I’ve been silent and busy writing final papers. Here is the first of the three.
First, here are the initialisms I used to abbreviate works by Hannah Arendt: OT: The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harvest edition
CD: ‘On Civil Disobedience’, second essay in Crises of the Republic, Harvest, Harcourt, 1972.
OV: ‘On Violence’, third essay in Crises of the Republic.
PR: ‘Thoughts on Politics &Revolution: a commentary’, interview concluding Crises.
OR: On Revolution, Viking Press, 1963.
EJ: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Viking Press. 1963.
Civil disobedience as revolution: a critical appraisal
The opening of the essay on civil disobedience reads, today, like a conservative, if sardonic, disquisition upon the state of a dysfunctional mid-twentieth century American judiciary and a guarded statement of approval of the “nice” type of ‘60s and ‘70s protestors. It is remarkable, perhaps, from the standpoint of 2011 and advanced biopower, to hear that Arendt considered herself forty years ago to be living where “disobedience and defiance of authority [were] a general mark of our time” (73). Her civic republicanism resonated with good faith: particularly in those lines where she shakes her head with shock at the authorities’ cynicism: “it is as though we are engaged in a nationwide experiment to find out how many potential criminals – that is, people who are prevented from committing crimes only by the deterrent force of the law – actually exist in a given society” (70). And her languid desire for more effective policing strikes a dud note within what is usually otherwise understood to be a vision of civic eutopia: she bewails that “neither potential lawbreakers … nor law-abiding citizens need elaborate studies to tell them that criminal acts will probably … have no legal consequences whatsoever” (71). We pause, too, in the face of her apparent regret over not being able to further fill overburdened prison cells: “What is so frightening in the present situation is not only the failure of police power per se, but also that to remedy this condition radically would spell disaster for these other [the courts and the prisons] equally important branches of the judicial system” (72). As distinct from ‘crime’, the acceptable kind of law-breaking, for Arendt, is explicitly that which is “tuned to necessary and desirable preservation or restoration of the status quo – the preservation of rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, or the restoration of the proper balance of power in the government” (75). She posits “organized minorities” striving towards this end “that are too important, nor merely in numbers, but in quality of opinion, to be safely disregarded” (76).
This essay was provoked by that word, “safely”.
* * *
In Arendt, revolution and civil disobedience are posited as structurally analogous. In fact, this pairing is one of the few instances in which Arendt links, instead of distinguishing, concepts. It seemingly speaks to us as a concrete strategic insight, particularly at a moment of potential insurrectionary potency such as 2011’s nascent ‘Occupy’ movement of the ‘Ninety-Nine Per Cent’ – if civil disobedience is revolution in miniature, then surely it leads to revolution. In this essay, I do not attempt to refute Arendt’s proposition wholesale, so much as to problematize the definitions of civil disobedience and revolution she enshrines, and the characterization of civil disobedience she sees as necessarily revolutionary.
In what follows I consider the inescapably instrumental ends to which a dominant liberal ideology usually subordinates the concept of ‘civil disobedience, recalling that the idea of direct action was conceived by activists in answer to this very problem. Where the ‘civil disobedient’ conjures into being a partially modified world in which a particular law does not exist – a world for which the citizen is usually prepared to be incarcerated in this world – the practitioner of direct action brings into a being what Kevin Hetherington would call heterotopia: a different space of appearances. This practitioner does not aim above all to be apprehended or prosecuted, yet prefigures a veritable eutopia, an entirely re-made constitution. I aver, therefore, that there are contexts which render the spectacular, public, and ultimately rule-enshrining virtues of the civil disobedient at best irrelevant and at worst, quietist. But I claim that the collective, prefigurative, and often ‘impossibilist’ principles of direct action may in fact represent a more fitting testimony than ‘civil disobedience’ to the revolutionary aspects of Arendt’s the politics. In civil disobedience, as Judith Butler’s ‘Bodies in Alliance’ argues, one must already be in the space in order to bring the space of appearance into being. This means that a power operates prior to any performative power exercised by a plurality; whereas direct action arises when bodies appear together or, rather when through their action, they bring the space of appearances into being. Put another way, the local resistance to specific political situations, in civil disobedience, is premised upon the global validity of the socio-political conditions from which those situations arise; direct action rejects the premises of those conditions and is thus heterotopian. And in the terms of Rancière’s preface, civil disobedience is arguing over what ‘white’ means, whereas direct action is saying: ‘black’. If Arendt’s account of civil disobedience is accurate, then, contrary to being identical or essentially analogous to revolution, it in fact relies on a kind of global conservatism to constitute its action at all, and its meaning is only defined relative to the global norms of the system it locally resists.
