The uprisings we have witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen over the last few weeks are moving examples of the great potential of the human condition, and of political activity that deserves our praise and admiration. The political theory of Hannah Arendt, whose dissection of totalitarianism, and prescription of popular politics as its remedy, remains one of the most profound works on the topic, and is particularly prescient to the current North African uprisings (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1973).
Arendt believed that what distinguishes humans from other animals, what constitutes the human condition, is our capacity for natality, that is, our capacity to ‘begin anew’, to ‘think what we are doing’, and to do things that have never been done before (see The Human Condition, 1958/1998). Moreover, for Arendt, when people act in concert, and in public, the only thing that can be properly defined as power is manifest. In the process of understanding domination and totalitarianism, Arendt became the great theorist of power and resistance and located these at the heart of what it means to be human (see On Violence, 1970).
In the Arab world today we are being treated to daily demonstrations of resistance of this kind, as ordinary citizens are gathering together with a common purpose, that is, to express their grievances and demands. They gather not as small groups around kitchen tables, as has gone on for decades, but en masse in the streets of Sidi Bouzid and all over Tunisia; in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo; in the streets of Amman in Jordan and Sanaa in Yemen. By gathering in such a way that their deeds and words are seen and taken seriously by each other, citizens augment their individual influence and elevate it to the status of power, a status that can never be achieved when individuals act alone. Though Arendt never got to see anything like it, the public that these citizens are appealing to goes far beyond their co-citizens, and reaches out instead – instantly and with overwhelming amounts of information from almost all perspectives – to a global public. We wait with baited breath while reading tweets, facebook updates and blogs. By reaching out to a plural public, physically and virtually, these people are creating power in an extraordinary way. Think about the domino effect of those first protests in Tunisia, and the widespread demonstrations of solidarity, from Washington to Canberra to Beirut.
This notion of power being the creation of the people gives Arendt’s understanding of power a seductive moral force. She says of power that it “comes into being only if and when men join themselves together for the purpose of action, and it will disappear when, for whatever reason, they disperse and desert one another” (see On Revolution, 1963, p.175). Unlike conceiving of power as a command-obedience relationship, this definition places power in the hands of everyone, and makes it appropriately fragile and contingent, as it is only present in the moment of its actualization. It is not something that can be collected and quantified, or ever possessed by an individual.
If this is power, then what is it that has allowed Mubarak and Ben Ali to maintain control over these populations for so long? Far from denying what we commonly perceive to be power – relations of domination and oppression – Arendt carefully distinguishes power from other terms such as strength, force, authority, and violence. None of these latter terms carry the same moral force as power. Instead, these categories of human relations are, in Arendt’s thought, relegated outside and unworthy of politics all together. Where politics and power require the cooperative, or at least respectful, presence of others, strength, force and authority can be possessed and used individually. Where power is characterised by natality, by the creation of something all-together new and original, strength, force, authority and especially violence “can destroy power, but [are] utterly incapable of creating it” (see On Violence, especially p.56). What we are seeing in the Arab world today is, then, the might of power in the face of the strength, force, authority and violence that have characterised these states, their armed forces and their police.
What we are witnessing is an originary act which will legitimate the democratic regimes to come. Arendt defines legitimacy as what derives from the power of the initial getting together of people (see On Violence, especially p.52). Regimes which have their origins in strength, force, authority or violence are therefore illegitimate. Already, the people of Tunisia and Egypt have created something new. They have created a political culture in which their collective voice matters, and in which their illegitimate leaders have been ejected from any proper place in their political communities, whether Mubarak steps down or not.
Many challenges lie ahead for these nations, including how to revive post-uprising economies, how to manage drastically changed relations with the international community, how to guarantee human security, and most fundamentally, how to manage a sustainable transition to democracy, including changes to institutions so they are meaningful primarily to citizens (as opposed to the West), and, in particular, to find ways to democratically accommodate Islamists who operate with varying levels of popular support and democratic commitment in these different countries.
These are challenges the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen are rightfully taking up. In today’s global public, however, responsibility also lies with those of us outside these countries. Certainly the complexities of both international and regional relations, and the domestic politics of these nations, make binary positions unhelpful. However, we must at least recognise, as Arendt would have, that to continue support for illegitimate leaders such as Mubarak, is to condone strength, force, authority and violence. We can only hope that the power of people, local and global, physical and virtual, will prevail.
Arendt, Hannah. 1958/1998. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Arendt, Hannah. 1963. On Revolution. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.
Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence. New York and London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press.
Arendt, Hannah. 1973. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 2nd ed. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Inc.