No government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which, as previously mentioned, would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a push button to destroy whomever he pleased, could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence.
—Hannah Arendt, “On Violence.”
Hannah Arendt wrote these lines in the midst of the United States’ defeat in Vietnam. Her argument was that as long as robot soldiers were a thing of the future, brute violence and force like that unleashed by the United States would always succumb to collective power, of the kind exhibited by the Vietcong. Hers was, at least in part, a hopeful voice, praising the impotence of violence in the face of power.
To read Arendt’s lines today, amidst the rise of drone warfare, alters the valence of her remarks. Drones are increasingly prototypes and even embodiments of the “robot soldiers” that Arendt worried would dehumanize war and elevate violence over power. If we draw out the consequences from Arendt’s logic, then drone soldiers might displace the traditional limits that politics places on violence; drones, in other words, make possible unprecedented levels of unlimited violence.
The rise of drones matters, Arendt suggests, in ways that are not currently being seen. Her worry has little to do with assassination, the concern of most opponents of drones today. Nor is she specifically concerned with surveillance. Instead, against those, like General Stanley McChrystal, who argue that drones are simply new tools in an old activity of war, Arendt’s warning is that drones and robot soldiers may change the very dynamic of war and politics.
To see how drones change the calculus of violence in politics, we need to understand Arendt’s thesis about the traditional political superiority of power over violence. The priority of power over violence is based on the idea that power is “inherent in the very existence of political communities.” Power, Arendt writes, “corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert.” It “springs up whenever people get together and act in concert.” All government, and this is central to Arendt’s thesis, needs power in order to act.
This need for popular support is true even for totalitarian governments, which also depend on the power of people—at least a select group of them like the secret police and their informers—continuing to act together. It is thus a myth that totalitarian rule can exist without the support of the people. Whether in Nazi Germany or contemporary Syria, totalitarian or tyrannical governments still are predicated on power that comes from support of key segments of the population.
Even if all government is predicated on some power, governments also employ violence—but that violence is held in check by political limits. As a government loses its popular support, it finds itself tempted to “substitute violence for power.” The problem is that when governments give in to the temptation to use violence to shore up slackening of popular power, their use of violence diminishes further their power and results in impotence. The more violence a government needs to rely upon, the less power it has at its disposal. There is thus a political limit on how much violence any government can employ before it brings about the loss of its own power.
As much as she respects the claims for power over violence, Arendt is clear-eyed about the damage violence can wield. In a direct confrontation between power and violence, violence will win—at least in the short term. Arendt writes that if Gandhi’s “enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance” had met a different enemy—a Stalin or Bashar al-Assad instead of a Churchill or Mubarek—“the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.” Sheer violence can bring victory. But the price for such a triumph is high, not only for the losers, but also for the victors.
We see this exemplified in Middle East over the last few years. In those countries like Bahrain and Syria where governments did not shy from unlimited violence to repress popular revolts, the governments have maintained themselves and the Arab Spring has turned into a long and frigid winter. Assad has been able to maintain power; but his power is irreparably diminished. In the end, there is a limit to the viability and effectiveness of relying on mere violence at the expense of power. This is even more true in a constitutional democracy, where support of the people is a political necessity.
As confident as Arendt is that violence is limited in politics by the need for power, she worries that the coming age of “robot soldiers” might bring about the end of the political advantage power has over violence. Robot soldiers can be controlled absent of consent or political support. With the push of a button or a simple command, a tyrant or totalitarian ruler can exert nearly unlimited violence and destruction, even without the support a massive secret police or a network of informers. Drones threaten the time-immemorial dependence of even the most lonely tyrant on others who will support him and do his bidding.
Of course drones must be built, programmed, and maintained. No tyrant is fully autonomous. Yet building, programming, and maintaining machinery are fundamentally different jobs than arresting and killing dissenters. It is far easier for programmers and electricians to justify doing their jobs in a powerless yet violent state than for soldiers and secret agents to justify theirs.
In a drone-led war, men will rarely need to go into action as soldiers. That is of course one reputed advantage of drones, that they make war less dangerous and more technically predictable. But it also means that as modern warfare becomes safer and more humane, it also excludes without human soldiers and risks stripping war of its human and active character. This helps to explain an enigmatic passage of Arendt’s in The Human Condition, where she offers modern war as an example of when action “loses its specific character” as human action and “becomes one form of achievement among others.” The degradation of human action in modern war, she writes,
happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed ‘mere talk,’ simply one more means toward the end….
