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

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

The Politics of Non-Movement

Did the Arab Spring come from nowhere, or was it preceded by modes of social and political action that might have eluded our common conceptual frames? How do ordinary people in the Middle East manage and even alter the conditions of everyday life despite the recalcitrance of authoritarian governments? These questions formed the starting point for Asef Bayat’s lecture “Non-Movements and the Power of the Ordinary,” which he gave in Olin Hall on Thursday evening, February 7th. Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches in the sociology and Middle East Studies departments. Throughout his illustrious career, his research has focused on social movements, religiosity, and urban space in Iran, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states.

Contrary to common public perception, Bayat insisted that these countries’ subaltern populations do not resign themselves to adverse economic and political circumstances. Indeed, the region has well established traditions of activism among leftists, unionists, women, Islamists, and post-Islamists, among many other constituencies. But it has often proven difficult to create and sustain organized social movements when Middle Eastern states have been so reluctant to tolerate opposition. How then might citizens foster meaningful political change?

Bayat argued that many Middle Easterners, rather than overtly confronting authoritarian governments, have resorted to what he calls “social non-movements.” Such non-movements are defined not by formal lobbying and protest, but rather by fleeting moments of mundane but nevertheless contentious action. Such action constitutes a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” to the extent that it slowly alters everyday conditions in a manner that authoritarian state forces must respond to but cannot easily prevent. At the same time, social non-movements are propelled not by bureaucratic organizations that governments can readily identify and target, but rather by constituencies of dispersed individuals and groups who mobilize around common experiences and grievances.

In an effort to lend empirical weight to these general claims, Bayat offered a series of illustrative case studies. One concerned the actions of the poor. In Egypt and many other countries of the Middle East, large numbers of rural residents have sought to escape grinding material scarcity by moving to larger cities and building their own homes from scavenged materials. The formation of these squatter settlements is rarely if ever coordinated by any formal collective organization, but it nevertheless results in a dramatic reshaping of the urban landscape. Although government forces may initially destroy homes built in this fashion, the persistent construction and reconstruction eventually compels them to alter urban planning protocols, provide water, electricity and other utilities, and incorporate these makeshift districts into the “official city.”

Another case study turned on pious women’s myriad efforts to carve out more satisfying places for themselves in Iranian public life. The Islamic Republic has long sought to regulate female bodily coverage in the street as one means of assuring the nation’s moral and spiritual integrity, but hundreds of thousands of women have opted to defy government dictates by wearing “bad hijab” (i.e., headscarves and chadors that leave a few centimeters of hair visible). These women’s subtle but consistent sartorial challenges, which circumvent but do not entirely disregard the state’s norms of bodily coverage, have gradually shifted the requirements that government actors can effectively enforce on a day-to-day basis.

Moreover, large numbers of women wear hijab while hiking, jogging, driving cars, and engaging in other activities that are not conventionally regarded as gender-appropriate, or they choose to live alone and unmarried rather than in the homes of their parents and spouses. Once again, these varied practices have not been centrally orchestrated or institutionalized, but they have nevertheless altered the terms of women’s participation in everyday life.

Bayat acknowledged that social non-movements like these can and do coalesce into more organized and concerted activism, and he recognized that both movements and non-movements constitute important means for subaltern groups to claim de facto citizenship. But he also insisted that these two modes of action cannot be readily equated. Whereas social movements pursue a politics of overt protest, non-movements engage in a quieter, less obtrusive politics of everyday presence and practice. They are also driven less by specific and explicit ideological commitments than by inchoate desires for more expansive and appealing life chances. Nevertheless, they also provide a nutritive context within which more articulate claims for rights and resources might be formulated.

Bayat’s lecture offered a suggestive framework through which to conceive practices and processes that often do not meet our established expectations of politics. Much of the ensuing discussion then attempted to probe and delimit the contours of his argument. What, for example, are the conditions in which a social non-movement might pivot into more cohesive and institutionalized forms of collective protest? How can a social non-movement be distinguished from a dissenting subculture or counter-public, more conventional forms of deviant or illegal behavior, or the glacial drift of wider social change? And to what degree does the notion of a social non-movement presume the existence of an authoritarian state, whether in the Middle East or in other parts of the world? Could we also identify non-movements, for instance, in the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe?

Here Bayat contended that non-movements were closely tied to authoritarian states that retain a degree of “softness.” That is to say, these states aspire to exert thorough if not complete control over the social field, but they ultimately lack the capacity to make such control a living reality. As a result, they necessarily leave “opaque spaces” that subaltern groups can turn to their own advantage. Bayat’s remarks obviously referred to the many Middle Eastern governments that have recently teetered or toppled as a result of the Arab Spring. Yet he also suggested that the gradual undoing of Prohibition in the 1930s U.S. might also illustrate the concept of a social non-movement and its long-term incremental effects.

