"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.
"The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments."
Hannah Arendt, On Violence
The instruments that Hannah Arendt refers to in this quote are instruments of violence, that is to say, weapons. Weapons, which in the main, translates to firearms, make it possible for One to commit acts of violence against All. And this fact has been brought into sharp focus in light of the devastating tragedy of this past December 14th, 2012: the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a 20-year-old man using a semi-automatic assault rifle that belonged to his mother, the first victim of a killing spree that ended when he turned his weapon on himself and took his own life. The extreme depravity of this incident sent shockwaves throughout the nation, and reports of subsequent shootings of a more commonplace variety have been picked up by the news media, whereas previously they have more often than not been ignored. Fulfilling their function as agenda-setters, journalists have placed gun violence high on the list of national debates, reflecting the outrage of many citizens, as well as the genuine concern of a significant number of leaders and officials in government and organized religion.
Despite the fact that many citizens find the status quo intolerable, and favor legislation that would increase the limitations on the types of weaponry citizens can legally purchase and own, and on the requirements for sale and ownership of firearms, there has been considerable opposition to any form of what is commonly referred to as gun control. That pushback had come from what is sometimes referred to as the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association being the primary organization representing the firearms industry, and citizens who insist that our constitution's second amendment guarantees them the freedom to arm themselves as they see fit. And whereas one side mostly speaks in the language of moderation, arguing for reasonable restrictions on firearms sales, the other tends to speak in an extremist language of absolutes, arguing against any abridgement of rights and freedom, maintaining that gun control legislation is completely ineffective, and that, in the words of NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
Fighting fire with fire is not a method favored by firefighters, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and likewise fighting firearms with firearms is a tactic of last resort for putting an end to gun violence. Firefighters stress the importance of prevention, and we certainly are entitled to ask, how can we prevent a bad guy from getting hold of a gun in the first place? When prevention is ineffective, and violence ensues, it may be necessary to engage in further violence as a countermeasure. But even if the result is cessation rather than escalation, the situation already represents a failure and breakdown of the community. As Arendt explains,
the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.
LaPierre's insistence that the only way to stop violence is with violence is not only simplistic in his childish morality of good guys vs. bad guys, but in his view of the situation as being One against One. Again, it would certainly be reasonable to concede the point that violent action on the part of one individual is sometimes required to put an end to violent action on the part of another individual, and such action is authorized on the part of duly appointed representatives of the law, e.g., police. But in acting in the role of police, such individuals are acting as representatives of the All, so that what appears to be One against One is in fact a case of All against One. But LaPierre's notion of a good guy with a gun is not a police officer—indeed police departments typically favor stricter gun control—but an armed private citizen. In other words, his One against One would exist in a larger context of All against All, everyone armed in defense against everyone else, everyone prepared to engage in violence against everyone else.
That guns are instruments of violence ought to be clear. You cannot cut a steak with a gun. You cannot chop wood with a gun. You cannot excavate a mine with a gun. Unlike knives, axes, and even explosives, firearms have no practical use other than to harm and kill living things. There are recreational applications, granted, but there is nothing new about violence in recreational activities, boxing, wrestling, and fencing all have their origins in antiquity, while eastern martial arts disciplines have grown quite popular in the United States over the past half century, and football has become our most popular sport. It follows that hunting is simply another violent recreational activity, as we are now 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and few if any of us live in the wilderness as nomadic hunter-gatherers. And target ranges, skeet shooting, and the like, all of which use obvious surrogates for human and animal bodies, are essentially recreational activities, apart from their function in training individuals how to use firearms.
Instruments of violence, like all tools, are made to be used, and their violence cannot be confined to prescribed targets and situations. So with All against All, everyone lives under the shadow of violence, the possibility of being fired upon serving as a guarantee against bad behavior. From the individual's point of view, everyone is suspect, everyone is a potential menace that must be guarded against. And of course the danger they pose is greatly amplified if they are bearing arms. So peace is achieved through mutual intimidation, and at best a respect based on threat and fear. Under these circumstances, there is no solid foundation for political action based on consensus and cooperation, let alone social cohesion. With All against All, the potential for action taken by All against One is minimized.
