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  • Rightlessness in an Age of Rights: Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants by Ayten Gündoğdu
  • Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann (bio)
Ayten Gündoğdu, Rightlessness in an Age of Rights: Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), ISBN 9780199370412, 298 pages.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt famously called for the "right to have rights." Reflecting on her own status as a stateless refugee from Germany, Arendt broadened her analysis to include the problem of statelessness as a whole. Ayten Gündoğdu engages with the entirety of Arendt's opus, especially with The Human Condition and On Revolution as well as with The Origins, to unpack the various meanings and implications of this call.

Gündoğdu starts with what Arendt called the "perplexity" of the contradiction between state sovereignty and the universal enjoyment of human rights. Then and now, rights are protected—or not—by sovereign states that normally extend their protection only to their citizens, and perhaps non-citizens legally in their territory. The naked human being, unmoored from the state-people-territory framework, has no rights.

Gündoğdu extends Arendt's argument to cover all migrants, not only stateless people, focusing on their powerlessness and dehumanization. She grounds her analysis empirically in the dehumanization experienced by residents of camps for refugees and displaced people. She also refers to the appalling detention camps now dotting the world's island geography, where potential refugee claimants live in endless limbo.

Gündoğdu discusses the ways in which human beings actually manufacture, claim, and win human rights. She notes that Arendt criticized the "urge to approach social issues with a moralistic framework centered on compassion," positioning those who faced injustice as "victims…erasing their singularity and denying them equal standing."1 Gündoğdu analyzes the limits of compassion in the treatment of camp-dwellers, people without political agency who are mere objects to be administered. She is [End Page 755] correct that compassion is not the best basis for solidarity. Camp dwellers cannot rely on compassion if they are to be treated as equal human beings enjoying liberty. Compassion and charity leave the human being at the mercy of others, mostly those of higher status who cannot help but look down upon those who are their administrative objects.

Nevertheless, the real problem here is not that residents of refugee camps must rely on the compassion of those who administer them. Such administrators are probably well aware of the problems of subjecting residents to charity, but they are limited in what they can do by financial constraints and the state system. The UNHCR, other agencies of the UN system such as UNICEF, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Médecins sans Frontières are dependent upon voluntary financial contributions from states and compassionate private citizens. These voluntary contributions rarely, if ever, reach the amount needed merely to ensure that residents are not riddled by disease or suffering from malnutrition.

Gündoğdu defends Arendt against charges of elitism made by other philosophers with whose work she engages. Arendt is criticized for denigrating manual and other kinds of labor, but Gündoğdu argues that she views both labor and work as crucial to human dignity. According to Gündoğdu, Arendt defined labor as dayto-day bodily maintenance and maintenance of one's home and surroundings. This labor grounds the individual in the material world and provides her with a sense of routine, permanence, and community with others. By work, Arendt apparently meant creativity, the ability to make or build something new and worthwhile. Both labor and work are denied to residents of camps. Dependent for their every need on the compassion of others, they endure lives of complete boredom without social roles or responsibilities. This is a degraded form of "life," without meaning or substance.

Gündoğdu argues that Arendt did not rely on what philosophers call foundational principles of human rights. Rather, Arendt used an approach that Gündoğdu calls "founding." Rights, she argues along with Arendt, are founded in political action, including "inaugural speech acts that bring forth new...


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pp. 755-758
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