Arendt is here thinking of the anonymity of the modern soldier epitomized by the monuments to the unknown soldiers—the mute mass of humanity who fight and die without the “still existing need for glorification” that makes war a human instead of a merely mechanical activity.
Her modern warfare in its inhumanity and technological capacity abandons the togetherness that has traditionally made war a prime example of human political togetherness.
In the technological advances of modern warfare that made war so awful and so mechanical, Arendt actually found a glimmer of hope: that war’s rabid violence was compensated by neither political advantage nor personal glory. In On Revolution, she dared hope that the fact that technology had reached the stage “where the means of destruction were such as to exclude their rational use” might lead to a “disappearance of war from the scene of politics….” It was possible, she thought, that the threat of total war and total destruction that accompanies war in the modern era might actually lead to the disappearance of war.
Clearly such a hope has not come to pass. One reason for the continuation of war, however, is that the horrors of war are made ever more palatable and silent—at least to the victors—by the use of technology that exerts violence without the need for political power and participation. The drone wars of the early 21st century are in this respect notable for the unprecedented silence that accompanies violence. Since U.S. soldiers are rarely injured or killed and since the strikes are classified and the damage remote, we have indeed entered an era where we can fight wars absent the speech, glory, and “human togetherness” that has traditionally marked both the comradeship of soldiers and the patriotic sacrifice of a nation at war. It is in this extraordinary capacity of mute violence to substitute for power in which we can glimpse both the promise and the peril of drones.
“…the enormous pathos which we find in both the American and French Revolutions, this ever-repeated insistence that nothing comparable in grandeur and significance had every happened in the whole recorded history of mankind…”
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
Although my political memory is admittedly brief, I cannot remember an American presidential election day that was anticipated with less enthusiasm than the one that looms this week, particularly among the generation who are now my students. It is an unfortunate sign when you overhear conversations in the lounge expressing a wistfulness for the halcyon days of Clinton v. Dole. This is not to say that there are no strong emotions about the election – lots of umbrage weekly-renewed, considerable dread and anxiety, even a dash of hope and an occasional twist of satisfaction – but enthusiasm does not seem to be among them. Though this blog tends to dwell more on the political world with a touch of remove from its everyday hurly-burly, as Arendt did, given the proximity of the election it seems worth it to linger for a moment on the particular phenomenon those in this country face tomorrow: a moment of decision that no one seems particularly eager to reach.
Plenty has already been said about why this might be, and there is much more to be said than can be said in this space. I want to dwell on one particularly Arendtian concern that I have heard expressed and worried over more and more during the last few months, the simple question that a student last week pithily expressed as “what’s freedom got to do with it?” Asking the question in that way may nudge us in advance into hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. But I want to argue something that may seem counter-intuitive, at least to the sensibilities that I hear advanced daily: that in fact the certain grimness or reticence with which many face the impending election is not a sign of the decay of the fabric of American polity, or the slow collapse of the meaningfulness of citizenship, but a sign that the events of the opening years of this millennium have brought us into a new kind of health. That health is precisely in the realm of freedom, a health increasingly robust even as we face terrible sickness and disrepair in other aspects of our political, economic, and cultural systems.
The great diagnostic temptation at this political moment, which one hears espoused often enough, is to say that Americans have forgotten how to experience freedom in our political process at all (if indeed it was ever there), and so we trudge towards Nov. 6 having thoroughly accepted that, whatever particular material interests we might have at stake, “freedom is not even the nonpolitical aim of politics, but a marginal phenomenon." And there is, of course, something to this worry, as there was when Arendt wrote it; a potent part of the dissatisfaction that so many feel and express is the sense that whoever is elected, it will make little difference in the end. There are lots of extremely portentous “minutae” of politics to counterpose to this sense – the composition of the courts, the reversal of pre-existing condition restrictions, reproductive and marriage rights, the bearing of the federal tax structure on nation’s titanic income inequality – but if these kinds of issues could disrupt the sense that they’re taken to address, the national media would have dispelled any concern of the sort long ago. What is at stake cannot be the literal question of whether or not there is anything at stake – otherwise the answer would be trivially obvious, that there is – but that there is a rich sense that, as Arendt puts it repeatedly, the experience of an inexorability to our political economy (to call a spade a spade) has thoroughly overwhelmed our hope for novelty, our belief in the possibility of new beginnings, of revolutionary change.
