When the Nation Conquered the State: Arendt’s Importance Today

AuthorKathleen R. Arnold
Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2023, Vol. 51(2) 355 –381
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00905917221104510
When the Nation
Conquered the State:
Arendt’s Importance
Kathleen R. Arnold1
This essay focuses on the contemporary relevance of Hannah Arendt’s
work insofar as it relates to US racism, imperialism, and migration. While
Arendt denied that US migration policy and racism were linked or even
similar to exercises of racialized sovereignty, totalitarian tactics, and mass
displacement in Europe, I suggest that her analyses help us to understand
important racialized dialectics between prison and camp, citizen and
stateless, and external displacement and internal displacement. In effect,
this essay suggests that many of Arendt’s analyses of racism, migration, and
camps are more relevant to US history and contemporary US reality than
she did or would have admitted. Arendt’s work importantly suggested that
the stateless were so rightless that they lacked even criminal rights. In many
respects, the criminal-stateless binary accurately illustrates the rightlessness
of refugees in contrast to the rights of US citizen-criminals. However, she
partly fails to recognize how the dialectical opposition between foreigner and
citizen-criminal could lead to less visible forms of overlap and convergence.
Arendt’s binary also indicates an adherence to crypto-normativity, despite
her professed antifoundational approach to political issues. Together,
her theoretical strengths and certain failures illuminate our own (mis)
understandings of a set of complex circumstances experienced today.
1Director of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, Political Science, DePaul University,
Chicago, IL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kathleen R. Arnold, Director of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, Political Science,
DePaul University, 990 W Fullerton Ave., Chicago, IL 60614, USA.
Email: karnol14@depaul.edu or katy@mcom.com
1104510PTXXXX10.1177/00905917221104510Political TheoryArnold
356 Political Theory 51(2)
Arendt, racism, statelessness, imperialism, migration, displacement
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Hannah Arendt’s political writing became
increasingly popular in the past few years, with the election of Donald Trump
(see Grenier 2017; Williams 2017). As greater attention was brought on harsh
migration policies in the United States, from detention conditions to forced
family separation at the border, some leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
invoked Arendt’s concepts of totalitarianism and the camp to understand
what might be occurring on US soil (Kelly 2019). Less frequently have peo-
ple connected Arendt’s ideas to a reframing of foreign policy, including US
relations with former colonies such as Palestine, or a recognition of how the
diminishment of prisoners’ rights brings them closer to the rightless status of
stateless individuals. In this essay, I will analyze the brilliance of ideas in the
Origins of Totalitarianism (OT) (1979) that Arendt held were limited to
European cases, suggesting that they are relevant and helpful to understand-
ing past and present US policies. This includes US racism, migration policy,
and policies that do not count internally displaced people as refugees (par-
ticularly in decolonizing areas).
In the first section, I focus on three important dialectical binaries in OT
that are triggered by the emergence of systematic, pseudoscientific racial
policies: the racialized nation versus the state that produces a dialectic
between foreigner and citizen, the stateless individual versus the criminal,
and the camp versus the prison. As I explain, Arendt’s brief theory of racist
ideology is important to understand the depth and complexity of these
binaries (1979, ch. 6). Specifically, her arguments highlight the impor-
tance of race in understanding how criminally innocent civilians can be
locked up for crimes of status rather than a moral violation. As these civil-
ians are detained without charges and experience violations of so-called
inalienable rights, the camp is conceived of as the dialectical opposite of
the prison as it legally suspends the law and denationalizes national terri-
tory. That is, the camp is a geospatial site of arbitrary power where any-
thing can happen. Under racial classifications, the stateless subject is not
merely abandoned and rightless but also cast as an existential enemy or
“outlaw” (Arendt 1979, ch. 9).

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