In The Stone yesterday Firmin DeBrabander references Hannah Arendt to buttress his argument for gun control in the wake of the tragic massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve wanted to avoid turning a true tragedy into a political cause, but DeBrabander’s thoughtful essay merits a response.
The thrust of DeBrabander’s reflection is that the presence of guns in society does not promote freedom. He is responding to the pro-gun argument that, in his words, “individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty.” In other words, guns make us independent and give us the power to protect ourselves and thus the freedom to take risks and to live boldly. Against this view he enlists Arendt:
In her book “The Human Condition,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt states that “violence is mute.” According to Arendt, speech dominates and distinguishes the polis, the highest form of human association, which is devoted to the freedom and equality of its component members. Violence — and the threat of it — is a pre-political manner of communication and control, characteristic of undemocratic organizations and hierarchical relationships. For the ancient Athenians who practiced an incipient, albeit limited form of democracy (one that we surely aim to surpass), violence was characteristic of the master-slave relationship, not that of free citizens.
Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.
I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand parts of this argument. First, yes, “violence is mute.” Arendt does insist that violence cannot create conditions of political power. Power, on the contrary, has its roots in speech and action, by which Arendt means that any political regime lives upon the continuing support of its people, something that only persists amidst freedom. Political support does not issue from the barrel of a gun.
DeBrabander’s last point that guns chasten speech is also suspect. Revolutionaries have long found guns helpful, not only because they can kill, but because they command attention. When weaker elements of society have been overlooked or overheard, they have traditionally found weapons and guns a useful megaphone. There are of course other megaphones like civil disobedience. I may prefer the latter to the former. But that doesn’t erase the fact that guns can equalize an unequal political playing field and can, and often are, symbolically important. Political support may not issue from the barrel of a gun, but attention for one’s platform might very well.
But what does any of this have to do with gun violence like what happened in Newtown last week? The muteness of violence in politics that DeBrabander highlights does not mean that Arendt thinks it possible or right to exclude all violence from society. Contra DeBrabander, violence can be associated with freedom. The human fabrication of the natural world—man’s freedom to act into and build upon nature—is a kind of violence. And violence is, at bottom, an often justified and positive human emotional response to injustice. As Arendt writes in just one instance:
In private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this will permit us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or by finding another substitute. The point is that under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again. (Billy Budd striking dead the man who bore false witness against him is the classic example.) In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong among the “natural” human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him.
I am not sure why DeBrabander wants to employ Arendt to oppose violence itself. That is certainly not her point.
What Arendt opposes is the reliance on violence in politics. The massacre in Newtown is not, at least so far as I currently know, an example of political violence. Arendt’s distinction between power and violence and her assertion that mere violence is politically mute seems, quite simply, out of place in the discussion of gun violence.
But Arendt does have something to offer us in our thinking about the excessive dangers of powerful guns. In her essay “On Violence,” Arendt considers the rise of extraordinary new weapons like nuclear and biological weapons and robot warriors. These super-powerful weapons threaten to upend the usual relationship between power and violence. If traditionally the more powerful and hence more free nations were also better able to marshal the implements of violence, the existence of weapons of mass destruction mean that small, weak, and irresponsible nations can now practice violent destruction well beyond their relative power. In short, the existence of excessively destructive weapons elevates the impact of violence over and against power.
The same can be said of the kind of automatic and semi-automatic guns used in the Newtown massacre and other recent attacks. In each of these cases, loners and crazy people have been able to murder and kill with a precision and scope well beyond their individual strength or capacity. Whereas killing 27 people in a school would at one time have required the political savvy of organizing a group of radicals or criminals, today one disturbed person can do outsized and horrific damage.
What might be an Arendtian argument for gun control is based upon the dangerous disconnect between strength and violence that modern weaponry makes possible. When individuals are capable of extraordinary destruction simply by coming to possess a weapon and without having to speak or act in conjunction with others, we are collectively at the mercy of anyone who has a psychotic episode. It is in just such a situation that regulating weapons of mass destruction makes sense (and that is what automatic weapons are).
As for DeBrabander’s larger point about freedom and guns, carrying a gun or owning a gun may at times be a legitimate part of someone’s identity or sense of themselves. It may make some feel safer and may help others feel powerful. Some are repulsed by guns, others fetishize them. I have little stake in a debate about guns since they aren’t part of my life and yet I respect those who find them meaningful in theirs. We should not reject such freedoms outright. What I worry about is not people owning guns, but their owning automatic and semi-automatic weapons capable of mass executions.
Let’s concede that the vast majority of gun owners are good and responsible people, like Adam Lanza’s mother seems to have been. Why in the world do we need to allow anyone to own automatic weapons with large clips holding dozens of bullets? If Adam Lanza had stolen a handgun instead of a semi-automatic, the trail of terror he left would have been shorter and less deadly. We cannot prevent all violence in our world, but we can make political judgments that weapons of mass destruction that put inordinate power in single individuals should be banned.
What Arendt’s thoughts on violence actually help us see is not that we should expel violence from society or that guns are opposed to freedom, but that we should limit the disproportionate and tragic consequences of excessively violent weaponry that dangerously empowers otherwise powerless individuals to exercise massive injuries. We can do that just, as we seek to limit biological and nuclear weapons in the world.
The crisis must matter.
The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.
The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a "crisis" as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.
It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won't be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.
We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don't trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.'s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have "A great deal" of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.
According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:
We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once. Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.
Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that "our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent." Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.
Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.
Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.
Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.
Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. "A crisis," she saw, "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices." The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age. It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.
There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.
If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend "read".
“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”
—Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?
This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter? The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.
This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.
If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.
And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?
On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.
This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.
Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief. In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.
No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.
Every President comes to Washington promising reform! And they all fail. According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:
If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.
On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:
The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.
The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible. All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.
For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.
The question "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:
“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”
So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”
What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.
The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.
When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.
Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence." To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.
Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.
One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.
This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:
Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.
All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.
Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:
"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."
My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.
What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.
But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law. Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.
In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.
In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.
These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.
Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.
Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask: might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.
At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.
Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.
It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.
I don't know if the president matters.
But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.
In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you. If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.
Watch Roger's opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.
Asked in July if Occupy Wall Street has been successful, Todd Gitlin—renowned social historian, former President of Students for a Democratic Society, and author most recently of Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street—responds:
"OWS has been successful because we are talking about it. You now see bumper stickers that say 99%. I was just in upstate NY and I saw a candidate running for office with a sign that says: The candidate of the 99%. It is now legitimate to talk about inequality and the domination of American by a plutocracy, by an oligarchy of the super wealthy. No it is not successful in the sense that it has not delivered concrete results."
As the election has heated up OWS has faded even further from consciousness. At a time when we are about to pick our next leader, the leaderless rhetoric of OWS is out of step.
That said, Gitlin is right that many of the pressing issues underlying the OWS movement have insinuated themselves into public discourse. It is unlikely that without OWS President Obama would be focusing so clearly on raising taxes on those he calls the wealthy (by which he means those who earn over $250,000 per year). Indeed, if there is one core issue that seems to demarcate President Obama and Governor Romney it is the question of their differing attitudes towards wealth and taxes.
Gitlin, who is speaking next week at the Hannah Arendt Center’s conference “Does The President Matter?", is clear-headed about the movement's failures but remains optimistic about its future. Gitlin’s optimism, his hope for a movement that many other see as dead, is heartening. There may also, surprisingly, be a grain of truth in his rosy scenario.
Gitlin understands that the future of OWS is not in what it has been, but in what it has not yet imagined. After a lull in the movement, OWS, he writes, may well birth “individual initiatives combined with community spirit, assisted by technical ingenuity and the ability to learn from experience,” to shift the values that caused the crisis in the first place. If OWS is to bring about change, it will be because against its own anti-leadership rhetoric, it has and continues to produce new leaders.
"Leadership," Gitlin writes in Occupy Nation,
"is not abolished when movements don't designate spokespersons and leaders refuse the label, any more than prisons are abolished when they are designated as correctional facilities. In all social groups, leaders emerge. They emerge in the course of action when acts of leadership take place. Leaders prove themselves. Some are labeled leaders, some are not. Some accept the label, others reject it. Those who get the reputation for leadership get treated as leaders. It is as simple (and as complicated) as this: Leaders are persons whom others follow—admire, heed, recognize."
In imagining the fecundity of Occupy Wall Street's birthing of new leaders, Gitlin focuses on that aspect of OWS that was most surprising, new, and wonderful: Its determination to open up a space for being together, thinking, and talking in public. He quotes one OWS member as saying: "Something has been opened up, a kind of space nobody knew existed." There was, in the encampments, "a public place to go to, where attention could readily be paid, and individuals had faces and stories." Above all, Gitlin writes, the Occupiers were "creating a space where leaders and ideas could emerge."
In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:
"This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries."
The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the presence or lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives.
What Gitlin's account of Occupy Nation makes palpable is that amidst all the excesses and competing narratives, there are still some people who aspire to be real revolutionaries. Whether that small group will produce leaders of revolutionary potential is, of course, something we cannot know. But at a time of political paralysis amidst the political, economic, and ecological crises of our time, any movement that might give birth to new leaders is something to be welcomed.
So this weekend as we prepare for next week's conference "Does the President Matter?" pick up Todd Gitlin's Occupy Nation. You can also here him speak at Bard College on Friday, Sept. 21. And you can have him sign your book then.
“‘[T]he revolution was effected before the war commenced,’ not because of any specifically revolutionary or rebellious spirit but because the inhabitants of the colonies were ‘formed by law into corporations, or bodies politic,’ and possessed ‘the right to assemble … in their town halls, there to deliberate upon the public affairs."
—Hannah Arendt, quoting John Adams, in On Revolution
These remarks represent casual, back-of-the-envelope thoughts. The question they pose is: what would the Occupy movement, or something like it, have to look like in order to succeed in altering the structure of American governance? This assumes that the goal of Occupy is, or should be, to change the structure of American governance, and it assumes an idea of what “the structure of American governance” means, which I will try to explain. My answer to that question—what would Occupy have to look like—can be summed up in a few words: it would have to stop being a movement of the left. As a thought experiment, I propose to imagine an Occupy movement without leftism, and with the goal of changing the structure of governance.
The first thing to work out is wherein the leftism of Occupy actually consists. It does not consist in espousing the interests of the poor—or attacking the interests of the rich. Wealth is neither liberal nor conservative by nature, and wealth in today’s America flows alternately to Republicans and Democrats. Right-wing movements can be populist as well, and garner the support of the economically marginal. Wealth looks after its own interests and treats politics as secondary—which is why the catchphrase of the Occupy movement, “the 99 percent,” theoretically constitutes an appeal to both left and right. It is supposed to be a call to unite along economic rather than political lines. This—“Forget politics and unite for your common economic interest!”—is what I take to be the intended message of Occupy. Those who primarily hear this intended message thus think that Occupy is a new kind of populist movement, having left behind the identity politics of liberalism for a unifying, class-based cause.
