Arendt’s Constitutional Question


Arendt’s Constitutional Question


ONE ALWAYS BEGINS by ‘drawing a distinction’, Niklas Luhmann was fond of reminding us, and Arendt begins On Revolution by drawing a distinction that throughout the treatise remains stark, pivotal, resistant, insubordinate to mediation, synthesis and sublation. It is the distinction between the social and the political. It lies at the basis of the constitutional question, and as foundational informs not just the remit of the constitutional but its very possibility: because it does not allow us to step behind it, the foundation that is, and to put it to question politically.

The departure is significant and the endurance of the distinction remarkable. We find the quasi-normative function that the distinction performs replicated later and in different forms, but invariably working at the deep level of context-setting. It is, for example, famously articulated in Agamben’s ‘bio-political fracture’. Agamben’s bios/zoe distinction mirrors Arendt’s, in his insistent return to the ‘zone of indistinction’ between the two terms that mirrors her resistance to any kind of dialectical overcoming of the social and the political. And for him, all too impatiently, it is the endurance of the distinction that explains the travesty of ‘political’ projects launched to tackle need abroad: ‘[T]oday’s democratico-capitalist project of eliminating the poor classes through development not only reproduces within itself the people that is excluded but also transforms the entire population of the Third World into bare life.’1

What makes the distinction between the political and the social so fundamental and, we shall argue, fundamentally problematic? Let us take this gradually.


The second chapter of Arendt’s famous book is dedicated to the ‘social question’, or what ‘we may better and more simply call the existence of poverty’.2 When Robespierre declared that everything which is necessary to maintain life must be common good and only the surplus can be recognised as private property, for Arendt ‘he was, in his own words, “subjecting revolutionary government to the most sacred of laws, the welfare of the people, the most irrefragable of all titles, necessity.”’ 3 For her it was necessity, the urgent needs of the people, that unleashed the terror and sent the Revolution to its doom. She cites Jefferson approvingly, when he declared that a people ‘so loaded with misery would [not] be able to achieve what had been achieved in America’. And about John Adams’s ‘conviction’ that a free republican government ‘was as unnatural … as it would be over elephants, lions, wolves [etc] in the royal menagerie at Versailles’, she proclaims, rather disturbingly, that ‘years later, events to an extent proved him right’.4

Why do the cries of the dispossessed masses not resonate politically? What is it about their movement that ‘sent the revolution to its doom’? The ‘transformation of the Rights of Man into the Rights of the Sans-Culottes’, Arendt argues, abandons the foundation of freedom to the ‘powerful conspiracy of necessity and poverty’, Robespierre’s relentless insistence on the latter forcing him to miss the ‘historical moment’ to ‘found freedom’.5 Arendt’s unreserved admiration for the American Revolution is nowhere thrown into starker contrast with her misgivings about the French Revolution than in these pages on the ‘social question’, and this in the context of the acutest of analyses of Robespierre’s claim to speak on behalf of the dispossessed. The guiding distinction operates here to set up freedom against necessity as involving contrasting logics, a contrast that Arendt is keen to map on to the distinction between the social, as sphere of necessity, and the political, as sphere of freedom.

Marx is the obvious counter-point, and Arendt takes the challenge head on. ‘It took more than half a century before the transformation of the Rights of Man into the Rights of the Sans-Culottes, the abdication of freedom before the dictate of necessity, had found its theorist’ in Marx.6 What a strange formulation this is, couched in a vocabulary of abdication, and thus of a certain refusal of a different route. What, one might pause to ask, does ‘abdication of freedom’ mean for the sans-culottes? What possibility of freedom did the Parisian mob really forgo in bringing the ‘needs of the body’ into the streets? What makes this simple question so difficult for Arendt to ask? Nothing but her unwavering reassertion of the founding disjuncture. Notwithstanding the lip service to his greatness (‘the greatest theorist the revolutions ever had’), a kind of knee-jerk anti-Marxism dominates her thinking here, most tellingly in the extraordinary reversal that she attributes to Marx in the ‘social question’.