I therefore wish to call Arendt to account for not penetrating the mechanisms by which liberal democracy itself generates favorable discourse around civil disobedience (within which civil disobedients risk inserting themselves to entirely anti-eutopian ends). I infer a role occupied by violence, anonymity, and non-citizenship within a direct form of action which sees itself not as civil disobedience but as the autonomous vehicle for acts of judgment without borders. I make the point that self-styled ‘disobedience’, Hannah Arendt’s “traditional” libertarian mold for revolution, with its pragmatic or realist negative legalism, renews the authority of its target – the governing institutions which may in fact be past redemption. Of course this line of delegitimizing reasoning can prove directionless, and Arendt had great faith in institutions (Deva Woodly has said of her theory of power that ‘she gives us all kinds of sexy radical theory … and then ends up with Locke’). Put another way, theBut the trouble with civil disobedience is that it’s, firstly, civil, and secondly, no true negation of obedience. To formulate a question we might ask of Arendt’s philosophy of revolution, under what conditions is self-conscious law-breaking insufficient?
Liberal democracy and its loyal opposition
On Revolution describes the American Revolution as constitution libertatis, the birth of freedom, established not merely negatively as a guarantee of rights, but positively, as a reality of citizenship federalized on the principle of self-government. Her wonderful insight (one which Albrecht Wellmer mistakenly sees as pitting her against both liberal democrats and Marxists, whom he takes to yearn in similar ways for the withering-away of the state or its reduction to mere administration) is of course that politics can have no end, certainly not the day after the revolution, even if, as in Arendt’s quip (CD 78), on that day, radicals were to turn conservative. For Arendt, perpetual participation is the only meaningful remembrance of that miraculous natality we know humanity to be capable of. Institutions will not maintain themselves. Thus politics is either world[-making] without end, or nothingness. Arendt’s pure and dazzling political philosophy gives us politics as a principle in itself – which is why it is at first utterly confounding to find her so conservative on the issue of civil disobedience, so protective of a defunct constitution, and so repelled by the idea of massed ‘bodies in alliance’ (to use Judith Butler’s phrase) – as we shall see. The reason is the apparently menacing idea of Butler’s “different social ontology [which starts] from the presumption that there is a shared condition of precarity that situates our political lives”; that we are “constituted in a sociality that exceeds us”.
Arendt may have excoriated capitalism (she was not, she said, the fan she deemed Karl Marx to be) but she essentially failed to understand how capitalism’s liberal-democratic American state would come to perfect the art of collaborating with, recuperating, and neutralizing those who rebelled against it for the sake of something new and better. It is not sufficient to speculate in hushed tones that someone who has pondered deeply the horrors of the Holocaust can be excused her excessive loyalty to the idea of the American constitution, or forgiven her squeamish fear with regard to those informal movements of the streets seeking to challenge it (and not to restore it). For Canovan, “it is only if we forget Arendt’s experience of Nazism that we can see her as the patron saint of direct action, welcoming every eruption of the population into the streets”. On the contrary, the eminently observable socio-historical fact that “precarity is unequally distributed and that lives are not considered equally grievable or equally valuable” is also a political (and not ‘just’ an ethical) alarum. No: while it is amply clear that forms of solidarity ‘erupt’ in fascist guises as well as revolutionary ones, and that liberal democracy all too happily metes out protest rights (thus shoring up its systemic marriage to the ideological hollow motive force that is capital), too much is at stake in civic life for a theory of politics to simply aid in the reproduction of normal social controls and the ontological stabilization of a system of disciplinary assumptions about our collective life. When ‘occupiers’ of symbolic physical shreds of ‘Wall Street’ paint “We the People” on their placards, as the Tea Party do, they copy Arendt in hoping against hope that civil disobedience can content itself with restorative rather than eutopian politics. This is why I call ‘disobedience’ of this kind ‘loyal opposition’.
