HANNAH ARENDT AND STUDENT POWER: RESTATEMENT ON HANNAH ARENDT’S PHILOSOPHY OF PUBLIC SPACE

Cato Wong

Every twenty years – with new generation grown up as young adults – voices of dissent shake the foundations of the old establishment around the globe. 2011 will be remembered as a year of global revolt just like the years of 1968 and 1989. There are many types of protests and demonstrations took place worldwide in 2011; but the most remarkable and the one that I revered the most are the protests that demand POLITICAL FREEDOM: Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, ¡Democracia Real YA! in Spain, and of course our very own struggle against AUKU.

Not everyone is happy with the activists and protesters who filled the street; men from the establishment simply disregarded the popular demand to be participators in governmental affairs, saying that the protesters, mostly young people, are too inexperience or too immature; the white-collars are apathetical and sometimes even have contempt for it (“it disturbs the public order!”). These two factors – “expert-rule” and public apathy are the catalysts for the phenomenon called totalitarianism.

In the last article I have explored Hannah Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism, in which Arendt attributed the totalitarian rule to the loss of a public space, a space where men (and women) freely expressing speeches and performing deeds. Arendt saw the public space, which she called the POLIS, as the space where freedom is possible. To understand this we need to go back to the time when politics was invented by the Greeks. For the Greeks, politics means the things belong to POLIS, the city (the public space), in contrast to the things belong to OIKOS, the household (the private space); in household men’s identity is either a labor (ANIMAL LABORANS), or a worker (HOMO FABER), or both. The utmost concern in the OIKOS is life and survival, the fulfillment of bodily needs. Since the laboring requires command-and-obedience, and the producing of human artifacts involves means and ends, man is not free in the private realm.

To achieve freedom and to live a good life, the Greeks leaped from the OIKOS into the POLIS. Men in the POLIS are not masters and slaves but equals, and the activities in the POLIS are free in the sense that it produces virtues and freed men from the dictation of means and ends. Arendt follows Kant by defining freedom as the negation of nature: natural inclination, such as thirst, bound men to drink, and the act of drinking is not free because it concerns with survival therefore it’s “necessary,” not out of “free will.” If one chooses not to drink because the water contains poisons – he is not free too due to its concern with life. One can only be free if one chooses not to drink because the water is the mercy of his enemies, or he gives away the water to the more needy ones. Such acts are free and virtuous, the former produces the virtue of defiance; the latter produces the virtue of altruism. Aristotle’s twofold characterization of men as “political animals” and “moral animals” indicated that the POLIS was invented for the sake of freedom and virtue. The operating principle of politics is not life and security but honor, the “immortal fame” being known as a free and virtuous man. But in our days the principle of economics (OIKONOMOS, “the law of OIKOS”) prevailed, therefore the values of the OIKOS – greediness and selfishness – are being glorified.

The knowledge that one needs in order to play his or her role well in the two spaces are different as well. Arendt follows her teacher Heidegger (who in turns follows Aristotle) in dividing knowledge into theoretical (SOPHIA), practical (PHRONESIS) and technical (TECHNE). Experts can be made up from either men of SOPHIA or men of TECHNE: the former deals with the unchanging, natural objects that existed outside the human senses, while the latter deals with the fabrication of material things which involves means and ends. Only PHRONESIS deals not with objects but directly contact with other human beings. PHRONESIS involves judgment – making decisions in the midst of opinions disclosed by citizens in the POLIS. Politics necessary means the exchange of opinions, or else it is not politics, “ruling” and “administration” are never synonyms for “politics;” one cannot ignore the phenomenological reality underlies the word “politics” – “of POLIS.”

