The Resistance of Those Who Desire Not to Be Ruled

Sunday 5 June 2011, by Dick Howard

Thèmes : démocratie

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I chose this title in early February while following excitedly the events in Tunisia that would spread to become what is now being called the “Arab Spring.” [1] In the weeks and months that have followed, commentators have looked for points of historical comparison with what had taken them, and the rest of us, by surprise. It is unpleasant to admit that history is contingent, fraught with accident and unintended consequences. The obvious analogy that came to mind was the unexpected demise of the Soviet empire in 1989. But its uneven results, two decades later, have led more pessimistic analysts of the Arab spring to recall the fate of the Prague Spring of 1968, or perhaps that of the rebellions in Budapest in 1956, or East Berlin in 1953. The problem with these comparisons is that they do not take into account the geo-political context of the Cold War. Not only do they also ignore today’s accelerated modes of communication but, more important, they neglect the fact that the Arab spring was a self-organized movement from below, independent of dissident or reformist elites. If one has to find an historical analogy, perhaps it should be the rapidly spreading movement of an earlier spring, the one that began in Paris in February1848 and spread across Europe, heralding what was called “the springtime of peoples.”

The problem with the search for historical analogies is that it cannot account for the singularity of the present, which is where political action takes place. Instead, it reduces contingency, without which history is meaningless. As Hannah Arendt observed in her essay on “The Concept of History,” it seems that every time that a new understanding of the political is called for, we are offered instead a theory of history, what Arendt calls “an escape from politics into history.” [2] With this warning in mind, I propose to reflect on the phrase that I’ve used as my title, “the resistance of those who desire not to be ruled,” in order to cast light on the demand for justice, and the new possibilities for democratic politics that have unexpectedly burst into the Arab world, destroying stereotypes and challenging political shibboleths.

A Machiavellian Reading of the Arab Spring

The lapidary phrase from which I begin is found at crucial points in the two most commented works of Machiavelli. In Book IX of The Prince, which examines what he calls “the civic principality,” Machiavelli rejects firmly the “trite proverb” that “he who builds on the people builds on sand.” He returns to this question in Book I, chapter 5 of The Discourses on Livy, which asks “whether the protection of liberty may be more securely placed in the people or in the upper classes…”? Contrasting republican Rome to the aristocratic political life of Sparta or Venice, Machiavelli argues that “if we consider the goal of the nobles and the commoners, we shall see that in the former there is a great desire to dominate and in the latter only a desire not to be dominated, and, as a result, a greater will to live in liberty…” This liberty is fundamental to the republican politics defended by the Florentine statesman.

Machiavelli’s defense of “the people,” whom he also calls the “commoners,” could be applied to the events of the Arab spring. What does it mean that the people do not wish to be dominated? Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian peddler unable to make use of his university education whose self-immolation became the inspiration for the growing assertion of human dignity, was certainly among these commoners; his act was not a means to an end but a statement of his undeniable liberty . He did not seek martyrdom as might an adherent of a politicized religion; nor was he acting as a representative of a “movement,” and still less a “social class.” Why did his desperate affirmation of his own dignity affect so many others, drawing them from their private lives to the public sphere? His gesture—which may have been, for him, the expression of despair—acquired an unintended valence. It was not—not yet—the affirmation of hope against the politics of fear and repression imposed by state power. Machiavelli’s phrase catches its weight: it was, after so many years of authoritarian and corrupt rule, a refusal to be ruled. In that sense, it was a political gesture.

How, we have to ask, did this refusal to be ruled become political? After all, reformers, inside and outside the existing regime, feared that its overthrow would lead to an anarchy that would then be seized upon by religious fundamentalists whose organizations were the only ones permitted under the oligarchies (who used their “threat” to justify their repressive policies). The reformers looked to institutional compromise, reminding anyone who would listen, that revolutions “eat their children.” [3] The aroused “common people” rejected their wisdom without discussion; to discuss was not to act; it meant the sacrifice of hope and the denial of dignity. This choice did not at first seem self-evident to outsiders or those “realists” who forget Aristotle’s political distinction of life and the good life. In a Western context, it seemed to be a rejection of what Hans Jonas, an early proponent of ecological politics, called a “principle of responsibility,” which he distinguished from the “principle of hope” theorized by the neo-Marxist, Ernst Bloch. [4] The conflict of these two “principles” is of course a variant on the now-canonical Weberian opposition of an “ethics of responsibility” and an “ethics of conviction” which expresses the defeat of political thought and the abandonment of practical judgment that dominates academic political “science” which presupposes the existence of “the political” as a separate domain that can be studied by a neutral outside observer. Such a science cannot be political; it leaves no space for action.

