"Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic"
The American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 97-113
Arendt often emphasizes the ramifications of the modern loss of authority for politics. Without faith in traditions or gods, humanity now continually faces the problem of legitimacy in government. To put it more concretely, in the modern age: “[t]hose who get together to constitute a new government are themselves unconstitutional, that is, they have no authority to do what they set out to achieve” (Arendt, On Revolution, quoted in Honig 98). In this article Bonnie Honig, professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, argues that in her work on the American Revolution Arendt goes beyond pessimism to recast the question of founding the state by distancing it from higher powers.
Arendt points out that the Enlightenment thinkers of the American Revolution were surprised by the novelty of their actions, which quickly outstripped their conception of political reform as restoration (the classical definition of revolution). As they sought to theoretically ground their deeds, they faltered at the ramifications of their radically secular act and inserted references to essentialist elements such as “self evidence” and a higher power. Arendt regrets this because she sees the true advance of the American Revolution as the insight into the role of argument and persuasion between people in the absence of a higher standard of truth.
Using the terminology of speech act theorist J.L. Austin, Honig argues that for Arendt the Declaration of Independence succeeds as a “performative” act that creates a new institution that does not rely on the “constative” truths of gods or tradition. In the text of the Declaration, Honig places particular emphasis on Arendt analysis of the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Using the term “we hold” indicates a creative moment very different from a simple statement of fact along the lines of “these truths are self-evident.” Through this creative priority, the American Revolution changes the very conception of revolution. It does not simply seek to refound authority in the classical sense, which would be impossible in this age. Indeed, trying to go back to tradition at gods is in Arendt’s view the cause of the failure of so many 19th and 20th century revolutions. Honig writes that:
Only the modern conception of authority is viable for modernity because it requires for its sustenance not a shared belief in particular deities or myths but a common subscription to the authoritative linguistic practice of promising (102).
People choose to accept the promise of the new social contract when writing the constitution and this shared orientation alone grounds the government. Honig notes though that Arendt does not sufficiently discuss the hidden commonalities that allow people to make such promises. In other words: the promise is a structure, even a ritual, that one must be trained to rely on. She turns to Derrida’s article "Declarations of Independence" to look at this precondition of the promise. While Arendt focuses on the “we hold,” Derrida focuses on the “we” of “we the people. Rather than accepting the promise as an answer to the problem of founding, he sees it as a moment of a leap in which the community of the “we” itself first comes into being. In its rhetorical form though, this “we” also seems like it must have already been there and therefore creates an undecidable moment between the constative and performative.
From the point of view of Derrida’s analysis, Honig sees Arendt as unjustifiably longing for a “pure performative” that would start the new state. Her point is complex and surprising, since Honig in effect accuses Arendt of going too far away from reality and reference. Derrida, who is more often associated with the supposedly relativistic meme “there is nothing outside the text” actually insists in this essay that there has to be an obscure moment in which the “we” both preexisists the Declaration and comes into being with it.
As strict as Honig’s opposition between Derrida and Arendt is at this point, at the end of the article she notes that Arendt’s “we hold” also has a constative moment that should be acknowledged. In this context, and in the broader scope of Arendt’s challenge to metaphysical ideas such as God, natural law, etc., she proposes the concept of “resistibility” as an Arendtian way of approaching Derrida’s concept of “intervention.” For Honig, both thinkers work within a challenge to authority rather than simply seeking to escape it.
While Honig stays with the difficult structure of the founding moment of modern politics, from a narrative perspective her article also suggests that the confusing undecidability of the “we” might also offer a way to perceive a change in the status of “the people” over the course of the founding of the state. To this extent, the “we hold” that Arendt discusses could actually work just as well, since it indicates a new subjective orientation of the framers: with this formulation they virtualize, in other words put some distance, between themselves and truth. This distance, perhaps no less mysterious than God or truth, but more open to debate, ‘grounds’ the modern state.
“When the Revolution [sic] devoured its own children like Saturn and was like a gigantic Lava [sic] stream on whose surface the actors were born [sic] along for a while, only to be sucked away by the undertow of an undercurrent mightier than they themselves.”
-Hannah Arendt, "Revolutions - Spurious and Genuine" (unpublished)
This quote, whose telling typos will be addressed below, is from an unpublished typescript by Hannah Arendt, written for a lecture in Chicago in May 1964, titled “Revolutions – Spurious and Genuine”. The first lines read: “Not my title. I would hesitate to distinguish.” While Arendt rejects the suggested binary definition, her talk offers different sets of distinctions:
First, modern revolutions like the French or the American Revolution imply a change that is radical enough to be experienced as an entirely new beginning. A new beginning that no one can escape, because it affects “the whole fabric of government and/or society.” This call for radical change doesn’t just protest bad government. Citizens who are in the streets for a revolution don’t limit themselves to complaining, “We are badly ruled,” but they claim, “We wish to rule ourselves.” The revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990, and most recently the revolutionary events in Egypt and other countries of the Middle East are probably the most prominent events of this kind in contemporary history. At the time of Arendt’s talk, the Cuban Revolution was the most recent example: she thought it was primarily a coup d’état, yet “most certainly” a revolution.
