Hannah Arendt on Cairo and Occupy
February 20, 2012
Hannah Arendt takes great care to carefully redefine a number of terms that she claims are commonly misused in the common parlance. Among these, ‘action’ and ‘power’ stand out to me as both the most gripping and the most relevant today. Arendt’s definition of these two terms, therefore, will be the first point of discussion. In this section I will also clarify the meaning of ‘public space’ and ‘appearance’ as they are fundamental to the discussion of action and power. Then, I will take these terms and examine how their respective concepts appear in recent events, the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy Movement being the chief focus among them. My aim is twofold: to give an accessible example to help better understand Arendt, and to evaluate these events to see if they exemplify Arendt’s theories on action and power.
Arendt heavily emphasizes the notion of action, and invests in it so much power and import as to make the ability to act essentially equate to the ability to do anything. History itself, she writes, is “a story of action and deeds rather than of trends and forces or ideas.” There are multiple facets to Arendt’s idea of action, first of which is that “action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of a defeat is always unlikely.” In short, Arendt is saying that any action will immediately result in some change and thus the world after the action – however small – is necessarily different from the world before it. Moreover, the flow of action will never end. Each action impacts another person, who is also able to act and therefore elicit reactions which are new actions in and of themselves; and so the cycle continues in a manner Arendt aptly describes as “boundless.”
Third, actions focus on the “’inter-ests’ in between and shared by men;” thus, serving as the impetus for their gathering, the shared concerns of a group of people form the basis for action. Further discussion on the importance of gathering will take place below in the section of public space.
Fourth, actions require at least two parties or sides, “the actor and the sufferer.” While for Arendt this is a short comment used merely as clarification, I see more in it. For one, it reemphasizes the concept that actions cannot be undertaken alone. Furthermore, it adds the requirement that an action must have someone on the other end, and cannot simply be for some isolated creation – football and not golf, competitive debate and not Toastmasters.
Fifth, action is unpredictable. Unpredictability is the “decisive character of human affairs.” This unpredictability centers on the rapid flux of moods and events that are the trademark of all human efforts, and especially of those involving collective action. Arendt explains that action doesn’t bolster the world, it changes it even without “plan or paradigm” towards most of said changes.  Most of this stems, she argues, from the fact that chains of actions and events can and do become automatic and atomistic, outside of man’s foresight and control.
This unpredictability leads to two further characteristics. Because the end result of an action “can never be reliably predicted” and is often frustrated before it runs its course, the means used to achieve goals (i.e. gathering, non-violence, specifics of data and tact, etc.) “are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.” Additionally, because action will be unpredictable and its course will change, it “must be free from motive on one side, from its intended goal as a predictable effect on the other.” In all, “every act … is a ‘miracle’ that is, something which could not be expected.”
Sixth, action is counter-normal. Arendt writes, “we seek to instill nomos and thus preclude action in all society.” I argue that in this statement is an implicit characterization of action as something that is adversarial to the “normality” of society. Given that nomos precludes action, action must then clash with nomos in order to come into being and, subsequently, fruition; therefore, action is a counter-normal force.
Speech, for Arendt, is irreversibly interconnected with action. For one, speaking the “right words at the right time” is an action in itself. Furthermore, “without the accompaniment of speech” action would not only “lose its revolutionary character”, but also it “would lose its subject,” because without speech, those involved would no longer be ‘acting men’ but would instead be ‘performing robots.’ Changing the focus from the actor to the action still leaves the same necessity for speech; if an action loses its speech making character for whatever reason, or even if the speech only retrogrades to ‘mere talk,’ then the action becomes only “productive activity.” Action and speech are bound together, and together are “part of living flux of acting and speaking.”
Speech gains its importance because it serves as the necessary and sufficient condition for separating action from other forms of doing. If violence is exchanged for speech, or if speech is simply absent, that activity no longer qualifies as an action, in Arendt’s perspective.
Public Space and Appearance
According to Arendt, politics is fundamentally about the relationship of human beings with one another, the nature of their bond, the principles that unite them, and the very frame of the multiple local and temporary projects they undertake together.