Marx’s genius and ultimately his theoretical error, for Arendt, is that he read the social question in political terms. That means that he read the question of poverty as a question of the suppression of freedom, and the way he achieved this was through the theory of exploitation. This allows the connection between the two spheres to be ‘mediated’:

Marx’s transformation of the social question into a political force is contained in the term ‘exploiation’, that is in the notion that poverty is the result of exploitation through a ‘ruling class’ which is in the possession of the means of violence … His most explosive and indeed most original contribution … was that he interpreted the compelling needs of mass poverty in political terms as an uprising, not for the sake of bread or wealth, but for the sake of freedom as well.7

Thus, asserts Arendt, in order to conjure up a ‘spirit of rebelliousness that can spring only from being violated, not from being under the sway of necessity’ Marx helped to persuade the poor ‘that poverty itself is a political not a natural phenomenon, the result of violence and violation rather than scarcity’.8

Arendt sets out to prove Marx wrong to interpret the ‘predicament of poverty in categories of oppression and exploitation’, by returning to the embeddedness of her founding distinction, the foundational character of the disconnect.9 This involves a striking reversal that puts the burden on her interlocutor to defend the attempted ‘synthesis’ through exploitation. Her argument involves as ever the restatement of the obviousness of her premises and the foundational nature of the organising disjuncture. The recovery of the ability to act cannot spring from necessity since the logic of ‘emancipation’ is too rooted in the release of a natural propensity. Becoming-political is thus a problem for Arendt in the absence of the preconditions of such action in freedom. It is this absence that drives Marx to attach himself to the Hegelian dialectic in which ‘freedom would directly rise out of necessity’, a dialectic and a coincidence that Arendt has earlier characterised as ‘perhaps the most terrible and, humanly speaking, least bearable paradox in the body of modern thought’.10 But for Arendt the two spheres are not and cannot be tied dialectically—necessity never gets a foothold in a dialectic of action.

Having repeated her premises, Arendt’s rebuttal of Marx becomes fairly cursory. Her first criticism is that he abandons ‘the revolutionary élan of his youth’ to redefine it in economic terms, which means also the ‘iron laws of historical necessity’11; ‘necessity’ again serving to fold the revolutionary moment back into the binarism from which it seemingly never can depart. Her second criticism is that he ‘strengthened more than anybody else the politically most pernicious doctrine of the modern age, namely that life is the highest good and that the life process of society is the very centre of human endeavour.’12 With this new emphasis,

the role of revolution is no longer to liberate men from the oppression of their fellow men, let alone to found freedom, but to liberate the life process of society itself from the fetters of scarcity so that it would swell into a stream of abundance. Not freedom but abundance became the new aim of revolution.13

A displacement thus of the very aspiration of political action, a falling short that turns out to be a radical undercutting of the logic of political action.

If this appears a rather odd rendering of Marx, or at least a rather facile turning of the later Marx against his earlier, better self, it is because it is that, both odd and facile, based on an impatient misreading that identifies in Marx the ‘ambition to raise his science to the rank of a natural science’ at the expense of the political, ‘a surrender of freedom to necessity’.14 ‘The trouble,’ Arendt will tell us, ‘is of a theoretical nature’.15 Marx’s economic explanations simply merge violence and necessity together back into the sphere that, properly understood, is on the other side of the political, the concept itself of a ‘political economy’ an impossible merger of two domains.

Antonio Negri, who in Insurgencies initially reserves some praise for Arendt’s ‘very rich and fierce phenomenological exercise’, is left ‘ill at ease’ at this point by her ‘definition of constituent power’.16 ‘The constitutive phenomenology of the principle reveals itself as perfectly conservative’ and she thus ‘bears the responsibility of the contempt towards the multitude that does not want to be the people, of a constituent power that does not want to be the bourgeoisie’.17

We shall return to Negri’s careful rebuttal of Arendt’s take on constituent power later. For now we join him in feeling somewhat ‘ill at ease’ with what in fact confronts us here: an astounding ‘partage of the sensible’, a carving up and separating-off of the question of human welfare from politics, and the redress of misery from what is properly the political aspiration of freedom. To claim that the masses that storm revolutionary Paris in 1789, and then in 1848 and in July 1871, raise the ‘social’ rather than the political question, is to sever the question of distribution from the political means of redressing asymmetries in access to the means of production and the distribution of its products. In Arendt, this severing underwrites nothing less than the understanding itself of the political and the possibility itself of freedom.

We have seen how the social/political distinction is mapped onto that between necessity and freedom, and Marxism rejected as suggesting an unsustainable bridging of both sets through the notion of exploitation, a move that in Arendt becomes something akin to a categorical mistake. This constitutive severing is buttressed through a second one, and the distinction between compassion and solidarity deployed to qualify further the political proper. With Marx, she has expelled ‘exploitation’ from the political; with Rousseau she is now poised to expel ‘compassion’.