Second, Arendt distinguishes between social and political upheavals – a distinction we know from her book “On Revolution,” published one year before the lecture in Chicago. Revolutions like those in France in 1789, or Russia in 1905, came to be primarily about the abolition of social misery and inequality, while the American Revolution, for instance, was about building political liberty, according to Arendt. This section of the paper is one of the rare occasions in Arendt’s work where she also addresses America’s “hidden social question,” i.e. the “institution of slavery” and its aftermath. Arendt is puzzled that America’s extremely mobile society and economy resisted change, keeping African-Americans stuck at the bottom of society while many – often poor – immigrants were easily absorbed. Does the civil rights movement call for a revolution in response to this turmoil? No, Arendt says, for it doesn’t claim to change the whole fabric of the society; rather, it is fighting for access to this society. There is a revolutionary aspect to the movement’s political fight “against those laws and ordinances of states which are openly discriminatory,” Arendt remarks, but changing the “whole fabric” isn’t on this agenda either, for the civil rights movement had the Federal government on its side.
In the final section of her talk, Arendt returns to the initially rejected distinction between spurious and genuine – because she does think it is productive when we ask, “Who are the revolutionists?”
On the one hand, there is the concept of a founder, originating in the American Revolution: “a kind of architect” who builds a house that provides stability because those who inhabit it are fleeting, they come and go. “Freedom needs a space to be manifest,” Arendt notes, continuing: the “more stable a body politic is, the more freedom will be possible within it.” Whether the process of life housed by this founder is ruled by the law of progress or not, is secondary.
Yet the concept of progress is still central to how we usually conceive of politics. The conservatives tend to be against it, the liberals tend to be for it up to a certain degree. The revolutionists, however, believe in it, and they believe that true progress requires violence. They’ve been holding this belief with and since Marx, Arendt recalls, with whom she competes for the metaphor of “birth.” Whereas for Marx the pangs of birth must accompany every meaningful political development, for Arendt birth manifests the human capacity for a totally new beginning.
The metaphors of infinite progress as an infinite process “were all born … during the French Revolution,” Arendt notes. They were born, when not only the Jacobins around Robespierre, who represents the cruelties of the rule of “terreur,” but also the slightly more moderate Girondists around Danton had lost control:
“When the Revolution [sic] devoured its own children like Saturn and was like a gigantic Lava [sic] stream on whose surface the actors were born[e] [sic] along for a while, only to be sucked away by the undertow of an undercurrent mightier than they themselves.”
The typos in this passage are maybe the most telling signs of Arendt’s deep struggle with this concept of progress. By having the actors being “born” instead of “borne” on the stream of revolution, she not only conflates the two Marxian ideas of unstoppable progress that necessarily comes with the pangs of birth, but also inscribes her critique into Marx’s concept by allowing the possible reading of actors being born – in Arendt’s sense of an individual new beginning within plurality – upon this process. Marx’s idea of the swimmer “controlling” the stream of history in Arendt’s eyes is an illusion, as she noted in her Thinking Diary. In the face of the atrocities of the 20th century the question would rather be “how to avoid swimming in the stream at all.”
The undercurrents of Arendt’s typos reveal that her debate with Marx, despite the fact that the lecture is written in English, is simultaneously pursued in German – their shared native language. Arendt capitalizes “Revolution” like a German noun; she did the same earlier in the paragraph with “Progress,” and she does it again with the gigantic stream of “Lava.” (I’ve outlined the significance of the “plurality of languages” in Arendt’s political writing and thinking in a different “Quote of the Week” you can read here.)
Here, I’d like to show in conclusion how Arendt through the German resonances in her talk subtly invites a poet into her conversation on revolution. “The revolution devours its own children” has become a common expression, but the way in which Arendt quotes it “like Saturn” translates exactly the wording from Georg Büchner’s pivotal play Danton’s Death. Arendt’s private German copy of the play is marked up in interesting ways. Among the sentences she underlined is for example Danton’s “We didn’t make the revolution, the revolution made us,” which reflects upon the intricacies of agency and intellectual leadership in political turmoil. A sentence many intellectuals — even some of Arendt’s friends — were painfully oblivious to during the “National Revolution” of 1933, which troubled her for decades.
We revolutionaries are “no more cruel than nature, or the age we live in,” says St. Just, Robespierre’s hitman, whose name literally means Saint Justice, in a passage from Danton’s Death that Arendt also marked: “Nature follows her own laws, calmly, irresistibly; man is destroyed wherever he comes into conflict with them.”
Büchner’s dialogs are largely based on historical sources from the French Revolution. They flesh out Arendt’s fine allusions e.g. to the fatal might of tropes like “the stream.” “Is it so surprising,” St. Just asks in the same passage Arendt marked, “that at each new turn the raging torrent of the revolution disgorges its quantum of corpses?” Echoing Marx’ metaphor of the irresistible stream of history and progress, Arendt is mindful of the date where these thoughts found their form.
Speaking of being mindful of dates – only a few days ago, on October 18th, Georg Büchner’s 200th anniversary was celebrated.
(The full document of Arendt’s lecture in Chicago will soon be published on www.hannaharendt.net)
"The Lost Treasure of Arendt's Council System"
James Muldoon, Critical Horizons 12.3 (2011)
Muldoon sees Arendt's advocacy of the council system at the end of On Revolution as a challenge to the excessive individualism enshrined in current structures of liberal representative government. He positions his argument between critics such as Margaret Canovan, who see Arendt's proposal as an impractical and nostalgic "embarrassment" and Jeffrey Issac's proposal that Arendt's ideas can be simply grafted on to current democratic structures to improve civic participation. Instead, Muldoon sees Arendt proposing a "blending together of constituent power and constitutional form" (398). Here something of the initiatory spring of action (the "lost treasure" of the title) that founds government would be maintained in their later operation.
