The Power of the People

“Political institutions, no matter how well or badly designed, depend for continued existence upon acting men; their conservation is achieved by the same means that brought them into being. Independent existence marks the work of art as a product of making; utter dependence upon further acts to keep it in existence marks the state as a product of action.”

-Hannah Arendt, ‘What is Freedom?’ in Between Past and  Future

Arendt’s polemics against means-end thinking in politics are prominent throughout The Human Condition, and echoed in many of her other writings. Most of her readers have been willing to grant her the dangers of means-end thinking, as expressed in the maxim, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” In this regard, Arendt’s words are indeed unanswerable: ‘We are perhaps the first generation which has become fully aware of the murderous consequences inherent in a line of thought that forces one to admit that all means, provided that they are efficient, are permissible and justified to pursue something defined as an end.’ (HC 229) Nonetheless, many readers have wondered whether she does not over-egg the pudding, so to speak, by so emphatically rejecting the political importance of goal-directed thinking and strategic action.

I think this passage from ‘What is Freedom?’ enables us to respond directly to these natural doubts about Arendt’s account of action in The Human Condition. It is an error, Arendt writes, to regard ‘the state or government as a work of art, as a kind of collective masterpiece’ (BPF 153). To endure, the work of art depends only on a certain degree of care. Cleaning and maintenance, or labour in Arendt’s terms, preserve the art-work, which – as its name indicates – resulted from the activity of work. It is quite otherwise with political institutions: ‘their conservation is achieved by the same means that brought them into being’ – that is, by the concerted action of many persons. In other words, we may easily mistake the nature of the goals at stake in politics, by misconstruing them as ends that might be achieved and endure, needing perhaps just a little ‘spit and polish’ from time to time.

Of course, many political acts do aim to bring about a lasting change in the world. In every case, however, this goal ultimately concerns the terms of on-going human relations. Whatever political aim we think of – someone obtaining political office, a change in the law or the foundation of a new state, even something as material as the erection of a monument or a boundary wall: in each case, unless people alter their conduct and relations in terms of these new realities, they will not, in fact, obtain any reality at all. An elected official can find herself powerless; a law can enter the statute books but remain a dead letter; history knows many vain and ineffectual acts of constitution. A monument or wall are slightly different: they are material objects that may, up to a point, endure with no one’s doing anything more about them. But of course, their coming-to-be rests on an agreement to commission them – that is, on action rather than work. And whether they retain any political relevance, whether they keep memories alive or boundaries solid, whether they become tourist attractions or mere rubble – this depends entirely on the opinions and conduct of the people who live alongside them. If many political acts aim at lasting change, then, many others aim to preserve: ‘the conservation [of any political accomplishment] is achieved by the same means that brought [it] into being.’

In other words, although it may be affected by material structures and written documents, the political realm ultimately consists just in how people conduct themselves toward one another. One of Arendt’s reasons for rejecting means-end thinking is that there is no ‘end’ to politics. Our political action can never strictly look to an end-point, for that could be nothing but the end of history itself (‘Understanding and Politics,’ in Essays in Understanding, 320). Again, we may suspect Arendt of hyperbole that misses the importance of goal-directed action in politics. But her deeper point is that political goals and achievements always concern the terms of on-going human relationships. These may be expressed by offices and laws, monuments or public squares; but they cannot be reified. No written document, not even the most solid and brutal wall, constitutes those term. Only continuing and concerted action,  animated by particular principles and enacting certain virtues, does this.

There are no ends in politics, then, because political achievements only endure in the form of actions, principles, and relationships. People’s consent and support; the power that arises from these; the continuing preparedness to abide by the relevant terms – these phenomena of human acting and relating are the essential goal of any political initiative. ‘Means’ and ‘end’ are made of the same stuff, defeating any political theory that separates them and spelling ruin from all political practice that seriously regards actions or persons as mere means to an end. None of this is to deny that there are lasting political achievements, or that responsible political action may be directed toward such goals. The point is just that those achievements endure only if kept alive by ‘acting men’ – and, as Arendt would be sure to add, in the stories we tell about them.

-Garrath Williams, Lancaster University, UK