Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

“The Lost Treasure of Arendt’s Council System”


"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?

-Jeffrey Champlin