But there is something to this peculiar kind of despair, itself so different from the form of despair that dominated the part of our society in which I grew up – the sense of not only a crushing personal irrelevance but the fundamental impossibility of escaping a desperate struggle for livelihood – that actually bespeaks something promising for our political culture. The despair of change, which in fact now unites the two ideological poles of American politics, bespeaks a renewed sensitivity to freedom, freedom in the specifically Arendtian sense that space remains in which what is might be radically replaced with what might begin tomorrow. It is a sensitivity to freedom that can only exist in a polity that remembers what it is to feel and desire it.
On the contrary, anyone who doubts that Americans yet feel a sense of Arendtian freedom need only take a glance at the documentary currently making the rounds, 'PressPausePlay', to see that we have in fact again become so suffused with what Arendt called “the specific revolutionary pathos of the absolutely new, of a beginning which would justify starting to count time in the year of the revolutionary event,” that it has leapt out of the political realm and now structures our relationship to technology, to culture, and to education as well. Where once we had to worry that the political had become inextricably reduced to the social, now it seems that we may rather be faced with the universalization of the specifically political, with the preeminence of action and spectatorship in every sphere of the human condition. It’s not at all clear to me that that would be a terrible thing, but the point remains.
One might be inclined to blame the candidates themselves for the lack of enthusiasm, and again it would be hard to deny that there’s something to that. But what is it, exactly, that we find worth blaming? Certainly, those who supported him might have a number of particular political gripes with the way that President Obama executed his term in office, but I also think that most in practice most understand that Obama could never in the American political system have lived up to the messianic fervor surrounding him, and that this is not the true source of disconsolation. I will confess to a certain lack of sympathy for feeling betrayed by Obama’s positions. Likewise, it is hard to fault those who oppose President Obama for being unenthusiastic, to put it mildly, with having Mitt Romney as their only meaningfully available avatar, given that that concept itself entails the expectation that something is being represented. But here, too, I think there is a perfectly resilient awareness among those who will vote for Romney that the man is in fact quite good for the role for which he has been groomed and in which he has placed himself: the consummate manager, the guarantor of the kind of freedom-as-security Arendt worried might wholly replace our sense of freedom-as-possibility, “not the security against ‘violent death,’ as in Hobbes…but a security which should permit an undisturbed development of the life process of the society as a whole.”
No, the difficulty that Americans face is neither that we have lost our “revolutionary pathos” that makes us believe in the promise of something truly new, nor that we have candidates who cannot fulfill our rather extraordinary expectations, but that we have once again come into our desire for both the senses of freedom that Arendt diagnoses, and they are senses of freedom that do not sit easily together. The ambivalence and strain that comes with holding desires for competing freedoms is not something to be bemoaned, but celebrated, and converted into cause for engaging the immense barriers the current configuration of our political system has thrown up against those desires. We desire both the promise of change that holds fast our belief, and the promise of a managerial excellence in navigating the quotidian ho-hummery of administration. And this is simply the reality of, not the American political system, but political system as such: these two forms of promise are inextricably bound to each other, and though it is a tense and at time openly antagonistic partnership, it is nevertheless one that polity, at least in its Modern sense, can’t do without. Political ambivalence, and even pessimism, is not a sign of the decay of our political capacities, but of their renewal by a decade of protest and struggle and failure on both sides of the political spectrum. Our senses of freedom are in rude health…whether our politics can bear it is another question.
