“In Search of Political Life” by S.E. Freeman.

Hannah Arendt closes her essay on the decline of the nation-state with a prediction: that a continuous increase in stateless persons will “threaten our political life, our human artifice” (1951: 302). For Arendt, the danger lies in the production of a threat from within. We—as citizen-subjects of modern civilization—will create our own demise, eroding the notion of equality under national law through the expulsion of millions from humanity into “the conditions of savages” (Ibid). Almost 70 years after these words were written, in a moment where the number of refugees have surpassed the very level that provoked Arendt’s reflection, perhaps it is time to consider whether her prediction still holds. Was she right in thinking that statelessness would destroy our political life? How can “this deadly sickness” be thought of in relation to the vitriolic, anti-immigration rhetoric of the far-right today? Rather than statelessness threatening our political life, today’s politics might depend on it.

To think through how and why Arendt’s formulation might have been upturned, it is necessary to briefly unpack her argument. What does political life mean to Arendt? What does its demise look like and what are the consequences? For Arendt, political life is the ability to be recognized under, and make claims within, a national legal framework, to belong to a polity; the “right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity” (298). Having political status as a citizen stands in contrast to statelessness, a position of rightlessness caused by expulsion from not only a nation, but the “family of nations” and the category of “humanity.” To be stateless is a state of exception, a paradoxical position that holds no meaning; one is relegated to the purest state of being human, yet is barred access from any human rights supposedly linked to that status.

The link between statelessness and the loss of political life, for Arendt, is threefold: statelessness is the condition of that loss, but it also threatens the political life of others by:

1. revealing the limits of “humanity” and “equality,” thereby eroding the facile principle upon which the nation-state is built, and

2. producing an increasing number of “barbaric” individuals forced to exist in squalid conditions beyond the modern state.

While the former arguably still holds today, I want to focus on the latter two here. To take on the relationship between statelessness and equality, let’s turn back to Arendt’s text: “For these new states this curse [statelessness] bears the germs of a deadly sickness. For the nation-state cannot exist once its principle of equality before the law has broken down…Laws that are not equal for all revert to rights and privileges, something contradictory to the very nature of nation-states” (290). Statelessness, as a deprivation of legal status, contradicts the notion of national equality while eroding the nation-state as a political formation in the process. It both reveals equality’s (and humanity’s) limits, while opening the door to a continued removal of citizens’ legal rights overtime (i.e. if the state can do it to stateless persons, why not do it to its citizens too?). And later: “Our political life rests on the assumption that we can produce equality through organization” (301). Statelessness undermines that assumption, threatening equality and, therefore, threatening political life.

I want to bring attention to the “our” here and to this notion of equality so crucial to Arendt’s argument. For Arendt, “our” refers to those who possess legal status—access to “the inalienable rights of man”—within a modern European nation-state.1 If applied to today’s context, think Western Man. “We” possess a political life, have access to the fictional notion of “humanity,” and perhaps even argue in favor of extending “universal” human rights to those relegated outside of their bounds. Yet “humanity” remains an unattainable abstraction, “human rights” are unenforceable, and the “scum of the earth” are left to languish in the crux of hypocrisy (267, 291, 293). Yet this “our” is laden, as it perhaps always is. It speaks of an ominous decline of Man and his rights, the nation-state as it has been understood until the time of her writing. It hints of a responsibility to stop this trend of displacement and rightlessness she so acutely observes, to preserve this political life and the nation-state itself, to reinstate equality somehow, if that’s ever even possible. Despite pointing out the irony of such constructions, her language of threat and danger suggests that equality and political life are concepts “we” must cling to.


It is important to remember here that she is writing about displacement in and around Europe following World War I and the actions of the totalitarian regimes that developed as a result. While a discussion of this framework of rights beyond “the West” is an important and necessary exercise, it exceeds the scope of this pamphlet.