Reducing if not eliminating the potential for All against One is central to the ideology of the NRA, for whom the All is not so much everyone else as it is our representatives in positions of authority. Armed private citizens are the good guys with guns, and it is not only the "criminals and crazies" who are bad guys, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the government. Ignoring the fact that historically, the second amendment was understood as granting individual states in the union the right to create militias in the absence of a standing federal army, gun advocates invoke "the right to bear arms" as a check against government tyranny, insisting that they are entitled to the same right to revolution that was claimed by the founders of our nation in the Declaration of Independence. That the Confederate states invoked the same right in seceding from the Union, igniting a debate settled by the most violent of means, is of little import it seems. The Civil War apparently did not end with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but merely underwent a transformation into a subtle insurgency movement that continues to this day. This no doubt comes as a surprise to the vast majority of American citizens, including the multitudes that flocked to movie theaters in recent months to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
Arendt drives home the point that violence exists in inverse relationship to power. Power is derived from the All, from the consent and agreement of the governed, the source of political legitimacy. Power is the ability to achieve goals without the use of violence. When governments are forced to resort to violence, it reflects a loss of power, one that is difficult to reclaim, and may ultimately result in that governments demise. Violence can destroy power, that is the lesson of revolution, but it cannot create power, only political action can. It follows that gun advocates see the second amendment as curbing the power of government, thereby empowering the individual. That sense of power is something of a chimera, however, for as soon as firearms are used, their power dissipates. If they are used against another private citizen, even a so-called bad guy, the user will have to answer to the legal system, and may be found guilty of unlawful action, or subject to civil liability. If they are used against a government official, the user will sooner or later discover that he (or she, but almost always it is a he) is outgunned, that One against All may only succeed in the short-term but will eventually fall to the vastly superior firepower of organized authorities.
American society, like all societies, looks to a set of values that, upon close inspection, holds logical contradictions, values that, from a distance, appear to be psychologically consistent with each other. We value the individual, and adhere to the most extreme form of individualism of any western society, but we also value the community. We seek a balance between the two, but ultimately they come in conflict with one another, the One vs. the All. And we value freedom, but we also value equality. Both seem fundamental, but freedom includes the freedom to excel, to dominate, to gain an advantage, enforce and reinforce inequity, while any effort to be truly egalitarian requires restrictions on those freedoms. Moreover, we believe in capitalism, free enterprise as it were, but also in democracy, the American way, politically-speaking, and we assume the two can co-exist without discord. But capitalism is inherently undemocratic, favoring oligarchies and the absence of government regulation and oversight, whereas the exercise of democracy extends to policies that affect and constrain economic and financial activities, and the organization and conduct of business.
In the past, Americans have slightly favored the individual, freedom, and capitalism, all of which are aligned with one another, over the community, equality, and democracy, although the emphasis has shifted somewhat depending on circumstances (for example, during wartime, we become increasingly more likely to rally around the values of community and equality, and belief in democracy). To put it into Arendt's more succinct terms, we try to find a balance between the One and the All, but to the extent that the two are in conflict, we lean a bit towards the One.
In favoring the One, we tolerate the One against All, the result being that we are scarred by gun violence to a degree vastly out of proportion with other western societies. For gun advocates, gun ownership is an individual right and an essential freedom that must not be abridged. Never mind the fact that "the right to bear arms" is rarely found on any listing of basic human rights, as opposed to the right to live in safety and security, free from fear and threat, a right that gun ownership jeopardizes at least as much as it protects. And never mind the fact that our first amendment freedoms are subject to significant limitations and governed by legislation, and those freedoms are listed in a clear and unequivocal manner, in contrast to the second amendment's convoluted and confused diction ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"). It is also interesting to note that gun advocates like LaPierre do not hesitate to try to shift the focus onto the first amendment, blaming violence in film, television programming, and videogames for incidents like the Newtown shooting. And what is often downplayed is that the gun lobby, in resisting all attempts at gun control, are defending the interests of the gun industry, the businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell firearms. Of course, it is hard to play up the importance of free enterprise in the wake of the murder of elementary school children.