“The highest laws of the land (America) are not only the constitution and constitutional laws, but also contracts.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, p. 131
Having published The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt turned her attention to the country around her. In a sequence of entries in her Denktagebuch for September 1951, she starts by referring to America as “the politically new” – these are thoughts that will eventually result in her argument in On Revolution . Her analysis has often been criticized from an historical point of view, especially as she refers to the Constitution as being the first to be established “without force, without ruling (archein) and being ruled (archesthai). “ Whatever the validity of these criticisms, they strike me as missing an essential point of her concerns. Arendt is trying to work out what she a few pages later calls “the central question of the coming (künftigen) politics,” a problem she sees as lodged in “the problem of the giving of laws.” (ibid, 141). Her aim is to describe a political (i.e. humanly appropriate) system that would not rest upon will and in particular on the will of the sovereign. “That I must have power (Macht) to be able to will, makes the problem of power into the central political fact of all politics that are grounded on sovereignty – all, that is, with the exception of the American.” (idem)
Her concern in these pages (130-143) centers around what a human society would be that was truly political. Her version of America is her entry into this question. What is striking about her discussion in the intervening (and other) pages is that she approaches this question explicitly through the lens of European philosophy. Thus she is attempting an answer to the question of “can we determine the particular excellence of the American polity by viewing it through the lenses of European thought?” The point is not to Europeanize America: it is to see if America does not in some manner constitute a potential instantiation of what has been thought in Europe over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The sequence of European thinkers she invokes is important. She first mentions Marx and then Nietzsche, each of whom she sees as part of and as makers of the “end of Western philosophy.” Marx is held to have inverted Hegel, Nietzsche the same for Plato. The point of her analysis of Marx and Nietzsche is to assert that they released thought from its bond to the “Absolute.” Indeed: to hold to the idea of an Absolute is to “make possible in the present unjust and bestial behavior.” (ibid, 133). As we know, this will be an ever-returning theme in her work. She expects to find in America the elements of the political that does not rest on an “absolute.”
At what might one look to find this vision of a non-absolute political? Nietzsche provides the opening to an answer. We are to look not to his doctrine of the revaluation of values but to his discussion of promising in the second essay of the Genealogy of Morals. She quotes: “To breed an animal with the right to make promises – is that not … the real problem of humans?” For Arendt, the foundation of a new “morality” lies in the right to make a promise; the promise makes possible human relations based on contract. And the grounding on contract, as she writes in the Denktagebuch, was for her the particular excellence of the American polity.
What is the implication of Arendt's claim that contract is the “highest law” and particular excellence of America? One answer is revealed by the end of extended quotation of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals where he indicates that the person who has the right to make promises can “ für sich als Zukunft gut sagen zu können,”a phrase that might be rendered as “able to give himself as answer for the future.” In Arendt’s gloss, this means that if in making a contract (which is what a promise is) one pledges that each will remain true to him-or herself as the person making the contract, then each has made his or her own being the foundation for a political space.
Such a grounding or foundation is not based either on will or on any external absolute. It is a matter, as the signers of the Declaration made clear, that we “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Temporally speaking, this means that what one did in the past remains alive as the present. Our political present will thereby be tied to the historical, although not, she notes, in a “weltgeschichtliche” [world-historical: i.e. transcendental] manner.
To make the implications of this clearer, she immediately turns to a consideration of Max Weber’s distinction between the “ethic of responsibility” (which she holds to be the foundation of the pragmatism and genius of American politics) as opposed to the “ethic of conviction,” which, she says, allows for anything as we cannot know “until the day of the Last Judgment” if our conviction be correct. The implication here is that if we base our polity on the conviction of the supposed correctness of our moral judgments (as opposed to our ability to be responsible to ourselves) we will be able to justify anything, as the validation for our claim can be infinitely postponed. (One has but to look at the claims made about bringing democracy to Iraq). Indeed, Arendt sees “central question of our time” to be a change in our ability to make valid moral judgments, that is ones the correctness of which is not postponed indefinitely. (ibid 138). She now turns to an examination of how various thinkers have dealt with the problem of moral judgment. After she worked her way through a partial rejection of the manners in which Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Kant of the Critique of Practical Reason respond to this main question, she turns to the Critique of the Power of Judgment. Those thoughts are not developed at this time in the Denktagebuch -- but they will concern her for the rest of her life.
What is striking here is how the approach from European philosophy brings out the importance of what is new in the American experiment. As Hamilton wrote in the first Federalist:
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
To which, in our present day, one may only wonder if at some point a “wrong election“ has not been made.
-Tracy B. Strong (UCSD)
“‘[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
“Factual truth is always related to other people [...]. It is political by nature.”
-Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics
“Our inheritance was left to us by no testament”
-Hannah Arendt, quoting René Char, Between Past and Future
In his acceptance speech, the recipient of the 1997 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought wondered why he of all people had been chosen for it. He was, he said, a pragmatist, a practitioner of politics, not a political thinker. At the time he was already a prominent figure in contemporary politics: as a courageous pastor in the GDR who did not shy away from conflict with the regime, as a participant in the freedom movement of 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, since 1990, as the Federal Commissioner for the newly created Stasi Archives, which was tasked with processing the history and crimes of the socialist dictatorship. This man, the winner of the 1997 Arendt prize, is the recently elected German Bundespräsident, Joachim Gauck . [Under the German constitution, the President is the country’s highest representative, while the Chancellor is the head of government and most influential political figure in the German parliamentary democracy (Angela Merkel currently holds the latter position).]
The connection between Arendt and the highest office of the German government makes sense only in light of its oddity and of the unorthodox character of Joachim Gauck. His comment in the acceptance speech that he is a political practitioner rather than a political thinker marks a striking difference between himself and Arendt. One could say, however, that Gauck’s political actions largely constitute the realization of a political understanding that Arendt herself theoretically and conceptually developed. Their shared center of gravity can be formulated in a sentence from Arendt’s “Introduction into Politics”: “The meaning of politics is freedom.”
It is fitting, in a certain way, that the intellectual correspondence between Arendt and Gauck is least to be found in his text Plea for Freedom. This small book, published shortly before his election, can be read as the manifesto of his presidency. The book, divided into the three chapters “Freedom,” “Responsibility,” and “Tolerance” preaches more than it reflects. Generalized talk of “the soul,” and of supposed anthropological constants such as “the human psyche,” or the universal desire for happiness and healing overshadows the knowledge upon which the book is based: that politics comes out of plurality and exists in the living modes of “relatedness.”
When writing serves to express a political program, it becomes a part of the process of political action. Action and thought cannot occur simultaneously, Arendt notes. Thought and consideration become possible only when action has become history-- that is, when it has been completed and can be retold as a story and reflected upon.
Joachim Gauck’s best texts are distinguished by the fact that they are written out of personal experience. They speak from the perspective of an “I” that knows that political speech must be concrete and therefore limited. The more I generalize, the farther I distance myself from the solid ground of the facts. For a theologian, this may not be self-evident. In his acceptance speech for the Arendt prize, Gauck does not pay lip service to the prize’s eponym-- as did so many of those to whom Arendt became “hip” after 1989-- by claiming her as the inspiration for his political actions during the dictatorship. Rather, he recognizes his own lapse in not studying Arendt’s texts at the right time. He sees it as a failure to confront the intuitive striving and fighting for freedom with “conceptual clarity and precision,” quoting Arendt’s On Revolution.
Does this lack of conceptual clarity point to a romanticization which placed (the self-perceptions of) personal actions in the world of wishful thinking instead of in the world of facts, Gauck asked? The question is directed at himself and his contemporaries. “Did it suffice to have an opinion about reality, whose facts I hadn’t thoroughly developed?” he reflects with reference to Arendt in his afterword to the Blackbook of Communism (1998). I individually can hold an opinion, almost like philosophically wise thoughts or words; facts, on the other hand, are political, since I always share them with others. Arendt formulated it thus in Truth and Politics: “Factual truth is always related to other people [...]. It is political by nature.”
This understanding of the eminently political quality of facts shaped Joachim Gauck’s work as the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi-Archives. Perhaps this constitutes the greatest accomplishment of his life: Gauck’s work secured the documents and archived materials without which the history of the SED-dictatorship and its repressive apparatuses could not have been written.
In the months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of citizens and members of opposition groups occupied the headquarters of the state secret police in East Berlin and other cities of the GDR. The Stasi had already begun to destroy documents on a large scale. Approximately 130 miles of files were saved, where 3 feet of files could contain up to 10,000 pages. The Stasi had collected approximately 6 million personal files-- 4 million on citizens of the GDR, 2 million on citizens of the old Bundesrepublik. What was to be done with such a legacy?
Many demanded that the files be closed or even destroyed in the interest of “national peace.” One could expect such a vote from former GDR elites, who could be prosecuted or face moral discredit if the files were made public. But even reputable social-democratic politicians like Egon Bahr and, out of quite different motives, the West German secret service, wanted to prevent the Stasi files from becoming publicly accessible.
The “inherited burden of dictatorship,” Gauck called this legacy in his Memoirs (2009). It is an inheritance left with no testament, one could say with Arendt and René Char. It is an inheritance without precedent, for which a legal, political, moral, and historiographic procedure had to be found before any work could begin. Joachim Gauck, along with more than 3000 staff members, created the blueprints for dealing with the material. Since 1990, victims of Stasi persecution, as well as the media and researchers, are able to read and study the files of the state surveillance apparatus.
