By N.A.J. Taylor[i]
“The horror that swept over mankind when it learned about the first atomic bomb was a horror of an energy that came from the universe and is supernatural in the truest sense of the word. The scope of the devastation to buildings and boulevards, even the number of human lives destroyed, was relevant only because, in unleashing death and destruction on so vast a scale, this newly discovered source of energy had eerily impressive symbolic power from the very moment of its birth.”
-- Hannah Arendt (2007b, 1977), The Promise of Politics
Although Arendt wrote relatively very little on the nuclear age, we know from her earlier writings what she thought about the existence of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war. From such disparate references to the nuclear age, a strikingly simple yet prescient idea emerges that arguably bears more resemblance to Eastern cosmology than any Western tradition: the human condition must be properly understood as being co-constituted and mutually implicated in the cosmos.
**This post was originally published on November 14th, 2011**
"The end of rebellion is liberation, while the end of revolution is the foundation of freedom."
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
Physical liberty is a prerequisite for freedom, but freedom, Arendt writes, "is experienced in the process of acting and nothing else". The intimate connection between acting and freedom is what animates the intense passion for revolution. At a time when freedom is reverenced, but mostly in the breach, revolutions seduce us with the hope that the "course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known or told before, is about to unfold". Revolution, as the coincidence of the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning, actualizes the experience of being free".
Arendt writes that the "revolutionary spirit" of freedom unites two seemingly contradictory elements. The first is the "act of founding the new body politic", an act that "involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure". As an act of foundation, revolutionary action strives to found new yet lasting governmental institutions. Often ignored amidst the focus on revolutionary violence, the desire to found stable structures is central to the revolutionary spirit.
The second element of the revolutionary spirit, however, is the revolutionary’s experience of the revolution. It is "the experience . . . which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have", namely the experience of an "exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning". Caught up in the thrall of creation, revolution gives birth to the "high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth". The revolutionary spirit, therefore, includes the joy and excitement that attends all endeavoring to tear down and build up. The joy in the destruction of the old that Nietzsche reminds us of is inseparable from the joy in the creation of the new.
Arendt attributes the loss of the spirit of the revolution – what she calls the revolutionary treasure – to one overriding cause. The problem is that the republics that the revolutions created – one after another, whether in France, Russia, or America – left no space for the very freedom that constituted part of the revolutionary treasure. The question Arendt asks is: what kind of institutional spaces could, potentially, preserve a place for the revolutionary spirit of freedom within a republic?
I mention Arendt’s double characterization of the revolutionary spirit now in the shadow of the Arab Spring, the Israeli Summer, and the American Fall. In Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, rebellions liberated the people from oppressive regimes, and rebellions continue to seek liberation in Syria, Sudan, and Bahrain. Around the globe, however, revolutionaries are struggling with Arendt's question of how to find a revolutionary spirit of freedom within a political order. Amidst the sense of utter disenfranchisement and powerlessness that gave birth to these movements in the very heart of democratic states, we need to work to restore spaces and possibilities for the experience of freedom.
In the United States, Arendt bemoans that the US founders "failed to incorporate the township and the town-hall meeting into the Constitution". The town-hall meetings were "spaces of freedom"; as such, they were crucial institutions of the new republic. The life of the free man, Arendt writes, needs "a place where people could come together." The possibility of public freedom necessitates institutionally recognized forums for free action in which free citizens manifest themselves to others.
Arendt’s interest in these councils and town-hall meetings – and also Thomas Jefferson’s stillborn proposal for a "ward system" that would divide the nation into "elementary republics" – is not a nostalgic call for direct decision-making. The point of these societies and councils was not necessarily to make decisions or to govern or administer a municipality. Indeed, Arendt praises one French club in particular that prohibited itself from any attempt to influence the General Assembly. The club existed only "to talk about [public affairs] and to exchange opinions without necessarily arriving at propositions, petitions, addresses, and the like". The councils were a space for freedom, a space for people to gather and discuss the affairs of the day with others. Their importance was not in what they accomplished, but rather in what they nourished.
As institutional spaces of "organized political experience", the clubs promoted "the same kind of attunement to events that had drawn the revolutionaries into action, and along its path". In other words, the councils offered the experience of freedom that "is experienced in the process of acting and nothing else".