Certainly, liberal democracy was not producing hegemonic ‘pro civil disobedience’ discourse in huge quantities in the years immediately succeeding 1968. Arendt is able to cite Vice-President Agnew in October 1973 urging the public to think of protestors as “rotten apples”. Yet in the context of the Nixon Administration, her basic policy recommendation (for that is what it is), that civil disobedience – ideologically de-fanged and considered as a scion of the oldest American tradition – be incorporated institutionally into government like a court jester, to keep us all honest, is all the more absurd. Further, for the purposes of this argument, it invalidates her idea that civil disobedience is revolution in miniature, suggesting simultaneously that her support for revolution, generally, denies forever the “part of no part”. For if the body is not primarily located in space, but, when moved by plural ‘actors’, brings about a new space, then those whose bodies are “unseen” have no acting part in politics. Canovan, already quoted above, skewered what is, in her Social Research essay, politely called “the paradox” of Arendt’s populism whereby “while she welcomed direct action by the people, she also feared and deplored almost all actual cases of grassroots mobilization”. Kateb, too, sounds a little wry when he notes how “Arendt added American civil disobedience in the 1960s to her list of authentic political occurrences”. Her interview on ‘Politics and Violence’ makes amply clear, after all, her fear of insurrectionary youth. Generally, the proliferation of loosely-defined undesirable political categories in her work such as ‘the mob’, ‘the mass’, ‘the tribe’, ‘or the hungry multitude’ appears to serve to conjure the specter of popular participation. Direct action enters to spoil the authentic politics achieved by those full-bellied few who, erstwhile, embodied “the people” and created a space for ‘freedom’ based on nothing other than mutual promises and agreements. I am probably not the first to think of this in relation to Virginia Woolf’s prescription for writers: ‘one needs a room of one’s own’. This theory of politics possesses a rarefied potential for excellence, yet one too easily marred by the incursions of bodily demands (“I’m hungry!”/“I’m homeless!”/“I’m invisible!” etc.). It is a politics for the counted, a politics of the demos. For everyone else, “we cannot act without supports, and yet we must struggle for the supports that allow us to act.”
Agnew’s ‘rotten apple’ simile suggests that everyone is inside the one constitutional barrel – a situation we know to be illusory. Whilst action is always supported (by other bodies acting in concert with us, by our being physically at least minimally sustained, and by our reciprocal constitution by the square, the street, the loud-hailer, etc), the life of the body itself sometimes becomes an issue of politics. For stressing these materialities, Arendt thought Marx anti-political. At the risk of returning tit for tat, the issues which she conceived of as mere “social” preconditions for action are on the contrary – for the majority of humanity – that which make up the political substance for which her promisory sphere is the precondition. Or, as Rancière puts it in refutation of what might as well be her “outrageous claim [that] the demos [be] the whole of the community”: “politics … causes the poor to exist as an entity” (italics mine). Marx’s objective, yet transcendent, understanding of revolution is salutary here, insofar as the need for constant self-criticism, constant self-interruption, constant “return to the apparently accomplished”, and even “recoil from the indefinite colossalness” of one’s goals, is needed in a genuine revolution before the ‘Hic Rhodus! Hic salta!’ moment arises. The exclusions of existing democracy cannot be seen as a ‘malfunction’ in a system conceived by true politics. Indeed, one side of Arendtian politics, lauded by Bonnie Honig and many others, agrees, locating (with Marx) the defects of representative government in the gap between modern formal/legal equality and de facto social inequality. The other side, however, enjoyed by Wellmer et al., rejects the pertinence of social inequality and ideology to the matter of politics altogether, and rejects on the grounds of realism new efforts to repeat, or proletarianize, the revolutions of the late 18th century. My response to this choice is Rancière’s: “We will not claim, as the “restorers” do, that politics has “simply” to find its own principle again to get back its vitality”.
