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Peg Birmingham The An-Archic Event of Natality and the “Right to Have Rights” DOES ARENDT’S THOUGHT, WHICH SHE SELF-DESCRIBES AS “POSTmetaphysical ” and therefore without substantive ground, provide any normative basis for the “right to have rights”—that is, for a universal right to belong to a political space?* In other words, while it is the case that rights are granted de facto on the basis of mutual recognition of the claim to right, by what right does Arendt make this claim? Still further, while it is the case that human rights claims need intersubjective confirmation and validation, on what basis does this confirmation and validation occur? To raise the Kantian question: “questiaejuris—by what right?” Does Arendt’s thought permit us to move from the de facto claim of right to the de jure universal basis for such a claim? To begin to answer the question “questiaejuris—by what right?” it is important to look at the task Arendt sets for herself in the preface to the first edition of Origins ofTotalitarianism. At the conclusion of the pref­ ace, Arendt writes that “anti-Semitism (and not merely the hatred of Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship)—one after the other, one more brutally than the other, have demonstrated that human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its power must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly defined territorial entities” (Arendt, 1951: xi).1 At the veiy social research Vol 74 : No 3 : Fall 2007 763 beginning of her seminal work, Arendt calls for a universal principle of humanity that will provide a new guarantee of human dignity. The reason Arendt gives for the need for such a principle is given at the conclusion of Origins in her analysis of totalitarianism and the unprec­ edented reality of the death camps. In a passage in which she provides a kind of genealogy that proceeds from the mass manufacture of corpses to the historical and political preparation of living corpses, to the politi­ cal disintegration that made hundreds of thousands of human beings homeless, stateless, and outlawed, she concludes by stating: “This . . . could only happen because the Rights of Man, which had never been philosophically established but merely formulated, which had never been politically secured but merely proclaimed, have, in their tradi­ tional form, lost all validity (Arendt, 1951: 446). It is clear that Arendt places the responsibility of the death camps squarely at the feet of a philosophically invalid and politically impotent notion of human rights. Her preface indicates that to establish phil­ osophically and secure politically human rights requires a new prin­ ciple of humanity. The question is whether Arendt herself is able to provide such a principle given that her own thinking is self-described as “post-metaphysical.” I submit that Arendt does not flinch from the task. In a passage immediately following her discussion of the “right to have rights,” she writes: “Man of the twentieth century has become just as emancipated from nature as eighteenth-century man was from history. History and nature have become equally alien to us, namely, in the sense that the essence of man can no longer be comprehended in terms of either category. On the other hand, humanity, which for the eighteenth century, in Kantian terminology was no more than a regu­ lative idea, has today become an inescapable fact. This new situation in which ‘humanity’ has in effect assumed the role formerly ascribed to nature or history would mean in this context that the right to have rights or the right of every individual to belong to humanity should be guaranteed by humanity itself. It is by no means certain whether it is possible” (Arendt, 1951: 298). The hands of God are closed. The rational­ ity of nature, the self-evidence of reason and the progress of history 764 social research have given way to the death camps and holes of oblivion, leaving us facing nothing but ourselves. For Arendt, humanity itself must guaran­ tee the right to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 763-776
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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