But whatever you make of this intended message, there is also an effective message of Occupy, somewhat different from its intended one. The effective message of Occupy proceeds, inevitably, from the demographic composition of the movement. Is it plain for anyone beholding an Occupy rally to see that its membership is drawn from the educated, bourgeois, liberal left; that other contingents (sympathetic Ron Paulites, unionists, etc.) are essentially tokens; and that the members of the real economic underclass are present only on the other side of the fast food counter, selling burritos to hungry protestors. At a march I attended in Chicago, I could stand in one spot and see signs proclaiming dozens of demands: that we go green, withdraw from foreign wars, respect women and minorities, legalize gay marriage, realize that “we are one with the cosmos”—and, oh yes, punish the banks while we’re at it. I happen to agree, at least in some sense, with most of these demands (oneness with the cosmos being one that I would have to find out more about before deciding on), but I was puzzled by their presence. I asked myself: are these particular demands separable from the core economic message? It seems they ought to be, and in theory they are, but here the concrete trumps the theoretical. Get rid of all the people holding those “Regulate x” and “Legalize y” signs at the Occupy rally, and you will have gotten rid of most of the movement. Occupy pursues its universalism as a process of expansion from a preexisting social base. It is like a Facebook group that keeps adding members (in fact, it is that, literally). But this process has natural limits, which Occupy has probably already reached.
So Occupy has its economic message (“the 99 percent”), and it has its social message. The social message is: “Join the left! We liberals have everybody’s best interests at heart, and our concern is with economic justice for the 99 percent.
All you have to do to be part of our movement is to drop your uneducated prejudices—your racism, xenophobia, homophobia, chauvinism, et cetera. Then, once you have become educated liberals, we can move beyond liberalism and fight together for our economic interests!” In the very act of asserting its universalist economic agenda, Occupy reinscribes the particularist demands of the liberal left as prerequisites for participation.
Better than trying to cleanse the economic message of those distracting particularist agendas would be instead to think beyond the economic message itself. What would it mean for Occupy to think at the level of the political? The question of defining the political as such is a point that risks involving Arendt scholars, somewhat uncharacteristically, in long, subtle, almost scholastic discussions; but for our purposes, the answer is easy enough. It would mean to think about constitutions.
A constitution can be a written document embodying the “higher law of the land”—but it need not be. A constitution can just as well consist in an unwritten tradition (as in Great Britain), or, as Arendt reminds us, in an institution such as the Roman senate (or perhaps, in our day, the loya jirga)—a political body that lasts just as long as it is cared for and maintained. (Similarly, a written constitution lasts only as long as people choose to obey it.) A successful revolution—this is the thrust of Arendt’s On Revolution—is one which does not stop at the point of liberating people from oppression, which might be of an economic or a political kind. Occupy aims at economic liberation. A successful revolution, on the other hand, puts its main energy into constitution-making, and results in the creation of lasting institutions, bodies politic that function and endure.
Founding, constituting, instituting: this would be the business of a truly political and, I think, a truly successful Occupy movement. These activities are by nature genuinely public and open to all comers without prerequisite. They might take various concrete forms. Lawrence Lessig advocates holding mock constitutional conventions across the country, with the eventual aim of demonstrating the effectiveness of the process as carried out by ordinary citizens and encouraging state legislatures to invoke Article V of the U.S. constitution and call a new federal convention. Another model would be to simply begin holding unconditional open meetings, publicized and accessible to all, neighborhood by neighborhood, “to deliberate upon the public affairs” until some structure of governance begins to emerge, good leaders come forward, actions are taken. While both these models have their idealistic aspects, both have some realistic aspects as well. We have barely begun to think through the possibilities, but we will eventually need to do the patient work of reconstituting the republic.
-Stephen Haswell Todd
From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving and in which somebody like him—already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well—could start from scratch and still make a career.
-Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 33
Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann and his striving to redeem himself from his life continues to teach us an important lesson about our relationship to movements. This lesson is not that we are all potentially “evil” due to the banality of most of our motivations. It is rather that our standing with respect to any movement, for good or for evil, places us in a position potentially to be sacrificed to or effaced under the movement itself.
An illustration of this possibility that has for some time resonated with me is in a 2005 audio commentary by Mumia Abu-Jamal on the death of Rosa Parks. Here, he reminds listeners of Claudette Colvin, the teenager who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nine months before Parks. He says,
People build movements, one by one, in tens, hundreds, thousands and eventually millions, and what if Claudette Colvin, this poor woman, lost not only her seat and her dignity but was later tossed in a mental institution. Few remember this woman’s name, but her contribution that would set the stage for Parks was immense...
We react very differently to this conception of “movement” than we do to the force that Arendt refers to in Eichmann in Jerusalem. We do not condemn individuals who become swept up in it, but rather praise and admire them.
What then differentiates the movement of the Third Reich from that of the American civil rights movement, other than the obvious? The former, according to Arendt, seemed to exist independently of individuals; it was a “History” with a narrative and direction all its own, not built by individuals, but rather itself building individuals. Adolph Eichmann tried to find in the History that the Nazi regime tried to bring about, a chance to acquire significance and visibility as an individual and to become, in a sense, a part of this history. Arendt makes clear the futility of such an attempt when she paints a picture of Eichmann not as a grand man, evil or otherwise, but as a banal figure who could not even interact intelligently with his interlocutors at the court.
When Mumia Abu-Jamal speaks of the civil rights movement of which both Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin were a part, he describes a force in which it is still possible to identify within it the individuals whose actions have contributed to it. This movement appears not as a force of History, but of individuals, each of who advances the movement in her own way.
But even in Abu-Jamal’s conception of movement and despite the justice of this cause, the individual becomes, in some sense, lost to the movement in a way that is reminiscent of Eichmann’s disappearance into History. Arendt’s description of Eichmann’s relationship to the movement of his time can make us especially sensitive to the self-sacrifice of Colvin in a way that Abu-Jamal’s recognition of her does not. Arendt helps us to see that any movement, whether for good or for evil, requires that one be open to the possibility of being sacrificed, of having one’s individual action become transformed into a “step” toward a larger goal. Every movement demands individual sacrifice, for as long as the goal of everyone’s actions is the common, shared one around which the “movement” itself is organized, none is wholly significant in his own right.
This does not mean that the sacrifice may not be worth it, as the sacrifices to the cause of civil rights in this country surely were. But it does mean that our relationship to and experience of being a part of a movement cannot, or at least should not, be unconditionally positive. We should instead be wary of the possibility that our participation may not always be personally empowering and not delude ourselves into upholding the movements we believe in as unqualified forces for good.
And this means that we should attend to movements, both as their participants and their spectators, with the heavy heart that is appropriate to the sadness that should accompany our acknowledgement that individuals will be sacrificed. Abu-Jamal almost does this when he characterizes Colvin’s contribution as derivative of having set the stage for Parks and her action. But he ultimately tries to eject from our minds the tragedy of her loss by impressing us with the justice of the movement itself. “What if,” he asks, “this poor woman…lost not only her seat and her dignity but was later tossed in a mental institution”? She had set the stage for Rosa Parks and for a critical success in the movement for the rights of African-Americans.
He is right. But to be significant in this way is still sad, because to experience oneself as being merely a stagehand for another’s performance is a sad and lonely existence. Colvin reports having mixed feelings about her role in the civil rights movement and its leaders’ pushing her to the sidelines. She does not seem enamored with the possibility of being swept up in a movement (as Eichmann was) and she acknowledges the appropriateness of the decision to pass her up for Rosa Parks with the resignation of someone who had no other alternative.
When we talk about the most prominent movement of our time—Occupy Wall Street—we often fail to acknowledge the necessary possibility of individual sacrifice. Yet at the same time we demand in some way such sacrifice from everyone who participates in the movements we believe in. We reject leaders who seem too egotistical and who seem to profit individually from their positions. The problem is not that we shouldn’t ask for these sacrifices, but rather that we fail to acknowledge their necessity and in so doing, become open to possibly sacrificing individuals with impunity or with even joy. That one would sacrifice oneself for a movement, either willingly or not, might be laudable, depending on the movement, and it is definitely necessary. But this should be a deeply sad occurrence that does not make our commitment to a movement less passionate or energetic, but certainly should make it more complicated and more attuned to the sadness and tragedy that accompany it.
It is not enough to try to lionize the sacrificed individual, for this only covers over the tragedy of the individual’s loss, attempting to recover the idea of the thorough, unconditional righteousness of certain movements. If, as some have claimed, there is any softness on Arendt’s part in her description of Eichmann, it is not because she sympathizes with this figure in any way or sees his actions as anything less than deserving of his execution. It is because she recognizes the tragic character of all movements. With her description of Eichmann’s longing to achieve personal success through the Nazi regime, she was, I submit, trying to alert us to the necessary effacement of the individual that is universally present in all movements. With respect to this goal, her tone is appropriately somber. And as such, even though our political condition is nothing like that of Nazi Germany and our movement nothing like that regime’s, there is still plenty to learn from Eichmann in Jerusalem when we think about the movements that we might identify today.
Is economic inequality becoming a problem for Americans? The common sense today is that OWS has put inequality on the agenda today in a way that is new in American politics. And today Eduardo Porter makes the argument that OWS is having some traction on the question of income inequality. While Americans traditionally are tolerant of inequality, that may be changing.
Our tolerance for a widening income gap may be ebbing, however. Since Occupy Wall Street and kindred movements highlighted the issue, the chasm between the rich and ordinary workers has become a crucial talking point in the Democratic Party’s arsenal. In a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., last December, President Obama underscored how “the rungs of the ladder of opportunity had grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.”
There are signs that the political strategy has traction. Inequality isn’t quite the top priority of voters: only 17 percent of Americans think it is extremely important for the government to try to reduce income and wealth inequality, according to a Gallup survey last November. That is about half the share that said reigniting economic growth was crucial.
Seventeen percent seem a low number of citizens concerned about inequality, but looking deeper, Porter argues that attitudes are changing.
A slightly different question indicates views have changed: 29 percent said it was extremely important for the government to increase equality of opportunity. More significant, 41 percent said that there was not much opportunity in America, up from 17 percent in 1998.
Statistics on income mobility are notoriously hard to measure and contested, but the surveys indicate that optimistic Americans are losing that sense of mobility and possibility. Even if people can and do often earn more than their parents, the vast rifts opening up between rich and middle class means that increasingly Americans live in different worlds. These vast divisions are now seen as a problem not only by liberals, but also by conservatives like Charles Murray, whose book Coming Apart bemoans the loss of a common sense of American values. There is a way in which the truly extraordinary gaps in income are unraveling the social contract that holds the country together.
