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In Search of Creative Councils: Beyond Arendt and Toward Possible Practice

The Hannah Arendt of On Revolution famously differs from the Arendt of The Human Condition  in at least two aspects: First, On Revolution in its consideration of the American, French and Hungarian revolutions is prescriptive in its intent, while The Human Condition  can be read as diagnostic. The Human Condition is a lament about the rise of the social and its administration to the public sphere. The social is decried as a form of normalization or housekeeping unfitting for politics. But there Arendt goes no further than the diagnosis of the disease. In On Revolution, Arendt champions a form of direct democracy as proposed in the “ward system” of Jefferson and found in the “revolutionary councils” which sprang up during all of the revolutions she considers. Second, in The Human Condition the grounds for and the content of political action are left constricted at best, leaving only that which is not merely private or necessary as the content of politics, making self aggrandizement the form. Whereas, On Revolution offers both a grounds for action – public happiness and the content of action – legislation, distinction, persuasion and constitution. Of the two political works, the much maligned and less often considered, On Revolution provides the most direct point of encounter with Arendt to those of us hoping to envision democracy in new ways as a politics of equality and freedom.

In Chapter Three of On Revolution, “The Pursuit of Happiness,”  Arendt offers a critique of the French Revolution and the American Bill of Rights. She contends both Robespierre and Jefferson missed the mark in substituting private rights and the “pursuit of happiness” for public freedom and “public happiness.” The distinction between the pursuit of happiness and happiness attained by an individual through public displays of freedom is one of grave importance for Arendt. The public sphere is the realm of all that is authentically human and by extension public happiness is the only authentic human happiness. Arendt’s notion of public happiness only allows for individuals to be happy in so far as they have had the opportunity to be seen and heard acting excellently. It is a resuscitation of Greek notions of civic virtue and identity. The public sphere is dominated by heroic action as opposed to parties, interests, causes or even justice.

What are we critical race and feminist theorists to do with such a public? Even if some part of my political participation can be  captured in considerations of my egoistic desires for public recognition, always more pressing are my efforts to widen the sphere of participation and enlarge the meaning of politics to not only reflect my own virtues, but to correct longstanding inequality, erect protection against possible oppressions and ultimately, to create new, egalitarian institutions. How does Arendt’s notion of public happiness fit with her consideration of the revolutionary councils and ward system? Is it possible to appreciate and adapt the ingenuity and  practical possibilities of the council system without at the same time committing ourselves to a public happiness which is founded on a dubious conception of the self and an exclusionary public/private distinction?

In short, the answer is we may want to interrogate the effectiveness of the form of the councils Arendt suggests but adjust the content of politics and refigure the meaningfulness of happiness in the public sphere to further our emancipatory and effective political projects. Arendt’s On Revolution gives those of us seeking to talk about possibilities for more egalitarian political practices a better place to begin than the Human Condition. It also forces us to interrogate many of our assumptions about political inclusion and elitism. It challenges us to press through these difficulties all the same.