The naturalness of equality
So, “the space of appearance does not belong to a sphere of politics separate from a sphere of survival and of need.” In Hannah Arendt’s work, the profound sense in which obedience is required in order to accept ‘politics’ under the banner of freedom, in abdication of the banner of equality, is uneasily glossed over as a question of pacta sunt servanda. Equality is the precondition for the mutual recognition involved in political “speech” (which as we know can be bodily, symbolic, vocal, or written). If equality is not a given, and direct democracy riddled with asymmetries, the most she is able to say (in ‘On Civil Disobedience’) is that “the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased” (CD 97). The “dangers of equality” are seen as a threat to the “contractual model of the associations” between people – the honorable politics that is based on the moral magic of the promisory bond. But the idea that the classes and the superfluous part of humanity are united to their rulers through a promisory compact of the kind Arendt canonizes is delusional at best. Indeed, some promises – like those uniting members of an ‘affinity group’ in direct action – belong quite uniquely to the genius of natality and not to its distortion, the beating ad nauseam of the constitutional drum.
For Arendt, the ‘naturalness’ of collective political engagement and the ‘artificiality’ of diverse intra-social mobilization – a forced re-working of ‘organic’ and ‘mechanical’ modes of human contracting – is a principle to be clung to. It hinges on the supposed ‘natural’/‘organic’ tendency towards compassion in reaction to social inequality, versus the (desirable, institutionalizable) ‘artificial’/‘mechanical’ impulse to set men ‘free’. Liberal democracy, as a space of the reduction of political discourse to questions of culture and sociality, makes this dichotomy untenable. If America was modelled on the Greek polis, consent (to our collective political ‘equalization’ and social ‘freedom’) would still be implied. Dissent implies consent, as Arendt says. Conversely, perhaps consent implies dissent as well. Today, the mantra ‘We are the Ninety-Nine Per Cent’ redounds with a new social politics. Forcefully, the question, posed by the Bar Symposium in 1970, of “the citizen’s moral relation to the law in a society of consent” (CD, 51) lives on – largely thanks to the philosophical work performed by Arendt and others on the (in)sufficiency of ‘consent’ as a linchpin of governance (see more recently George Monbiot’s The Age of Consent, and Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy, both of which examine the hollowness of liberal-democratic consensus for legitimizing ecocide).
It appears at first blush to be for mere introduction’s sake that Hannah Arendt reminds us of the sharp rupture which occurred historically in our very understanding of the term ‘revolution’, which, before natality and ‘freedom’ were its raisons d’être, used to designate restorative regime changes via the motif of planetary cyclicality. In fact, her awareness of this etymology filters perceptibly through into her moments of populist conservatism. France’s year 1789, to her, contained a double revolution, both political and social. These were respectively ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ in their forms of solidarization – a distinction she makes almost as a modification of the Durkheimian ‘mechanical’ and ‘organic’ types of solidarity, categories usually applicable to societies based on homogeneous/pre-industrial, and complementary/industrial, divisions of labor. Furthermore, On Revolution reminds us that – contrary to the prevailing modern conception – the Ancients conceived men to be born unequal, and to be rendered equal through participatory praxis within political institutions (mechanical solidarity). What an extraordinary expression of pre-political violence, and what a perverse refusal frames it – a refusal to conceive of violence as persistent and endemic. The alternative to the world of Arendt’s French Revolution, which plagues her ‘reluctant modernism’, is of course a schema in which persons born politically equal (possessing only the right to have rights) semi-voluntarily render themselves violently socio-politically unequal through a system of economic cooperation within a prevailing mode of production based on organized interdependency (organic solidarity). The unnaturalness of both equality and inequality thereby comes home. This leaves some pressing questions of consent.