In other words, even for those who are accepting of inequality and who believe in a meritocracy, excessive inequality cannot be justified. As Porter writes:
One doesn’t have to believe in equality to be concerned about these trends. Once inequality becomes very acute, it breeds resentment and political instability, eroding the legitimacy of democratic institutions. It can produce political polarization and gridlock, splitting the political system between haves and have-nots, making it more difficult for governments to address imbalances and respond to brewing crises. That too can undermine economic growth, let alone democracy.
Read more here.
“In contrast to the inorganic thereness of lifeless matter, living beings are not mere appearances. To be alive means to be possessed by an urge toward self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness. Living things make their appearance like actors on a stage set for them.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, vol. 1: Thinking
Political theorists are likely to associate the phrase the “urge to self-display” with a characteristically “Arendtian” politics. But here, Arendt takes self-display to characterize something much more basic and fundamental—the sheer life of human beings. Despite Arendt’s imagery of the actor appearing on a stage, self-display does not seem at all to invoke the greatness of individuality or of heroic deeds. It is merely the “fact of one’s own appearingness.” What could Arendt mean by characterizing human life by the fact of appearing, and what does it mean to say that human beings, as opposed to “lifeless matter” makes their appearance?
In The Life of the Mind, Arendt describes the phenomenon of appearing as human beings’ appearing to others in a way that is subject to the particular perspective of the spectator.
“To appear,” she writes, “always means to seem to others, and this seeming varies according to the standpoint and perspective of the spectator”. In this interpretation, the fact of appearingness is a fact of the world in which we live; it is the fact of plurality and the irreducibility of perspectives that signals that men, not Man, populate the world.
But the fact of appearance also has a moral and political significance that goes beyond this almost formal description of the dual position of subjectivity and objectivity that human beings occupy with respect to one another. If we turn to Origins of Totalitarianism, a text that is not often read in connection with The Life of the Mind, we are confronted with a striking and terrifying picture of the loss of appearingness, which confronts us fully with the implications of Arendt’s characterization of human beings as beings who must make their appearance.
In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt uses the term “rightlessness” to describe the condition of European Jews under the Third Reich. In that regime, Jews were not merely “deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion,” but made so irrelevant that “nobody wants even to oppress them”. The ultimate expression of invisibility was the genocide in the death camps of the Final Solution. However, the effectiveness of these camps in rendering people invisible did not lie simply in the physical destruction of millions. The camps sought to destroy what Arendt called the “moral man,” or that aspect of human beings that is subject to moral judgment and valuation. This term attaches not to moral behavior, but to the presence of individual human beings in the world that makes it possible to see them as individuals in the first place.
In the camps, the boundary between life and death and between individuals was so attenuated that it was nearly impossible to distinguish any one person from another, living or dead. The invisibility of individuals this lack of boundaries engendered was so thoroughgoing that it obscured even the most heroic of deaths: “[i]t belonged among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don’t permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr’s death for their convictions….The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity”. Even the most heroic of acts was disposed of simply and without regard or comment, just as those deaths that occurred daily, and both were made invisible along with the individuals in and through whom these deaths occurred.
The crucial point is not that death was made routine, but that the camps ensured that with these deaths any marker of the victim’s having ever been alive also disappeared along with him. The individual prisoner was barely distinguished from the others and seen only as one in a series in which his exact position was irrelevant. As a group, the prisoners were invisible to the world, and as individuals, they were invisible to the world and to one another as distinct people.
The result was an attenuation of the line that separates the lives of individuals as they have lived it from mere physical life and death and the elimination of the world as a stage on which individuals could make their appearance. And in the absence of this stage, death could be nothing more than a “seal on the fact that he had never really existed”.
Making one’s appearance in the world, as an actor does on a stage, is not about being extraordinary. Nor is it a merely formal description of how human beings perceive the world around them and are perceived by other human beings. Rather, appearingness is the essential condition of being recognized as a member of the community of human beings and the world and of being treated accordingly. As the events of the past century have made strikingly clear, appearingness is a condition that we could lose or of which we could be stripped. Our condition of humanity is something that we must create—create by making our appearance in the world. Arendt’s words about our basic condition of appearance alerts us to the dangers of invisibility and should make us suspicious of any situation in which people exist in a condition of invisibility.
In our own time, the Occupy Wall Street movement has helped to bring to light some of those who have been made invisible in poverty. This act of opening up a space in which an individual might make their appearance in the world is, I think, one of the movement’s greatest accomplishments. And a politics of visibility is not just about our own visibility or our own great accomplishments, but about creating stages upon which people can make their appearance and exposing and tearing down those scaffoldings that bar some from entering these stages.
If we see the OWS movement as a politics of appearance, then the albeit valid criticisms about the lack of a definite agenda and the like do seem to lose some of their force. But this does not mean that the movement is a success in Arendt’s terms. The movement has certainly brought us to the stage, but what we all—the invisible and the visible—do with this opening and how we make our appearance onto it remains the political question that only the individual actors, and not any movement, can and must answer.
The most exciting aspect of Occupy Wall Street was seeing Americans—young and old, white and black, Jew and Muslim—coming together in public spaces to talk about matters of public importance. The most disheartening failure of Occupy Wall Street was how quickly those conversations turned to navel gazing. Instead of aiming to lead, to take on responsibility, and to honestly and courageously work to impact the public world around them, the protesters (and that is what they are, at least to date, rather than revolutionaries) satisfied themselves with talking to like-minded people about their dreams and hopes. Occupy Wall Street fizzled because the passions and happiness at making a difference gave way to the solipsistic self-pleasuring of those speaking to themselves, and those like them.
Consider, as an alternative, the villagers of Wukan, China. In September of 2011, the village government sold town land to real-estate developers. Such deals are reportedly common in China, since China repealed local agricultural taxes in 2006. To raise money to run local governments, Chinese local officials are increasingly selling farmland to developers. According to Michael Young, "the local government compensates the farmers with a minimum amount of money and then is paid 50 times more by the developer." According to Young, "60 to 70 percent of local government income comes from selling land to developers." The land sales "enrich officials" and also contribute to economic growth of China.
The land sales have generated huge resentment throughout China, and for a while Wukan was no different. In 2009 villages petitioned and protested the sale of 67 acres of land to a Hong Kong developer. In September of 2011, another protest erupted, but this time serious clashes only intensified the protests. Eventually new villagers were elected to the village government. One of these, Xue Jinbo, was then arrested and died in custody, amidst rumors of torture and mistreatment. The resulting uproar led to something unheard of in China: A free and democratic village election with secret ballots.
On February 11, 2012, over 6,000 of the Wukan's 8,000 residents filled out "pink ballots in rows of plywood booths that ensured their choices would remain secret, then dropped them in big steel boxes sealed with tamper-proof stickers.
Officials tallied the votes in the schoolyard as residents looked on." According to The New York Times report,
It was the first truly democratic vote here in decades, if not ever, and something of a landmark of transparency in China's opaque politics. By the time it ended, the very men who had led Wukan's struggle against an entrenched village autocracy had been chosen as its new leaders.
Even as the Times article reports on the amazing victory in Wukan and the optimism it has spawned, the narrative of the article questions whether anything will change. The corruption underlying the land sales is deep and "reaches into layers of higher governments." The new leaders of Wukan have received threats. Other similar attempts at protests in China have lately been suppressed: "this month in Zhejiang province, north of Guangdong, officials suppressed a Wukan-style land protest in Panhe by systematically rounding up protest leaders and sealing their village off from journalists." The Times quotes Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing scholar, who argues: "Reform in China doesn't start in places like Wukan. It starts at the top and soaks downward."
I am not an expert in Chinese politics. But dismissals of the Wukan revolution—and that is what happened in Wukan—do seem to ignore the incredible and seemingly impossible victories of the people there.
So what, we must ask, has changed in China? How does the people's occupation and revolution in Wukan compare to the Occupy Wall Street movement here?
Whether or not the people of Wukan get their land back, they have tasted what Hannah Arendt calls public freedom. Like OWS, the people of Wukan experienced the joy of collective action in public. In both cases, they did not simply protest. They also created councils and general assemblies and thus built organizations in which people could act together in public. But there is where the similarities end.
In Wukan, the people did not only occupy parks. They came together and created a new power in society and used that power to take over their government.
Leaders emerged, who channeled the spirit of protest into demands not only for redress of their land claims but for an openness and participation in government. What Wukan shows, in other words, is a new model for revolutionary politics in China—a path towards the creation of local power centers built upon the consensus of individual villagers.
I have no doubt that China can, if it wants, violently suppress these concretions of people power. As Syria is showing now, unrelenting violence can overcome power. And yet, to employ such violence risks destroying the power of the state itself, which is always based upon the consensus of the people. More likely, the revolution in Wukan is an example of the way that people in China are, in steps big and small, demanding the control of their political fate.
What distinguished the United States at the time of its revolution was what Hannah Arendt called the experience of "Public Happiness." From town hall meetings in New England to citizen militias and civic organizations, Americans had the daily experience of self-government. In Arendt's words,
They knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else.
Arendt was always alive to this sense of "public happiness" which she distinguished from the economic and social needs that comprised being well fed and comfortable. Public happiness was found neither in fighting for one's particular interests, nor in doing one's duty by voting or going to town-hall meetings. Rather, the seat of American democracy was the fact that Americans "enjoyed the discussions, the deliberations, and the making of decisions." It was this passion to be involved, to be seen and heard in matters of public importance, and to distinguish oneself before one's peers that Arendt points to as central to the experience of freedom in America.
The promise of Occupy Wall Street was not simply that it would bring about economic equality or other specific results. It was that it returned citizens to the public square to engage again in the public life of the nation. Its failure, at least to date, is that its activists refused to take seriously the responsibility and need to speak and act not only in public, but also for the public.
By avoiding taking stands, by eschewing leadership, by insisting on appealing to everybody, by seeking to offend no one, and by holding themselves above and outside of politics, the movement became consumed by itself, inward looking, and, ultimately, apolitical. The joy of OWS did not translate, as did the joy of the collective action in Wukan, into political power. If we are to rejuvenate our political culture, it is better to look to the revolutionaries in Wukan than the protesters in Zuccotti Park. Or rather, maybe the OWS movement needs to pay attention to Wukan, and think about how to transform its power, joy, and public engagement into political channels.
See the NY Times Slideshow of the Voting in Wukan, here.
You know that the problem of inequality has gone mainstream when even Charles Murray has written a book about it. Not only the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, but also Murray—the conservative force between The Bell Curve and other controversial contributions to the culture wars—is now loudly screaming about the dangers of inequality in America. But with Murray, there is a difference.
If the Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on the vast income inequality that divides the country into haves, have nots, and have-it-alls, and if the Tea Party divides the country into the self-sufficient and the governmental dependents, Murray points to yet another divide: the Cultural Divide.