The standard view of On Revolution among political theorists in the United States is that, against the Marxist revolutionary tradition, it praises the American Revolution for the stability of institutional freedom that it institutes while criticizing the French Revolution for opening the way to impossible political demands for the social needs of the body such as food and shelter. Less often do critics acknowledge that Arendt's reevaluation of the American Revolution concludes with the criticism that it failed to preserve a space for direct citizen participation. In framing his argument in terms of the "post-Cold War return to Arendt," Muldoon offers a productive way to address a range of second-wave interest in her thought.
Against charges of the danger of elitism that could arise through direct democracy which have their source in passages from Arendt that harshly critical of the current representative system, Muldoon refers to other passages that testify to her support of the Constitution and thus its defense of fundamental rights. With a council system, those who are interested in politics would have more power than those who refuse to participate, but Muldoon does not see this as a major drawback. After all, most people do not vote in the current U.S. system so there is little to lose in this regard. This move exemplifies Muldoon's general approach of offering resolutions to apparently contradictory passages in Arendt by limiting their scope and then proposing ways they might instead complement each other.
Muldoon also addresses another important objection of many readers of On Revolution: the council system would merely step away from the larger state to smaller sites of representation. Instead, he rephrases the question of lower / higher steps of governance in terms of a spatial model. For Arendt "[p]olitics is not concerned with 'ruling,' but rather the creation of a public space between plural human beings where they can act in concert" (403). While acknowledging that the specifics of Arendt's plan are sparse, Muldoon sees the proposal of spontaneous local councils as a way of creating new public space in which people then agree through discussion on one member to send to the next level of councils. Here we can recall that for all its radical affirmation of councils in Jefferson and the Paris Commune, strong explicit statements in On Revolution admit that in a large country the council can only work at the local level. This does not mean that we just fall back to standard political representation at the national level though, and Arendt's at time vague suggestions call for closer examination and reflective investigation.
In another striking aspect of this article, Muldoon moves on to consider a group of writers who critique liberal democracy. Importantly, he offers the thesis that authors including Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, and Antonio Negri, owe a debt to Arendt in their broader approach to sovereignty that has so far been obscured by their criticism of specific aspect of her thought. More work needs to be done to back up this claim. Of the three, Muldoon only details Negri's priority of constituent power over constitutional form and suggests that Arendt's term "council-state" (412) could keep some of the energy of the origins of political action while not giving way fully to revolutionary impulses that threaten all order.
Muldoon has a clear sense of the most pressing question in On Revolution in a time of intense debate in the U.S. regarding the influence of lobbying and the related issue of gerrymandering in politics (to say nothing of the electoral college that at the start of the 21st century decisively affected the presidential election). For Arendt: "the question which has plagued all modern revolutions is this: how does one found a free state and commence a cycle of ordinary/instituted politics without the extraordinary moment of political freedom inherent in the founding at disappearing in the process?" (p.411). In other words, how can citizens continue to see themselves not only as defenders of the Constitution, but as actively authorized to address pressing economic, social, and ecological problems that Congress refuses to confront?
“The sad truth of the matter is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.”
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
Last week brought two events into focus: the annual July 4th celebration commemorating the American Revolution of 1776 preceded one day before by the overthrow of the first freely elected President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Although on the surface there seems little connecting these events, thinking about Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the former may bring forth some interesting points about revolutions and the foundation of modern democracy to light, which may be relevant to the evolving situation in Egypt.
In On Revolution, Arendt put forth a controversial interpretation of revolution and its relationship to violence, a theory that, contra popular opinion, lauded the success of the American while decrying the French Revolution’s legacy that “a revolution must devour its own children” as if terror were its inevitable course. The success of the American Revolution for Arendt resulted from its “deep concern with forms of government,” a concern she saw equally in the “initial stages of the French Revolution.” But when the concern with political solutions to the problem of tyranny was, in her assessment, overwhelmed by “the social question”—the problems of necessity, of abject need, confronting the “multitude of the poor—the French Revolution abandoned the task of “building a new body politic” in favor of searching for a more immediate, and, in her view, less political solution to the problem of poverty. “It was necessity, the urgent needs of the people, that unleashed the terror and sent the Revolution to its doom,” Arendt wrote. Yet, she emphasized, there was nothing inevitable about this change of course.
To Arendt, any suggestion that a revolution would, and presumably must, take a predictable course was an example of ideological thinking that masked the genuine meaning of revolution. As she wrote, “Violence is no more adequate to describe the phenomenon of revolution than change; only where change occurs in the sense of a new beginning, where violence is used to constitute an altogether different form of government, to bring about the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at least at the constitution of freedom can we speak of revolution.”
By every aspect of this definition, the Arab Spring uprising that sparked Egypt into full-scale protests and regime change to remove an autocratic ruler two years ago, and embark on an unpredictable path to “bring about the formation of a new body politic” constitutes a revolution in the Arendtian sense. But what matters is not whether the extraordinary events in Egypt fit her definition, but what Arendt’s exercise in thinking about revolutions, their successes and failures, can tell us about the great difficulties, challenges, and opportunities involved in Egyptians’ struggle to “build a new house where freedom can dwell.”
