An “Arendtian” Articulation of the Revolutionary Uprising in Tunisia

The thoughts of Arendt and her deep enquiry into the realm of totalitarianism and prescription of popular or collective politics as its remedy remains one of the most profound works on the topic of revolution (Balaton-Chrimes, 2011). This article explores the questions: a) how can the revolutionary uprising in Tunisia be interpreted through the lens of Arendt’s political thought, and b) what can these historical events offer in terms of analysis and critique of Arendt’s theoretical premises on the human condition, on revolution, and on the articulation of the public realm.


Johanna ‘Hannah’ Arendt (1906 – 1975) was a German-born political theorist who, though often described as a ‘political philosopher’, rejected the term due to its preoccupation with ‘man in the singular’ and inability to acknowledge the necessity of plurality in the political actions of humans (Schell, 2006: xvii). In her view, “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (Arendt, 1958: xii). Of Jewish descent, Arendt escaped Germany in 1933 and in 1950 became a naturalized citizen of the United States (Schell, 2006: xvi). Arendt’s works deal largely with the nature of power and authority and the agents of political action and revolution, as articulated in her written pieces The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958), and On Revolution (1963), which each speak in their own right to different periods in the evolution of her political thought.

The 2010–2011 uprising in Tunisia and the wider Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region are remarkable events that have demanded, and continue to demand, widespread political and academic analysis. This article chooses to analyze and interpret the Tunisian uprising through the lens of Arendt’s political thought. As remarked by Jonathan Schell, Arendt approaches contemporary events with a profound knowledge of historical and philosophical affairs (Schell, 2006: xii). Contrary to political philosophy as it is conventionally understood, Arendt does not provide political prescriptions founded in philosophical arguments, nor does she bring philosophy to inform events (Ibid.: vii). It is rather the world of human affairs, and historical events such as those that unfolded with the 18th Century Revolutions, coupled with backward glances to Greek antiquity, that informed Arendt’s political thought.

It is through this approach that Arendt’s theoretical interpretation of human affairs ‘crystalized’ around events (Idem). The purpose of this article is to apply Arendt’s approach to political thought to the 21st century Tunisian revolutionary uprising. Arendt’s political thought forms the foundation of analysis, and is then located within the context of the uprising. The events are first conceptualized through the lens of Arendt’s political thought, and then serve as the contemporary setting in which to inform, critique and add depth to her political theory. The overall objective is to test the validity and aptness of Arendt’s influential vocabulary in her thoughts on the human condition, on revolution, and on the articulation of the public realm. The article concludes that Arendt’s political thought is validated in its relevance to the contemporary events in Tunisia, and challenges Arendt’s disregard of the ‘social’ elements as a powerful revolutionary and political force and an essential part of the public realm.

The Political Theory of Arendt

Arendt is perhaps most widely renowned for her profound ‘celebration of action’, that of the human capacity and humankind’s inherent ability to ‘begin anew’ manifested as the actualization of potential through action (Balaton-Chrimes, 2011). Arendt’s account of the human condition is premised on vita activa, contrasted to vita contemplativa, the life of contemplation, which in its traditional meaning is ‘a life devoted to public-political matters’, a notion as old as the tradition of political thought itself (Arendt, 1958: 25). Corresponding to Arendt’s theory of political action is the existence of the public realm, the bios politikos of Greek Antiquity which, in its contemporary form can be understood as ‘space of appearance’ where men, in their plurality, gather to exercise the highest of all human capacities, that of action (praxis) and speech (lexis) for political ends (Ibid.: 24). For Arendt, since the time of Athenian democracy, philosophers such as Plato have failed to acknowledge one fundamental condition of politics, that it necessitates a plurality of human beings actualizing in concert (Ibid.: viii-ix).

Arendt aligns herself with the thought of Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle in locating freedom, and not necessity, within this realm (Ibid.: 12-13). For Arendt, the ancient Greek polis denotes a very unique and freely chosen form of political organization among men that sharply distinguishes it from the ‘social realm’ where the tasks of labour and work reside (Ibid.: 24). Additionally, Arendt provides a modern critique of Karl Marx, specifically with regard to his intentional lack of distinction between political action and the other human activities of work and labour (Ibid.: xii). For her, a profound misunderstanding is the Latin translation of ‘political’ as ‘social’, captured in the lost words of Aristotle and the discovered words of Aquinas that “man is by nature political, that is, social” (homo est naturaliter politicus, id est, socialis) (Ibid.: 23). One of Arendt’s harshest critiques of the contemporary world is the decline of the bios politikos and the lost meaning of vita activa and the diminishment of human agency and political freedom, a phenomenon she regarded as one of the greatest tragedies of our time (Idem).