Murray begins with a point that I take to be essential:
Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting.
Americans (Murray means by this term always white Americans) are living increasingly amongst those like themselves. Murray means by this that American elites (both Republican and Democrat) have separated themselves from the rest of the country. Specifically, he is worried that wealthy white Americans live apart from and are ignorant of poor white Americans. And vice versa.
In his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, Murray argues that an enormous cultural divide has separated white Americans into classes that don't mix. While many liberals might welcome Murray's voice pointing to the rise of inequality in America, his analysis and prescriptions are radically different from those usually suggested by the left. For one thing, Murray focuses on white Americans between 30-49. Part of this focus is to support his argument that "Cultural inequality is not grounded in race or ethnicity." This itself will strike many on the left as an evasion, which it is. And yet, Murray's focus on the increasingly vast class divisions amongst white Americans points to the profound depths of the rising class and income inequality that pervades and divides American society.
Murray does not only point out the vast class divide in the United States. He points to solutions as well. His book is a call to action, but one that has little if nothing to say about the need for government to help the poor. No, for Murray, what both the lower and upper classes need are better values. The lower classes must learn from the upper classes the values of hard work, marriage, and family. The upper classes must learn from the lower classes the value of community, patriotism, and religion.
Whatever one thinks of Murray's analysis, he is right that we all need to do more to read and think and interact with others with whom we don't always agree. Those interested in and concerned by inequality in American can learn from Murray's book, and they should, even as they should wonder at his single-minded concern with white people. Problematic books can teach us much. Thus, for this week's weekend read, I suggest you take a look at Murray's latest essay on "The New American Divide."
A few hundred people gathered at the capitol today as part of Occupy Congress. Why so few?
Last Fall Occupy Wall Street movement sprouted 2,779 chapters around the nation and captured the attention of the 1% as well as much of the 99%. In some ways, the movement has had an impact. A number of young people and even some older people tasted the sweet nectar of political action, and there are individuals and groups still energized to take on the debilitating as well as embarrassing income inequality and political corruption that is endangering our system of government.
These issues are now on the agenda. Just today the New York Times ran a front-page story on Mitt Romney being one of the 1%. Romney, tone-deaf as usual, characterized his $374,327 income from speaking fees as "not very much" money; this was his way of justifying paying only 15% of his income in taxes because his earnings are primarily from investments.
And yet, it is undeniable that the movement has fizzled. One hears almost nothing about Occupy Wall Street these days. A long-planned day of action Occupying Congress drew barely a few hundred souls.
Democratic politicians—not to mention Republicans— around the country are resisting increasing taxes on the highest earners. Accountability on Wall Street and in Washington for the crisis is a fantasy. And serious talk of reforming our campaign finance system is barely audible. What happened? Why did a movement that enraptured the nation just a few months ago fade so quickly? What is the fate of the promise to rejuvenate politics and bring real change?
It cannot simply be the weather (unseasonably warm anyway) that has frustrated the protests. Could it be the glimmer of economic recovery that has changed the focus from protest to profits? Possibly. But still, the alacrity with which the energy and spiritedness of the protests fled from public consciousness is shocking.
I can't but think the real reason for the disappearance is disillusionment and failure. A movement that swept the nation, changed the discourse, and empowered thousands has, in the end, accomplished almost nothing concrete. No laws changed. No new candidates or leaders emerged. And the major issues that galvanized the country—income inequality and political corruption—have seemingly faded from view. With few successes to point to, many of the protesters appear ready to move on. How could this be?
The Occupy Wall Street website still promises, "The Revolution Continues." But the worry about the future is palpable on the forum page titled:
Forum Post: What the fu** has happened to occupy wall st.
There, you can find the following post by Thrasymaque that has generated enormous response.
OWS was based on an idea that was/is needed in many Arab countries: a revolution. Because of this, OWS categorically refused to make demands. They wanted to topple the government, not work with it. Because US doesn't need a revolution and most people don't want one, the energy faded away with the coming of winter. Anarchism and communism have never been very strong in America. Their protest was never expected to last very long. Anarchists always destroy there (sic) own selves.
Thrasymaque gets much of this right. Too many in the movement insisted on rejecting all goals or ends. Some of those had the fantastic goal of overthrowing the government. Others did not know what they wanted. And some really were swept up in the process of trying to figure out what they wanted. There was joy in public action and the thrill of debate and engagement. Much was beautiful and spontaneous. But the fact is that without a concrete goal and without leaders to mold and guide the passions of the people, the movement fizzled.
For those of us who hoped that Occupy Wall Street might rise to the moment and produce a leader or leaders to fill the dangerous vacuum in leadership in this country, the insistence on a leaderless revolution was a huge mistake; so too was the rejection of all issues or goals. The result is that we have seemingly squandered a movement of incredible power and promise.
The real problems we face as a country—the corruption of our political process, the decimation of the middle class, and the malaise of decline—persist. The establishment in Washington and Wall Street breathe a sigh of relief and seem more set in their ways then ever. Congress is paralyzed. Meanwhile, the wheels of finance are turning again. The failure of a popular movement that might have challenged the status quo has left those in power more secure in their privileges. From the winds of change, it seems we have settled into a desert of despair.
In my first post on Occupy Wall Street back on Oct. 5th, I quoted Hannah Arendt's reflection on the Student Protests of the 1960s:
This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries.
The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives.
I asked then: "Is there a serious and thoughtful confrontation with reality that underlies Occupy Wall Street?"
I asked from a position of hope. I fear that the answer, at least so far must be no. We are closer now to counterrevolution than revolution, but most plainly we face anticlimax. Most palpably, in the year of one of the most consequent elections in our nations history, we are missing a leader, a voice, that offers a meaningful and powerful agenda for change, let alone a revolution.
We must ask ourselves: Why is it that this crisis, and this movement, failed to produced revolutionaries?
Undoubtedly it will be a year of surprises and challenges. The world faces a series of unresolved crises; from the financial turmoil that still threatens to lower European and American standards of living, to military crises in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. The environmental crisis has seemingly fallen off the radar and the crisis in education has left young people in the United States profoundly unprepared for the future. Our political crisis proceeds from an unresponsive and ineffective government, paralyzed by a corrupt campaign finance system, which has led to unprecedented levels of distrust and dismay at government.
Above all, we confront a crisis of values, in which people from all walks of life imagine themselves as entitled to benefits and ways of life that are simply unsustainable. On Wall Street, bankers continue to think themselves entitled to bonuses that are a product of dangerous and unsustainable leverage and largesse. Public employees continue to insist on pensions and benefits that cannot be borne by taxpayers, and students continue to take out debts to finance pricey educations that will not land them jobs that enable them to pay back those debts. And politicians refuse to make the hard decisions about how we are going to move forward and lead amongst these many crises.
We are suffering a crisis of leadership of international proportions. From Europe to Japan, from Russia to Egypt, and from China to the United States, political leaders are proving singularly inept at addressing the turmoil that is now more common and certainly more dangerous than the common cold. Across the board, this lack of political leadership is rooted in a crisis of values in which everyone believes they are somehow entitled to have it all without paying for it. Or, as Thomas Friedman has written, "No leaders want to take hard decisions anymore, except when forced to. Everyone — even China’s leaders — seems more afraid of their own people than ever." There is a real question whether the transformative power of the internet and has made participatory democracy so participatory and so democratic that the checks and balances of our constitutional system are no longer up to the task of developing a political system capable of leading and making difficult decisions.
Amidst this worldwide need for and lack of leadership, the United States is about to elect a President. Over the next 11 months, we will spend close to three billion dollars on the presidential contest. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will donate time and money, and about one hundred million will vote. And what will be the effect? If we limit ourselves to the expected choice of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we may well be choosing between two pragmatic technocrats, both intelligent, well-meaning, and competent, but neither having demonstrated strong faiths or convictions about where a country in crisis needs to go. Rather than convictions, our politicians promise technocratic solutions designed to give no offense.
We suffer today from a failure of elite and technocratic rationality. As Ross Douthat writes today in the New York Times,
The United States is living through an era of unprecedented elite failure, in which America's public institutions are understandably distrusted and our leadership class is justifiably despised.
Amidst this crisis of elites, there is desperation for leadership that will be bold, and yet our politicians produce the pallid pablum of party politics.
One wonders where leaders will come from and how we might elect a President who can lead and unite the country. Real leaders, wrote the novelist David Foster Wallace, are people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” Such leaders seem unlikely in a political system in which politicians must tell the people what they want to hear.
In 1946, shortly after arriving in the United States as a Jewish refugee from Germany, Hannah Arendt wrote, "There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom." Arendt fell in love with America, and eagerly became a citizen. At the same time, she worried that the greatest threat to a uniquely American freedom was the sheer bigness of America alongside the rise of a technocracy. The size of the country in concert with a rising bureaucracy threatened to swallow the love for individual freedoms and personal initiative that she saw as the potent core of American civic life.
Arendt understood that political action must be measured in terms of greatness if it is to preserve political freedom from the sway of technocratic rationalism. Political action is necessarily courageous action, action in the public sphere with the potential to either succeed or fail. Political leaders are those who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire the citizens to re-imagine and re-vitalize their sense of belonging to a common people with a common purpose. Especially in times of crisis, we need politicians who can inspire and lead. At a time when politics is ever more driven by the democratic and technocratic need to appeal to the wishes of the people, Arendt prods us to ask how we can maintain the ideal of freedom and the possibility of leadership.
To desire political leadership is not to ask for a Führer or a demagogue. It is to see, with Max Weber, that charismatic leaders are necessary bulwarks against a leaderless Democracy, which Weber describes as, “the rule of professional politicians without a calling, without the inner charismatic qualities that make a leader.” The challenge, as Weber defines it in his classic essay Politics as a Vocation, is: How to allow for a “safety-valve of the demand for leadership” to counteract the dutiful but overly obedient officialdom of a leaderless democracy without running to the opposed danger of a partisan democracy with soulless followers seeking nothing but victory.
Weber's answer is simple: The politician must serve a cause. The cause itself doesn’t necessarily always matter. “The politician may serve national, humanitarian, social, ethical, cultural, worldly, or religious ends. … However some kind of faith must always exist." In today's language, we need a politician with vision and with the charisma and thoughtfulness to unify a fragmented and fearful country around that vision of a common future. That indeed is the classical ideal of a politician, one who stands in the center of a polis and speaks and acts to articulate the common truths that hold the polity together.
Crises can breed opportunity. A crisis, as Arendt writes, "tears away facades and obliterates prejudices," and thus allows us "to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter." The task today is to respond with new and thoughtful action, which requires that we abandon our preformed judgments and attachments that have brought us to this space. Giving up our prejudices is difficult, as is accepting the challenge of the new. And yet the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements have shown that there is a hunger for a new politics that breaks the bounds of traditional political discourse. Our New Year's wish to all of you is that 2012 might bring a bold politics that can bring forth a new politics from out of the cauldron of crisis.