The wall that separated the OIKOS and the POLIS was torn down by the early modern philosophers of liberalism, beginning with Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’s solution to the English Civil War (1642-1651) was to banish citizens into the private realm and let the Leviathan, the absolute monarch with undivided sovereignty, to take care of the public affairs. Since the English Civil War was a strife between religious sects over moral authority, Hobbes felt it was necessary to deflate the notion of virtue and good life in public. Since men do not share the same conception of rights and wrongs, Hobbes argued, to make morals a public concern will necessary lead to wars and conflicts. It is better to making peace by reducing the principle of politics to what everyone can agree upon – “the fear of violent death” – in other word, security. The Leviathan will make laws based on the generalized wills of its subjects, so long as it guarantees security and comfort. The private realm, Arendt lamented, has invaded the public realm. Arendt saw all philosophers, like Hobbes, possess the traits of Plato – who also made the proposal to deprive citizens from political rights by assigning them according to their “natural” inclination: only those who loves wisdom (SOPHIA) can and should take care of politics alone.

“Rule by wise men” is snobbery, while the “rule of technicians” is brutality. With the invasion of the principles of the OIKOS into the POLIS, the mentality of fabrication penetrates the conduct of the public affairs. Since the making of economic material goods involves means and ends, or “instrumentality,” it can be predicted in order to produce the end-product of an ideal state, or the ideal mankind, any means will do. Any action that will destroy the process of fabrication will be eliminated and abolished, and men will be treated as if they are machines. The rule of the wise men brought authoritarianism, while the rule of HOMO FABER spells totalitarianism.
For the sake of humanity Arendt advocated lifelong for the revival of public space, especially during her days in the United States after she fled the Nazi persecution. Arendt sought to revive the POLIS in the form of “council democracy.” Crises of the Republic (1972) is the collections of Arendt’s comments on the series of worldwide student uprisings in the late 1960s and the leak of The Pentagon Papers which exposed the practices of lying and deception of the governments of Johnson and Nixon. Arendt does not believe that governments can successfully obscuring the citizens in the long run due to her understanding of the fundamental human condition as “natality and mortality,” which “the world constantly invaded by strangers, newcomers whose actions and reactions cannot be foreseen by those who are already there and going to leave in a short while,” therefore “guarantees change and makes the rule of wisdom impossible.” Or else the government can be brutal through the “total conditioning” or the “total abolition of action” which “can ever hope to cope with unpredictability.”
Arendt applauded the students’ move “of the fact that students are citizens as well”:
This generation discovered what the eighteenth century had called “public happiness,” which means that when man takes part in public life he opens up for himself a dimension of human experience that otherwise remains closed to him and that in some way constitutes a part of complete “happiness” (p. 203).

Arendt disproves the claim that “university is a place to for students to learn therefore one should not take part in politics” by saying:
The present politicization of the universities, rightly deplored, is usually blamed on the rebellious students… the politicization of the universities by the students’ movement was preceded by the politicization of the universities by the established powers… (p. 189).
Arendt even made the case for the ADVANTAGE of students to participate in politics:

The universities make it possible for young people over a number of years to stand outside all social groups and obligations, to be truly free (p. 208).
But Arendt only stood for the genuine political activism; she held little regard for the hippie movement:
I must say that the communes of hippies and drop-outs have nothing to do with this. On the contrary, a renunciation of the whole of public life, of politics in general, is at their foundation (p. 232).
Does the student movement violent? Arendt gives a definite no – for Arendt, students have only “power,” they do not have any means of “violence,” which is monopolized by the government:
The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All, And this latter is never possible without instruments (p. 141).
In America, the student movement has been seriously radicalized wherever police and police brutality intervened in essentially nonviolent demonstrations: occupations of administration buildings, sit-ins, et cetera (p. 120).
When the police and the National Guards, with rifles, unsheathed bayonets, and helicoptered riot gas, attacked the unarmed students – few of them “had thrown anything more dangerous than epithets” – some Guardsmen fraternized openly with their “enemies” and one of them threw down his arms and shouted: “I can’t stand this any more” (p. 131).
By saying that “one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence is that powers always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence up to a point can manage without them because it relies on implements,” (p. 141) Students are powerful, not violent, because it always outnumbered the police and the guards; it is legitimate and will only be feared by “those who hold power and feel it slipping away from their hands, be they the government of be they the governed,” who “have always found it difficult to resist the temptation to substitute violence for it” (p. 184).
*All quotes are taken from Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972).

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