In his reading, the ban on alcohol was undermined less by concerted lobbying and protest than by millions of Americans’ spontaneous, mundane but eventually consequential disregard for existing legislation.

To my mind, this apparent discrepancy was not a flaw in Bayat’s analysis as much as an invitation for further inquiry. Like the lecture as a whole, it demonstrated the rewards but also the challenges of breaking out of our intellectual ruts to wrestle with complexity in new ways.

-Jeff Jurgens

Readers who would like to delve further into Bayat’s argument should consult his book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010).

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Withered Public, Disappearing Private

“What is necessary for the pubic realm is to shield it from the private interests which have intruded upon it in the most brutal and aggressive form.”

-Hannah Arendt

In 1973, Hannah Arendt was invited to participate in a series of conferences on the Humanities and Public Policy issues funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to be held at Columbia University. The first, scheduled for February 1974, was on the topic of “Private Rights and the Public Good,” and Arendt gave a speech in response to a paper on the subject given by Charles Frankel, a Professor of Philosophy and Public Affairs at Columbia University. (The original note cards of her presentation are available to researchers at the Library of Congress and can be viewed digitally online.)

Part of the grant’s requirements included taping the sessions and providing the Endowment with a transcript of all proceedings. Arendt objected to being taped and indicated she could do no more than present her oral commentaries; she had no time to develop a fuller paper. The organizers of the conference and Arendt reached a compromise: they would prepare a transcript of her comments from the tape; the tape would stay in the possession of Columbia University and no use would be made of the transcript, other than filing it with the Endowment as required, without Arendt’s express permission.

Some months after the conference, the coordinator of the conference sent Arendt the edited transcript, along with his wishes for her speedy recovery: while Arendt was in Scotland for the second of the Gifford Lectures, she had suffered a major heart attack. Unhappy with the transcription, Arendt indicated she still had her notes and would prepare something from them, adding that she thought this would present her thoughts more clearly, “even though these notes are written down in a rather apodictic style.” She had her secretary type up a version of the notes and then made a few additional minor changes and sent them to Columbia University.

“Notes on the Discussion of Professor Charles Frankel’s Paper...” provides several succinct insights into Arendt’s critical distinctions between public and private, which are especially germane to today’s political situation.

“Every individual by virtue of his citizenship receives a sort of second life in addition to his private life. He belongs to two orders of existence. Throughout his life he moves within what is his own, and what is common to him and his fellow man.” Public happiness was something that could only be attained “in public, independent of...private happiness.”

Today, Arendt bemoaned, the opportunities for experiencing this public happiness by participating in public life had shrunk, adding, “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” It was better represented in the activities of a jury. But the paradigmatic “public right” for Arendt was the right to peaceable assembly provided by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Its exercise was still evident in “voluntary association”, she remarked, “of which the civil disobedience groups were an outstanding examples.” Arguably, it has been more recently evident in dimensions of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its iterations. (Though, for interesting commentary and documentary materials on this see Cindy Weber’s recent essay in Open Democracy). But what was definitely not an example of the exercise of public rights was the degeneration of peaceable assembly into “lobbying,” which Arendt saw as “the organization of private interest for the purpose of public political influence.

Evidence from the current campaign suggests that the bipartisan perversion of public into private interests continues at an obscene pace. A recent article in The New Yorker provided some frightening facts:  The impact of the 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has meant that “very wealthy Americans have begun wielding increasingly disproportionate power in U.S. politics...A pool of only 2100 people has given a total of 200 million dollars to the 2012 campaigns and their Super PACs—fifty-two million dollars more than the combined donations of the two and a half million voters who have given two hundred dollars or less. In other words, the top .07 per cent of donors are exerting greater influence on the 2012 race than the bottom 86%.” (August 27, 2012)

What this means, using Arendt’s terminology, is that only a tiny portion of private interests will exert tremendous political influence. Not only has the public realm shrunk; the private realm of influencing politics has all but disappeared for everyone except the very few. Entering the voting booth in 2012 will mean exercising your private right to choose between one form of oligarchy or another. What then of public life? How can it be restored?

Arendt was typically vague about what to do about the influence of oligarchies on public and private life. “Neither the capitalist system [nor] the socialist system respects ownership any more—inflation and devaluation of currency are capitalist modes of appropriation—although both, in different ways, respect acquisition,” she wrote in the same speech. As to the consequences of enshrining acquisition as a principle of social organization, Arendt had nothing but criticism—see The Human Condition for this. To protect private life, we must “restore ownership to private individuals under conditions of modern production.” And what is necessary for public life to be restored is “to shield it against the private interests which have intruded upon it in the most brutal and aggressive form.” Yet all recent legislation that would have restored “ownership” or secured the public realm against brutalization by private interests seem to disappeared from the legislative agenda.

Is it time to call upon the 99% to boycott the election entirely? What other act of civil disobedience would be adequate to the task of renewing public life and salvaging it from its bastardization at the hands of greedy private interests?

-Kathleen B. Jones

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.