Public Happiness: Action in Concert with Others

In the summer of 1970, Hannah Arendt was interviewed by Adelbert Reif, a German writer, who asked her to expand on comments she had made in On Violence about the revolutionary student movements of the 1960s. Her remarks, published in Crises of the Republic in 1972, have bearing on the points made in today’s New York Times article about dissatisfaction with “political classes”.

“What really distinguishes this generation in all countries from earlier generations…is its determination to act, its joy in action, the assurance of being able to change things by one’s own efforts….For the first time in a very long while a spontaneous political movement arose which not only did not simply carry on propaganda but acted, and moreover, acted almost exclusively from moral motives.…It turned out that acting is fun…When man [and woman!] takes part in public life he [/she]opens up for himself [/herself]  a dimension of human experience that otherwise remains closed to him [/her] and that in some ways constitutes a part of complete ‘happiness’.”

Marta Ramoneda for The New York Times SPAIN The weekly general assembly of the protest movement in Madrid's Puerta del Sol. Spain's unemployment rate is 21 percent.

The joy of action in concert with others, emerging out of a deep sense that fundamental moral principles have been violated, sacrificed on the altar of greed for the betterment of the “political classes” and their cronies seems to be represented in the actions outlined in the story covered by the NYT on its front page. “Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.”

The sense of “happiness” that Arendt’s comment evokes springs not from the false promise of happiness represented in a consumer society, but the happiness of being able to stand for something greater than one’s own personal satisfaction, aiming for something grander than one’s own personal security—the common good.

Important to note is the sense that the political and economic systems of liberal democracy and free market capitalism that were trumpeted “in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991” as “the only path forward…by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in his book “The End of History and the Last Man,” has been shaken if not broken by a seemingly endless succession of crises.”

Although some fear that the protests augur efforts to bypass institutions of representation, endless stalemates and the apparent capture of these institutions by special interests have called into question the ability of many of these institutions to function. What these new protests demand is nothing less than a “new beginning.”

It may be that we face a “crisis of legitimacy.” But the response of ordinary citizens to this crisis can be seen in terms of what Arendt would have called politics at its best—not partisan lobbying for special “interests”, but morally motivated action in concert with others.

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