The public space is the setting for action, which itself appears and then fades within that space. This space of appearance “comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action.” Furthermore, it is only in this public space that action can exist since action is “never possible in isolation; to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act.” This is illustrated in part by the fact that abuse regimes seek to prevent gatherings because their monopoly on power is only truly threatened by such gatherings and their actions. Much of why this is the case is because within action, the strength of the individual gives way to collective force and is amplified by the same. Not only is power a factor, but the deep (if temporary) bonds within the group create a major threat to ruling power and a primary catalyst for successful action.
Public activity in the form of speech and action is of supreme importance to mankind; “life without speech and without action … has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men.” We are inherently social beings, and “action not only has the most intimate relationship to the public part of the world common to us all, but is the one activity which constitutes it.” Because of our social humanity and the importance of human reason, public gathering and the speech within it develop into ends in and of themselves; together, they become “publicity for its own sake.” Finally, it is important that all actors interact with one another, and not for or against any particular person or group of persons. In other words, I am there for the cause and as a cause we act; I am not a person helping other people or attacking some group. It is worth noting that while this may seem contradictory to the earlier requirement of an actor and a sufferer, it is not because the actor is merely such within the group, and the sufferer in the regime or policy needing changing rather than the people behind it.
Being together while exercising speech and reason amplifies individual power and creates deep bonds, which together create the action and make it effective. Moreover, a noteworthy component that serves a catalyst towards bonds among the actors and a dedication to the action is the imminent threat of death. Faced together, during action, death does not instill fear, according to Arendt, but instead ‘gives vitality.’ Her argument is that in the moment when death looms large during action, each man will automatically evaluate themselves and the situation and decide that the cause and thus the better future for the species is worth much more than the individual, and thereafter will be revitalized with ardor for the action. A more accessible way to understand the point might be to consider Les Misérables and its cry of ‘to the barricades!’ or, better yet, Gregory from Southpark: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, and his mantra of ‘La Resistance lives on!”
Finally, public action becomes natural when we as people take “vicarious responsibility for things we have not done”and “consequences for things we are entirely innocent of” because “we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow man.” Thus, as we see wrongdoing and suffering, we seek to set it right regardless of whether or not we played party to the abuse or even received it. This empathy, and the resulting action - the “political faculty par excellence” – can be “actualized only in one of the many and manifold forms of the human community.”
Beginning, Middle, End, and Meaning
In her section on Action in The Human Condition, Arendt breaks action, the term itself, into the beginning (arche) and the staying power, or lifespan, of the action (pratain). She continues that meanings have shifted towards a command, and the carrying out of that command; this is the obfuscation that she seeks to rollback. As such, the first part of an action is its principle, or inspiration, which is the base impetus for the action but is not unique to it and thus can be repeatedly used as a principle. Principle should not be conflated with motive. Motive is what leads people to be willing to participate; principle is what spurns the action itself. Next, and somewhat coincidently, action has its beginning, which is the key instance. In fact, to act in and of itself, according to Arendt, generally “means to take an initiative, to begin.” This beginning is something new that “whatever may have happened before” cannot predict, and which “always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability;” therefore, the new always appears in the guise of a miracle.
The course of the action is intuitive enough; it starts with the beginning and ends at the ending. The ending has its own importance, which is discussed more fully in the section on power; however, the simplest idea is that the action ends before and differently than does power or the public space. This is not all – the epilogue, too, serves its purpose in that the full meaning of an action can only be known after it is over and its chain stops or become long and complex enough that the given event is long obscured. Towards this point Arendt discusses the Greek concept of eudaimon and draws parallels between the idea of only being able to judge the goodness of a life after its end and only being able to fully judge an action after is ripples have calmed. Beyond this, I also note the same argument in her later point that action cannot be undone and the flow of action cannot be controlled or predicted, and again with the point that actions keep inspiring new action and thus grow and change unimaginably.
Power is “the lifeblood of the human artifice” without which human affairs would be “futile and vain.” Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that may follow. That said, power “does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being.” Thus, it “springs up when men act together and vanishes the moment they disperse. Even so, power does survive the action and lives alone in the gap between the end of action and the dispersion of the gathering, during which time it can at any moment be reapplied to a new action. Power ends at dispersal because the group then loses then the capacity to act in concert because they are no longer bound together and readily accessible to one another. Finally, power must wane for it to then arise anew; it must be allowed to flux and vacillate.