Modern revolutionaries face the enormous task of bringing into the public realm those who have been excluded from participation in it and, if they are to avoid a state of permanent war and violence, simultaneously creating a relatively stable set of institutions to organize and enable the expression of different points of view. A few days ago, the New York Times trumpeted the current crisis in Egypt under a headline proclaiming there were “two Egypts” locked in a raging conflict with each other over legitimate rulership of the country. Both Pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi forces claim to embody the demand for representation for “all Egypt.” Representing the point of view of the anti-Morsi forces, a participant in the renewed protests justified the removal of Morsi: “They tried to rule the whole country for themselves...But if you want to rule Egypt, you have to rule for everyone or the people will stand against you.” (NYT July 6, 2013) In fact, pro-Morsi factions echoed similar sentiments by contending not only that there had been a military coup overthrowing a legitimately elected leader, but also that the removal of Morsi was designed to push them out of the political process. And this morning, the ultra-Conservative Al Nour party announced its decision to withdraw from further participation in efforts to form an interim government.
Whether the election of Morsi itself had been premature—he was brought to power with the support of only 24% of the voting electorate and pushed through a constitution largely created by the Muslim Brotherhood—its aftermath suggests that the process of creating a new form of government was far from complete. Soon after he took power, many different groups complained that Morsi appeared to have set himself up as a dictator in the mere five months he’d been in power. Clearly, in Arendtian terms, the rebellion started in 2011 had not yet resulted in the “truly revolutionary element” in constitution-making, which lies not in the creation of limited government, but in the act of a people (here Arendt quotes Thomas Paine) “constituting a government.”
There is an enormous difference, Arendt wrote, “in power and authority between a constitution imposed by a government upon a people and the constitution by which a people constitutes its own government.” But “the people”, for Arendt, implied all factions, all parts of the polity, had to be involved in the process; a government not only “for” the people, but also “of” and “by” it. The current conflagrations in Egypt represent yet another stage of opportunity in the effort to revolutionize the Egyptian polity in this direction, a stage which had harbingers of its arrival, but no predictable outcome.
The great difficulty Egypt faces is not only the vast gap in different groups’ understandings of who “the people” are, and the different degrees of organized mobilization of those groups, but also derives from the fundamentally opposed interpretations of which appropriate principles—Islamist, moderate or more conservative; non-Islamist; pluralist?—should legitimate a new polity in Egypt. And this difficulty is only compounded by an expressed urgency to find solutions to a deteriorating economy. Arendt would have hoped that the urgency of immediate needs would not overwhelm the revolutionary process of “constituting a government.”
It turns out, Arendt argued, that once “the source of authority had been severed from the colonial body politic in the New World,” the key problem confronting the American Revolution “turned out to be the establishment not of power but of authority.” How this authority (not to be confused with either power or violence) will be established in Egypt depends in the long run on all sides being able both to engage in discussions of principle, and not only contests over power or need, as well as participate in the search for institutionalized mechanisms to stabilize what Arendt called “the tremendous strength inherent in mutual promises.” If specific parties withdraw from this process, or persist in vilifying one group of the other, the violence that is now occurring may not yet be stemmed.
-Kathleen B. Jones
“If it is true that all thought begins with remembrance, it is also true that no remembrance remains secure unless it is condensed and distilled into a framework of conceptual notions within which it can further exercise itself.”
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
With these words Arendt complains, in her magnificent book about the French and the American Revolution, On Revolution, that the essential elements of the foundation of freedom in the former north-American colonies were not kept alive theoretically and therefore forgotten by the time of an apolitical workers and consumers society. What was forgotten were such things as the pursuit of public happiness, the formation of power by federalism, the origins of the senate (in the Roman senate) as the seat of political authority, etc... Instead, politics and its institutions came to be perceived as the arena of money and power, of intrigues and blockades. By contrast, the French Revolution animated many thinkers and imitators to develop a conceptual framework: the revolution of the poor against exploitation and oppression, the fight for freedom, equality and fraternity, the predecessor and example of all revolutions thereafter, etc. For Arendt, in spite of her critique of the revolution’s aftermath in North America, these are misleading concepts that deny the immanent reason for the French revolution’s failure: the political inexperience of the revolutionaries, the transformation of virtue into terror, the swarming of the poor into public institutions, and the incapacity to proceed from liberation to a lasting constitution of freedom.
Revolutions à la française seem to end up in a reign of terror. Is the dictatorship of Castro in Cuba a coincidence? Is Hugo Chavez’ elimination of the second chamber of parliament and the restriction of freedom of opinion in Venezuela also a coincidence? Or perhaps the projection of personal fancy? No, says the Argentinian political scientist Claudia Hilb. These are because of the concept of the radical creation of social equality, which is only possible at the cost of political freedom. Hilb shows, citing Arendt, that “it is perfectly true, and a sad fact indeed, that most so-called revolutions, far from achieving the constitutio libertatis, have not even been able to produce constitutional guarantees of civil rights and liberties, the blessings of ‘limited government’, and there is no question that in our dealings with other nations and their governments we shall have to keep in mind that the distance between tyranny and constitutional, limited government is as great as, perhaps greater than, the distance between limited government and freedom.” (On Revolution)
Claudia Hilb in her “Silencio, Cuba. La izquierda democrática frente al régimen de la Revolución Cubana“ (Buenos Aires 2010) develops a critical framework of conceptual notions which sympathizers of radical social change do not dare to develop, given the discrepancy between their hopes for freedom and equality and the often gloomy subsequent reality. Confronted with criticism on Cuba, they try to defend the regime in Cuba with a “yes, but”. Yes, democracy and civic rights are missing, but there are social achievements like high literacy, general access to health care, and the absence of extreme poverty. Yes, Cuba is poor, but there are no slums like in Buenos Aires. These answers conceal the fact that compared with other Latin American states; Cuba fell from a leading position to a place at the back since the revolution in 1959. Moreover, the defenders attribute Cuba’s economic failures to the boycott by the United States, denying the structural disaster of the Cuban economy on even its own terms. Finally, these defenders color and excuse all this as a “tropical socialism” with its music and the “romantic” ruins that are Havana.