The fact that this is now possible cannot be taken for granted. Since the transition to democracy, other countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania have decided against opening their archives. In Germany, it’s one of Gauck’s major accomplishments to have successfully carried out the demand of the East Germany democracy movement to make the Stasi files publicly accessible.
The Federal Commission for the Stasi-Archives is now a permanent institution in Germany. The commission is internationally respected, and stands as a symbol for Germany’s way of dealing and coming to terms with dictatorship after 1989. The legal and administrative character of the commission, and the basis of its success, is largely thanks to Joachim Gauck’s capacity for political judgment, as he was the first director of the Commission from 1990 to 2000. Gauck, the unconventional political activist from the Baltic, recruited a legal and data protection expert from Bavaria as an administrator, to help carry out the revolutionary civil movement’s lofty goal of universal access to the records. The two persistently maintained this political demand in the face of the reservations and greediness of West German administration and political parties. Gauck recognized that the new Commission for the Stasi Archives would have to fit into the institutional structure of West Germany, and that this framework had to be confronted without naivete or arrogance.
During and since the first national elections in unified Germany in 1990, naivete and arrogance towards the power of established parties and institutions relegated almost all of the East German opposition groups to political meaninglessness. The widespread feeling that the momentum of political freedom was too quickly muted by, and swallowed up into the institutional structure of West Germany burdens the unification process to this day. The Federal Commission for the Stasi Archives is one of the few achievements in which something truly politically new came out of the momentum of freedom in 1989.
The election of Joachim Gauck connects the memory of this founding moment of political freedom with the highest office in Germany—which is delightful, but also feels incongruous. It may also appear incongruous to many that Gauck is the first nominee in Germany’s post-war history who was not elected President directly from another high political office. Since 2000, Gauck has worked for foundations, and as a free-lance writer and lecturer. He is less a man of the political class than a political man. This symbolic fact is one that might have interested Hannah Arendt.
with Anne Posten
Thomas Wild will begin teaching at Bard in the fall and will join the Hannah Arendt Center as a Research Associate.
“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.
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.
Professor Stevens response to my post on genetically choosing traits in our offspring suggests that I, and Arendtians (whatever such a thing may be) think "technology is inimical to nature, and therefore undesirable." He diagnoses a fear of technology, and, it seems, a nostalgia for a pre-technological age.
In the thinking of Arendt and her followers, it seems that changes in 'humanity' -- especially changes caused by technology and its interdependence with modern government -- lead automatically to 'inhumanity', i.e., to an undesirable absence of what is figured as having been, so far, human nature.
The point of concern is not that technology brings change. Far from it. I can't imagine any reader of mine or of Arendt's--to take one example, her paean to revolutions in On Revolution-- thinking her inimical to change. She values, above all, spontaneity and creativity and thus the possibility for the emergence of the new.
The points I hoped to make in my post were:
1. That one essential characteristic of humanity is that human beings are subject to chance, change, newness, and unpredictability. Now this is not a claim about some natural inborn human nature. But it does say that humans, if they are to be human, exist in such a way that the world can be surprising and new. If Christians thought humans were created by God and Kant saw humans as rational beings, Arendt thought that humans, at the very least, were free to act in surprising ways.
2. This is not at all anti-technological. On the contrary, Arendt distinguishes humans from animals precisely because humans can create and build an artificial world. In other words, there is no human civilization with technologies and without a built and fabricated world. Only animals live in a purely natural existence. Humans make their world.
3. What is worrisome in the age of modern science is not technology and not fabrication, but the increasing possibility that human creative powers will become so great that the human power to create an artificial world will overtake the human itself as something given, freely existing by a mystery impervious to human mastery.
I doubt very much that humans will ever extinguish the mystery of human being. And yet, I do believe that the spaces of freedom in our time are shrinking greatly. The dream to control our fate by purchasing our progeny in a genetic boutique will not lead to homogeneity. People will pick differently. Nor will it lead to dominance by one class, since life is impossible to fully control. But it does move us further down the road towards a time when the selection of human qualities is so rationalized by an artificially intelligent mind that the mysterious quintessence of humanity is forgotten.