The unexpected emergence of the Arab spring poses the question: what is politics, and what is its relation to what I’ve just called the political? Recall that for Machiavelli politics is always based on conflict, division, and competition. The Florentine republican studied different forms of rule, analyzing the advantages and weaknesses of each. Despite their differences, he noted that all of these regimes are founded on a basic division between ruler and ruled. Political power cannot be based on sheer physical force; it depends on forms of legitimation that make it acceptable to the ruled, who do not feel that they are being dominated by arbitrary force. In this way, power acquires the authority to govern without appeal to force or fear. Of course, this legitimation can be (or become) a fraud, the velvet glove covering the iron fist. But the fact of its existence is significant; no regime can long rule without it. However, rulers may prove themselves unworthy of rule; they become corrupt, arbitrary or partial. As a result, they lose their authority. The naked fist that can no longer be hidden, calls forth resistance from those whose dignity is offended by the humiliating fact of being ruled by the unworthy. When this point is reached “the people” will set out, sooner or perhaps later [5], to demand actively their liberty.

This process, elaborated in different ways throughout Machiavelli’s writings, seems to be at work in the Arab spring. The old rulers seemed to have adopted the cynical maxim of Chapter 17 of The Prince, which says that it is better to be feared than to be loved (because a ruler can impose fear but cannot command love). But they forgot that, two chapters later, Machiavelli warns that fear can become hatred and, more dangerous still, it can become disdain. That negative passion has a positive corollary insofar as it is an affirmation of the human dignity denied by the rulers; its basis is the liberty that for Machiavelli is the basis of republican legitimacy. [6] No one can prescribe the institutional forms of a modern Arab republic. While it should be noted that, for Machiavelli, a “civic religion” will be one of the elements contributing to its legitimacy. But such a “religion” is not a fundamentalism (as indicated by his criticism of Savanarola); and it must avoid the populist illusion that politics can be overcome by the creation of an communitarian identity whose foundation is religious or ethnic, national or market-based.

Politics and Antipolitics

Although I rejected the idea that historical analogies to the Arab spring could help to understand its nature and spread, Machiavelli’s analysis suggests that, despite its different manifestations, the basic structure of political power is common to all of its forms. Despite the difference of the Arab spring from the escape from totalitarian domination, the appeal to dignity and the thirst for liberty is shared by both, This is no accident; both movements share an opposition to what I call antipolitics. It is important to recognize that antipolitics, as the term suggests, is a type of politics—but it is a paradoxical politics because that seeks once and for all to put an end to politics. Totalitarianism is only the highest expression of antipolitics, which is an ever-present temptation in political life. I will illustrate the implicit political logic of antipolitics with a no-doubt familiar example, beginning with The Communist Manifesto.

Although his assertion that “all history is the history of class struggle” appears to be consistent with Machiavelli’s insistence that conflict is essential to political life, Marx’s claim is that the proletarian revolution will overcome that conflict. The basis of his argument is the historical necessity that is made “manifest” in Marx’s analysis. Historical conflict will gradually overcome division, unifying the individual and the social while overcoming the division between rulers and ruled, and eliminating the need for politics. In this way, Marxist politics becomes an antipolitics.