The political thought of Arendt was first captured in The Origins of Totalitarianism, originated in her awe and indignation faced with the regime of Hitler’s Germany, and progressed over a decade later into an almost entirely different realm in On Revolution, which seemed to predict, unknowingly, the wave of democratic movements from the mid-1970’s onwards from Greece to Poland to Brazil to South Africa (Schell, 2006: xi). In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt articulates a world where totalitarians dominate every corner of human existence, tearing down the very humaneness and dignity of human beings and crushing the moral person through tactics of ideological domination and the brokering of individuality, the seat of ‘human spontaneity’, that is ‘human freedom’ (Ibid.: xiii). In Arendt’s analysis, tyrannical regimes exist upon isolation, the denial of the essential human condition of the plurality of men, which through speech and action actualizes power, the condition of all forms of political organization (Arendt, 1958: 202).

One of the most profound offerings in The Human Condition speaks to the forces beyond those capable of sustaining a tyrannical regime, to those leading to its collapse. In articulating Arendt’s ‘theory of power’ (Ibid.: 199), it is in the present moment of coming together that power is actualized, as unlike spaces which are the work of our hands, the human activity that brings space into being disappears with the dispersal of man, and with this dispersal comes the dissolution of the body politic and the dissolution of power (Idem). In her later piece On Revolution, Arendt’s portrayal of the Mayflower Compact confirms again this coming together of men who, in approaching a wilderness, covenant themselves into a ‘Civil Body Politik’: informed by no previous tradition, these men discovered the rudimentary grammar of political action and its more complicated syntax (Schell, 2006: xv).

The Tunisian Revolutionary Uprising through an ‘Arendtian’ Lens

The uprisings the world has witnessed in Tunisia and the wider MENA region are moving examples of the vast potential of the human condition to begin anew, and of the human capacity for collective political action, ideals central to Arendt’s political thought. Through the act of one Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, expressing his defiance against a system that had denied him his basic liberties and dignity, the will of the people ignited into a wave of collective political action (Dabashi, 2012: 17-18). In a prophetic display of Arendt’s ‘theory of power’, the actualization of human activity brought the public realm into being. In Tunisia, the site of power, which for Arendt is actualized when deed and word have not parted company and are intentioned towards establishing relations and creating new realities (Balaton-Chrimes, 2011), materialized both in its physical form on the streets, and in its virtual form on the Internet. Nascent civil society actors organizing themselves horizontally and through social media tools proved crucial in extending their political dissent from the private into the public realm (Cavatorta and Pace, 2012: 128). The streets and airwaves of Tunisia thus manifested, in a topographical and literal sense, as Arendt’s ‘space of appearance’.

The ‘Social’ in Revolution and The Public Realm

In echoing the words of Hamid Dabashi, the Tunisian revolutionary uprising was “a form of delayed defiance, embedded in those anticolonial struggles but now running much deeper in their institutional demands for civil liberties” (Dabashi, 2012: 126) and social justice, which had evaded these countries for the last half-century of the postcolonial period (Ibid.: 215). What was particularly prophetic in the emblematic slogan of “people demand the overthrow of the regime” (al-Sha’b Yurid Isqat) (Ibid.: ix) was the call for “freedom, social justice and dignity” (Huriyyah, Adalah Ijtima’iyah, Karamah) (Ibid.: 10). It is in this call for ‘social justice’ that we find fertile ground in which to critique and offer insight into Arendt’s political thought and her unfortunate dismissal of social and economic matters as constituting both a revolutionary force and an essential element of the public realm. The events in Tunisia have eloquently demonstrated that in the act of reclaiming the public realm, social actors and their corresponding socio-economic issues, relegated to Arendt’s notion of the social realm, were crucial in reactivating the former’s political agency and in elevating the latter’s status to constituting public matters for debate.