How do Arendt’s ideas operate in the contemporary moment? Much of what she describes in this essay is poignant today, shockingly (and depressingly) so. Though if we resituate this question of political life and statelessness2 in today’s context, they are coupled in a different way. Whereas Arendt issues a call to preserve political life, I’m not sure such a life ever existed in practice, or at minimum does not now. If we take the concept as Arendt defined it—as the right to have rights as a citizen of a nation-state—such a life is accessible and beneficial only to a certain proportion of the population, regardless of citizenship. It is piecemeal, contingent, and plays favorites, often violently. Although equal rights are written in law and expounded by Western governments, they are applied unequally; take, for example, the rate of imprisonment of black men in America. Rights only ever exist in relation to those without them. While Arendt highlights the fracturing of equality across Europe—national membership becoming the signifier of rights rather than belonging to “humanity”—“political life” as a citizen remains intact. Arendt’s definition depends on a notion of equality and belonging within the nation that, like human rights, functions as an empty signifier in the present.


I use “statelessness” as a term to describe forced displacement across international borders in the present. While there are clear differences in status between refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, and “economic migrants,” for example, I use a more general term in order to retain continuity with Arendt's usage, which describes individuals moving beyond the nation-state. An exploration of those differences in status in relation to “political life” would be a valuable undertaking.

Yet this notion of “political life” is still relevant—even holds weight today, if only in words—because of statelessness. With both the West and the nation-state in question, Western leaders and many of their supporters—on both the right and the left—are clinging to whatever shreds of the national polity they can. With the number of displaced persons in the world today at a record high, statelessness stands as the foil for bolstering the image of the Western nation. Depicted as a “threat” by the right, displaced persons are used to foment nationalist support for a white minority, an attempt to protect “political life” for the privileged few. On the left, those displaced are cast as the poster children for liberalism: in doing “our” duty to accept and provide services for refugees, “we” present ourselves as a more progressive model of government. Germany's open-door policy to refugees from the Middle East and Angela Merkel’s status as potential new “leader of the free world” is not a coincidence. “Political life” as Arendt imagined it has been boiled down to a rhetorical facade, stories rehearsed and circulated to retain the illusion of national pride, to maintain some commitment to politics, no matter what the form.

Such rhetoric, however, extends beyond leadership. For citizen-subjects of these Western nations, one’s relationship to the state is constituted by and through displacement as well. Whether a citizen accepts, fights for, or rejects her “right to have rights” today is often determined by her state’s stance towards immigration. Donald Trump’s anti-immigration stance and associated bluster, for example, have caused many anti-Trump Americans to reject their government and their relationship to the polity. This rejection could take the form of disengagement or political mobilization around such issues. While it might be a refusal of political life as such, it still sustains it as a concept through that very act of rejection. In contrast, many Trump supporters, now given an amplified voice by the presidency, express great national pride through the protest of immigration. This is visible through anti-immigration and white nationalist rallies across the country, most recently in Charlottesville, Virginia. Both the white supremacist protest and anti-racist counterprotest are expressions of political life; the deaths remind us what is at stake. Changing demographics across the globe and the consequent shifts away from a white majority in many nation-states render immigration and reception of refugees primary issues of the day. If one is to engage politically, a stance towards these issues becomes necessary.

While the edges of political life today are defined by and are dependent upon displacement, this still does not change the exclusionary nature of the relationship between the two. Arendt clearly outlines the ways in which stateless persons get excluded from nations, “humanity,” and any notion of rights simultaneously. They get written out, ignored. Human rights remain an unattainable abstraction, despite their continued deployment by states and aid organizations alike. While perhaps more attention is paid to stateless persons today—even if through abrasive narratives—they are still not included in whatever “political life” has come to mean. They are used as a political tool to enhance existing nations, then left to fend for themselves. That is not the political life that I want, nor the one that Arendt wanted. So the question then becomes, what form does political life take in a world where equality doesn’t exist, yet inequality is continuously rejected? What shape does political life take on in this paradoxical world, and what could it look like otherwise?