” and “historical” conceptualisation of politics can, because of our context, be read as in fact a radical, subversive image of politics – a politics of what is still possible for us.
It is the politics of enmity that is deeply conservative today, not least because it is bent on conserving itself and, while at the same time a sad testimony to the state of the world, it could very well be that the politics of respect – holds the key to transforming our dire present. DM
Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town where he conducts research and teaching in critical post-apartheid jurisprudence. In the United Kingdom, he is the British Academy’s Newton Advanced Fellow in the School of Law at Westminster University and Honorary Research Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London. He is a board member of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and of the Triangle Project, Cape Town