Social Theory: Hannah Arendt

13th Jul 2022 by Adel Ruished

Social Theory: Hannah Arendt

The late Iraqi Poet Muthafar al-Nawab once said that "if you see an Arab sleeping hasten to wake him up so that he does not dream of freedom" (al-Dik, 2013). Al-Nawab’s poem was written in the context of his criticism of ruling regimes in the Arab World for chronic suppression of freedom of its peoples (al-Jazeera, 2022). This poem about freedom in the Arab World evokes the work of Hannah Arendt whose social theory and work on revolution is fundamentally concerned with the concept of freedom.

Intellectual context

Significantly, the scholarly work of Hannah Arendt embodied her personal and life experiences. In this regard, Arendt was born into a secular German Jewish family, from where she was forced to flee, first to France and then to the United States after the emergence of the Nazi party and its totalitarian ideology in 1933. Before managing to escape, the Nazi regime had imprisoned Arendt and revoked her German citizenship, (al-Halosh, 2020).  There is little doubt this impacted Arendt’s thought. In an effort to highlight draconian measures of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, Arendt produced her first scholarly work in the United States under the title of “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. In this seminal text, Arendt explored the nature of the totalitarian ruling phenomenon and its impact on freedom and human rights (Arendt, 1951). Subsequently, Arendt analysed the French, American and Russian revolutions. In exploring these revolutions, Arendt attempted to offer an engagement with the concept of revolution, through which she meant to provide a recipe for challenging sovereign power's excessive suppression of people freedom, democracy and human right (Arendt, 1965: 17).

Key Argument

One of Arendt’s key arguments about freedom is that revolutionary movements must understand that liberation is not the final objective of mass revolutions. For her, the ultimate destination for revolutions must be achieving freedom, noting that liberation represents the means to achieve such freedom (Salikov, 2017). Hence, Arendt crucially considered that freedom, not justice or greatness, represents the highest criterion for judging the constitution of political bodies. Hence, she concluded that the concept of revolution must work in conjunction with the concept of freedom (Arendt, 1965:29). 

According to Abed al-Rahman al-Halosh, Arendt holds freedom as the ability of men to exercise freedom wherein human being must exercise this freedom in observable way, through acting, practicing and criticizing in the public realm (al-Halosh, 2020). In her book "The Human Condition", Arendt stresses the importance for the individual human being to move beyond private life and join the public realm and unite in political congregations to live free and dignified life. In this regard, Arendt notes that private familial life is necessary feature for upbringing and refinement of the individual. 

Moreover, she understands that labour is valorised because it covers needs of daily life and fills in leisure time. Yet, these necessities must not come at the expense of engaging in free and active political participation in the public sphere (Arendt, 1958:32). As such, Arendt holds that free and dignified life is not only related to achieving material and economic satisfaction, but also concerned with liberation from political oppression, injustice, inequality and social alienation (Arendt, 1958:47). 

Of interest, Arendt considered modernity with all its features of wealth accumulation, property ownership and economic and industrial developments as playing a key role in rupturing societal cohesiveness and turning the individual into slave of technological appliances and bureaucratic administrations (Melfi,2016:13). In addition, these modern features emptied political life from its content, weakened social solidarity and deepened social alienation (Arendt, 1958: 250-3). 

Arendt envisages freedom as the apex achievement for revolutions to protest excessive policies of sovereign power and capitalist greed in modern times (Salikov, 2017). Indeed, Arendt states that engagement in revolutions provides opportunities to join the public realm and develop a sense of self-worth, societal belonging and solidarity. In addition, this engagement offers opportunities for individuals to act, appear, speak and exchange opinions about best revolutionary approaches to create a free political life and achieve social justice. As such, revolutions came to represent essential political events capable of devising effective action to liberate society from unjust and unequal policies and establish freedom (Arendt, 1958:50).

Significantly, Arendt notes that a compatibility of perspectives among engaged individuals in the public sphere will weaken and subvert the endeavour of revolutions. In contrast, a difference in opinion enables productive and efficient resistant techniques as long as those involved do not change their identity and main object (Arendt, 1958:57). She also notes that such revolutions will inevitably resort to some violence to give voice of wretched people. 

