Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
18Oct/131

Where are the Public Spaces?

ArendtWeekendReading

What are the public spaces of modern life? This is a central question raised in Hannah Arendt’s work since Arendt insists on the importance of public spaces for the flourishing of the human condition. To be human, Arendt writes, is to be free in public, which means to act and speak in ways that matter in the public world. Public freedom requires spaces where our actions are attended to, considered, and taken seriously enough to merit a response. Such spaces—the Greek Agora, the Roman Senate, the town square, the New England town meeting, the French debating societies, the Russian Soviets, the American jury, and all those civic institutions that spring up to give the power of collective action to individual citizens—are the pre-political and yet necessary conditions of democratic politics.

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The problem today is that such spaces are ever more rare and in decay. Town hall meetings are largely gone or ceremonial. Local governments have ceded all real power to state or federal authorities. And even democratic elections—the most sickly form of political participation, has been corrupted by both money and size so that voting has come to be seen as so meaningless and ineffectual that few people bother to do so. As Albert W. Dzur writes in a recent essay in The Boston Review, we lack the public spaces that call us to attention and encourage our engagement in a collective civically minded world:

In our time of late modernity, the public is even more scattered, mobile, and manifold. Zygmunt Bauman and other leading social theorists write of contemporary social structures that, paradoxically, destructure common life, distance us from each other, and make it increasingly hard for us to interact with others in anything but a partial, superficial, and self-selecting fashion. Absent are the places that, in the past, helped us realize who we are as a public, as Tony Judt has illustrated in sketching the lost civic world of his childhood. We lack sufficient means today for calling ourselves to attention, for sobering ourselves up to our responsibility for the world all around.

Dzur offers a remedy for our diseased democracy. We need, he writes, to re-think the spaces and places of modern democracy.

Democracy, he writes, is usually thought a political movement and participatory democracy points to public involvement in protests, plebiscites, and public action aimed at governmental change. But democracy may also be thought of as a way of life focused on individualism and respect for the power and judgment of each person. Might it be, Dzur wonders, that the space of democracy is shifting from governmental to professional institutions?

The spaces of democratic participation Dzur has in mind are schools, prisons, hospitals, and other institutions of government bureaucracy. Such institutions too often, he writes, adopt rationalist and rule-bound ideologies that insulate them from the very people they are supposed to serve. What is needed, he suggests, is a new vision of the democratic professional administrator.

Democratic professionals in schools, public health clinics, and prisons who share their load-bearing work are innovators who are expanding, not just conserving, our neglected democratic inheritance. … Democratic professionals adapt the formal rationality of institutions to appreciate and act upon substantive contributions that lay citizens can make to a reflective legal judgment, a secure environment, or a stimulating education. And, importantly, democratic professionals bring citizens together who had not planned to be together.

In short, Dzur argues for a new vision of the professional administrator or bureaucrat, one inspired by intelligence, flexibility, and a willingness to replace rationalist bureaucratic rules with a determination to do justice by attending to particular individuals and persons.

Dzur’s vision of the new professionals who inhabit new democratic spaces is, whether explicitly or not, related to the insights of the recently popular French thinker Pierre Rosenvallon. It is always difficult to keep up with academic fashions and I only recently learned of Rosenvallon from one of our Arendt Center Fellows Jennifer Hudson, who is finishing up an excellent dissertation that addresses Rosenvallon’s vision of an intelligent and adaptive bureaucracy. In a nutshell, Rosenvallon addresses what is typically referred to as the crisis of legitimacy in representative democracy, the widespread sense on both the left and the right that government simply has become too big, too distant, and too impervious to citizen change. Rosenvallon’s answer is to empower government administrators—what we usually call the bureaucracy—to act more autonomously and freely outside of set rules and solve problems with more attention to local and individual conditions.

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Dzur takes a similar approach in what is now promised to be a new series about participatory democratic politics in the typically administrative spaces of schools, offices, and courtrooms, Dzur generalizes about those who are engaged in this kind of "trench democracy":

[Democratic professionals] take their public responsibilities seriously and listen carefully to those outside their walls and those at all levels of their internal hierarchy in order to foster physical proximity between formerly separated individuals, encourage co-ownership of problems previously seen as beyond laypeople’s ability or realm of responsibility, and seek out opportunities for collaborative work between laypeople and professionals. We fail to see these activities as politically significant because they do not fit our conventional picture of democratic change. As if to repay the compliment, the democratic professionals I have interviewed in fields such as criminal justice, public administration, and K-12 education rarely use the concepts employed by social scientists and political theorists. Lacking an overarching ideology, they make it up as they go along, developing roles, attitudes, habits, and practices that open calcified structures up to greater participation. Their democratic action is thus endogenous to their occupational routine, often involving those who would not consider themselves activists or even engaged citizens.

The attraction of Dzur’s embrace of administrative democratic legitimacy is clear. At a time when public democratic institutions are broken, it is tempting to turn to professional administrators and ask them to solve our problems for us, to not only make the hospitals work better but also to revitalize democratic attention. There is the hope that intelligent and flexible administrative rule can not only make the trains run on time, but also make the train schedules more responsive to the needs of their riders and the trains themselves more comfortable and inviting. In short, democratically inclined professionals can make our public institutions more open to citizen feedback and energy.

The turn to what might be termed an administrative or executive democracy, however, comes with potential costs. In empowering professionals, administrators, and bureaucrats to revitalize and improve democratic participation, we turn attention away from the political concern with a public world and focus, instead, on the technocratic aim of efficient administration. Given the seeming incompetence and obstructionism of elected officials in the United States and around the world, taking refuge in professional administrators is tempting. And yet, it carries the seeds of a technocratic turn that will further weaken the participation in more traditionally political institutions and activities that turn us away from our parochial self-interests and toward a common political world. In short, the worry is that the shift from democratic politics to democratic administration will trade the rarefied human activity of forming meaningful political communities with the everyday desire for institutions that work.

Dzur’s essay is well worth attending to. We will be following his future inquiries as well. For now, enjoy Dzur’s “Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places.” It is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
14Jan/132

When Power is Lost

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.

-William Dixon

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