Consensus and violence
Precisely triggered by Arendt’s theoretical unease with the implied rights-based consensus which preserves Western liberal democracy, the final paragraphs of ‘Thoughts on Politics and Revolution’ amount to an eutopianist explanation of the ‘how to’ of the currently existing alterglobalization/anticapitalist “movement of movements” spawned circa the 2001 global trade conference at Seattle. (n.b. defender of her ‘realism’, Wellmer is quick to dismiss it as a ‘metaphor’.) “If only ten of us are sitting around a table [I presume she would also accept ‘cross-legged around a camp-fire’], each expressing his own opinion, each hearing the opinions of others, then a rational formation of opinion can take place through the exchange of opinions. …It will become clear which one of us is best suited to present our view before the next higher council, where in turn our view will be clarified through the influence of other views, revised, or proved wrong” (PR 233). This ideal of meaningful consensus permeating action, in the activist tradition whose mode d’emploi was shaped by the 1970s feminist organizing essay ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, is called the spokes-council system – and Arendt’s anarchist followers helped to shape it. Yet the most remarkable aspect of Arendt’s characterizations of civil disobedience is her somewhat anti-autonomist insistence that it be obedient to existing codes of civility. In the post-1968 context she hoped, contra Ernst Bloch, that “the principle of hope” should not spread from Europe to the United States, and believed, again contra Bloch’s “natural law’ of those who do not “truckle”, that “there is an element of running amok on the part of these bomb-throwing children” (PR207). “They have,” she pronounced, “no inkling of what power means”; adding somewhat cryptically that “revolutionaries do not make revolutions!”(PR 206). By this she meant, as she mused to Adelbert Reif, that not the oppressed, but those who object to their oppression on moral grounds, revolutionize the status quo. She deems students “free”, rather than enmeshed in the reproduction of capital. She holds that, for them, a project of revolution in the restorative sense is the only likely marshal of serious power (i.e. of collective participation). She implies that civility (and not antagonistic sentiments like the graffito “Ne gâchez pas votre pourriture”) is always connected with respect for the originary text. Arendt has already determined that a “theory of revolution can only deal with the justification of violence because this justification constitutes its political limitation” (italics mine) and stated that “if, instead, it arrives at a glorification or justification of violence as such, it is no longer political but antipolitical” (OR 10). She pushes anger wholly out of politics. But maintaining oneself as a body sometimes requires enragé action; moreover, con-sens-us without sensual unity, that is, without visceral contempt and deep consanguine love, is not consensus; and therefore Arendt contradicts herself.
Arendt’s argument would be, I venture, that forgiveness beats rage every time. When people of color sit at a lunch counter allocated by the state for whites, those people act anew, and they act unconditionally, because in effect, they forgive the racist state by their action; and forgiveness, as Arendt says, interrupts the ‘natural’ process of cyclical revenge (moreover, one can only forgive the unforgiveable). Yet using politics to achieve post-racism is not the point, for any instrumentalization of politics is unthinkable, and moreover “violent action is ruled by the means-ends category” (OV 106). Thus Black Power is not ‘power’ at all: this discourse makes it easier to understand why Tommie Smith wrote autobiographically that his ‘Silent Gesture’ was for human rights instead. The raised black fist and its existential threat to white bourgeois society might not enjoy political legitimacy, but, like it or not, it had power, because it issued from consensus (or, of course, ‘dissensus’) and it vindicated the right to have rights. The intrusion of the social does not under all conditions enjoy the option of being civil. And, fascinatingly, for one so phobic of the ‘social’, Arendt also thought the conviction that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun” to be “entirely non-Marxian” (OV p113). The explanation, as I have so far been trying to express it, inheres in the fundamental obedience civic republicans expect from those who break the law together for political reasons. But it also relates to the definition of consensus as non-violent, a paradigmatic constraint for which Rancière found the counter-word, ‘dissensus’. Arendt did not understand the temptation towards violence rhetoric, but she did understand the temptation of the efficacy of violence itself. Property damage, undertaken in concert in order to “repeat the occupation” of the commons, should not logically fall foul of her seminal distinction between power and violence. Yet with her, civil disobedience and revolution occur within the political realm “strictly speaking” only as non-violent enterprises, but nowehere is her writing definitive about what constitutes “violence” in these spheres.
I want to give an example of institutional contempt towards the wrong aspect of a grassroots mobilization which broke its ‘dissensus’. Over thirty-five years after Arendt’s death, the November 2011 occupation of the 90 Fifth Avenue New School study center, which was pioneered by genuine experienced revolutionaries – whose hearts the whole sorry experience broke – but which was opportunistically dominated, both aurally and aesthetically, by inconsistently self-styled adolescent insurrectionist-nihilists, would doubtless have repelled Hannah Arendt too for these reasons. One can imagine her signature on the bottom of the letter composed by Andrew Arato, faculty member at her erstwhile alma mater the New School for Social Research’s faculty member Andrew Arato, published online on colleague Jeff Goldfarb’s web log Deliberately Considered, which condemned “random violence” and argued that the liberal leadership of President David Van Zant “had provided no conceivable excuse for this action”. MacKenzieWark, however, from Eugene Lang college within the same university, seems to me to make clear he deems the letter to constitute what Rancière calls the high treason of the Critical Left, opening his ‘Notes on the New School Occupation’ with the pithy sentiment “These are times when one must dispense contempt sparingly due to the unseemly number of things that deserve it.” The hebetudinous and offensive barricade-graffiti of the nihilist opportunists of ‘Occupy the New School’ is perhaps best condemned in this manner. Or, perhaps, one could invoke Slavoj Žižek’s double-edged epigram: “our violence is always legitimate and never necessary”. (One might even modify this slightly: “but never necessary”.) This, in the end, Arendt might well have understood.