Although Arendt calls for a peaceful type of protest such as organized mass demonstrations, sit-ins, public and hunger strikes, she concurs that violence pays and brings attention to disenfranchised groups (Arendt, 1969: 79). In this regard, Arendt clarifies that while the basic goal of revolution is an end to tyranny and achieving freedom, it will more often lead to the outbreak of war with all its violence and damage. Thus, people may have to face violence if they are to gain political freedom (Arendt, 1965: 23). Moreover, Arendt alludes to the impact of external interference and intervention on revolutions and warns us that sovereign power or business elites may attempt to co-opt revolution leaders and subvert liberation efforts of revolutionary movements. Finally, Arendt bemoans that many leaders of revolutionary movements have the capacity to turn into new elites engaging in discrimination and coercive strategies, ultimately indulging in similar policies that they initially protested and challenged (Salikov, 2017). 

In application

With the beginning of the so-called "Arab Spring" revolutions, hope substantially increased to overturn the saying of al-Nawab about the dream of freedom in the Arab World. At stake was the dream of achieving political freedom and the amelioration of dire socio-economic and human rights conditions of Arab people (al-Dik, 2013). Yet, most of these revolutions were soon to fail, prompting some political analysts to consider them incomplete, or to characterize them instead as large-scale social uprisings. Significantly, these analysts resorted to re-reading Arendt’s perspective on revolution which prompted an analysis based on  analogizing freedom with the notion of new beginnings. In this regard, Mutaz Mamdouh argued that while most of the "Arab Spring" revolutions were radical and brought about an end to some authoritarian traits, they did not ultimately break with the previous political and socio-economic contexts of the Arab states (Mamdouh, 2018).

As a result, these revolutions did not bring about the establishment of freedom, nor did they offer a real alternation of political power. Consequently, those analysts stated that the inescapable condition for the success of such revolutions required the availability of social and political alternatives to replace existed political regimes. These alternatives were missing within the political, social or intellectual currents in the Arab World, wherein the political adolescence that characterized most of the parties or movements that came to power after the revolutions led to more severe tyranny. 

Moreover, these analysts held that the Arab revolutions failed in transforming popular protest into constitutional systems that establish freedom even though some of these revolutions succeeded in avoiding the descent into civil war, such as the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Worse still, there were other Arab countries who failed to preserve political unity, wherein revolutions led to bloody civil war as seen in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Thus, many analysists contended that until social and political alternatives mature and succeed in breaking free from the heavy-handed experience of political past – and the Arab citizen develops a will for political change - it seems that the Arab world will remain captive to existing authoritarian political structures. Therefore, these analysts concurred with Arendt's reading of revolutions, concluding that the Arab Spring experiences cannot be considered revolutions because they failed to bring about constitutional change (Mamdouh, 2018). 

In contrast, other scholars considered such conclusions hasty and misguided. Under the title of "There is no future for dictatorships in the Arab World" the scholar Emad al-Ali stated that the Arab man witnessed rebirth and transformation in his political thought following the revolutions of 2011 (al-Ali, 2019). Hence, these revolutions achieved a great success and brought about a change in the political condition, which prompted ruling elites in the Arab world to interact with people according to this new change. Building on Arendt’s concept of action, al-Ali contended that previous abolition of political freedom which lasted for long decades resulted in diminishing entire social and political consciousness of Arab public. From this perspective, al-Ali stated that the abolition of political freedom in the Arab World emptied politics from its essence which led to diminution of independent and voluntary political participation. All the while, power structures continued to oppress and constrain the freedom of thought and action of the Arab peoples (al-Ali, 2019).

Moreover, social problems such as corruption, poverty, unemployment, the abuse of power and social injustice swept all aspects of the daily lives of Arab people. Consequently, these political and socio-economic problems prompted these revolutions and pushed the Arab people to revolt in face of authoritarian governments. Although such governments hastened to suppress the revolts, the political activity of revolutionary activists continued through social networks and political fora, as well as in comments on certain topics across social media, provoking lively discussions about political, socio-economic and cultural issues. Therefore, al-Ali concluded that these revolutions sent a signal to ruling elites that responsible political action is inevitable, noting that political and socio-economic reforms must consider the interests of Arab citizens, and that mechanisms of control previously deployed proved inappropriate in an era of globalization and technological developments (al-Ali, 2019). In the same vein, Ari-Elmeri Hyvonen concluded that the spring revolutions offered opportunities for Arab youth freedom of assembly and activity in the public realm. For him, such assembly enabled revolutionaries to challenge structural coercion and to resist capitalist temptations, as well as to discuss issues of public concern such democracy, human rights and social solidarity, making possible the beginning of something new (Hyvonen, 2016:209). Commenting on the tragedy of failed revolution in Egypt, Hyvonen quoted Arendt’s remarks on the Hungarian Revolution when she said “This revolution was a true event whose stature will not depend upon victory or defeat, and its greatness is secure in the tragedy it enacted (Hyvonene, 2016: 208).