Power is a potential thing, and is not an unchangeable, measurable, and reliable entity like strength, for instance, might be. The characterization of power as a potential means a number of things. For one, power cannot be stored. It only exists as it is actualized, and then it fades. That said, power, unlike action, is guaranteed when people gather because the gathering ferments the power. A large part of this guarantee is backed by the fact that “power is to an astonishing degree independent of material factors, either of numbers or means” – if you gather, it will come. Furthermore, attempts to break the action, or redirect it, merely channel and inspire it as though it were a beast possessed and enraged. Under what conditions, then, is power actualized?
Only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.
To crystallize the idea at hand, consider the relationship between Harry Potter and Voldemort. Much like the gathering generates power, Voldemort made Harry what he is and imparted upon him power he would not have otherwise had. Then, much like the power remains only so long as the gathering does, so too are Harry and Voldemort linked. Finally, once Voldemort is no more, Harry looses much of his definition but survives to fight another day if needed, just as power is residual after an action. Granted, if one were to delve deeply into J.K. Rowling’s mythos, then this analogy would grow weaker. At face, however, it should provide clarification and a memory aid.
Arendt In Action
Popular revolt against materially strong rulers, on the other hand, may engender an almost irresistible power even if it foregoes the use of violence in the face of materially vastly superior forces… it is the most active and efficient ways of action ever devised, because it cannot be countered by fighting, where there may be defeat or victory, but only a mass slaughter in which even the victor is defeated, cheated of his prize, since nobody can rule over dead men.
Arendt wrote around a half century ago, but that does not mean her theories and observations are relics of days long past. Action and power are irreversibly seated in mankind’s toolbox; as long as man as we know it exists, so do the capacities for action and, therein, power. In fact, as we live our mundane lives in our communities, there is a latent sense of action and subtle pulse of power that need only be accessed. 
Action can, and often is, exercised as a response to totalitarian rule. Totalitarianism breaks up a man’s ability to act. In times of tyranny, “political contacts between men are severed…and the human capacities for action and power are frustrated, but not all contacts between men are broken and not all human capacities are frustrated. ” Action, in these instances, is often nonviolent and directed at freedom. The latter becomes the direct aim of political action, and is “the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life would be meaningless.” Moreover, “freedom … develops fully only when action has created its own worldly space where it can come out of hiding, as it were, and makes its appearance.” Arendt is not without her own examples of successful nonviolence. The Danish behavior as explained in Eichmann in Jerusalem would be one, and I will discuss one further below.
2011 Egyptian Revolution
25 January 2011 earned the title of the “Day of Revolt” when active protests began to erupt throughout Egypt. On 8 February 2011, the Tahrir Square protests were in full swing. Patchen Markell called the Tahrir Square protests an Arendtian moment ripe with action and power marked by an upheaval for change, a fight against oppressive leadership. As I go through the characteristics of action and power, each will appear within the Tahrir Square protests; however, I will still argue that Professor Markell has made a small error in saying Tahrir Square was an Arenditan moment.
The first check is whether this event was, in fact, irreversible. In fact, it was. The society, and especially the government, of Egypt has been forever changed. So too is (though to a lesser extent) the world as a whole, in that there is now more weight to the renaissance of effective protest that started in Tunisia and Syria, along with a chain of other uprisings that have sprung up very recently and very close to one another around the world.
The second check is whether or not the flow of action will end. If past revolutionary protests – from the Boston Tea Party to Tiananmen Square – are an indicator, then it is safe to assume that the changes made by the protests in Eqypt, especially Tahrir Square, will continue to make changes and inspire still further changes, for as long as there is record and discussion of it.
The third check is whether or not the action focused on shared interest. This ties in well with the discussion of acting for freedom. In this instance, the protest did indeed seek freedom, and that is nothing if not the shared interest of all those gathered, and likely most of the rest of the Egyptian people as well.
The fourth check is to ensure that there were indeed two sides, the actor and sufferer, which is clearly the case. Furthermore, within the actors it would seem that all were acting together, not for one another, and against the regime and its laws, not the humans within. Therefore the teams, if you will, are properly arrayed and opposed.
The fifth check is if the action was unpredictable. This event has unpredictability in spades. At the start, the intent of Egyptian protest was merely to seek address of certain abuses and to open the door for discussion of rectification. That said, what came of it was much, much more dramatic. That this would result in a full overthrow was indeed never predicted until the very moment it occurred. This also shows that the action, indeed, “must be free from motive on one side, from its intended foal as a predictable effect on the other.”
