Disillusioned with the representative democracy that had allowed the rise of national socialism, and inspired by the Ancient Greek polis, political theorist Hannah Arendt firmly believed in the power of direct democracy to enable true political freedom. While this model seems a far cry from reality today, her work can shed light on the reinvigoration of democracy at a time of corroded trust in political institutions, an emboldened far right, and ecological breakdown.
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was undoubtedly one of the most interesting thinkers of the 20th century. Born into a German-Jewish family, Nazi terror forced Arendt to flee her home country in 1933, and she went on to apply her philosophical knowledge to understanding the political and historical events of her time. By no means a green philosopher, or even a forebear of ecological thought, Arendt has nonetheless influenced many Greens. Her work on civic participation and civil disobedience – important to both ecological thinking and practice – may inspire the urgently needed discussion on the future of democracy on an ecologically sustainable planet.
Arendt saw in civic participation an essential condition not only for the safeguarding and promotion of the common good, but for one’s fulfilment as a human being. The preservation of democracy was therefore based on the preservation of civil liberty, which could only be ensured by direct participation in common matters – the human being transformed into the political animal it must be in order to fulfil itself.
It is important to distinguish the Aristotelian branch of republicanism followed by Arendt from the more popular neo-Roman branch. While the former sees participation as intrinsically good and is, consequently, sceptical of representative democracy and the state, the latter argues that civic participation is important but only as a way to secure independence from arbitrary or uncontrolled power, whether this lies with others (individual citizens, groups, or companies) or the state. Applications of Arendt’s approach to life today thus meet the additional challenge of having to reckon with how far current societies find themselves from the Ancient Greek polis she so deeply admired.
Another area of Arendt’s philosophy on democracy is civil disobedience. For Arendt, civil disobedience was a matter of politics, not of conscience or morality. She was critical of Henry David Thoreau, a prominent 19th-century essayist and proponent of civil disobedience: despite potentially having good reasons for refusing to pay his taxes, and thus disobeying the law, he did so on the grounds of morality and conscience. As Thoreau put it, a citizen shall not “resign his conscience to the legislator”. Arendt rejected this approach as individualistic. Conscience is “unpolitical”, reflecting one’s own beliefs rather than a concern for common justice. By prioritising individual conscience, Thoreau made civil disobedience an individual matter; Arendt, in contrast, claimed that civil disobedience must be a collective matter.
Rather than conflicting, these two approaches to civil disobedience can in fact be complementary. This indeed seems to be the case in present acts of civil disobedience with an ecological dimension, such as the ZAD (Zone to Defend, from the French, zone à défendre) occupations, where conscientious disobedience meets political disobedience. Objection, either as a matter of conscience or as a common political action, becomes a way to bring together citizens with the same end goal.
However, as Arendt herself acknowledges, civil disobedience alone is not enough. Defending and promoting liberty and democracy demands positive action in favour of (and not just against) something. This kind of civic participation would serve two purposes. The first: the realisation of the citizen as political animal, or zoon politikon, to use the Aristotelian term. And the second: an expression of concern for the common good, ensuring shared freedom and a democratic society. Participation is, then, both intrinsically important for oneself and instrumentally important for ensuring democracy and freedom.
Citizens, according to Arendt, should go beyond private interests to act together in favour of the common good. They express their citizenship by being part of vita activa (active life) and through involvement in deliberations about what is best for their society. Participation can take multiple forms, such as being active within civil society organisations or NGOs. While Arendt was perhaps too strict in her separation of public and private spheres, and of course preferred direct to representative democracy, her theory nevertheless offers clues about improving democracy and representation.
What can be gleaned from Arendt’s work in the 2020s, marked as it is by overlapping ecological, social, health, and democratic crises? Arendt esteemed the Greek polis and its direct democracy, but is abandoning the state and representative democracy really necessary? At present, such a scenario seems little more than an academic exercise in imagination. But that is not to say that we should shy away from reviewing how representation operates, and how citizen participation can be improved and extended.
Despite Arendt’s scepticism, the state plays an important role in addressing the need for more democracy and participation. This becomes particularly crucial in times of ecological breakdown, where coordination at a level above the local is imperative. The state is also essential for dismantling the structural barriers to participation and empowering citizens by creating forums and providing education and resources.
There is at least one path which offers a way to reconcile both direct and representative democracy, and public and private concerns: citizens’ assemblies. These assemblies can be either a permanent body working with the chamber of elected representatives or a one-off exercise tasked with specific objectives. Their participants are selected at random, akin to the sortition that was common practice in Arendt’s cherished Ancient Greece.
A number of questions emerge when defining citizens’ assemblies: if permanent, what should be the duration of the mandate? If temporary with a fixed objective, who can call for the creation of an assembly – the state alone or citizens too? And, most important of all, what degree of power should be awarded to the assemblies? Should they be able to legislate, nominate or reject ministers, or manage part of the public budget? All these questions speak to the flexibility of the concept. Citizens’ assemblies offer a means to bring citizens together in deliberation. Essentially, they are a deeply republican tool and promise to foster democracy, participation, and a sense of civic duty.
Going beyond Arendt’s public-private separation, such assemblies could give citizens a space in which to discover that private concerns can also be communal, and devise ways to address them that respect both their private and public nature. While citizens’ assemblies would not fully respond to Arendt’s desire for direct democracy, they have the potential to powerfully deepen participation. Arendt is not a guide to be followed blindly, but her republicanism can serve as inspiration to address the multiple challenges of the 21st century. Faced with struggling democratic systems and ecological collapse, increasing participation and empowering citizens could be a crucial way to preserve liberty and defend the common good.
Teaser photo credit: Courtyard of Arendt’s house in Linden-Mitte. By Bernd Schwabe in Hannover – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34953773