History seemed to confirm this philosophical ideal. The radicals who took control of the movement that began in 1789 did not hesitate, in 1793-94, to legitimate their rule in the name of a “Terror” based on the claim that there could be no virtue without terror and no terror without virtue. The Thermidorian reaction to their overreaching was a popular movement. Nonetheless, what Marx called the “old mole” of history continued to undermine political institutions that denied their own injustices. Revolutions reappeared in 1830, they celebrated a new springtime in 1848, discovered new institutional forms in 1871, before what appeared to be a final victory in 1917. But it was the victory of antipolitics. The Bolshevik party that seized power sought to mold social relations to overcome all antagonisms. Opposition would be eliminated step by step, in one domain after the other. There was only one problem—precisely the one that Machiavelli had foreseen: how could division be overcome when the agent of its overcoming was separate from the society on which it acted? Indeed, paradoxically, the leadership of the party sought to legitimate its power by stressing its distinction from the society at the same time that it continually found (or invented) new enemies and exposed new threats. In the end, the purges destroyed the party’s legitimacy; and with the death of Stalin in 1953, reformers took over a party that held to power only for power’s sake, no longer inciting fear, but hatred and in the end, disdain. Legitimacy was lost; antipolitics brought the death of Marxist politics. Although the critique of totalitarianism took many forms, its dissolution came from within. As Machiavelli knew, once its power lost its legitimacy, its sheer naked force became evident to those who desired not to be ruled. Two paradigmatic forms of opposition emerged. In the Czech Republic, the arrest of members of the banned rock group, “The Plastic People of the Universe,” for “disturbing the peace” was the catalyst that led 242 citizens to sign the Charter 77, which asserted rights guaranteed by the Helsinki Accords of 1975. This appeal to individual rights began to erode the perception of legitimacy of a government which, in fact, had been imposed by the Soviet tanks that put an end to the Prague spring in 1968. During this same period, in Poland, a collective challenge emerged for similar reasons. Solidarnosc, a trade union, whose very name suggested its project, challenged the party state by defending the autonomy of society. The Polish movement spread more rapidly and dug more deeply than did the more individualistic Czech defiance; its delegitimation of the “workers’ state” was more profound while the self-organizing society was aware that it could not, and should not, attempt to replace the state and its institutions. What both of these examples illustrate is the way in which totalitarian antipolitics ultimately undermines itself. But that does not mean that politics automatically springs back to life, as if political life cannot tolerate a void. It can, it has, and it may do so again if the lessons of antipolitics do not warn against the appeal of apparently neutral market forces that rule by hidden constraint even after their legitimacy has faded. While conditions in the former Soviet empire are in many ways preferable today, the creativity shown by civil society and the defense of the rights of the individual that rejected antipolitics has not succeeded in producing new institutions that maintain a healthy political life in the former Soviet empire.

I am not suggesting that the emergence from Soviet antipolitics offers models to be followed. The Arab oligarchies whose self-delegitimation has created conditions that make possible the rapid spread of a politics of hope and dignity were not totalitarian. My examples only illustrate the general process in which political delegitimation creates conditions that encourage regime change. However, the totalitarian form of antipolitics has a philosophical implication that I want to mention before returning to the spread of the Arab spring. Just as the young Karl Marx once wrote that “democracy is the genus of all political regimes,” totalitarianism can be said to be the genus of all antipolitical regimes. Indeed, the history of political thought can be reconstructed as a vast tableau in which politics and antipolitics compete with one another to define the political. [7] This can be seen at the very origins of Western political thought, when Plato proposed the institution of a “philosopher king” whose intervention would overcome the defects of democratic Athens. With this move, Plato became the father of antipolitics. He proposed a political theory, but its goal was to put an end to politics. And, as we know, Aristotle devoted the first part of his Politics to a refutation of this antipolitical mode of theorizing. My claim is not, pace Sir Karl Popper [8], that Plato is therefore the father of totalitarianism (although it is the case that Marx’s historical theory of the overcoming of class struggle has the same antipolitical goal as Plato). My point is that antipolitics is a form of politics, but that it is a degenerate form whose weak legitimacy must be supplemented by the use of various degrees of force. Politics, by contrast, is characterized by the legitimacy that it accords to the diversity of values and even of interests whose interplay it tolerates and encourages.

From Civil Disobedience to Politics?

I recalled earlier Hannah Arendt’s perspicacious observation that every time we need a new understanding of politics we are offered instead a theory of history that destroys the singularity of the moment. My Machiavellian dialectic of politics and antipolitics which articulates the play of force between those who desire to rule and those who desire to be free from domination, tries to avoid that reproach. This can be seen, for example, by recalling Arendt’s account of the politics of civil disobedience. [9]