To large extent, ideas of freedom and revolution articulated by Arendt provide an analytical tool for understanding the events of the spring revolutions in the Arab World. Yet, the employment and utilization of such concepts require further exploration when applying them to the Arab World. In some ways this stems from tensions in Arendt’s thought, but in others, it is a consequence of empirical application. For example, Arendt - at some points - valorised labourers as a significant element for launching mass revolutionary actions, while at other points, shows a degree of contempt for these labourers after the rise of totalitarian regimes, knowing that these regimes relied on these labourers on road to freedom (Canovan, 1978:6). Similarly, the same concerns remain ubiquitous regarding the Arab revolutions that would lead to emergence of extreme groups and the return of tyranny (Mahmood, 2018). In addition, Arendt drew a sharp distinction between private (social) and public (political) realms, while ignoring the impact of private concerns on public awareness and vice versa (d’Entreves, 2019). Indeed, this is very imminent in the Arab World, wherein tradition plays major role in determining choices of people. It remains to be seen to what extent Arendt social theory on revolutions provides comprehensive analysis on the Arab Spring uprisings, yet there is little doubt that her work helps to understand the broader dynamics at play in the political realm. 

Suggested reading

Al-Ali, Emad (2019), “لا مستقبل للديكتاتورية في العالم العربي: الفكر السياسي للربيع العربي والروح السياسية للانتفاضات العربية”, “La Mustaqbal lldiktatoriat fi al-A’lam al-A’rabi: Al-Fiker al-Siyasi llRabeea’ al-Arabi walRoh alsyasia llintfadat”. Accessed 1/7/2022.

Al-Dik, Hussein (2013), “Ia’dhar al’b, fhak ya’dher alibn??”, اعتذر الاب .. فهل سيعتذر الابن ؟؟ Dunia

Al-Halosh, Abed al-Rahman (2020), “alphylsopha alhai’ra…Eshkaliet alphalisapha walsiysa a’nd Hannah Arendt”, الفيلسوفة الحائرة.. إشكالية الفلسفة والسياسة عند حنة أرندت أرندت. Accessed:1/7/2022.

Al-Jazeera(2022), “Muthafar al-Nawab..Malek alhia aldhi araq alo’roosh al-a’rabia”.مظفر النواب.. ملك الهجاء السياسي الذي أرَّق العروش العربية., Special Report. Accessed 1/7/2022.

Arendt, Hannah (1951), The Origins of Totalitarianism. The World Publishing Company, United States of America. 

Arendt, Hannah (1958), The Human Condition. Th University of Chicago Press. USA.

Arendt Hannah (1965), On Revolution. Penguin Books, England, UK.

Arendt Hannah (1969), On Violence. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, USA.

d’Entreves, Maurizio Passerin, (2019) “Hannah Arendt”, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed), Accessed 1/7/2022.

Hyvonen, Ari-Elmeri (2016) “Political Action beyond resistance: Ardent and “Revolutionary Spirit: in Egypt”, Redescription Associations, Manchester University Press, Vol. 19 No. 2.

Mamdoh, Mutaz (2018) “ في معنى الثورة: الربيع العربي بعيون حنة أرندت “, “Fi Ma’na al-Thawra: Al-Rabeea’ al-A’rabi Bio’yon Hannah Arendt”. Idaa’t. Accessed 1/7/2022.

Melfi, Francesco (2016). “Hannah Arendt and Natives as Extras: Towards an Ontology of Palestinian Presence?”, Cultural encounters, Conflicts, and Resolutions: Vol.3: Iss. 1, Article 3.