Direct action: heterotopia prefiguring eu-topia
We have seen that theoretical support for civil disobedience frequently collapses into a reiterated demand for obedience. The location of the law at fault, within such ‘supporting’ views, is paradoxically over-determined, being both exceptional and extraneous to the contracted republic, and very much identified with the body politic. The problem of where to begin proves stark: in this section I pinpoint “the state of nature”. For Arendt, the “relevance of the problem of beginning to the phenomenon of revolution” lies in the concept, lighted upon in the seventeenth century, of a violent “state of nature”. As Dana Villa explains, constitutio libertatis occurred for Arendt “after the violent struggle for liberation from oppression, the struggle usually (and wrongly, in Arendt’s view) identified with revolution”. The last two pages of her introduction to On Revolution, which both introduce and tie up this theme, contain a serious ambivalence, however. On the one hand, the “state of nature” is identified as “pre-political” and “implies the existence of a beginning”. It names the “recognition that a political realm does not automatically come into being wherever men live together”. It is characterised by the conviction that “in the beginning was a crime”. On the other hand, this “crime” is also what forms “brotherhood”; its violence is that from which “whatever political organization men may have achieved” originates.
My point is that the “state of nature” cannot be both pre-political and predicated upon a crime, if a crime of violence is also what gives birth to politics. Thus, although Arendt recognises that the “state of nature” was never “meant to be taken as a historical fact” she elides the question of its ahistorical narrative truth. Her implication that the formula “Cain slew Abel, and Romulus slew Remus” (OR 10) is no reason at all to suppose that “no beginning [can ever] be made without using violence” rests unexamined. This compounds her failure to clarify whether violence actually does inhere within, or on the contrary ruptures the “state of nature”, yanking the human subject (like Lacan’s mirror moment) into the realm of the Symbolic/political, i.e. over an “unbridgeable chasm” (OR 10-11). The distinction has crucial consequences for the theory of power and violence, and therefore permeates the issue of revolution’s structural resemblance to civil disobedience. For if, in order to ‘begin’, we must first forge from the peaceful tabula rasa a space for politics through violence, we might indeed see the two as similarly extraneous to – yet enabling of – politics. But if ‘beginning’ entails fighting fire with ice, and mastering the violent un-political energies of the “state of nature” with the force of new and organised political energies, then surely revolution and civil disobedience cannot be considered in the same light. Political space can never be ‘pure’, but always involves some kind of reliance on pre-political violence. Whilst revolution acknowledges this, negates and transforms the state of un-freedom; disobedience, as a political act, is not the same as negation, on the contrary, it affirms pre-political non-violence in the law, and, by ‘opting in’ to it with conspicuously qualified enthusiasm, illuminates the place where its authority pretends to be.
Arendt notes that Socrates and Thoreau as the sole ‘set pieces’ of civil disobedience theory, interpreted as reinforcements of the requirement that one accept punishment, elicit “the joy of jurists” because they are not political. She clearly views the American reconciliation between the law of the land with civil disobedience – via the patriotic imperative of ‘testing the law’s constitutionality’ – with bemusement, and is swift in her dismissal of the idea that the good citizen should “welcome his punishment”, or be theorized as a conscientious objector. The view of civil disobedience as a matter of individual conscience, articulated by Thoreau, requires not that one “tremble for one’s country” but that one act only if the situation one has been born into forces one to commit injustice upon another. Arendt’s theory – needless to say – is political and cannot stop at that. Direct action, the concept of group acting upon the world without representation or mediation, whether through occupation, general strike, is the pure and risky alternative. The distinction I have proposed between civil disobedience and revolution, which Arendt fails to make, has much to do with what Robert Fine calls her ‘critique of her critique of representation’. As Deva Woodly’s comment implies, Arendt makes the journey towards today’s prevalent – and ideologically relatively evacuated – theories of radical democracy, and back again towards the need for a political élite. Direct action is the name that has been given to those practitioners of civil disobedience who perceived the need to transcend. It is certainly extraordinary that someone who hopes for a ‘civil disobedience niche’ within the state can pronounce the somewhat ‘bomb-throwing’ sentence: “what we today call democracy is a form of government where the few rule, at least supposedly, in the interest of the many … [and where] public freedom and public happiness … become the privilege of the few” (OR 269).
