On Newfoundland Republicanism, Political Freedom, and Hannah Arendt

Currently, we have an ethos that encourages passivity in relation to the abuses that political parties inflict on us today. But it’s not the only possible state of affairs

Hi everyone: I was on hiatus last month, but I did get a chance to read Hans Rollmann’s piece “Irony and Independence” in which he tries to imagine the possible shape of a Newfoundland Republic. Today I’d like to reply to it by expanding on one of its nine points.

Under the heading It’s about a movement, not a party, Hans writes that:

The biggest problem with Republican and nationalist parties in the past has been their obsession with electoral politics. Forget about running in elections. The first task of a Republican movement must be to engage with our people and our communities; to figure out what future we collectively envision and desire; to collectively decide how to get there. It must spread roots in every community: it must be as involved in cultural and artistic production as it is in political activism. It mustn’t just complain that the government doesn’t provide adequate housing for the elderly: it must build those houses. It mustn’t just complain about over-fishing: it must patrol the waters. Running for political office must be the last step. And if, by that time, Republicans have successfully built a movement – one which transcends party lines and reflects all of our people and communities – then winning an election will merely be a formal acknowledgement of a new era already begun.

This passage is my favourite in the piece because it suggests a political ethos quite different from the one that predominates in Canada (but not only in Canada) today. By “political ethos,” I mean a more-or-less deliberately cultivated set of habits that shapes the way individuals engage in political activity, which I have described in this column as the practice of participating in shaping one’s own community (or communities, since each of us can belong to many at once). In order to say why I think Hans’ argument implies a very different political ethics than the one we currently enjoy—and I use that word loosely—I’ll make some general remarks about Canada’s current political mode.

Diagnosing the present

1) Politics today is largely understood as a relatively small sphere of activities occupied by professional operatives (politicians, staffers, bureaucrats, and so on) who are largely identifiable to the degree that they are affiliated with, and powerful within, a kind of organization known as a political party. Political parties give content to governmental mechanisms by directing those mechanisms to one goal or another. Political parties tend to bundle this content, under headings like “policy platform”, so that it can sometimes seem like some sets of goals naturally belong together: some economic goals seem to “go together” with some social goals more readily than others. It can sometimes seem that reality itself, at least politically speaking, is divided up into several possible forms whose character is given in advance: the Conservative party supposedly speaks for one of those forms, the Liberal Party for another, the NDP for another, the Green Party for yet another, and so on. From this perspective, politics is a competition between these forms. Parties – the primary agents of these forms – win chances to actualize them through the use, misuse, disruption, or even destruction of the governmental mechanisms at their disposal.

2) If politics today forms a relatively small sphere of activity populated by official individual and group agents, that fact can’t be disconnected from the fact that politics as it currently stands essentially promises to relieve us of political concerns so that we can go about the business of nonpolitical, or private, life. From this perspective, politics is the means by which we liberate everyday life from politics, by giving those responsibilities to elected and unelected officials who do their best to administer the systemic processes that stand to either keep everyday life more or less consistent or threaten to derail it. Ideally, best political practice strives to make everyday life consistent, coherent, and digestible. Government should be a “strong hand at the tiller,” whatever way we’re sailing.

3) Politics is therefore largely understood as separate from or other than life; but life has a few important points of contact with politics. There are electoral contests, in which voters choose the representatives they would most like to be in charge of governmental mechanisms. There is “electoral politics” more broadly, in which people not only vote but may also provide volunteer support for political parties by contributing money, working for election campaigns, running partisan fundraising drives, and so on. There is the play of “public opinion,” in which people weigh in on various topics in Internet fora, newspaper letters columns, radio call-in shows, as well as try to curry government support for various causes by submitting petitions, by forming lobby groups, and so on. There are also, of course, the effects people feel when policy is executed.

4) There is, accordingly, a spectrum of emotional or psychic states that go along with politics. For example, we find feelings of empowerment or impotence when it comes to electoral contests; an enthusiasm akin to that associated with spectator sports, or even the quasi-athletic, quasi-performance art world of professional wrestling, in the realm of public opinion; and a certain feeling of alienation, among supporters and opponents alike, in relation to what governing parties do.