Occupy Wall Street is, on one important level, a movement of signs. I mean this quite literally. Handmade signs with witty epigrams, pithy epithets, and heartfelt emotions took root in Zuccotti Park and blossomed on the web. The signs are not simply the old-fashioned placards of protests past. Rather, the signs proliferated in large measure specifically so they could be photographed, uploaded, and disseminated on the World Wide Web. In many ways, Occupy Wall Street communicated its message through photographs of signs.
Pictures of signs, like the one below, tell human stories of average, hard-working Americans who have been upended by the Great Recession.
In the war of signs, pictures of military veterans occupy a privileged role. The military protester shows, in an image, that the anger, despair, and hope that the Occupy Movement represents is not limited to entitled young hipsters. The signs were, quite often, expressions of the average American, the soldier and the homeowner, who had been devastated by economic hardship. The implication is that these individuals lived honorably, played by the rules, and are suddenly in dire straits as a result of a financial crisis.
I first encountered one such iconic picture on Facebook. It shows an older man telling a sad story. This cheerful, gray-haired, bespectacled Navy Veteran and schoolteacher clad in his oxford shirt neatly pressed under a burgundy sweater is undoubtedly one of the poster-children of Occupy Wall Street. His story is common and sad. He has served his country and taught our children. And now his pension doesn't allow him the means to live with dignity.
Older individuals, like soldiers and children, hold a special place in the iconography of the Occupy Movement. They bespeak a kind of innocence and vulnerability. They are hard working and have paid their dues. All they want is what is fair and right. As a Navy veteran and a teacher, this man's simple sign expresses American ideals, and their betrayal. He did the right thing and hoped for a comfortable retirement in his own home, with annual vacations and visits to the grandchildren. Is this too much to hope for? The claim here is, he followed the rules and he got steamrolled.
Not long after this sign and thousands of others like it zipped around the web on Tumblr and Facebook, another sign appeared, as if to answer this veteran's lament and other sad stories of foreclosed homeowners and indebted students. This sign claims to be from a student (not pictured and thus questionable), but one who played by the rules in another sense.
I wrote more about these signs here and here. Both signs appeal to a basic ideal of fairness. But fairness means different things to each. The first sign sees fairness as a kind of social contract. If I work hard and play by the rules, I should be guaranteed a certain standard of living and insured against catastrophe. Especially when the well off in society, those whose freedoms I fought for and whose children I taught, were bailed out by my tax dollars.
The second announces a different view of fairness as individual responsibility. Life is not fair and no one should expect a handout. Playing by the rules means living within your means, not taking out mortgages you can't afford or student loans that will saddle you with debt. Working hard is not enough, but you must also be thrifty and responsible. If you do decide to take risks or live beyond your means, that is your choice, but don't expect me to feel sorry for you if you fail.
The argument between two notions of responsibility that these competing signs take up is an important one. It goes to the heart of our ideas of personal responsibility, individualism, community, entitlement, and empathy. I have written at length about Occupy Wall Street here and here. But what does it mean that this conversation about who we are and what our country should be is happening through pictures of signs on the Internet?
Occupy Wall Street began with an image, created and disseminated by Adbusters, a Canadian media and anti-advertising group. A charging bull, iconic to the world of finance, gracefully ridden by a female dancer, in front of a surging crowd wearing gas masks and brandishing batons. Smoke fills the air. It is an image of revolution; but what does the revolution call for? Dance? The power of grace and beauty over brawn? Escape from unrestrained capitalism and a return to more spiritual values?
Undoubtedly the victory of the gracefulness of spirit over the aggression of calculation is one metaphorical text of the image. So too is the power of the people; the mob, which rages behind both the ballerina and the bull. Unresolved is whether the mob stands with the ballerina or the bull, or whether its fury threatens both.
The image of the ballerina and the bull is a political call, but one issued through images and metaphors. Our economy and our politics are like the bull—uncontrolled, wild, and in need of a spiritual master. Such metaphorical thinking is at the very root of both political and metaphysical thinking for it carries over the thinking of everyday reality into a higher and more truthful state. A metaphor—literally a carrying over as its Greek etymology suggests—elevates thinking from the mundane to the speculative, and thus energizes everyday thinking through the power of ideas.
Immanuel Kant once described a despotic state as a "mere machine"—a hand grinder—because both are governed by an absolute individual will that can make mince meat of the individuals under their grip. Kant offered the hand grinder as an example of a successful metaphor—an image that shows a "perfect resemblance of two relations between two totally dissimilar things."
Hannah Arendt discusses Kant's use of the metaphor in her book The Life of the Mind. She quotes there as well from Ernest Fenollosa, in an essay originally published by Ezra Pound:
Metaphor is ... the very substance of poetry"; without it, "there would have been no bridge whereby to cross from the minor truth of the seen to the major truth of the unseen."
For Arendt thought images are unavoidable in thinking and speaking, for we cannot approach any concept or idea without in some way employing an analogy or metaphor from our lived and daily experience. We have no entry into the temple of truth except through the passageways of metaphor and symbolic thought. We cannot even recognize a dog as a dog or God as God without an idea or concept of "dog" or of "God" that themselves are metaphorical or analogical ideas taken from our experience of the world. Friendship, too, Arendt writes, must originally be thought in images and metaphors, as the Chinese do for whom the character for friendship shows an image of two united hands.
As Arendt writes:
[The Chinese] think in images and not in words. And this thinking in images always remains "concrete" and cannot be discursive, traveling through an ordered train of thought, nor can it give account of itself (logon didonai); the answer to the typically Socratic question ‘What is friendship?’ is visibly present and evident in the emblem of two united hands, and "the emblem liberates a whole stream of pictorial representations" through plausible associations by which images are joined together.
Arendt's point is that Chinese and other pictorial languages offer direct version of the kinds of metaphorical thinking that must attend to all languages, even purely alphabetical languages like those in the West. Even our language depends upon the images and analogies of metaphors to carry our thought beyond the everyday to the deeper level of significance and meaning, on which both philosophy and politics might build a publicly accessible and shared common world.
That thinking happens in images is, Arendt writes, "fascinating and disquieting." It is disquieting because it puts into question the priority of language and reason that so defines the tradition of Western thought—the demand for rational justification in philosophy and politics that is so central to the rationalist foundations of modern society in a scientific age. For rational justification can happen only in words whereas higher truths are accessible only through metaphors and images.
The priority of images over words is the reason that Arendt remains one of the most poetic thinkers in the modern canon. She is uniquely aware throughout all her writing that
"poetry," when read aloud, "will affect the hearer optically; he will not stick to the word he hears but to the sign he remembers and with it to the sights to which the sign clearly points."
I spoke about this coincidence of thinking, seeing, and acting with the great dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones in 2010. For Bill T., the effort in his dance "Floating the Tongue" is to enact the process of taking something invisible and internal and bringing it to appear on the stage and in the world. In Arendt's words, the effort of poetic language must be to bridge "the gulf between the realm of the invisible and the world of appearances."
Political thinking, too, has much to learn from poetry and metaphor. "Politics," writes Hannah Arendt, "deals with the coexistence and association of different men." As we live with others, we human beings aim at freedom—the freedom to be an individual and also the freedom to build a common world together. For Arendt, politics is the activity through which a plurality of human beings constitute themselves as a people, a unity of differences. The political actor is he or she who acts and speaks in such a way as to show the different people around him the common truths that bind them together as a people. It is because politics must employ metaphors and images that build a foundation for a new and public space for freedom to flourish that politics also demands a public space where citizens can meet, speak, and act in public.
A great virtue of the Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party movements have been the return of signs, images, and symbols to political discourse. Even the written text on the signs that now carom around the web can only be read within the images that provide their poetry; images of the rich and poor, elderly and young, military and civilian. Politics, it seems, is leaving behind the rationalist fantasy that if we just all talk about the issues, we will come to some kind of sensible agreement.
For this reason, the Hannah Arendt Center has partnered with Visualize Conversation in an experiment; to ask how and in what ways political images can spur a public discussion. We have created a new kind of website, Visualize Conversation , dedicated to the visual images that are defining the political world. The site is being launched around the images that have come to characterize the Occupy Movement. Soon, we will begin to focus on imagery that relates to the 2012 Presidential election as well as other national issues.
On this website you are invited to respond to these images with both words and other images, to share the images, and to debate about them with others. It may be fun, but it is also, in part, an opportunity to think about and create the images and metaphors that very well might engage and re-enliven our politics.
“Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.”
-Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Between Past and Future
When Arendt first refers to political representation, we might think we are on familiar ground. After all, the question of how to move from the citizen to the representative was a vexing problem for the founders of the United States, one that resulted in the creation of the House of Representatives and Senate. The Great Compromise was a way of balancing the representation of small and large states, and the troubling Three-Fifths Compromise sought to guarantee representation to the southern states while preserving slavery. Today, the debate over the influence of lobbyists, political donations, and corporate personhood speaks to a renewed concern over how politicians can best represent the interests of voters.
Arendt does address questions of political representation of this sort in her detailed examination of the move from the late colonial period to the passage of the Constitution in On Revolution. In the above quote, she speaks of “political thought” in terms of the mental process of an individual—one who asks himself, "what would others who are absent think?" Moving from the objective statement of the first sentence to the subjective “I” of the second, she performs what she explains, bringing us inside the mind of someone who thinks through representation. The political subject does not hold on to essential or deeply rooted beliefs, but instead considers one position and then another. One might think of a sequence in a movie that switches between subjective angles, showing how a number of characters view a scene without ever moving back to an objective angle that shows them from outside. The effort of representative thinking is, first, to think from as many viewpoints as possible. This is, at least in part, what Arendt means by "enlarged thinking."
It is important to emphasize that representation does not simply repeat or copy the multiple points of view of others. One does not, for example, ask others what they think and then consider it. Instead, she says those to whom the standpoint belongs are “are absent.” Since they are not there, a space opens in which I can create a version of their view in my mind.
Rather than re-presentation in the strict sense, it is a matter of creatively presenting. In representing all of those who are absent, I must then seek to make a judgment and judge what opinion all of those people would and should share. In such a way, political thought, as representational thought, requires that I make judgments about what all people should agree upon.
From here we would want to move to a careful study of Arendt’s claim that Kant’s aesthetic third Critique, the Critique of Judgment, has important political implications that Kant himself never recognized. A condensed version of this argument in Between Past and Future speaks of "wooing," or persuading, others from one's individual position. An example might be drawn from the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has gained attention in part as a platform for individual stories about injustice. From an Arendtian point of view, the success of the movement would depend on making personal insights universal by imaginatively listening to others. In this way, one does not merely tell of one's own experience but represents the truth. Of course, to speak of representing the truth here requires that we guard against traditional prejudices. For Arendt the truth and the universal are not pre-given but constructed through action an not eternal but rather exist for a determinite period of time.