The thesis of Hilb: radical equalization of social conditions was made possible by establishing total domination. For her, the real equivalent is not freedom and equality but dictatorship and equality. Therefore, the missing civic rights as well as the prohibition of leaving the country are less incidental concomitants than a sign of the absolute concentration of power. Dictatorship and equality are inherent components of this form of government itself. Therefore, the dictatorship not only violates certain human rights but also does not recognize human rights as such. They are incompatible with the establishment of, and control through, radical equality, rendering democracy and plurality null.
Hilb describes how Castro from the beginning worked on centralization of power, eliminating revolutionary comrades in the party and armed forces as well as in trade unions and student organizations, elevating only his loyal comrades on unity lists in elections. Trade union and student movements were subordinated to his party.
Likewise the cultural sector was brought into line, not so quickly but just as thoroughly. The shameful self-accusation of the poet Heberto Padilla in 1970 became well known. Radical social change required an increasing concentration of power to eliminate all troubling discussions and deviations.
Social organizations like the trade unions and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) were transformed step by step from organizations of mobilization into organizations of control. The trade unions, as “transmissions belts” for revolutionary force, were no longer organizations defending the working class but had the task to imposing voluntary work and intensifying production. The CDRs became instruments to prevent sabotage and control the private life of everyone. With the economic decline in 1970 temporary “re-education camps” were established. During three years 25,000 “antisocial elements” were detained, among them many homosexuals, religious activists, and prostitutes. The film “Before Nights Falls” (2000) based on the novel of the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas describes this time.
Claudia Hilb reminds us of the governmental theory of the French political thinker Montesquieu, in an analysis reminiscent of Arendt’s in On Revolution.
Hilb describes Montesquieu’s analysis of fear as the key principle on which action is based under a tyranny. Fear does not automatically lead to obedience; both fear and obedience must be created, in the Cuban case, according to Hilb, by the arbitrary rule of the party. The Cuban constitution gives the party the power over the state and subordinates law under the political power. He who does not behave in conformity with the party consequently becomes a law breaker. Secondly, fear is created by revolutionary virtue, enforcing conformism in forms of behavior through the party as an unlimited instrument of power. And thirdly, fear is caused by shame. The political regime tacitly tolerates the many violations of law and thefts of public property to guarantee a life above subsistence level. This tolerated life of illegality and lying makes the population constantly vulnerable to blackmail through the shame of possible exposure.
Hilb invites Cuba’s defenders to open their eyes to reality in order to work on a framework of notions that would include how to constitute freedom so that freedom and social justice can be balanced to mutual advantage.
- Wolfgang Heuer
I received an email from an old friend this weekend. She has been deeply affected by the death of Ki Suck Han, the New York man who was pushed off a subway platform near Times Square—and abandoned by all his fellow passengers, before being run over by an oncoming train. She wrote:
The subway death was on my mind all day long yesterday, I was devastated about it. I once worked for the MTA Arts for Transit, maybe that's why. Nobody stepped forth (the platform wasn't empty before the guy fell on the tracks), at least moved forward, rather than back. In that photo the man is all alone facing that train, everyone has moved back and away to make space for the accident to unfold unhindered, out of the zone of implication. We're all so afraid of danger, and even afraid of the fear itself.
Forty Seven people were killed after being hit by trains in 2011—I know this from the helpful signs in the subways that remind us to be careful.
We all know about Ki Suck Han because in the 22 seconds between when he was pushed on the tracks and when a train pinned him against the platform, a New York Post photographer snapped dozens of pictures of him. One of those pictures was then published on the front page of the NYC tabloid.
There has been near universal condemnation of the Post, with a few exceptions. The photographer too has been harangued, accused of taking pictures rather than running to save the man. But the platform had not been empty and another waiting rider actually filmed the argument Ki Suck Han had been having with the man who later pushed him to the tracks. All these passengers fled the scene, moved to the other end of the platform. No one went to help Ki Suck Han. In 22 seconds, no one acted the hero.
“What,” my friend asked, “might Hannah Arendt say about the fact that no one helped a person in need?”
I hazard to say or think I know what Hannah Arendt would have thought or said. I respond to all such queries simply: Hannah Arendt was nothing if not surprising and provocative and more brilliant than I am. I have no special insight into what she would have thought.
What I can do is try to think about how her thinking, her provocative and insistent determination to think what we are doing, helps us today to make sense of ethical and political events like this tragic death. Along those lines, here are a few thoughts.
First, we should not draw too many conclusions from one event. While no heroes showed themselves in this circumstance, there are unsung heroes every year who risk their lives to save people around the world, and even in New York Subways. In fact, just last weekend Doreen Winkler saved two people from an oncoming train in New York City. You can read about Winkler’s heroic acts here and here. And if you want to be inspired by truly heroic acts of daring subway rescues, watch this video from Korea.
Second, the unwillingness to play the hero in this situation reminds me of what Arendt names the loss of our sense of a common world. It is the common world—a world that used to be imagined and held together by tradition and authority—that provides a public space in which actions are remembered. Pericles could say with confidence that the Athenian polis would remember the deeds of its heroes, just as the American revolutionaries could hope that their heroic deeds would live on in monuments, song, and poetry.
