Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
Over onsFaculteit der LetterenOrganisatieBestuur, afdelingen en medewerkersAfdelingenDepartment of American Studies
Header image American Studies Department (Blog)

Hannah Arendt and the Occupy Movement (by Dr. Tim Jelfs)

Datum:20 februari 2014

Academics spend time with books the way regular folks spend time with other people, and one book I’ve been spending a lot of time with recently (dating, almost) is Hannah Arendt’s Crises of the Republic (1972).

Arendt was a German-Jewish political philosopher who studied under Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and Karl Jaspers before Hitler’s rise to power forced her to flee Germany, first to Paris and then to New York, where she taught for many years at the New School for Social Research. She is probably best-known for Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1961), her firsthand account of the trial and execution of Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann, but her major political and philosophical works are undoubtedly The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958).

And yet none of those texts is now speaking to me with quite the same sense of urgency as Crises of the Republic, in which she collects together a series of essays that respond to the political tumult of the 1960s and early 1970s. In the following passage Arendt reflects upon her basic theme:

What we are confronted with is a constitutional crisis of the first order, and this crisis has been effected by two very different factors whose unfortunate coincidence has resulted in the particular poignancy as well as general confusion of the situation. There are the frequent challenges to the Constitution by the administration, with the consequential loss of confidence in constitutional processes by the people, that is, the withdrawal of consent; and there has come into the open, at about the same time, the more radical unwillingness of certain sections of the population to recognize the consensus universalis.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Isn’t the early twenty-first century United States in some sense “confronted” by a crisis of the republic that looks pretty similar in shape to that outlined by Arendt? Take her reference to “challenges to the Constitution by the administration.” The constitutional infringements of an overweening federal government have been a complaint of politically engaged and enraged U.S. citizens from Thomas Jefferson to the Tea Party. However, the recent revelations about the activities of the NSA and the legal framework for the ordering of drone strikes hark back more obviously to the controversies surrounding the Vietnam-era administrations of Johnson and Nixon: a sordid, bipartisan tale of official lying, undeclared wars and frighteningly expansive understandings of the power of the executive.

In the 1960s and 1970s, of course, there was also more than a whiff of revolution in the air, whether emanating from the disillusioned youth of the white middle class, the emergent Black Panther movement or elsewhere. This is what Arendt is referring to when she talks about that “radical unwillingness of certain sections of the population to recognize the consensus universalis.” Some of these groups were not just objecting to executive overreach and the resulting erosion of faith in “constitutional processes.” They were withdrawing their consent from the existing form of government itself.

Little wonder, then, that when W. J. T. Mitchell and others, writing in Critical Inquiry in 2012, sought to make sense of the emergence of the Occupy movement, they too turned to Arendt. What OWS had done in Zucotti Park and elsewhere, after all, was not just signal their removal of consent from the existing form of government. They were also modelling an alternative form of socio-political organization and collective decision-making that the protestors argued was preferable to what they saw as the plutocratic status quo, in which not “the people” (whoever they are) but a tiny financial elite (the infamous 1%) hold the preponderance of power.

Occupiers even had a radical name for the alternative they were modeling. They called it “democracy,” and to my eyes, it resembled nothing so much as what Arendt calls “the best in the revolutionary tradition—the council system, the always defeated but only authentic outgrowth of every revolution since the eighteenth century.” Here, she is referring to the kind of directly democratic collectives that she saw emerging in one form or another out of every revolution, only to be “destroyed either directly by the bureaucracy of the nation-state or by the party machines.” For Arendt, these pre-constitutional bodies simply say: “We want to participate, we want to debate, we want to make our voices heard in public, and we want to have a possibility to determine the political course of our country.” I’m convinced that she would have understood the Occupiers as acting in the same tradition.