The sixth check is whether or not the goal, and then result, was counter-normal. Given that the Egyptian goal was a change in policy and practice, and as such was countering the usual and normal, this event meets the requirement of counter-normalness.
Beyond these particular details, the protest has all of the parts of being Arenditan. There was the public space in which people gathered, generated power, took action and in so doing exercised their power, and then dispersed. There was a beginning, middle, and an end, though the meaning remains to be seen.
The Occupy Movement
Like the Egyptian Revolution the Occupy Movement is is generally Arendtian, but is also definitely the truest instances of an Arendtian even in recent American history. Again, I will systemically perform checks on whether or not Occupy can qualify as an Arendtian event. Then I will give brief comment on why this might prove important.
The first check is whether this event was, in fact, irreversible. One’s first instinct is to say that it is not. Like in Egypt, public display has changed how the people and government view certain institutions and the importance they each put on the talking points emphasized by occupy. Moreover, the world too is showing signs of sympathetic changes due to a combination of global Occupy demonstrations and growing administrative concerns over what such demonstrations could lately entail. That said, however, one could also argue that Occupy can be reversed. Admittedly it would take a long time and key allowances on the part of the people, but since occupy focuses most on social change its effects are thusly as fluid as are the people it affects and so could be neutralized.
The second check is whether the flow of action will end. This, I argue, is an easy ‘no.’ Even in the world wherein the specific effects of occupy have been neutralized (as mentioned above), the ideals of public display and civil disobedience reinvigorated by Occupy will indeed continue indefinitely. It seems clear that similar actions will harken back to Occupy for many years, as we do the Boston Tea Party and the Barricades of the French Revolution. As an occupier I interviewed said “we are another step in a long legacy of actions like this, but given the where and when of our efforts we will be the movement getting the attention for many years to come; at least as long as I’m alive.”
The third check is whether the action focused on shared interest. This ties in well with the acting for equality, accountability, and balance championed by Occupy. In this instance, the protest did indeed seek positive change, and that is nothing if not the shared interest of all those gathered, and likely most of the rest of the 99% as well.
The fourth check is to ensure that there were indeed two sides, the actor and sufferer, which is clearly the case; the Occupiers are the actors and the relevant financial industry and governmental figures would be the sufferers. It is even clearer with Occupy then Egypt that there are policies independent of acting persons (if upheld by them); thus, it is even more closely in keeping with Arendt’s pictured form of event.
The fifth check is if the action was unpredictable. This is likely the point at which occupy is most distant from Arendt’s theory. Granted, there were likely people –even relevant agents – who were ignorant or blind to the impending change (Eichmann’s in their own if less extreme right). However, in general, those policies and circumstances that spurned the outbreak of Occupy were clear and commonly seen harbingers. To return to the occupier, “come on! These things were issues for our parents, and probably their parents. There have been mass media reports covering this [stuff] for years. How could anyone have been surprised?”
The sixth check is whether or not the goal, and then result, was counter-normal. Given that the Occupy goal is a change in fiscal and governmental policy and practice, and as such was countering the usual and normal, this event meets the requirement of counter-normalness. That said, it remains to be seen how much the full result of Occupy will meet this requirement, if at all.
Beyond these particular details, the protest has most of the other parts of being Arenditan. There was the public space in which people gathered, generated power, took action, and in so doing, exercised their power. There was a beginning, and middle. Now, we wait for the final dispersal and thereby an end, and with a performative confirmation of the meaning of Occupy
Conclusion – Power Eternal
As mentioned, I agree with Patchen that the Egyptian events – especially those in Tahrir – reek of Arendtian theory so much so that I would be comfortable calling them exemplar of its tenets. Furthermore, it is clear that the action proper is over, and it seems then that the people have dispersed and the power faded. However, while the action is over and the people are no longer crowding the streets, it is errant to say that the people are in diaspora and their power is gone. Arendt argues that “only where men live so close together that the potentialities of action are always present can power remain with them;” this is the world in which we now live. I do not mean this as a comment on urban overpopulation, but instead as a reflection on modern technology.