Monuments in Washington and around the nation testify to the common world that shares in the memory of great acts—acts that strike people as both surprising and worthy of glory and support. It is the power and promise of memory in the common world that both holds out examples of the glory of heroism and also promises to bring the hero immortality, something more lasting than life and security. There is little faith today that someone who is a hero will be remembered longer than someone who cuts people to bits or dances naked on TV. Heroism is one of many avenues to 15 minutes of fame. So there is no strong sense of acting courageously getting you anything.
Third, the loss of the common world is part and parcel of the retreat into loneliness. I was having dinner with another friend recently who told me of his new resolution, to listen to more music on his Iphone on the way to and from work. I recall once reading Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s letters and being in awe of his reports to friends of the books he was reading, his continuing education as he put it. My friend saw his headphone-wearing study of music in the same vein. And yet, there is a difference. Walking with headphones, even more than reading in the subway or playing books on tape in the car, is a way of tuning out of the world around you. People get lost in their own world, ignoring the sights, sounds, and faces that pass them by.
My conversation with my music-studying friend also called to mind a recent email sent by the Bard College Rabbi. Rabbi David Nelson worried that more and more our young people, in the spirit of urban dwellers, “walk around campus much of the time avoiding eye contact, which is another way of saying that they avoid looking one another directly in the face.” For the rabbi, the loss of eye contact and real face-time is dangerous and corrupting. He writes:
Those who have spent time living in densely populated urban areas are accustomed to the polite avoidance of eye contact, in crowded elevators, crowded rush-hour subway trains, and similar crowded venues. This is a way to maintain separateness and privacy in an environment where the density of the population threatens our ability ever to feel alone and unobserved. This is exactly the behavior that we see on campus. But we are not an anonymous, densely populated urban tangle. We are--or we ought to be--an intentional, involved, caring community. And our students' assiduous avoidance of one another's faces is at least a sign of, and perhaps a cause of, the widespread sense that this is a place where it's hard to really connect with others.
The proliferation of headphones began decades ago with the Sony Walkman craze and continues unabated with the Ipod and Iphone. People walk around listening to music or books or podcasts. And many are proud of this development, rationalizing their anti-social behavior by arguing to themselves that they are bettering themselves, learning, or expanding their minds. This may be true. But the retreat from personal contact and the eye contact with our fellow travelers must also weaken our connection to others. It is a cold and distant world, one in which we are less and less entangled with and personally related to those around us.
Our actions are ever more calculating and less instinctive. In such instances, calculation will stop you from acting. You need to feel it. It is no accident that nearly every subway hero who jumps on the tracts to rescue someone says that they didn’t think about it but simply acted.
Above all, the un-heroic action in the subway last week reminds us of the increasing rarity of action. Heroism is never normal. It is, by definition, extra-ordinary and surprising, which is why it is glorified and remembered. It thus thrives on a world that rewards and celebrates heroic acts. Hannah Arendt saw, however, that rare deeds would be ever rarer in the modern age. The primary reason for this is that in large societies, rare deeds lose their rarity and distinction. There are at least two reasons for this decline in great deeds.
First, the law of large numbers means that all action is predictable. We know that most people will not act spontaneously to save a passenger in need; but we also know that a certain percentage of people will. Actions of heroism are not mundane, but they are expected. That is why it was so shocking and surprising that no one acted. When someone does act heroically, like Doreen Winkler, few newspapers reported it. Heroism in the subway promises very little acclaim.
Second, heroism requires a common world in which one’s great deed will be remembered. Without the promise or the expectation that heroic acts will be immortalized, the risk of action is rarely balanced by the reward. In a calculating society, heroism rarely seems to justify the risk.
Thankfully, however, there are exceptions to these dispiriting trends. There are moments of unexpected heroism that do break through the standardization of our social expectations and become examples of heroic action. One recent example of this is Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s racing into a burning house to save his neighbor. At a time when we expect so little from our public figures who refuse to risk even bucking opinion polls, Booker’s public heroism was shocking. The power of his example, and of those who act as he does, keeps the ideal of heroism alive at a time when it is ever more rare and unexpected. Because action interrupts the everyday and the normal, it is, Arendt writes, the “one miracle-working faculty of man.” Action introduces greatness and glory into the world, makes us take notice, and calls us then to gather around the beauty of the glorious act; action, heroic action, is what constantly refreshes and re-orients us toward the common world that we share together.
Politics today is democratic politics. While history has not ended and democracy is not universal, there is no doubt that the spirit of our age is democratic. From France and the United States in the 18th century, to the European revolutions of 1848, to decolonialization in the 20th century, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011, one cannot mistake the fact: politics in the modern world tends toward democracy.
But what is democracy? In his essay, "Does Democracy Mean Something?", Jacques Rancière offers one particularly compelling answer, one that is illustrative of the fate of global politics. Democracy, Rancière writes, is most fundamentally a paradoxical politics. On the one hand, democracy names democratic government. It is good government, or a legitimate order, a form of governmental order that is legitimate and just because it is founded upon democratic principles of equality and self-government. On the other hand, democracy means freedom, the rejection of rule by others, and the demand for the rule of the people by the people.
The democratic paradox is that democracy understood as freedom and the rule by people always threatens to destabilize and revolutionize democratic government that offers itself as a legitimate order. And democratic government—if it is to remain a government—requires the reduction of the revolutionary democratic excess of democratic individualism and the demand for popular rule.