One of the many striking features of the analysis of the ‘social question’ in On Revolution is that it relegates Rousseau to a theorist of ‘compassion’ in the first place, in taking as fundamental Rousseau’s near-axiomatic ‘innate repugnance at seeing a fellow human suffer’.18 Rousseau found compassion to be the most natural human reaction to the suffering of others, and therefore the very foundation of all authentic ‘natural’ human intercourse’:19

It was this capacity for suffering that Rousseau had pitted against the selfishness of society on the one hand, against the undisturbed solitude of the mind, on the other. And it was to this emphasis on suffering, more than to any other part of his teachings, that he owed the enormous, predominant influence over the minds of the men who were to make the Revolution, and who found themselves confronted with the overwhelming sufferings of the poor to whom they had opened the doors to the public realm and its light for the first time in history.20

What Rousseau had introduced to political thought, Robespierre carried over into revolutionary practice.

To see what Arendt sees wrong in compassion we must take a step back, to return to the idea of representation and what it means to speak ‘on behalf of’:

The men of the [French] Revolution and the people whom they represented were no longer united by objective bonds in a common cause; a special effort was required of the representatives, an effort of solidarization [emphasis added] which Robespierre called virtue, and this virtue … did not aim at the res publica and had nothing to do with freedom. Virtue meant to have the welfare of the people in mind, to identify one’s own will with the will of the people—and this effort was directed primarily toward the happiness of the many.21

The very definition of the term ‘le peuple’ that designates those who were spoken for and on behalf of, is ‘born out of compassion’,22 and the ‘term became equivalent for misfortune (‘le people, les malheureux m’appaudissent’ Robespierre would claim). In the absence of political mediation as such, the legitimacy of the representatives of the people could reside only in the ‘compassionate zeal’ of those who were prepared to raise it to ‘the rank of the supreme political passion and highest political virtue’.23 They came to express the ‘will’ of the people, and the cue they took from Rousseau was that the general will was what bound the many into one, and thus had to be one (‘Il faut une volonte UNE’, Robespierre insisted) or not at all. This ‘speaking on behalf of’ came to supplant ‘all processes of exchange of opinions and an eventual agreement between them’.24 Arendt insists on an important point here: that in the zeal and impetus of this supplanting, the will is uprooted from the worldly institutions which alone underwrote what they had in common, and thus cancelled it out.

It is on these grounds that Arendt will condemn the colonisation of public space by the ideals of compassion and virtue, and a misconception of solidarity that stems from the latter to inform the former (solidarity will be restored later to its proper political-institutional understanding): ‘Robespierre’s “terror of virtue” cannot be understood without taking into account the crucial role compassion had come to play in the minds and hearts of those who acted in the course of the French Revolution.’25 Compassion, with its gaze on concreteness and particularity, is both inappropriate institutionally and destructive when it informs the acts of the ‘virtuous’, because it collapses the space in-between that commonality demands as constitutive of what it means to share a world:

Because compassion abolishes the distance, the worldly space between men where political matters, the whole realm of human affairs, are located, it remains, politically speaking, irrelevant and without consequence … As a rule it is not compassion which sets out to change worldly conditions in order to ease human suffering, but if it does, it will shun the drawn-out wearisome processes of persuasion, negotiation and compromise, which are the processes of law and politics, and lend its voice to the suffering itself, which must claim for swift and direct action, that is, for action with the means of violence.26

By the time we reach section 4 of Arendt’s chapter, ‘compassion’ has given way to ‘pity’, and its objects, ‘les malheureux’, have respectively given way to ‘les faibles’ in order for the ‘alternative’ to be designated as ‘solidarity’:27

‘Solidarity’ allows men to establish deliberately and, as it were, dispassionately a community of interest with the oppressed and the exploited. The common interest would then be the ‘grandeur of man’, or the ‘honour of the human race’, or the dignity of man. For solidarity, because it partakes of reason, and hence of generality, is able to comprehend a multitude conceptually, not only the multitude of a class or a nation, or a people, but eventually all mankind. But this solidarity, though it may be aroused by suffering, is not guided by it, and it comprehends the strong and the rich no less than the weak and the poor; compared with the sentiment of pity, it may appear cold and abstract, for it remains committed to ideas—to greatness or honour, or dignity—rather than to any ‘love’ of men.28

Notwithstanding the perhaps underhand dig at Robespierre—that ‘pity’ has a ‘vested interest in the existence of the unhappy’29