The Egyptian Revolution has also been called the ‘Twitter Revolution’ because of the huge effect on coordination and efficacy that communication through Twitter and similar social media allowed. These social media and networking tools are always on, always at hand, and have near-instant information transfer. Furthermore, because of them, people are always in a public space unless they expend huge and practiced effort to avoid being so. This means there is no longer the need to physically gather in a real space to garner power and take action – the Internet can serve as a giant, interconnected public space. Thus, the group never truly disperses, and so their power is never forfeit. As such, while the action was, the public space and its power still is.
The very same can be clearly seen with Occupy. Of course, some movements still have personnel in the streets, but more opaquely it is also the case that the Occupy network is constantly abuzz at all hours of the day with information exchange over social networking mediums. Moreover, the nature of Occupy splits from Arendt in that it has designs to maintain efficacy even when the streets are cleared and social networks quiet. Such plans include regular regional and national meetings and the appointment of hierarchical leadership. Due to things like this, it might be better to say that the segments of Occupy and the start of Occupy more grandly would both be more clearly Arendtian than the whole of the program as it currently looks.
It is important to be aware both of man’s past and man’s potential futures, as well as what can be done to avoid repeating the former so as to achieve the best possible version of the latter. We can still act; Egypt, Occupy, and their ilk have showed us this. Moreover, “men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.” Granted, big goals and systemic changes may seem forever out of reach, and platforms towards such ends untenable. Still, we ought not dwell on this and let it dishearten and frustrate advancement, for “our whole existence rests, after all, on a chain of miracles, as it were.”
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Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. (New York: Mariner Books, 1970).
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (New York: Harcourt, Brace,
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
Arendt, Hannah. Responsibility and Judgment. (New York: Schocken, 2005).
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (New York: Penguin Classics, 2006).
Boese, Anthony. “Interview with Occupy Tulsa.” Unpublished
Norberg, Jakob. “Arendt in Crisis: Political Thought in Between Past and Future.” College Literature 38.1, 2011: 131-149.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998): 185.
Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. (New York: Mariner Books, 1970): 80.
Arendt (1998), 190-191.
Arendt (1998), 182.
Arendt (1998), 184.
Arendt (1998), 191.
Arendt (1998), 232.
Arendt, Hannah. Responsibility and Judgment. (New York: Schocken, 2005).
Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. (New York: Penguin Books, 1954): 168.
Arendt (1970), 4.
Arendt (1954), 151, emphasis added.
Arendt (1954), 169
This is the best term I could come up with to give a name to the concept of something that is inherently working against norms and traditions.
Arendt (1998), 40.
Arendt (1998), 178.
Arendt (1998), 26.
Arendt (1998), 178.
Arendt (1998), 180.
Arendt (1998), 187.
Norberg, Jakob. “Arendt in Crisis:Political Thought inBetween Past and Future.”College Literature38.1, 2011: 132.
Arendt (1998), 199.
Arendt (1998), 188.
Arendt (1970), 67.
Arendt (1998), 176.
Arendt (1998), 198.
Arendt (1954), 234.
Arendt (1998), 180.
Arendt (1970), 68
A sample of the less graphic lyrics to “La Resistance” which really drive the point home: “And when you all get shot and cannot carry on, though you die, La Resistance lives on!”
Arendt, Hannah. Responsibility and Judgment. (New York: Schocken, 2005): 157
Arendt (2005), 157-158.
Arendt (1998), 177.
Arendt (1954), 152.
Arendt (1954), 165-166; Arendt (1998), 177; see also On Violence, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and Responsibility and Judgment.
Arendt (1998), 177.
Arendt (1998), 177-178.
Arendt (1998), 192.
Arendt (1998), 192-193.
Arendt (1998), 231-233.
Arendt (1998), 204.
Arendt (1970), 52.
Arendt (1998), 199.
Arendt (1998), 200.
Arendt (1973), 147.
Arendt (1998), 200.
Arendt (1998), 200.
Arendt (1998), 199.
Arendt (1998), 200.
Arendt (1998), 230.
Arendt (1998), 200.
Arendt (1998), 200-201.
Arendt (1998), 323.
Arendt (1973), 465-466.
Arendt (1973), 474.
Arendt (1954), 146.
Arendt (1954), 153.
This statement come from a roundtable discussion, not a written work.
Arendt (1954), 151.
Interview with Eli Silva of OccupyTulsa
Interview with Eli Silva of OccupyTulsa
Arendt (1998), 201.
Arendt (1954), 171.