In this week’s issue, I include an excerpt from Corey Robin’s “Dragon Slayer,”
a London Review of Books
book review of some books on and by the late political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Robin presents Arendt’s timely critique of careerism. His words begin just below the pluses.
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Many people [Robin writes] believe that great crimes come from terrible ideas: Marxism, racism and Islamic fundamentalism gave us the Gulag, Auschwitz and 9/11. It was the singular achievement of Eichmann in Jerusalem, however, to remind us that the worst atrocities often arise from the simplest of vices. And few vices, in Arendt’s mind, were more vicious than careerism. ‘The East is a career,’ Disraeli wrote. And so was the Holocaust, according to Arendt. ‘What for Eichmann was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world.’ Genocide, she insisted, is work. If it is to be done, people must be hired and paid; if it is to be done well, they must be supervised and promoted.
Eichmann was a careerist of the first order. He had ‘no motives at all’, Arendt insisted, ‘except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement’. He joined the Nazis because he saw in them an opportunity to ‘start from scratch and still make a career’, and ‘what he fervently believed in up to the end was success.’ Late in the war, as Nazi leaders brooded in Berlin over their impending fate and that of Germany, Eichmann was fretting over superiors’ refusing to invite him to lunch. Years later, he had no memory of the Wannsee Conference, but clearly remembered bowling with senior officials in Slovakia.
The main reason for the contemporary evasion of Arendt’s critique of careerism, however, is that addressing it would force a confrontation with the dominant ethos of our time. In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism. Unlike the ideologue, whose great sin is to think too much and want too much from politics, the careerist is a genial caretaker of himself. He prefers the marketplace to the corridors of state power. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism may be as lethal as idealism, that ambition is an adjunct of barbarism, that some of the worst crimes are the result of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas: these are the implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem that neo-cons and neoliberals alike find too troubling to acknowledge.
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Looking for some clarity about the nature and history of total work? Start by reading my brief overview of total work on my Patreon account <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <https://www.getrevue.co/profile/andrewjtaggart/issues/total-work-newsletter-1-working-ourselves-into-a-frenzy-89819.> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <https://work.qz.com/author/andrew-taggart>. Lastly, visit my website, totalwork.us <https://totalwork.us>, which is devoted to investigating this topic and which is also still under construction.