In addressing the ‘social question’, Arendt turns to the 18th century revolutions for her analysis. For Arendt, the French revolutionaries derailed the course of revolution from its true and political purpose by allowing the necessities of economics and poverty to enter the revolutionary realm, whereas the men of the American Revolution kept to their true aim, the constitution of public freedom and the foundation of a republic (Ibid.: 59-60). Arendt believed that it was dangerous and even futile for the French revolutionaries to attempt to find a political solution to an economic problem (Ibid.: 60). The powerful imagery that Arendt uses is that of men driven by their biological necessity and the illumination of poverty as deprivation, as a dehumanizing force (Arendt, 1963: 51), which in the opinion of Marx is the very force that must be the focus for emancipation (Ibid.: 52). In a critique of Marx’s transformation of the social question into a political one, Arendt maintains that when the predicament of mass poverty sets course on the road of revolution, the people lost concern for the emancipation of their citizens for freedom and instead turned their focus to the liberation of the suffering of the masses (Ibid.: 102).

The Tunisian uprising was the collective act of reclaiming the public realm, and it is here where Arendt’s valuable insights retain their heuristic capacity, particularly her critique of the lost treasures of humankind’s tradition of political thought and the loss of public space under conditions of modernity (Benhabib, 1992: 74). However, Arendt makes a fundamental error in turning to the period of Greek antiquity and the polis and locating this loss in the rise of the social realm. In Tunisia, Arendt’s conviction of the loss of public space and political agency was present, however the emancipation of the people into the public realm was an act of overcoming decades of isolation, in Arendt’s understanding of the term under conditions of a tyrannical regime. Dabashi’s appraisal (2012: 60) of the Tunisian uprising as an example of overcoming Arendt’s binary of the French and American Revolutions lends strong support to this article’s critique of Arendt’s account of the ‘social question’. The Tunisian uprising was driven by, on the one hand, the demands for constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, liberation from the regime, and freedom to participate in political processes, and on the other, demands for remedies for the pervasive social and economic inequalities that had deeply pervaded the country.

This article argues that in the process of dislocating the analysis from Greek antiquity to contemporary events, Arendt lost sight of an essential element of the human condition: its need for survival or, in the words of Marx, “for bread” (Arendt, 1963: 52). In locating public freedom as the raison d’être of revolution and of the public realm, Arendt has neglected those matters which she regarded as belonging to the realm of necessity – the plight of craftsmen and merchants ‒ whereas it is these matters that need to be located in the public realm (Arendt, 1958: 12). Arendt’s critique of ‘the rise of the social’, on grounds that it blurs the activities of work and labour with ‘action’, begs the question of how the essential activities that enable human beings and, by extension, society to survive and to feed and house itself can be so separate to Arendt’s understanding of the human condition in vita activa. This article takes the view that in her criticism of modernity Arendt has mistakenly critiqued the political emancipation of the excluded segments of society and their appearance into the public realm (Benhabib, 1992: 12).

Conclusion: The Aptness of Arendt’s Political Thought in the 21st Century

In her continued attempts at understanding the forces of domination and oppression, Arendt became the great theorist of power and resistance, locating these at the heart of what it means to be human (Balaton-Chrimes, 2011). As if embodying Arendt’s thoughts into the future, Tunisians have recalled us to the vast potential of the human condition for political action and the essential human condition of beginning anew through the power of collective politics in the face of authoritarian regimes (Idem). This article has also revealed that over half a century after Arendt crystalized her thought in The Human Condition and On Revolution, the events in Tunisia have offered a contemporary context through which to critique Arendt’s negative account of the rise of the social realm, and to challenge Arendt’s narrowly defined conception of what constitutes, or what is permitted to constitute, the public realm.

By expanding Arendt’s conception of the public realm to include issues of ‘social justice’, a more holistic image of the public realm can be reached. One that is able to deal with the entry of new political groups into the public realm and new matters onto the agenda for public debate. It is precisely the demands for “freedom, social justice, and dignity” (Dabashi, 2012: 10) that must now be deciphered and placed onto the agenda of the public realm as the emerging political climate in Tunisia continues to take form. If the revolutionary potential of the uprising is to be truly harnessed, Tunisians must continue to actualize the interface between the symbolic act of nonviolent civil disobedience displayed in the uprising, and the longer term civil society formations needed to secure civil liberties and expand the public agenda for debate, as well as the systematic and regular political and pluralistic participation of citizens, as proposed by Arendt (Ibid.: 247).



Originally from Australia, Kathryn Allison is a human rights practitioner whose professional experience spans from Southeast Asia to Southeast Europe. Kathryn has spent three years in Cambodia, working for the international NGO ‘Cord’ in capacity development and human rights before travelling to Italy in 2012 to undertake the European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation (E.MA) programme. In 2014, Kathryn completed a six-month placement at the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe in Venice and in 2015 is due to graduate from a Laurea Magistrale in Human Rights and Multi-Level Governance at the University of Padova, Italy.

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