5) Since politics is other than everyday life, governments are the concrete embodiment of that otherness. Governments are the alien entities that act on the social body of the living; in the best case, this alien intervention does everything it can to ensure that everyday life is as smooth an experience as possible—for party supporters, at least. It’s not surprising that in politics today, “government” is understood as a noun and not a verb; as an entity and not an activity.

6) The name that we use to denote the goal, and effect, of facilitating private life through the political minimization of politics is “freedom”.

Liberal democracy and the horizons of our imaginations

These are all characteristics of what we can still, without being entirely inaccurate, call liberal democracy. “Democracy”, because the people subjected to governmental measures are at least nominally the people who decide on who governs; “liberal”, because the true object and target of governmental intervention is the “individual,” with its rights and all of the protections that ensure the integrity of those rights. Liberalism, as I’ve mentioned before, is a relatively recent invention, certainly no more than four centuries old. Its chief conceptual proponents have been thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Hayek. For thinkers like these, the individual is the most important entity that politics serves: the violation of individual rights and freedoms is the deepest possible failure of politics.

Rather than liberal democracy, we might more aptly use the term “neoliberal democracy” today. “Democracy” still applies, because the people subjected to governmental measures are at least nominally the people who decide on who governs—with the major difference that in some neoliberal democratic countries, corporate persons have been fully integrated into the demos. “Neoliberal,” however, is more applicable for the following reason: whereas earlier forms of liberalism, like Mill’s or Hayek’s, promoted the flourishing of diverse, even idiosyncratic, individuality in a plethora of forms, what’s called neoliberalism selects one of those forms, the economic, and prioritizes it above all the rest. If you read Chapter III of Mill’s On Liberty (1859), “Of Individuality, As One of the Elements of Well-Being”, the distinction could not be clearer. More striking is a reading of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (1960), in which you’ll discover that today’s heroized “risk taker” is not, in Hayek’s eyes, the Wall Street financier who pumps-and-dumps, but “the author or inventor, the artist or actor” (444): those who stand to effect and transform societies in unexpected ways and often only after a rather long time.

[T]his world of ours, because it existed before us and is meant to outlast our lives in it, simply cannot afford to give primary concern to individual lives and the interests connected with them … [i]t requires courage even to leave the protective security of our four walls and enter the public realm, not because of particular dangers which may lie in wait for us, but because we have arrived in a realm where the concern for life has lost its validity.
-Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future

Neoliberalism, as I’ve written before in this column, is essentially committed to the idea that the best thing that a government can do is get out of the way as much as possible so that systems of private interaction can function as efficiently as possible. On this view, and at this point in time, governments are often effectively no more than lobby groups through which private parties of various social standing petition big businesses for investments, or for employment. The two best works that I’ve read that analyze neoliberalism as an historical effect are David Harvey’s book A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005) and Michel Foucault’s 1978-1979 lectures at the Collège de France, The Birth of Biopolitics (2008). They’re both accessible and informative, and I highly recommend them.

“… but some freedoms are more equal than others.”

So, from the point of view of liberal democracy, the condition of unconstrained private action—and for neoliberal democracy specifically private economic action—is called freedom. This conception of political freedom has its roots in the philosophical conception of freedom as free will, and more specifically in that of the free will as sovereign in its ability to choose its own ends. I should say here that not all philosophers conceive freedom as essentially tied to free will; but even for those who do—Saint Augustine, for example—a sovereign will is not free, and the identification of sovereignty with free will signals the destruction of freedom, for reasons I’ve written about before in this column. Yet this is where we are. I should be fair: this is not all that liberalism has to offer, and it’s certainly not the best that liberalism has to offer (for that, I’d recommend a look at The Constitution of Liberty). But our present reality has seized upon these aspects of it, to our detriment.

How does this connect to Hans’ reflections on Newfoundland Republicanism? For me, it’s because “Republican” refers to not just a state-form but a possible political ethos that differs from the current one. I want to suggest that currently, we have an ethos that encourages passivity in relation to the abuses that political parties inflict on us today. It leads us to misrecognize what is truly political in life; it renders us blind to the fact that there is no absolutely private life in the way we’re led to believe; it encourages confusion and alienation. In the end, it disenfranchises those who are subjected, and who subject themselves, to it; that is, it prevents people from speaking and acting politically, even if it services their day-to-day needs. There is, in contrast, a possible alternative ethos whose finest representative is, in my view, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975).