Kevin Hetherington, in a Foucauldian vein, has written on the need for heterotopias to prefigure and pre-date eutopic re-worldings. The space of public appearances can – indeed, must – according to this view, undergo complete rebirth. Paradigms internal to this space are apposite, unrelated to the norm. They need not be comprehensively imagined, but only negatively apprehended, in advance (one might think of John Holloway’s idea that radically speaking our political motivation “begins with a scream”). Arendt does not approve of the “the anarchic nature of divinely inspired consciences” (CD 66) any more than she approves of the “self-sacrificial element” of the fanatical (67). Yet, as Honig notices, the American revolutionaries put two rather fanatical “appeals to transcendent source of authority” – “self-evident truths” – in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, and Arendt is forced to admit that they therefore did not “consistently maintain the performative posture she admires”. And in this light, the all-important non-violence of the American Revolution falls somewhat flat; that is to say when its motivation risks corruption by a promise, not to one’s brothers and sisters, but to God and a kind of Eden worthy of being restored for a chosen people. “The state of nature”, by definition, cannot consist of heterotopia; and it cannot therefore enter into the horizon of eutopia. Arendt makes her ambivalent relationship to the bridging of worlds clear. Her insistence, for instance, that both those who say “better red than dead” and those who say “better dead than red” “are not serious” (OR 4) implies a commitment more radical than either of these postures, namely, a commitment to the Kantian imperative which Eichmann so grossly bastardized, whereby the content of the individual will (better dead or better red) must be fit to double as a general rule: a premonition of another world. The resultant tension in Arendt’s writing on the question of direct action is extraordinary. But only as a direct activist, and not as a civil disobedient, can one give birth to a heterotopia in which politics can find a foothold for the annihilation of the old world. That is to say, civil disobedience alone will never size up to the idealist proposition fiat justicia et pereat mundus.
Conclusion: on the structural analogy between C.D. and revolution
What a significant portion of the public found to be scandalous about Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was not in fact her returning of individual responsibility to Adolf Eichmann for precise acts (as opposed to responsibility for ‘The Holocaust’) but her simultaneous re-location of responsibility to those whose “conscience [had] apparently got lost” and who did not disobey the Nazis. Indeed, the ‘present absence’ of organised resistance by the Judenräte and by anti-Nazi leagues grows incomprehensible to the dumbfounded reader of Eichmann, who begins to suspect non-Nazis of harboring greater reverence for official Nazi ideology than Nazis did themselves. Indeed, her much misunderstood banalization of evil has a flip-side, namely, her insistence on the potential banality of good, which she documents relentlessly in her case-studies of resistance and civil (or national) disobedience that proved astonishingly possible – one hesitates of course to say ‘easy’ – in Denmark, and at times in France, but certainly very powerful when pitted against Nazi strength. Those isolated instances of non-collective resistance like Anthon Schmidt’s concrete aid to Jews, or Christoph Probst, Sophie Scholl, and Hans Scholl’s attempt at leafletting against Hitler, were of course murderously put down. And, as this is the case, Arendt’s mournful wish that it should have been possible – for honour’s sake – to tell far, far more stories of such disobedient heroes, is also the prompt for the fundamental question raised in my introduction. In the totalitarian context, is such (individual) civil disobedience simply insufficient, or is it – on the contrary – sufficient? Is nothing but concerted revolutionary negation of Nazism worthy of the name of ethics, or is it also deeply honourable to amplify ‘ambiguities of domination’ (Wedeen, 1999) on the symbolic level? Does one risk compromising one’s judgment by engaging in oblique or ‘termite resistance’ (as David Harvey terms John Holloway’s theory of ‘cracks’) as opposed to public efforts of obstruction, strike, boycott, and blockade? Primo Levi’s damning thought ‘if this is a man…’ suggested the most melancholy of all abdications, of all existential defeats. It demanded that we devise ways to come to respect ourselves, in the world after Auschwitz, yet, if truth be told, victorious action against hidden holocausts still eludes us. Policies of ‘making live and letting die’, as Tania Li writes in relation to rural dispossession, today take the form of climate change, ‘slum-ification’ policies, neoliberal pharmaceuticals, and modern-day Majority World wage slavery.