Dan Gettinger is a student at Bard College.
Lately I've been reflecting on my activity surrounding Occupy Wall St. Remembering the minutes before I was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, I wonder what I was thinking in those moments. The truth is that I was there largely by accident. I read about the Occupy movement and a friend of mine who had gone down encouraged me to go that weekend. One thing led to another and I was spending eight hours at One Police Plaza, NYC. What led me there? Why did the NYPD decide to arrest 749 people? Why are people pitted against each other in anger?
These questions flew through my mind in a nervous rush in those interminable minutes. As my friend in front of me got hauled away he told me to call his Mom. A girl next to me scribbled a phone number on my arm but, sadly, it was that of the National Lawyers Guild and not hers. I looked up to another Bard student who was safe on the pedestrian walkway and smiled. Chaos and distress and sadness were etched across the faces of those around me. As I came to the realization that I would be arrested I felt more at ease and relaxed. And alone.
All my life I've been for or against something. Growing up overseas I was for America; representing a homeland that I barely knew but swelled with pride over. In the past decade it has become starker. I despised Bush and loved Obama, protesting one and campaigning for the other. My generation is one of extremes and totalities. We grew up defined by the trespasses of the last President, and now we watch as our confidence in this one seeps away. With a crushingly uncertain future we grasp at hope, looking to fill this void with promises.
Why is this? How is that we are so empty that we must be filled with language that is distilled into slogans and ideologically transparent? Why do we allow ourselves to be categorized and set into camps against each other? I think it is because we are lonely. A generation of drifters set loose by the misdeeds of those who came before. Around us we see everything being commodified and isolated. We value the world in terms of totalities, the cold language of polls. Discussion becomes debate. Politics becomes personal. Language gives leeway to the violence of our time. Philip Cushman writes, “We are told by self psychology and object relations theory that the empty self is the natural configuration of human being... that the essence of psychological growth is consumption”. Ideas become values, a list of priorities rather than inquisitions. Instead of questioning the origin of a problem, we invest in the answer. The world becomes a sheet of cookie-cutter shapes and we, the unseeing eyes of selfish sentimentality.
Occupy Wall St. has exposed us as a generation of reactionaries. This era is one of immediate responses instigated by the ceaseless swirl of the cyber world. The Internet, modern telecommunications and globalization outline our existence. The information age confines our imagination, creating shapes in which we can mindlessly ease into. It conditions our thoughts. “The greatest poverty is not to live/ In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire/ Is too difficult to tell from despair,” says the poet Wallace Stevens. The compression of information and language forces immediate reactions, instinctual expressions of sentiment. Instead of taking the time to think, our feelings gush into the abyss that is the Internet. And lost. ‘Once more into the breach!’ shouts the exhausted soldier and student alike.
The power of online reaction in the cyber world has prompted the opposite in the physical. I see it in the ease in which students are called ‘apathetic’. Apathy is the absence of pathos, the detriment of passion. Students, the supposed vanguard for intellectual pursuit, are considered to be endowed with such an extreme indifference that we are devoid of concern, excitement or motivation. This word shows the extent to which isolation has infested our campuses and social activity. It reveals how difficult it has become to really engage with politics and to create community. When the ancient Greeks entered into the public realm of life they expected to enter into discussion with each other. We’ve seen the opposite occur. As a result of the outpouring of ourselves in the cyber world we withdraw from the physical, preferring to slide into a virtual abstraction of reality and of ourselves. Our passion is put towards filling that inner void and in doing so we exhaust ourselves in chasing our own superficial creations. We live in a TV democracy, secure in our insecurity.
Hannah Arendt writes that loneliness leads to complacency, an unwillingness to judge truthfully and think. We fill ourselves with the tenets of ideology and in doing so we build walls around each other. This isolation prevents communication. It destroys dialogue and leaves us more susceptible to the shallow language of ideologues.
I'm far from regretting my experience on the bridge. It brought so much that I was feeling to the fore and was an illustration of the frustrations of a generation. But I do not revel in that act nor do I celebrate the movement as the answer anymore. The minute that we begin to consider Occupy Wall St the answer to our problems is the time to stop and think. Here is the time to re-evaluate the reasons why it's happening and why we should support it. It's when we've commodified Occupy, making the movement more about ourselves than the problems it confronts. That's when our loneliness is exposed.
The greatness of Occupy Wall St is that it gives people the opportunity to think. The absence of demands or a structured hierarchy allows the true problems that plague this nation to come first. It begins to cleanse the mind of all these barricades we've erected around ourselves by providing a space to talk about issues like class and privilege that we haven't confronted in decades. We've come to the threshold where unless we get a hard punch to the gut we'll continue to resort to phrases and slogans, packaging up our thoughts into sound bites and deluding ourselves with the belief that this is thinking.
David Graeber writes that the word revolution does not, and cannot, mean “a single, cataclysmic break with past structures of oppression,” a storming of the Winter Palace or Bastille. It is rather exposing and de-legitimizing the origins of an oppressive system, striking down the pillar of injustice that fuels our plight. Some of those in Occupy Wall St may say that pillar is the bankers that control our democracy. I say the roots of these dark times are within us. They’re the fictitious frames, the keyholes and the kissing booths that we use to define our world. A society predicated on constant caffeinated consumption, seeking desperate deliverance in passing fashions, is a violent one. One that seduces our imagination, leaving it languishing in infomercials and Italian leather. We may not be the cause of this crisis, but our complacency leaves us complicit.
Do not expect the revolution to be televised nor even talked about immediately. Hannah Arendt says that true thought occurs in solitude, in those quiet moments of intense reflection. This follows from the Socratic notion that thinking in solitude is the “conversation one has with oneself,” a particularly active questioning and critical self-examination.
I would add that the validation of these thoughts occurs in dialogue with others, in the inter-personal connections that we form through experience. Thinking is the relentless investigation of an idea, it’s an exploration, but it’s also engaging with others in this way on a non-emotional level, allowing for a substantive discourse. To separate one self from an idea and be open to the thoughts of others is an extremely difficult process that requires patience and critical listening. But it’s here where we must begin. The lack of curiosity is the greatest symptom of being lonely and the surest way to complacency. Questioning and imagining are activities essential to our freedom.
The raids with batons and bulldozers continue to intrude on unstructured spaces across the nation. The future of Occupy Wall St is impossible to predict and the consequences even more difficult to anticipate. However, we may be certain that Liberty Square has reminded us of a far darker occupation that exists within each of us. An oppressive installment in our hearts that leaves us yearning and fighting for the illusive insoluble ‘I’. But, “sudden as a shaft of sunlight,” we are experiencing ways of thinking and acting that free us from the past and future, placing this movement in our moment.
On July 13 of 2011, David Graeber published an essay in the Canadian journal Adbusters called "Awaiting The Magical Spark," an essay asking what it would take to set off a revolution in the West similar to those in the Middle East. It was the same day Adbusters put out its now infamous call for a movement occupying Wall Street.
On August 2nd, Graeber attended what was advertised as a General Assembly meeting on Bowling Green. An experienced anarchist, Graeber became angry that the General Assembly was actually a traditional protest meeting not interested in hearing ideas from the protesters. With two friends, he organized a splinter group that gathered on the other side of Bowling Green Park. It was this alternate General Assembly initiated by Graeber that, over the next six weeks, organized the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is one reason that David Graeber has been called the anti-leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Beyond his actual role as the original facilitator of OWS, Graeber has claim as well to being one of the movement's intellectual torchbearers. A Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmith's University in London, he has published widely on anarchism both in the ancient world and in the contemporary west. His book Direct Action: An Ethnography, is an ethnographic account of the anarchist movement and protests at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec. Just this year Graeber published Debt: The First 5000 Years, a rambling and also rambunctious revisionist history, one that argues against the moral grounds for repaying our debts. A constant refrain in Debt is that the moral responsibility to repay debts is part of an inhuman commercial logic.
Both Graeber's anarchism and his calls for a universal forgiveness of consumer and international debt—a forgiveness in the spirit of a biblical jubilee—has set him at the forefront of debates that swirl around the storm that is Occupy World Street. As he writes in Debt:
“It seems to me that we’re long overdue for some kind of biblical-style jubilee, one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary, not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality. That all these things are human arrangements and, if democracy is to mean anything, it is to the ability for all to agree to arrange things in a different way.”
Graeber's views may strike fear into the heart of Wall Street and the bankers who hold all those credits, but his radical proposals are catching on amongst many in the 99%. And some in the business press are taking notice. He was recently featured in an essay in Business Week Magazine. And the investing website Minyanville just published a rich interview with Graeber. This interview, done by Kevin Depew over at Minyanville, is your read for this Thanksgiving weekend..
In the Minyanville interview, Graeber says:
And one of the things that really fascinated me was the moral power of the idea of debt. I would tell stories to people, very sympathetic people, liberal lawyers, well-meaning do-gooder types, and you’d tell these stories about horrible things. You know, in Madagascar, for example, the IMF came in with these policies, you have to cut the budgets because, god knows, we can’t reduce the interest payments you owe to Citibank, they owed all this money. And they had to do things like get rid of mosquito eradication programs, as a result that malaria returned to parts of the country where it had been wiped out for a hundred years and tens of thousands of people died and you had dead babies being buried and weeping mothers. I was there, I saw this sort of thing. You described this to people and the reaction would be, well, that’s terrible, but surely people have to pay their debts. You’re not suggesting they cancel it or default, that would be outrageous. And one of the things that really fascinated me was the moral power of the idea of debt.
Well just such an outrageous act is what Graeber has in mind. Read on.
This weekend's suggested read is an interview with Lawrence Lessig, author of Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It. For years Lessig has advocated for the freedom of information and helped to found and establish the Creative Commons. Recently, Lessig has set his sites on freeing politics from corruption, and his book has been claimed as one of the intellectual foundations of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In this vibrant conversation, Lessig discusses finance reform, the Occupy Wall Street rallies, and how to rehabilitate the public sphere.
Lessig’s recent work addresses how the corruption pervasive in modern institutions is corrosive to public confidence and hence the arena of politics. What he terms “invidious, systemic wrongs” has led to a total loss of authentic civic trust: “the financial collapse is the most astonishing of these examples, “ he states, “not so much because of what happened before 2008, but because of what happened after.” As bad as the crash was, the bailout of bankers was an unparalleled giveaway, a transfer of money from taxpayers to the wealthiest denizens of the financial world.
Lessig encourages the current Occupy Wall Street movement to tap into this exasperation, focusing not on wealth, but fraudulence: “if [OWS] can say, whether or not you believe in capitalism, nobody believes in crony capitalism, and crony capitalism is what we’ve got, it would stand a greater chance of success.” Lessig’s emphasis on corruption is a reminder that it is the perversion of the facts and the rewarding of failure at the highest levels that that is responsible for the weakened state of our political world.
