Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Haunted By Hobbes and Reckoning with Rome

Reading Hannah Arendt's On Revolution today, I was struck by her insight. I'd been turned on to the book by David Depew and a simple phenomenal chapter written by Andreas Kalyvas in his incredible book Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary. Arendt's book valorizes the revolutionary Americans while condemning Robespierre and his French ilk. Kalyvas follows this argument down the line to forward the notion that revolutions which maintain some sort of continuity with the existing system are less likely to end in a violent Jacobin terror.

What interests me is something Kalyvas addresses somewhat, and the rhetorical tradition as a whole seems very well suited to examining. Arendt argues that Rousseau's failing (and that of the French revolutionaries) was to decide that the major guiding principle of the revolution should be the general will: the "best interest" of "the people" (or le peuple, for those scoring at home with their constitutive rhetoric texts). Because there was no means for this idea of "the people" to be broken up, fractured, and fragmented within the French context, breaks between what "the people" wanted and what the government actually did could not be found--instead you had only a perpetual Terror, performed in the name of the people.

Here in America we have a republican tradition. That is to say, the government is understood to be elected by the people but not to always act in manners and means coterminus with "the people". I know this is a gross, gross oversimplification. Yet, I venture to make the claim that the contemporary emergence of the New Right (in the form of the Tea Partiers) is at least in part the result of a conflict between what is entailed by the discursive committment to democracy as an ideal (focusing on the "by the people" part of our hallowed refrain, and within a milieu saturated by what remains a fundamentally Hobbesian understanding of the necessity of sovereignty) and the abiding notion of Republicanism that informs the structure and institutions of this country. I'll attempt to explain and unpack this.

For Arendt, a major difference between the French tradition and the American one lies in the American committment to a notion of separation of powers.* That is to say, in the American tradition brakes on the power of the general will are built forcefully into the system. This is to be contrasted with the French notion of freedom, which Arendt finds anchored in something like a pseudo-pure Rousseauian idea of the "general will". The problem in the latter situation is well framed by this Arendtian quote: "Power under the condition of human plurality can never amount to omnipotence, and laws residing on human power can never be absolute". The problem, as you can probably see, is that humans tend to want to understand things in terms of absolutes. Ulrich Beck (and countless theorists of argumentation) have eloquently made this point elsewhere in arguments about risk assessment--humans want to deal in absolutes and certains, even when uncertainty is the name of the game.

A layered or textured understanding of democracy does not tend to resonate in the imaginary. Such matters much be simplified to make the enormous mass of a nation state reduceable/representable (think Burke here). For example, we imagine national borders in strict inside/outside logics (little room for flexible borders in the demos--just ask Arizona, and any number of democrats that successfully campaign on outsourcing). Similarly, we tend to conceive of any loss of democratic power as total and incredible, rather than temporary and partial. This is, I think, especially true when it comes to the Presidency, which seems to exercise a disproportionately powerful hold on the public imagination. We imagine the President as the center of the government, even though in many ways the Congress and Supreme Courts are just as, if not more, powerful. Chalk it up to the human need to simplify--singular human embodiment of the state is a neat and nifty tradition. Also divine right still haunts us--signifiers of authority ain't that far adrift.

In general, we need to deny that our system is Republican for another reason--one needs a Republican system because "the people" are untrustworthy. Otherwise we'd just let the general will run free, like some sort of junkyard dog of democracy. Essentially, the Constitution talks down to the American people. "We think you're pretty awesome...except when you're not." There are LOTS of mechanisms in place to make sure that the government does not equal the people--the Supreme Court, the electoral college, the non-proportional representation provided by the Senate--yet when we SAY we are a democracy, we think more of the Greeks than the Roman.

But never far from our thoughts is the lurking Hobbesian narrative about the state of nature. With total risk nearby, we need a total sovereign to secure ourselves from a life that would otherwise be "nasty, poor, brutish, and short." In the face of such danger, suspicions of republicanism are understandable, because republicanism mediates rather than constitutes the will of the people, especially if this will be for a strong sort of decisionism.

The Tea Party wants to "take the government back." The problem, of course, is that they want "the people" in charge, in a place that will forever be occupied by republican representatives of the people. The pure general will will not occupy the seat of power. But Arendt is right--the Tea Party does not seek a true revolution in her sense, just different representation. The virtue of a republican system is that it allows any faults in the government to be identified with the representatives, rather than finding members of the polis lacking in their committment to the general will, which necessitates purges. I suppose I'm rather more sanguine about what the Tea Party aims at after writing this post.

*Which, if violated, would leave us very much as we would be in the case of the use of nuclear weapons, in a situation where we wouldn't want to say "I told you so".

1 comment:

  1. New polling suggests that the tea party movement has now exceeded %50 unpopular.