In their radical views on the second amendment, and their absolute embrace of individual freedom and capitalism against the interests of community, equality, and democracy, gun ideologues like LaPierre insist on the supremacy of One against All, and it is not surprising that the result is an extreme form of violence. And, as I noted earlier, leaders representing the interests of the All against the One tend to speak, naturally enough, in the language of practical politics operating within a democratic form of government, the language of negotiation and compromise, but find themselves confronted on the other side with the abstract absolutes characteristic of the language of ideology. You might say, what we got here is a failure to communicate, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, although the two sides probably understand each other better than they let on.
The ideologues know that if they refuse to blink first, the compromisers will most likely give up and move on to more pressing matters. And the compromisers know that the ideologues refusal to negotiate gives them an excuse to turn away from a divisive issue that may cost them a measure of support in the next election, and deal with more pressing matters with a greater probability of reaching a successful conclusion. Only now, after Newtown, is there talk of having reached a tipping point in public opinion, one that may pressure the compromisers to insist upon a settlement, and may force the ideologues to accept the pragmatic need for negotiation. The likely outcome is that the ideologues will make some minor concessions, allowing for some small progress on gun control, a step in the right direction to be sure, but a far cry from the measures needed to curb the high incidence of gun violence in the United States.
Change will come, because the alternative is intolerable. To the extent that we live in increasingly denser populated areas, in urban sprawl rather than rural isolation, so that the consequences of violent action become increasingly more catastrophic, we require more civilized, more civil living conditions, the insurance against violence that can only come from the power of organized authority subject to political oversight, not private citizens responsible only to themselves. To live in a society of All against All is ultimately regressive, and can only make sense if the social system disintegrates, a remote possibility that cannot be balanced against the actuality of incident after incident of gun violence.
Change will come, but it may only come gradually, given our cultural bias towards the One against All, and it may only come generationally. Over the past half century, Americans have become increasingly more risk aversive, as more information about potential risks to health and safety have been made available through the electronic media. However, as Henry Perkinson argues in No Safety in Numbers, it is the risks that we have no control over that we are particularly averse to. When the risk is perceived as a matter of individual choice, an expression of personal freedom, we are less averse to it than when it is understood to fall outside of our locus of control. Prohibition is often invoked as the archetype of failed measures to eliminate harmful behavior, and the word prohibition is often thrown into discussions on gun control and similar measures in order to summon up those negative connotations. Despite the potential risks to health and safety from alcoholic inebriation, over-consumption, and addiction, drinking was seen as an exercise of free will, and therefore acceptable. It was only with the campaign against drinking and driving that the locus of risk was shifted from the individual consuming intoxicating beverages to the innocent victims of drunk driving, accident victims who had no choice in the matter, whose freedom was in fact curtailed by the drinker. The same is true of tobacco.
Once medical research established that smoking causes emphysema, heart disease, and cancer, modest change in American smoking habits ensued. It was not until the findings about secondhand smoke were established that real cultural change took place, a truly extraordinary shift in attitudes and behavior about smoking. The key was that secondhand smoke exposed individuals to risks that they had no control over, risks that they were subjected to against their own volition.
While this form of risk-aversion is relatively recent, a more basic understanding that permeates American society is that individuals can exercise their freedoms as long as those freedoms do not jeopardize others. The early assertion of a right to own slaves could only persist insofar as individuals were willing to view the enslaved as somehow less than fully human; otherwise the freedom to enslave clearly cannot justify the denial of another individual's freedom. Similarly, free enterprise and free markets, the freedom of individuals to engage in any kind of business and labor practices they might chose to, eventually was understood to conflict with the rights of labor, of workers and employees, as well as the rights of consumers, so that the freedom of capitalism is subject to constraints imposed in the interests of the community and democracy.
In the face of the violence of One against All, what is needed is the power, in the positive sense of democratic political action, of All against One. The power of public opinion and a growing consensus will serve as a bulletproof vest to protect the body politic from assault by the weapons industry and gun ideologues. And the best place to begin is by talking about the dangers that uncontrolled access to firearms pose to citizens who do not choose to live with these instruments of violence, citizens whose freedoms and rights and very lives are put at risk without their consent, citizens who all are victims of secondhand gun smoke.
I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.
The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.
In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.
Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.
When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal. This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?
And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements. Well here is what he said:
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed. We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. (Applause.) For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.
If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.” Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?
More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.
Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:
We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.
That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.
The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.
The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.