Arendt admits that civil disobedience is “for the most part” an American tradition. But, she continues, it becomes necessary when a government that refuses to admit its own limits “has changed voluntary association into civil disobedience and transformed dissent into resistance.” And, she continues, this situation “prevails at present—and, indeed, has prevailed for some time—in large parts of the world.” It is tempting to suggest that this description, written in 1970, at the height of opposition to the American war in Vietnam, applies as well to the conditions that produced the Arab spring. But it has been four decades since Arendt proposed her analysis; and only now have “the commoners” begun to disobey. One explanation, certainly, is that the old regimes retained some legitimacy, a sort of political capital that they only dilapidated gradually; and that as it was spent, force became increasingly prevalent as the antipolitical foundations of the regime became evident. Forms of nationalism, the Israeli and imperialist scapegoats, and of course religious fundamentalism (as a threat or an ally) could play this role, whose detail waits for empirical study. My question for the moment is—assuming that the category of “civil disobedience” fits the Arab spring, what does it tell us about the political future that has opened up in that part of the world?

Arendt criticizes the typical American understanding of civil disobedience as the act of an individual who perceives an existing law to be unjust. He or she violates that law and willingly suffers the consequences in order that others come to recognize the injustice of the law. This is a moral protest, whose political impact is not certain because there is no reason to suppose that others share these same moral values. In Arendt’s view, civil disobedience becomes necessary when a “constitutional crisis of the first order” challenges the authority of the existing government. This generally occurs when both the government overreaches its legitimate powers and the various voluntary associations that express the “consensus universalis” of the republic can no longer play their role. At that point, civil disobedience becomes replaces the worn-out institutions of society while limiting the intervention of the state. Writing in the context of the United States, Arendt asserts that civil disobedience is only “the latest form of voluntary association” and that it is “in tune with the oldest traditions of the country.” Indeed, she concludes, the fact that the disobedient movement is changing majority opinion “to an astounding degree” suggests that their actions revivify the “spirit” of American law. Although the Arab spring of course cannot invoke the “spirit” of American law, however that spirit is interpreted, the similarity of Arendt’s description of civil disobedience to the chain of actions that have awakened a new politics of dignity and opened a horizon of hope is suggestive. The people are reappropriating their place in the world; they want their actions to be seen and their words to be heard. In that way, they are making possible political renewal. They may or they may not find a satisfactory institutional form for their new politics, but even if they fail, their actions will have shown that antipolitics cannot rule indefinitely; and the memory of the desire not to be ruled will remind all of use about the need to protect the power of the political.

by Dick Howard

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[1] Thanks for critical comments to Marc Howard and Michael Roess

[2] Cf., ‘The Concept of History,’ in Between Past and Future (New York: The Viking Press, 1954).

[3] I speak here of true reformers, espousing, at least in the long run, democratic goals. Their argument was first of all that revolutions are dangerous; those who start them often finish as their victims—in this case, for example, of religious fundamentalists. Second, realistically, the only possible sources of reform in such highly controlled societies were reformers within the establishment who would turn their vests if offered the proper incentives. Outside supporters of reformers, such as those seduced by Seif Khadafi, recall the “useful idiots” of the Cold War years who pointed to supposed reformers within the apparatus to justify “critical support” for the communist regimes.

[4] Both positions are shot full with paradoxes. Jonas’ book of 1979, which uses the term “principle” in his German version (rather than the English term, “Imperative”) was an ethical statement that was only incidentally political. Bloch, whose Marxism Jonas criticized, was less an orthodox materialist Marxist than a romantic Naturphilosoph.

[5] The absence of resistance does not ipso facto mean that a regime is legitimate. That is one of the reasons that Machiavelli insisted on the importance of a popular militia rather than the employment of a mercenary force as was typical of the aristocratic governments of his time.

[6] Machiavelli is not naïve. He knows that the Roman republic succumbed both because the people had themselves become corrupted, and because the aristocrats were incapable of compromise with the people.

[7] I have tried to reconstruct this history in The Primacy of the Political. A History of Political Thought from the Greeks to the French and American Revolutions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

[8] I am referring to Popper’s fundamental claim in his two-volume study of The Open Society and its Enemies, first published in London in 1945 by Routledge Press.

[9] So far as I know, Arendt’s writing had no influence on the actors of the Arab spring, who had learned about civil disobedience from the example of the Serb youths organized in Otpor, and from the writings of Gene Sharpe. But, c.f., ‘Civil Disobedience,’ in Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), as well as my essay “Keeping the Republic: Reading Arendt’s On Revolution after the Fall of the Berlin Wall,” in Seyla Benhabib, ed., Politics in Dark Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).


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