-- Roger Berkowitz
Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and where deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Arendt’s conception of power is one of the most subtle and elusive features of her political theory. Here Arendt poses the problem of power in terms of power’s loss, of powerlessness, which is also what she calls “the death of political communities.”
What is powerlessness? What, exactly, is lost when power is lost?
There are many ways to become powerless in the world of twenty-first century politics. In the United States we often imagine that citizens would be powerless without their constitutional rights – the vote, free speech, due process. In and around the world’s many war zones, the loss of military protection seems to produce a very different kind of powerlessness, one that is linked to both our physical vulnerability to violence as human beings and the persistence of violence between sovereign states (and within them.) There is also the powerlessness that seems to follow from the dislocations or migrations of peoples, a condition that Arendt calls mass homelessness, which may come from the movement of peoples across borders or the redrawing of borders across peoples. Poverty appears to be another form of powerlessness altogether, one that disrupts our capacity to appropriate nonhuman nature through labor and work and thereby sustain our lives. Arendt argues that mass destitution, alongside mass homelessness, is a form of powerlessness that is peculiar to the political condition of the modern age.
Many other kinds of powerlessness can be added to this list. The list is disturbing not only for its variety and length, but also because the felt urgency of each danger invites us to elevate one or two above the others, so that we risk settling for powerlessness of several kinds in order to secure power in one or two “emergency” domains. We choose between the power of kill lists and drone strikes and the power of due process for Americans accused of terrorism. We weigh our powerlessness in the face of global warming against the powerlessness caused by the Great Recession, where the hoped-for “recovery” will be defined by consumption-led “growth,” rendered tangible by lower gas prices and more crowded shopping malls. Or, we may think that US power in the globalizing world of free trade and faster capital flows is dependent upon “securing our national borders,” achieved through the quasi-militarization of immigration enforcement. Hard choices are the stuff of politics - they are supposed to be what power is all about - but the dilemmas of modern powerlessness are peculiarly wrenching in large part because they are not readily negotiable by political action, by those practices of public creativity and initiative that are uniquely capable of redefining what is possible in the common world. Rather, these “choices” and others like them seem more like dead-ends, tired old traps that mark the growing powerlessness of politics itself.
The death of the body politic, which can only occur by way of the powerlessness of politics itself, is Arendt’s main concern in the above quote. In contrast to Hobbes, Rousseau, Weber, and Habermas, among others, Arendt distinguishes power from domination, strength, rationality, propaganda, and violence. Located within the open and common world of human speech and action, power reveals its ethical and political limits when it is overcome by deception, empty words, destruction, and “brutality.” Rooted in the human conditions of natality and plurality, and constituted by the gathered actions of many in a public space of appearance, power exists only in its actualization through speech and deed. Like action, power depends upon the public self-disclosure of actors in historical time. Actors acting together with other actors generate power. Yet because we do not know “who” we disclose ourselves to be in the course of collective action, or what the effects of our actions will turn out to mean in the web of human stories, power itself is always “boundless and unpredictable,” which in part explains its peculiar force. Given its boundlessness and unpredictability, power cannot be stored up for emergencies, like weapons or food and water, nor kept in place through fixed territories, as with national sovereignty. Power therefore co-exists only uneasily with machpolitik. Power can overcome violence and strength through the gathered voices and acts of the many; it can also be destroyed (but not replaced) through the dispersal of the many and the dissolution of the space of appearance. In-between gathering and dispersal, power is preserved through what Arendt calls “organization,” the laws, traditions, habits, and institutions that sustain the space of appearance during those interims when actors disperse temporarily and withdraw back into the private realm, only to reappear later.
For Arendt, the loss of power is the loss of our capacity to act with others in a way that generates, sustains, and discloses a common world. Powerlessness is marked by the receding of public spaces. This may occur, for example, through the gentle decline of a formally constituted public realm into the technocratic shadows of the social, or through the brutal sovereign repression of spontaneously emergent spaces of appearance. In both cases, our ethical and political incapacities to act together, and the philosophical inability to recognize power when we see it, are at the root of modern political powerlessness. Power-seekers, on Arendt’s view, would be well advised to cultivate a deeper political appreciation for both the immaterial force and fragility of human natality, plurality, and public space, which will be lost when power is mistaken for its rivals, like reason, strength, violence, or sovereignty.