Careerism: Prolegomena to a Political Theory

Someone recently tweeted this article on Hannah Arendt that I wrote in the London Review of Books many moons ago.  Re-reading it, I was reminded of this closing passage on careerism. I’ve long wanted to write two books of political theory: one on careerism and the other on collaboration. Both are topics that don’t get much, if any, treatment in contemporary theory. Yet both have been central pillars of modern political life. Alas, it doesn’t look like I’ll get to these books any time soon.  So in the meantime, there’s this:

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.


  1. swallerstein June 1, 2012 at 6:00 pm | #

    I read what you wrote about careerism a few months ago when I first discovered your blog and it really got to me.

    It is so true what you say.

    Most of us shut our eyes to and end up furthering so many injustices in order to earn a living.

    It would be great if you could write a longer article, if not a book, on the subject of careerism.

    • Hunter June 1, 2012 at 6:35 pm | #

      Is it heresy to criticise Hannah Arendt on this list? The last time I tried to speak truth to power Mr. Robin was generous with sarcastic remarks. That’s no way to treat people who actually paid real money to buy “Reactionary Mind”…

      • Corey Robin June 1, 2012 at 7:16 pm | #

        Okay, let’s give it a second shot. I don’t remember what the issue was last time, but I’ll try to keep the sarcasm in check.

      • Paul H. Rosenberg June 1, 2012 at 7:43 pm | #

        In the LRB article Corey criticizes Arendt. For example, see the paragraph that begins like this:

        “Arendt’s account dissolves conflicts of power, interest and ideas in a bath of psychological analysis, allowing her readers to evade difficult questions of politics and economics…”

        Sure, the overt criticism of her readers dominates, but there’s an obvious underlying criticism of her tendency to over-rely on psychological generalization in place of specific historical & ideological analysis.

        • Hunter June 2, 2012 at 12:43 am | #

          Speaking of psychology, its more than likely Hannah Arendt, for all her undoubted brillance, was a frustrated government job seeker and couldn’t have hacked the tough course in years in a corporation. The ref. to her AE in Jer. essay brings to mind the banality of the public thinker… You see? Anyone can do that sort of thing if they have a working keyboard…

  2. Douglas storm June 1, 2012 at 6:23 pm | #

    aren’t these aspects of the “inverted totalitarianism” of Wolin?

  3. Paul H. Rosenberg June 1, 2012 at 6:24 pm | #

    Very timely. It seems like everyone in sight is being swallowed up by their careers, while the culture as a whole is careening off the tracks.

    For example, didn’t Chris Hayes just pretend he’d done something wrong, in order to protect his career? And wasn’t that something actually no more than simply trying to clear his throat, to see if he might at least be able to whistle some rough approximation to a little bit of the truth?

    And didn’t establishment superstars Norm Ornstein & Tom Mann just do the impossible & commit career suicide by daring to say that the GOP is driving the crazy train, and Dems are just along for the ride?

    Or to put things quasi-patephysically, when citizenship vanishes under renormalization transformations, careerism and craziness are the only non-zero quantities (or qualities) left. How much of each is present in any situation is ALWAYS left to the students as an exercise.

    It would be totally nuts to do otherwise… not to mention, a terrible career move.

    • GTChristie June 2, 2012 at 5:34 am | #

      Pataphysics (French: ‘pataphysique’) is a philosophy or pseudophilosophy dedicated to studying what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics.

      On beyond metaphysics! Perhaps that is necessary to explain the opaqueness of a phrase such as “when citizenship vanishes under renormalization transformations …”

      Arendt’s point, if I understand it, is that a careerist always works within the status quo and this is not justifiable if the status quo is evil.

      Eichmann’s defense was that he did not plan or plot the Nazi status quo; he merely carried out its policies. Arendt’s contention is, in part, that those policies were evil, and that Eichmann represents the bland and blind morality of the careerist whose lack of humane principles contributes to his rising success within the evil regime — thus the “banality of evil.”

      The Nazi movement “transformed” the status quo in post WWI Germany. Hitler preached and eventually created a “new norm” which included open persecution and murder of Jews, homosexuals, artists, religious orders, and physical and neurological “misfits” — the halt and lame — under the pretense of purifying the German race (and thus its politics). Eugenics on steroids, one might say. This is a common pattern in the establishment of totalitarianism: redefining norms in the name of some seductive ideal which, by the way, any banal careerist such as Eichmann can easily follow without any further resort to conscience.

      I hope this decodes the unfortunate opaque phrasing above, sufficiently to point out that “renormalization transformation” makes a great euphemism for the pogroms and purges of a totalitarian state, illustratable in modern history by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Hitler — not to mention the current ambitions of totalitarian Iran.

      • Paul H. Rosenberg June 2, 2012 at 10:42 am | #

        In other words, it wasn’t that opaque after all! Just compact.

      • GTChristie June 3, 2012 at 7:04 am | #

        You are correct sir. Still I wonder if you meant all that I said. LOL.

  4. jonnybutter June 2, 2012 at 8:28 am | #

    It seems like everyone in sight is being swallowed up by their careers, while the culture as a whole is careening off the tracks.(..)And didn’t establishment superstars Norm Ornstein & Tom Mann just do the impossible & commit career suicide by daring to say that the GOP is driving the crazy train, and Dems are just along for the ride?

    I hope I’m not being opaque myself, but isn’t the above an example of putative careerists *not* being swallowed up by their careers? In fact, Ornstein (at least) has never seemed to me to be a true careerist in the present sense, which might have been one reason he could command the attention he could (and now can’t).