Judith Butler has provocatively suggested Arendt’s thought on Adolf Eichmann to be telling us that “only philosophy could have saved those millions of lives”. Canovan emphatically demurs, ascribing to Arendt a firm “suspicion … of the incursions of philosophers into politics” (we must assume this includes politics in dark times). Civil disobedience is ultimately passed off as a “traditional instrument”, as Arendt tries to conclude: “Ever since the Mayflower Compact was drafted … voluntary associations have been the specifically American remedy for the failure of institutions, the unreliability of men, and the uncertain nature of the future” (102). Of course, still today, there exist people who believe – for instance – the viscerally charged protest chant “The system is racist: they killed Troy Davis!” to be effecting remedial care, rather than dissent as profound as Nora’s at the close of A Doll’s House. They are wrong. If natality does indeed characterise both revolution and civil disobedience as it is here defined, then the former displays this miraculous quality radically; the latter, only insofar as someone desires to be ‘born again’ and believes their soul to have undergone remedial (and possibly ‘revolutionary’) restoration. This second sense is Camus’s when he underlines the desirability of acting on conscience for reasons of personal health. Yet philosophy still has a way of erupting from the collective experience of ‘moments of excess’. When Arendt said that “nothing deprives people more effectively of the light of public happiness than poverty” (222) she was wrong: what she should have said was ‘inequality’. This is what Rancière saw when he asserted the motive force of politics to be the concept of equality. Well, she who wishes to philosophize equality had better be willing to put her body on the line.
Renaissance dreamer Girolamo Cardano said in his Somniorum Synesiorum Libri II (On Interpreting Dreams), “to dream of living in a new and unknown city means imminent death. The dead, in fact, live elsewhere, nor is it known where”. In Cardano’s vision, the moment we look past our existing constitution, yearningly, towards another “new and unknown” one, means the moment in which the existing constitution’s death knell rings. When we dream of living “elsewhere, nor is it known where”, we begin to prepare eutopia in the dark. We make a blind and lovingly murderous gesture, allowing the present polis (that which we inhabit) to slip away into nothingness to join that nowhere or u-topos inhabited by the dead. But what Cardano can also be interpreted as saying is rather different: a dreaming detachment from the material reality of one’s situation can represent the killing of politics, the a-political meditativeness, perhaps, in our times, of the ‘enlightened’ New Age reluctant earth-dweller who aims to emulate the water-lily, up to her neck in the mud of the world, consenting to its rule, yet spreading the petals of her face to an anarchic heaven above the surface. This dual possibility – of revolutionary rupture and dreamy ‘consciousness-raising’ spectacle – mirrors the distinction I have tried to draw. If we dissent from the murky polis in which we find ourselves buried, the point is not to stand in judgment according to “self-evident” truths, but to change it precisely with the power of truths that are not self-evident – truths that are chosen, performed, messy, contingent, embodied, mutable, and collectively hit upon. A group of civil disobedients is still a water-lily, even if the shaming power of its pristine (Gandhian) petals, shining above the surface of the scum of politicking, can churn up the water. A revolution, however, is full of dirty hands, perplexing rather than shaming the inner logic of the system, turning the pond upside-down, and doing so within everyday life. Raoul Vaneigem has a famous line which spells, I fear, Hannah Arendt’s final indictment: “People who talk about revolution … without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouths.” But even an achieved eu-topia becomes a corpse-like u-topia again, relentlessly, so much is certain. It is imperative to act outrageously upon dreams, therefore, or else we follow our dying city into the grave.
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