We can of course see this paradoxical essence of democracy in the Occupy Wall Street movement. As Mayor Mike Bloomberg repeatedly emphasized, our democratic government allows protest and individual expression and we must permit the voices of those with whom we disagree. At the same time, Bloomberg argued that democratic government sets limits on those dissenting voices, authorizes regulations upon them, and, eventually, requires that they respect the authority and order of the existing democratic establishment. From this governmental perspective, the messy aspects of personal democracy and democratic individualism—the call to mobilize the people to pursue their plural and discordant interests—is a threat to good democratic government.
Democracy, in Rancière's words, is a power that at once legitimates and de-legitimates. Democracy promises the transparency and self-government that is necessary to legitimate government today. And yet it also insists upon unruly individualism and dissent that must be limited and contained in order to ensure a democratic state.
Beyond the democratic paradox, Rancière argues that true democratic politics is on the side of the messy, individualist, and disruptive aspect of democracy. His word for this is "dissensus," and Rancière insists that "democracy implies a practice of dissensus, one that it keeps re-opening and that the practice of ruling relentlessly plugs." Democracy, in other words, is the practice of disrupting all statist orders, even democratic state orders. It is an "anarchic principle" and "insofar as it is anarchic it precludes the self-grounding of politics." Politics, democratic politics, modern politics, is unavoidably open and anarchic.
In his analysis of the paradoxical nature of democracy and the priority of dissensus, Rancière reflects much that is in the work of Hannah Arendt. Both Rancière and Arendt oppose politics to philosophy, since philosophy trades in truths that shut down politics, which is about opinions. Rancière, as does Arendt, defines politics as a form of action—politics is an activity of people, in the plural, and not simply of states. And if Rancière sees political action as manifesting "dissensus," Arendt insists that political action be spontaneous and capable of beginning something new into the world. Which is why Arendt argues that "the modern concept of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known before, is about to unfold" is at the very center of modern democratic politics.
The centrality of revolution to Arendt's thought means that "the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide." Because politics is by its nature revolutionary action, Arendt refuses to call it democracy, because democracy is—like all "cracy's"—derived from the Greek kratein, expressing rule and order. Democracy, as majority rule, opposes revolutionary action, and is, therefore, "simply another form of rulership." As does Rancière, Arendt insists that freedom demands that we move beyond democracy as simply a form of government.
Similarities aside, Rancière builds his theory of dissensus in opposition to Hannah Arendt's work. In both "Does Democracy Mean Something?" and "Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?" Rancière explicates his idea of politics as dissensus against Arendt's revolutionary politics.
In "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?", Rancière locates his split with Arendt around her division of the political from the social. In line with many who read Arendt as erecting rigid boundaries between the social, the political and the private, Rancière worries that "Arendt's rigid opposition between the realm of the political and the realm of private life" sets up an exclusive realm from which the people must be kept out. By excluding the world of private and economic and social concerns from the lofty realm of politics, Arendt, pace Rancière, depoliticizes politics by cleansing it of the people and their voices.
Such readings of Arendt make rigid her rich descriptions of the political, social, and private realms; they offer a pale representation of the fire that burns brightly in Arendt's writing. It is common today to imagine that Arendt makes strict distinctions between political and non-political activities, just as it widespread to think that the divisions between labor, work, and action in The Human Condition are impenetrable. Yes Arendt distinguishes the political from the social. But that does not at all mean that economic and social interests are never political. Of course, as Arendt concedes often, some level of social security is part of the political realm. Her point is simply that such social concerns are at odds with freedom, which is the true aim of political action.
In "Does Democracy Mean Something?", Rancière offers a better and more meaningful distinction between himself and Arendt. Here, he makes clear his view that "democracy cannot consist in a set of institutions." Institutions, he argues, mean nothing in themselves. "The reason for this is that one and the same constitution and set of laws can be implemented in opposite ways depending on the sense of the 'common' in which they are framed." Rancière's point is, on one level, obvious. At times, the constitution and the laws are invoked to stifle debate and dissent. At other times they are called upon to enable and further the call for new political institutions. In themselves, the constitution and the laws are not decisive.
But Rancière goes further. Not only are political institutions not decisive in politics, they occupy the field of politics with a claim to legitimacy and thus delimit and shrink "the political stage." By establishing what is constitutional and legal protest and who can protest and who is even a citizen, the institutions of politics limit politics in "a biased way." They police the boundaries and access to politics "in the name of the purity of the political, the universality of the law or the distinction between political universality and social particularity."
In his suspicion of institutions, Rancière does indeed depart from Arendt in a meaningful way. For Arendt, modern politics, as revolutionary politics, means a free and new founding of freedom. What distinguishes revolutions from rebellions is that while rebellions merely liberate one from rule, revolutions found new institutions that nurture freedom. At the core of Arendt's political thinking is her insistence that freedom cannot exist outside of institutions. As had Montesquieu before her, Arendt saw that "power and freedom belong together."
The genius of the American Revolution in Arendt's telling is that it found what she calls a new experience of power. This American experience of power "was embodied in all institutions of self-government throughout the country." It goes back to the Mayflower Compact drawn up on the ship and signed by the first settlers upon landing, an act that displays their
obvious confidence that they had in their own power, granted and confirmed by no one and as yet unsupported by any means of violence, to combine themselves together into a 'civil Body Politik' which, held together solely by the strength of mutual promise 'in the Presence of God and one another', supposedly was powerful enough to 'enact, constitute, and frame' all necessary laws and instruments of government.