    • Paul H. Rosenberg June 2, 2012 at 10:39 am | #

      I think Mann & Ornstein illustrating the workings of a force field, even as they somewhat atypically resist it. Their views are still notably limited by the past trajectory of their careers.

  5. Stephen Zielinski June 2, 2012 at 10:00 pm | #

    Twisting the wise counsel of Rabbi Hillel:

    Of course, if one is not at all a careerist, one is likely living in the gutter, a burden to oneself and the world. But if one is an exemplary careerist, one is likely a soulless bastard and a menace to any life worth having.

    • Hunter June 2, 2012 at 10:23 pm | #

      As one who is a burden to others (I am 100% disabled Vietnam veteran living on a meager VA pension and a fragment of Social Security) one wonders what Rabbi Hillel said exactly. Or, at least as near as possible.

      • Stephen Zielinski June 2, 2012 at 11:31 pm | #

        If one is not for oneself, who will be? If one is only for oneself, what would one be?

        If not now, then when?

        Are you a burden to others? Your self report suggests others have been a significant burden for you.

    • jonnybutter June 2, 2012 at 11:37 pm | #

      You read my mind Mr Zielinski. Thanks.

      “I think Mann & Ornstein illustrating the workings of a force field, even as they somewhat atypically resist it.”

      I wonder why they would they bother resisting the Force Field and committing career suicide if they were simply rank careerists? I get the feeling that they have been cited as some sort of exception which proves the rule – or something – but I can’t figure out how that works.

      I would bet that at least Ornstein is at least partially motivated by what he thinks is his work’s citizenship value (I’m not as familiar with Mann). Of course his ‘views are limited! He *wants* his views to be limited. He’s a specialist. For all his ankle-wading into and sorting through the artifacts of the congressional cesspool, it’s possible that he still could be somewhat naive about politics. But that doesn’t make his work useless, I don’t think. (Better him than me!) I think the career suicide shows the opposite of what you are arguing above – unless I misunderstand you.

      • jonnybutter June 2, 2012 at 11:39 pm | #

        @SZ: I meant the Hillel paraphrase

      • Paul H. Rosenberg June 3, 2012 at 9:22 am | #

        Since I’m the one who inserted Mann & Ornstein into the discussion, let me reiterate, I did it with the intention of saying that THEIR TREATMENT illustrated the workings of the careerist force field. I’ll go further here: I believe it’s the very success of their careers that frees them somewhat to actually break ranks. But the careerist point remains: what they are saying is terribly mundane, obvious & supported by overwhelming data. The resistance to it would utterly crush figures of any lesser stature.

  6. jonnybutterj June 3, 2012 at 9:50 am | #

    “..THEIR TREATMENT illustrated the workings of the careerist force field.”

    Ah. That makes sense. Thanks.

  7. jonnybutter2 June 4, 2012 at 9:52 am | #

    “That careerism may be as lethal as idealism,…”

    For me, ‘careerism’ is a contextually vague term. Careerism may not be quite neutral, but I don’t see how it can be inherently lethal like idealism. From my POV it’s the idealism behind things like the Reagan Revolution’s ethos of personal or familial atomization that causes anti-citizenship (i.e. careerism) and other evils.

  8. Sam Holloway June 4, 2012 at 8:15 pm | #

    “Careerism may not be quite neutral, but I don’t see how it can be inherently lethal like idealism.”
    I think that’s a strong point, Jonny, but perhaps we could consider the term heavily contextual. Like ‘flying’ is to birds or ‘swimming’ is to fish, ‘careerism’ as a term loses meaning outside of the parameters described by, say, Hannah Arendt. If there is no abject societal evil to oppose (such as Nazism or Stalinism or neoliberalism), then careerism is a non-issue.

  9. jonnybutter June 4, 2012 at 9:11 pm | #

    “but perhaps we could consider the term heavily contextual”

    Yeah, that’s sort of what I was thinking: that Careerism is context-dependent as a category of thing, whereas the term ‘idealism’ doesn’t need to be so-qualified when one observes that a lot of evil can be traced *directly* to it. Careerism also comes in degrees; and furthermore, there is not necessarily a bright line between things done (in a career) as it were ‘on the merits’ and things done because they are somehow ‘careerist’ – self-aggrandizing or whatever. Careerism dissolves into everyday personal politics eventually, and everyday politics is awash in overdetermined outcomes.

    I would say that careerism in 21st century DC is a kind of anti-citizenship, and Corey R. is very canny to connect supposedly neutral, default, blameless careerism to the assumption that capitalism is simply nature’s way.

    • swallerstein June 4, 2012 at 9:17 pm | #

      Could I ask a completely innocent question?

      What do you people mean by idealism?

      Do you mean idealism in the sense that Hegel is called an “idealist”?

      Or idealism in the sense that the young people in Occupy Wall Street might be called “idealists” by someone as old and cynical as I am?

      Or none of the above?

      Thank you.

      • jonnybutter June 5, 2012 at 2:12 pm | #

        ‘Idealism’ is a tricky word, since it means so many things. In Corey R.’s sense, careerism itself is a kind of idealism in the US context. I would guess that the meaning we are sharing here is this: that human beings somehow are more brutal and inhumane when acting in the service of an ideal, than they do otherwise. IOW, humans do horrible things, like deliberate cruelties (e.g. torture), much more easily for the sake of an ideal than just as a matter of course. It’s not our ‘animalism’ that fuels cruelty but rather the pictures in our heads.

        that’s my take on it anyway

        • jonnybutter June 5, 2012 at 2:18 pm | #

          sorry for the bad grammar. half editing is worse than none, maybe

      • swallerstein June 5, 2012 at 2:23 pm | #

        No problem at all.

        Thank you.

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