Arendt, Iran and Political Power

Continuing with the recent thread touching on the relationship between philosophy and politics, here is an Arendtian reading of Iran’s Green Movement. Although it has been almost a year since the green uprising against the Iranian regime, and far more news coming out of the country today focus on the ongoing nuclear controversy, it is important for us not to forget that a democratic movement has continuously been building in the country and also within the Iranian diaspora.

The non-violent and inclusively pluralist character of the Green Movement nicely characterizes what Arendt meant by ‘power’ and the idiosyncratic way she used that concept by contrasting it with violence. Although her understanding of power is not without fault, since by associating it with action she turns it into something that can’t be wielded and thereby ignores structural forms of power as oppression, it is still a remarkable take on the human ability to spontaneously generate a collective solidarity capable of accomplishing things no individual can.

As an aside, I think Arendt’s use of the concepts of action and power to describe human political engagement also indicates her deep indebtedness to phenomenology and to an Aristotelian form of praxis. Power, she tells us, is very similar to human action not only in the sense that it can accomplish change but also because it is ephemeral. It manifests itself when people act collectively, and disappears just as soon as they disperse. Like action, it is unpredictable and something public. Every “act” that I make is something I throw into the world that can have unpredictable consequences for me and everyone else. To act politically is to become involved in this perpetual exchange with people different from you but with whom you share and have to care for a common world.

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