From out of the basic experience of power through mutual action with others, the American colonists developed their institutions of town halls, constitutional conventions, and local government in townships, counties, and states. Since written laws cannot control power, but "only power arrests power," freedom depends upon institutions that can continually give birth to new centers and sources of power. What the new experience of American power meant was that there could not be and could never be in the United States a single highest and irresistible power that could exert its rule over the others. The states would limit the federal government; the federal government would contest state power; legislative power limits executive power; judicial power bridles the legislature; and new forms of power in voluntary organizations, political clubs, and advocacy groups all limit the power of professional politicians. Together, this diffusion of power in the United States meant the "consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same."
Unlike Rancière for whom institutions are biased watchmen patrolling the entry into politics, Arendt sees the institutions of self-government as the common world within which plural citizens congregate, talk, and act. Without such institutions, there would be no public space, no commons, in which politics happens. Politics needs not only revolution and dissensus, but also some prior consensus—an acknowledgement of the facts of the political world we are born into. From there one can, and sometimes must, resist and revolt.
Rancière sees all consensus, all that is common, as exclusionary, violent, and apolitical. But the common world itself is not oppressive and anti-political. It is, what it is, and the first requirement of politics is that one reconciles oneself to the world we share with others. That is not giving in to the system, but is, rather, the very possibility of political and revolutionary action.
Rancière's engagement with Arendt is one of the most important in modern political theory. You can read Jacques Rancière's "Does Democracy Mean Something?" here.
I also encourage you to buy the Dissensus, Rancière's book that includes "Does Democracy Mean Something?" and also "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?". Buy it here.
And as a bonus, if you want a different take on the relationship between Arendt and Rancière, you can read Adam Schapp's essay on the topic here.
"From this, it follows that it is futile to search for an absolute to break the vicious circle in which all beginning is inevitably caught, because this ‘absolute’ lies in the very act of beginning itself. In a way, this has always been known, though it was never fully articulated in conceptual thought for the simple reason that beginning itself, prior to the era of revolution, has always been shrouded in mystery and remained an object of speculation. "
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
I have always had the feeling that all of the problems of political legitimacy can be summed up by the above quote. How could political foundation be legitimized, that originary act of an order that pretends to be, in itself, legitimate? This question which in the political science of our time seems proper only to modernity appears in Arendt’s quote as proper to every foundation of an order.
In her work Arendt is particularly careful to distinguish power, and indeed, the origin of power, from authority, and the foundation of authority. What really interests me in this distinction is that at the same time as Arendt highlights that power is reliant on the human capacity to act in concert, she understands that this capacity - in order to contribute to the formation of lasting institutions - needs to in some way find stabilization in an element outside the actuality of power. Although from the earliest ages to the era of modern revolutions this stabilization has longed to settle itself upon an extra-political source, in the latest instance it cannot but be referred to the very human capacity to begin. Thus, it is in the preservation and transmission of the beginning in itself that we find – as in the Roman experience of authority or in the worship of the Constitution in the American Revolution – the only truly political foundation for authority, that is, the only truly political stabilization for the preservation of power which arises from the action of men.
Therefore Arendt tells us that the human capacity of beginning is itself the only source of power, and that absolutes can only vicariously give an answer to the vicious circle of beginning. And yet, she also teaches us that new beginnings rightly long for a source of law from where to derive a lasting authority so as to be able to offer some (instable) stability to a political realm which is built on the pure actuality of human – all too human - power.
The second installment of a two part blog post about Occupy Wall Street by Hannah Arendt Center Associate Fellow, Kieran Bonner.
On the website of Occupytogether is the following statement:
“The beauty of this new formula, and what makes this novel tactic exciting, is its pragmatic simplicity: we talk to each other in various physical gatherings and virtual people’s assemblies … we zero in on what our one demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination and, if achieved, would propel us toward the radical democracy of the future … and then we go out and seize a square of singular symbolic significance and put our asses on the line to make it happen.”
There is much in this statement that coheres with the spirit of Arendt’s work and mission, the focus on talking to each other, a demand that awakens imagination.
While she would welcome the interest in radical democracy, she would be very suspicious of the language of ‘propelling,’ as though moving forward was subject to an inhuman force rather than the result of persuasion through human speech. My Arendtian ambivalence is located in the need to separate social concerns from political concerns and economic matters from matters of democracy.
If the focus of the protest is primarily on economic inequality and not on reviving democracy, on political economy and not politics itself, then it is in danger of being absorbed by the social. Arendt distinguished between life concerns and political concerns and said that politics, and therefore democracy, become at best corrupt and at worst disappears when dominated by urgent life concerns.
It is precisely for this reason that Arendt saw the American Revolution as politically far more successful than either the Russian or French. She admired the American Revolution because it put political matters, especially democracy, first. An act of citizenship, in Arendt’s sense, is more than voting for someone else to act and speak on one’s behalf. It requires the full experience of acting and speaking; it is this criterion that Arendt would use to assess whether acts were either social or political and so acts of citizenship.
The Boston Tea Party was not a rebellion against taxation per se, as the contemporary Tea Party tends to emphasize. It was not a movement to ‘get government of the backs of the people.
It was against taxation without representation. It was against government without participation and not government per se. That the American Revolution led not to a completely fair taxation system but rather to the first modern democracy is its great achievement. The promise in OWS, therefore, is not just whether correct economic legislation is enacted, but whether a re-invigorated democracy can be re-imagined. This is the hard work of envisioning alternatives, a work that has become unimaginable despite a consumer culture that always invites us to imagine the impossible. Is it not paradoxical that today we can easily imagine the end of the world but not the end of capitalism, as Slavoj Zizek stated to the occupiers last Sunday. That is the promise of the OWS initiative, the beginning of the hard struggle to restore a lived experience of political freedom to America and to the world.