Saturday, July 29, 2017

Arendt on Revolution and the Necessity of Eradicating Poverty

Hannah Arendt's essay, "Thoughts on Poverty, Misery, and the Great Revolutions of History," written in the 1960s, was apparently just recently published for the first time. It continues to be relevant in our increasingly weird times with a tyrant who would rather dominate than excel in case after case:
"For the will to power as such, regardless of any passion for distinction (in which power is not a means but an end), is characteristic of the tyrant and is no longer even a political vice. It is rather the quality that tends to destroy all political life, its vices no less than its virtues. It is precisely because the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction that he finds it so pleasant to dominate, thereby excluding himself from the company of others; conversely, it is the desire to excel which makes men love the company of their peers and spurs them on into the public realm." 
She explains that the goal of revolution from a tyrant isn't just that people are treated well, which any benevolent dictator would do, but that people have access to the decision-making process that determines how they will be treated:

"Saint-Just, who had started out with the greatest possible enthusiasm for 'republican institutions,” would add, “The freedom of the people is in its private life. Let government be only the force to protect this state of simplicity against force itself.' He might not have known it, but that was precisely the credo of enlightened despots which held, with Charles I of England in his speech from the scaffold, that the people’s 'liberty and freedom consists in having the government of those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own; ’tis not for having share in Government, that is nothing pertaining to them.” If it were true, as all participants moved by the misery of the people suddenly agreed, that the goal of revolutions was the happiness of the people—le but de la Révolution est le bonheur du people—then it indeed could be provided by a sufficiently enlightened despotic government rather than a republic.'"
Because if we don't have a real democracy, then what's the point in paying attention?
"Rosa Luxemburg, in a private, later published, and now famous letter, wrote as follows: 'With the repression of political life in the land as a whole . . . life dies out in every public institution, becoming a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep. The few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them only a dozen outstanding heads do the ruling, and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where its members are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously. . . A dictatorship, to be sure; not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but of a handful of politicians. . .' . . . One would have to change only a few words to obtain a perfect description of the ills of absolutism prior to the revolutions." 
She compared the American and French revolutions' effect on poverty, and favours the version of America that once was in that,
"...not only that the conquest of poverty is a prerequisite for the foundation of freedom, but also that liberation from poverty cannot be dealt with in the same way as liberation from political oppression. For if violence pitted against violence leads to war, foreign or civil, violence pitted against social conditions has always led to terror. Terror rather than mere violence, terror let loose after the old regime has been dissolved and the new regime installed, is what either sends revolutions to their doom, or deforms them so decisively that they lapse into tyranny and despotism."
Violence is only ever necessary to make the many bear the burdens of the few so we can all be free. We only managed to eliminated (or outsourced) slavery because of the increase of technology, not because we got nicer:
"Rulership itself had its most legitimate source not in a drive to power but in the human wish to emancipate mankind from the necessities of life, the achievement of which required violence, the means of forcing the many to bear the burdens of the few so that at least some could be free. This, and not the accumulation of wealth, was the core of slavery, at least in antiquity, and it is due only to the rise of modern technology, rather than the rise of any modern political notions, including revolutionary ideas, which has changed this human condition at least in some parts of the world. What America achieved by great good luck, today many other states, though probably not all, may acquire by virtue of calculated effort and organized development. This fact is the measure of our hope. It permits us to take the lessons of the deformed revolutions into account and still hold fast not only to their undeniable grandeur but also to their inherent promise."
Revolutions can't just topple and replace what was, but must have a plan to start anew, or, it would seem, at least to present the feeling of a fresh start:
"Now, of course we could argue that the new beginning, which the spectators of the first revolutions thought they were watching, was only the rebirth of something quite old: the renascence of a secular political realm finally arising from Christianity, feudalism, and absolutism. But no matter whether it is a question of birth or rebirth, what is decisive in Virgil’s line is that it is taken from a nativity hymn, not prophesying the birth of a divine child, but in praise of birth as such, the arrival of a new generation, the great saving event or “miracle” which will redeem mankind time and again. In other words, it is the affirmation of the divinity of birth, and the belief that the world’s potential salvation lies in the very fact that the human species regenerates itself constantly and forever....the experience of being free coincided, or rather was intimately interwoven, with beginning something new, with, metaphorically speaking, the birth of a new era. To be free and to start something new were felt to be the same....the meaning of revolution is the actualization of one of the greatest and most elementary human potentialities, the unequaled experience of being free to make a new beginning."
Revolutions come from a power vacuum, and this must be filled well:
"Machiavelli knew enough to say the following: 'There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.' With this sentence, I suppose, no one who understands anything at all of the story of the 20th century will quarrel. Moreover, the dangers Machiavelli expected to arise have proved to be quite real up to our own day, despite the fact that he was not yet aware of the greatest danger in modern revolutions—the danger that rises from poverty. He mentions what since the French Revolution has been called counter-revolutionary forces, represented by those “who profit from the old order,” and the “lukewarmness” of those who might profit from the new order because of “the incredulity of mankind, of those who do not truly believe in any new thing until they have experienced it.” However, the point of the matter is that Machiavelli saw the danger only in defeat of the attempt to found a new order of things, that is, in the sheer weakening of the country in which the attempt is made. This too has proved to be the case, for such weakness, i.e., the power vacuum of which I spoke before, may well attract conquerors. Not that this power vacuum did not previously exist, but it can remain hidden for years until some decisive event happens, when the collapse of authority and a revolution make it manifest in dramatic calls into the open where it can be seen and known by all. In addition to all this, we have witnessed the supreme danger that out of the abortive attempt to found the institutions of freedom may grow the most thoroughgoing abolition of freedom and of all liberties."
Because if the power vacuum isn't filled, or isn't filled well, then it can be disastrous. A good revolution depends entirely on the people willing to assume responsibility:
"The collapse of authority and power, which as a rule comes with surprising suddenness not only to the readers of newspapers but also to all secret services and their experts who watch such things, becomes a revolution in the full sense of the word only when there are people willing and capable of picking up the power, of moving into and penetrating, so to speak, the power vacuum. What then happens depends upon many circumstances, not least upon the degree of insight of foreign powers into the irreversibility of revolutionary practices. But it depends most of all upon subjective qualities and the moral-political success or failure of those who are willing to assume responsibility. We have little reason to hope that at some time in the not too distant future such men will match in practical and theoretical wisdom the men of the American Revolution, who became the Founders of this country. But that little hope, I fear, is the only one we have that freedom in a political sense will not vanish again from the earth for God knows how many centuries."

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