Politics and the human condition

For Arendt, the political realm is not the one I have just described, but instead the public space in which people encounter each other in speech and action, and who stand to shape their community in doing so:

All political business is, and always has been, transacted within an elaborate framework of ties and bonds for the future—such as laws and constitutions, treaties and alliances—all of which derive in the last instance from the faculty to promise and to keep promises in the face of the essential uncertainties of the future. A state, moreover, in which there is no communication between citizens and where each man thinks only his own thoughts is by definition a tyranny. (Between Past and Future 164)

In many ways, Arendt takes her cue from Greek antiquity, in which the relationship between private and public is the reverse of what it is for us now. For the Greeks, liberation in the private sphere from the necessities of everyday, i.e. biological, life was the precondition for participation in public life, where freedom resided. “But the status of freedom,” she writes, “did not follow automatically upon the act of liberation. Freedom needed, in addition to mere liberation, the company of other men who were in the same state, and it needed a common public space to meet them—a politically organized world, in other words, into which each of the free men could insert himself by word and deed” (148).

This freedom which we take for granted in all political theory and which even those who praise tyranny must still take into account is the very opposite of “inner freedom,” the inward space into which men may escape from external coercion and feel free. This inner feeling remains without outer manifestations and hence is by definition politically irrelevant.
-Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future

What is freedom, in Arendt’s perspective? First, it is primarily a political and not a philosophical concept. For her, it is the human capacity to begin: to introduce into the world events whose emergence is unexpected and whose effects shape the world in ways that aren’t at all like what commonly comes under the heading of “nature”. Another name for freedom might be “spontaneity”. This capacity, she argues, “animates and inspires all human activities and is the hidden source of production of all great and beautiful things” (169). But, she continues, this capacity is threatened when there is no space available for its accomplishment. Such a space is necessarily public, since political action is always carried out plurally; that is, together. Freedom, finally, is not essentially the freedom that individuals enjoy to not be interfered with. Freedom is a worldly quality: it is shared, and its reduction or elimination is nothing other than an attack on the spontaneity that, for her, distinguishes human beings from other living beings on Earth.

Arendt’s view is in stark distinction to what we have right now, which identifies freedom not with spontaneity and the unexpected but with the secure and the predictable. In a way, our party-dominated politics promises something like an eternal present. Its historical sensibility predicts a future that looks like an improved present, and looks back on a past that was just prologue to the actual present and its projected future. But that isn’t really an honest way of relating to human, historical experience, which throws the unexpected at us. Instead, for Arendt, politics is and should be about striving to safeguard a public realm in which people can act in relation to one another in ways that will unexpectedly shape their political communities and, by extension, the world. Her view is a form of republicanism in that the public realm, the res publica, is its prime concern. This republicanism, or something like it, is an appropriate ethos for the kind of political formation that Hans discusses in his own article.

What odds: prospects for a Newfoundland Republic

To come full circle, this is why I like Hans’ suggestion: it promotes a political ethos that takes not life but the world itself to be its primary concern: those sets of relations, that geographical territory, that historical reality that we name Newfoundland. It opposes the current setup, in which we’re experiencing not politics but the withdrawal of politics, at and into the hands of political parties: special-interest groups par excellence. It encourages not the false eternity of our politics of life, but a political form that acknowledges our world as it is: a transitory web of beginnings and their consequences (although very rarely endings). Most importantly, it rejects the passivity, alienation, and resentment that characterizes our anti-political politics. One common objection to the republican view is that such a setup would be exhausting: all that deliberating and engaging one another would just wear us out! In response to that objection, I always want to ask: what is more exhausting – or exhausted – than the cynicism that permeates our current reality? Who, today, isn’t worn out by it?

There is nothing intrinsic about Newfoundland that makes a republican ethos more appropriate to it than to anywhere else. In fact, I’d say that entirely extrinsic factors make republicanism appropriate for it; however, I take very seriously Rousseau’s claim that republics are more successful in small countries than in large ones. It’s also no accident that I chose to write this column in The Independent, even though my subject matter often tends toward abstraction; or that these days, more than ever, I find myself reflecting on the fact that July the first is not my celebration.

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