A provocative thinker, Lessig proposes several solutions to restore the political space he sees as dangerously thinned in the era of C-SPAN. These include the establishment of constitutional conventions—‘citizen juries’ where people could come together to debate the issues of the hour. “It would demonstrate something that I think people forget,” Lessig remarks to David Johnson of the Boston Review, “which is that politics is the rare sport where the amateur is better than the professional.”
Click here to read the interview.
Given Mayor Bloomberg’s clearing of Zuccotti Park just shy of the OWS two-month anniversary, and the escalating tensions between police and protesters at Occupy sites across the country, a cluster of questions surrounding the meaning and uses of civil disobedience come once again to the fore. In particular the violent altercations at the University of California, Berkeley--a campus with a long legacy of civil disobedience—force us to reconsider the role of this specific form of dissent.
Hannah Arendt considered civil disobedience an essential part of the United States’ political system. By revisiting some of her main ideas on the issue we can more fully appreciate how the civil disobedience carried out by the OWS movement both harnesses and re-imbues the public realm with political energy.
Berkeley Professor Celeste Langan, participated in a civil disobedience action on the university campus, and was treated harshly, to say the least. Her description of the encounter reminds us just what can be involved in this form of protest:
"I knew, both before and after the police gave orders to disperse, that I was engaged in an act of civil disobedience. I want to stress both of those words: I knew I would be disobeying the police order, and therefore subject to arrest; I also understood that simply standing, occupying ground, and linking arms with others who were similarly standing, was a form of non-violent, hence civil, resistance. I therefore anticipated that the police might arrest us, but in a similarly non-violent manner. When the student in front of me was forcibly removed, I held out my wrist and said "Arrest me! Arrest me!" But rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed. The injuries I sustained were relatively minor--a fat lip, a few scrapes to the back of my palms, a sore scalp--but also unnecessary and unjustified. "
Arendt noted that the most basic, yet the most crucial quality of civil disobedience is the necessity of joining oneself to others. This political binding to one's fellow citizens often becomes physicalized through the specific tactics of demonstration, as Langan testified.
Bard College Professor Verity Smith, reminds us of the important distinction Arendt made between civil disobedience and conscientious objection, the latter the expression of individual resistance, while the former inherently a collective enterprise . “Civil disobedients,” Arendt wrote in the essay “Civil Disobedience,” “are nothing but the latest form of voluntary association…they are thus quite in tune with the oldest traditions of the country.” Arendt saw civil disobedience as an invigorating and hence indispensable element of the U.S. political system she so deeply admired. How though, does this type of voluntary association represent what she called an “American remedy” for “the failure of social institutions, the unreliability of men, and the uncertainty of the future”?
For Arendt, civil disobedience ultimately sustains the democratic process by interrupting the authority and sovereignty of the state. Arendt saw undivided sovereignty as perhaps the greatest threat to democracy. Undivided sovereignty effectively disintegrates plurality and the multiplicities within the space of appearance that are required for authentic political life. She argues that it is not conflict but stasis and homogeneity that deadens the body politic. Hence, by producing fissures in our political ground, civil disobedients, according to Arendt, are actually fortifying it.
This apparent paradox takes us closer to Arendt’s conception of politics as one in keeping with the Roman augure, which connotes a process of both restoration and of change. On Revolution provides us with a more thorough treatment of this essential dynamic, which OWS civil disobedience also serves to illustrate. The concepts of 'inherit' and 'invent' (to borrow Smith's terms), are not mutually exclusive but deeply connected and often simultaneous activities involved in the process of political renewal. The OWS civil disobedients both draw on historical precedents (such as the 1969 student protests at Berkeley that appropriated and converted university land into the ‘People’s Park’), while also attempting to inaugurate a novel moment. This is no contradiction, it is simply the truth of beginnings, political and otherwise: things are born, utterly unknown and unforeseeable, from that which is entirely established and given. This is the law of both politics and life.
This is precisely what Arendt so highly esteemed about the American Constitution and the processes it engendered, the possibility of a document whose re-visioning was not its renunciation but its perfection. Yet, it is this seemingly paradoxical principle that we still have so much trouble in grasping, especially when it comes to matters of protest and civil disobedience. Pressed between bandana and baton is it possible to appreciate that the very acts that in some sense, threaten the political nexus, are necessary for its endurance? We have become less and less able to accept the precept that both Arendt and Montesquieu found to be fundamental to a healthy political sphere, which Smith states as, “the startling notion that contestation is actually a form of reverence, and even preservation.”
While we might be ready to accept Arendt’s formulation of the role of civil disobedience theoretically, and in certain historical contexts, the present protests at Zuccotti Park and Sproul Plaza pose particular challenges to it. I would wager that, if asked, many of those engaged in these movements would state that they do not want to fortify but to dismantle the current political framework.While Arendt saw the clamor of civil disobedience as part of the grander political opera, many season ticket holders are looking to unsubscribe this season. Part of the reason Arendt’s theory of dissent doesn’t quite jive with the OWS disobedients is because the protesters, whose voices Arendt identified as being so vital, were culled from the upper crust. As Smith mentions “elites act to invigorate but not replace mass democratic politics and representative institutions, acting as a kind of supplement to constituted governments so that democratic ideals do not ossify.” The aim of many in the OWS movement is not to provide an occasion for enhancement, but rather for the overturning, of the current system.
It remains to be seen if this desire to overturn will be reabsorbed back into the existing ground or continue to expand and strengthen its outgrowths. As the pitch of protest heightens, and police begin disbanding the demonstrations, OWS still displays the energizing power of voluntary association that Arendt trumpeted. The acts of civil disobedience are inevitably a testament to, and reveling in, the capacity for the public assembly, a bedrock of the very democracy the movement seeks to disturb. As J.M Bernstein remarks in his essay “Promising and Civil Disobedience”, even those acts of dissent that aim to break away from the status quo can never unfetter from it fully. Civil disobedience, he writes, “is always dependent on the radical past it exceeds and the repressive present it repudiates.”
And yet, as Arendt saw it, implicit in acts of civil disobedience such as those at Occupy sites, is dissent’s opposite; consent. Which is to say that what the OWS disobedients are succeeding in doing is making legible the consent of those who continue to subscribe to the political process they consider malign. Their persistence in the face of police and the ensuing arrests, serve to suggest that there is an alternative to the current form of political governance that is perhaps more worthy of our authorization—and it involves what Arendt considered to be a distinctly American remedy.
“While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (200).
To read this line from The Human Condition in the wake of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, or in the midst of the Occupations that have radiated from Zuccotti Park across the United States and beyond, might be invigorating: aren’t both of these events expressions of power in Arendt’s sense, instances of the unpredictable human capacity to break out of the daily mire of authoritarianism or of capitalism and, acting in concert, to begin something new?
It might also be depressing, since Arendt seems to remind us of the fleetingness of this kind of power, which flashes up in a moment of action but then vanishes, leaving old forces of more familiar kinds—army officers, professional politicians hungry for Wall Street money—to reassert themselves.
But wait. Let’s allow ourselves to be a little more puzzled by what Arendt says here about power and action: “Power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.” On the one hand, it’s clear enough why Arendt would say this: she wants to underscore the distance between her use of the word “power” and some other, much more familiar ones. She doesn’t mean, as Weberian social scientists might, the capacity to control or influence others by virtue of the possession of some durable resource like money or guns. Perhaps she doesn’t even mean a “capacity” at all, in the sense of a state of unactualized readiness that precedes and enables an action: after all, action is supposed to be miraculous, so to think of it in Aristotelian terms simply as the actualization of a pre-existing potentiality might be, as she says much later, in The Life of the Mind, to “deny the future as an authentic tense.” She marks her distance from both of these uses of “power” by making power and action coeval. But, on the other hand, if power springs up between people when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse—if, as she says, seemingly echoing the Megarians whom Aristotle criticizes in the Metaphysics, power “exists only in its actualization”—then what is power but a synonym for action itself? Why has Arendt bothered to retain the term at all?
Notice, however, that Arendt does not quite say that power vanishes as soon as the action stops. Instead, she says that it vanishes the moment people disperse;
and this fact is apparently meant to distinguish power from the “space of appearance,” which, it seems, does disappear as soon as the action stops. On the preceding page of The Human Condition, Arendt had written that that “the space of appearance comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action,” and added: “its peculiarity is that, unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, it does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only with the dispersal of men...but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves.” So the arrest of an activity is not yet the dispersal of persons. And that means that power is not quite redundantly congruent with action after all. If we look for a little bit of Arendtian power to exist in the split-second before an action starts, we won’t find it, because power in her sense does not precede and explain the moment of action’s initiation. It does, however, survive or outlast it. Power is, as she says, what “keeps people together after the fleeting moment of action has passed.” It is what gives action duration, what draws a spontaneous flash of novelty on the part of a single agent (archein) out into a course of action in which others—some of the lingering, undispersed witnesses to the initial event—join, and which they extend and continue (prattein).
If we really wanted to look at events like the demonstrations in Tahrir Square or the Occupy movement through an Arendtian lens, then, our first step should be to stop talking about them as though they were simply moments, and as though the challenge were to find a way of prolonging or institutionalizing them without sacrificing their radical, disruptive force. Such representations falsely collapse the duration of these events into an instant, and they falsely suppose that their power lay in their momentariness.
Quite the contrary: one of the most striking things about the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, after all, was simply that they continued, even when many observers thought, whether with hope or with fear, that they were sure to dissipate in the face of violence, or the threat of violence, or simple exhaustion (indeed, they lasted long enough that the demonstrators had to improvise ways of organizing the performance of the rhythmic tasks associated with the maintenance of the human body—feeding, disposing of waste—that some austere versions of Arendtianism would exclude from politics). Likewise, the Occupation in lower Manhattan is now approaching two months old; it has an infrastructure and an organization, even if it is not organization on the military model of a chain of command; and it evidently has power in Arendt’s sense: the power to sustain itself over time, to attract new participants and observers, to refuse dispersal, to resist arrest. Its power lies, in part, in the way it orients its participants and observers toward the curiously hybrid status of its little bit of territory: a privately owned but publicly accessible park, not just a symbol but an instance of the intersection of corporate and state power, put on display and put under pressure by the ongoing presence of the Occupiers, which tests the limits of that promise of publicity. By organizing the attention of its participants and observers in this way, the Occupation has already, in its very existence and duration, transformed our sense of the shape of the world to which we belong, and of what is imaginable in it. That is hardly everything; but it is not nothing. The snow is coming: will they disperse? —will we?
Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago
A talk given at the German Consulate in Toronto on October 24, 2011, to celebrate the opening of an installation of “The Hannah Arendt Denkraum” brought to Toronto from Berlin.
Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,
es ist mir eine grosse Freude mit Ihnen hier bei der Eroeffnung des Hannah Arendt Denkraums zu sein und ich bin insbesondere Frau Consul Sabine Sparwasser sehr dankbar dafür, mich eingeladen zu haben. Um über Hannah Arendt zu sprechen -- erst recht in einem Denkraum! -- ist es nötig, zu denken, und deshalb werde ich jetzt aufhoeren, auf Deutsch zu Ihnen zu sprechen und in der einzigen Sprache fortfahren, in der ich denken kann: in meiner Muttersprache.
So, let me begin again, in English, by saying that Frau Sparwasser has asked me to reflect on the relevance of Arendt’s thinking for today. To do that, I must first say something about today. It is obvious to all of us, I think, that we live in a time of intense, world-wide anxiety, an anxiety that is spread through the human world like a toxic mist, like a pollution, like a global warming.
Every corner of the world is connected to every other by the various media of news reporting and the various forms of electronic networking, so whatever happens somewhere is transmitted to some degree everywhere –degrees of truth and distortion and spin being more or less equal in the process. In this atmosphere, which is over-stimulating, full of excitements both upsetting and exhilarating, it is very difficult to think at all –one can feel like one of those experimental animals wrapped in electrodes and shocked continuously until exhausted and spent. Overloaded. Even the torrential events of the Arab Spring strike us in one moment as world-transformational and in the next not. And Occupy Wall Street –a new youth revolt?
A recent issue of the rather sober establishment British journal The Economist featured a cover on which there was an ominous-looking black hole with the imperative “BE AFRAID “ in its dense center. “Until politicians actually do something about the world economy” the cover said: “BE AFRAID.” Be afraid you are going to be sucked right down into this black hole as the world that was created with a bang is destroyed with a whimpering suction noise. The whole metaphor is apocalyptic. Is it not something to wonder at that a journal with enormous world-wide circulation and influence is charging its readership to be afraid, to move from anxiety, which everyone feels to some extent, to fear?
The first thing that I would like to say about Hannah Arendt is that she was not afraid; that her anxieties simply did not go over into fear. She lived through a time which was even more frightening than our own, but which was, also, like our own, defined by a combination of economic disaster –the Great Depression—followed by a prolonged political crisis in which some regimes went in the direction of a new form of government, totalitarianism, and some in the direction of trying to save their half-formed democracies and their political freedom. She thought and wrote as the division of the world into totalitarian regimes –chiefly in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—on the one side and struggling democracies on the other, turned into the Second World War, a war novel in its extent and in the technologies used to carry it on, including technologies used in what Arendt called “factories of death.” But she did not become fearful, or write out of fear.
I think it is chiefly this that compelled attention to her writing then and again today and that marks its relevance for today. Her courage was certainly not based on failure to grasp what was frightening in the world during and after the Second World War. Indeed, her courage came from her deep understanding of that frightfulness and her ability to describe it as unprecedented. She grasped that there were factors and forces in the world that were unprecedented in their potentiality to be lethal, for the world and for all individuals.
Courage is a virtue that actualizes in a crisis, that actualizes –or fails to actualize--when a person realizes that courage is called for, summoned by the state of the world. A courageous person is able to call forth courage from within herself, from within her inner world, where, I think she must feel the courage of others, internalized in herself by identification. A courageous person must have, in herself, both the latent virtue and the inner company and companionship of courageous individuals. If she is lucky, she will have these companions as comrades in the present as well. To say the same thing in cultural terms: a person being courageous must have the virtue of courage ready and must have examples of courage in others to draw upon as part of her culture, existing in her memory and in the legacy she has internally. Otherwise, there is only fear in a frightening situation. There is only fright or flight.
How is courage manifest in thinking and writing? First of all, I think, by independence of thought, by Selbst-denken (thinking for your self ) and in conversation with those internal others whom the independently thinking person has judged independent. The thinking is a conversation of independents. This is the very opposite of group-thinking or herd thinking –which is, really, a contradiction in terms. There is really no thinking in group-thinking or herd-thinking; there is only obedient reacting.
Reacting to imperatives like BE AFRAID, or run away, or run away from thinking.
Such imperatives –BE AFRAID or RUN AWAY—when they are widely promulgated and widely accepted become what are known as ideologies. An ideology is an elaborate formulation that carries the charge DO NOT THINK. An ideology supplies answers to questions in advance. It supplies the elementary answer to questions about history, telling which people, which political group will inevitably triumph in history and telling what direction the train of history is taking and is going to take. Or it supplies elementary answers to questions about nature and human nature, telling which racial or religious group is innately destined to be superior and exercise its natural or divine right to dominate over others or all others. The first was the ideology of Stalinists, the second of the Nazi Party of Germany. Hannah Arendt’s masterwork, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was an analysis of these ideologies and how they came to imprison the minds of those who walked into the prison of them and to determine their actions, which in both cases were actions that had the paradoxical effect of eliminating the space for political action –the space for politics. They were actions against action. In both cases, mass movements brought the ideological subscribers together and turned them, acquiescently, into citizens of totalitarian states.
Arendt wrote her book (and many shorter newspaper pieces related to it as well) while she was a stateless person, cast out of her homeland while it was turning into a totalitarian state because she was a member of one group, the Jews, deemed inferior and eventually almost completely eliminated in Germany and the German Reich. The position, Arendt understood, of the pariah is the position of the clear-sighted, the far-sighted, the illusionless; the position of those who can raise the most thoughtful alarm and warning. Later, she could show in her report on Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem how persons who subscribe to an ideology –no matter how they lived before signing up to the ideology—become thoughtless persons. She wrote a biography of a state mass murderer.
Her courage in writing these books was clear in the controversies they aroused. For the ideologies she wrote about survived the defeats of both the Nazis and the Stalinists –who quite naturally became allies during the Second World War—and continued after the War, in the long period that is known as the Cold War. These ideologies survived both in the defeated countries and in the countries, the struggling democracies, that defeated them but, in the process, assimilated to some of their tenets and methods. (This was so obvious in the American McCarthy period, but secret police forces, for example, became a normal feature of democracies in the 1950s.) Ideologists of the Nature and History sorts, not surprisingly, made war on her and her writings, which were fundamental critiques of these ideologies and the anti-political movements that continued to support them.
The Cold War went on longer than Hannah Arendt lived. It was the context for all her later writings, of the 1960s and early 1970s. These writings inspired many in the generation born after the Second World War to understand as she did the world their parents had made, as they inspired the young readers to be suspicious of ideologies of all known sorts: the ones dictating how history is unfolding and the ones dictating which peoples are intrinsically superior and fitted for dominance. But she also alerted them to beware of any new ones that would be particularly compelling in the post-War world, which was so shaped by the existence of lethal technologies –nuclear weapons. In “Ideology and Terror,” an essay included in The Origins of Totalitarianism’s later editions, she wrote: “It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form –though not necessarily the cruelest—only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.”
Hannah Arendt died in 1975, just as such a new ideology was, in my estimation, forming while the post-War variants of the old ideologies of History and Nature were reforming and deforming with the break-ups of the mid-20th century imperial states. Both the totalitarian Soviet Union and its hostile imitator in China were breaking up, as were the non-totalitarian but imperial British Commonwealth and the American Empire. The liniments of that new ideology were becoming clear to her, and she spoke out about them, most pointedly in the speech she made in 1975 on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the American republic, which was in 1976.
That speech, entitled “Home To Roost,” focused on how America, with its defeat in the Vietnam War, was coming into a period of asserting itself around the world in reaction to its defeat and the loosening of its grip on its empire. People in the country were developing an ideology of self-justification for its imperialism and blindness to the aspirations for freedom of the world’s peoples struggling –as the North Vietnamese had--to overcome their histories of being subjugated by imperial powers. And the whole mindless self-assertion was being aggravated by the sudden turn toward recession, even possibly depression, that the American and the world economy had taken since the 1973 OPEC crisis.
She could see that this new, assertive ideology included elements from the mid-century ideologies of History and Nature, for it anticipated the triumph of superior peoples. But the superior peoples were not nations or nation-states in the 20th century sense. They were people living all over the earth but linked by their dedication to growing wealthy and powerful in societies no longer based on manufacturing but based on consumption, societies that, in her words, “could keep going only by changing into a huge economy of waste.” Americans took the lead in formulating this assertive Economic Progress ideology, but it appealed to capitalists everywhere and to not a few socialists and communists –particularly in China--as well.
Those benefitting from the consumer society and its waste economy were and are devote believers in Progress framed more purely in economic terms than historical or natural historical. These international or supernational ideologists invoked and served limitless growth economies that “went on at the expense of the world we live in, and of the objects with their built-in obsolescence which we no longer use but abuse, misuse and throw away.” She noted that: “The recent sudden awakening to the threats to our environment is the first ray of hope in this development, although nobody, as far as I can see, has yet found a means to stop this runaway economy without causing a really major breakdown.”
In the decades since Arendt wrote those words in 1975, the runaway economy has only run more away, because to the engines of its development have been added financial and banking means to fuel it with risky debt, with money instruments that have gotten more and more detached from the world we live in and objects of any sort. The banking and financial means –derivatives upon derivatives--are themselves consumables. And the dynamic of the runaway economy, advertised as a great good by public relations people serving the new ideologists, has worn away at the public realm in all nations and internationally. Key decision makers are no longer elected representatives of citizens in states; governments are hardly making economic decisions, economic institutions are (so the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are demonstrating in the right place symbolically, if not politically). With a shrinking public realm--one not even receptive to the ray of hope coming from the environmental awakening, now grown to a movement—Arendt could imagine the ideologists of Economic Progress recommending and committing not just genocide but what she called, ecocide, destruction of the entire ecosystem on the earth. Untramelled economic growth might take longer, but its results could be as lethal as those that can be caused in an instant by nuclear weapons. Like their totalitarian predecessors, the ideologists of Economic Progress rationalize destroying the very habitat in which they are to be the triumphant group, that is, they rationalize destroying everything and everybody they hoped to rule over.
No one since 1975 has written The Origins of EconomicTotalitarianism, but that may be as much from lack of a pariah position in a world where it is impossible to escape being an accomplice to consumerism as it is from lack of courage. Even the wretched of the earth in a time of runaway economic inequality are deeply trapped in the system that oppresses them. The intelligentsia is easily corrupted. But this probably means that the people who understand what has happened and offer their insights, as she did, to the public, will have to be even more courageous for not having the advantage of a parish position to look out from and pariah company to keep. Sheer courage will be required.
But in such a time, her example, as one of the most courageous of her émigré generation, her diaspora generation, is nonetheless needed in order for the thoughtful to have conversation with her in their thinking minds.
To read more by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, click here to visit her blog.