Our Crisis of Disempowerment01-27-2024
“America is suffering from a crisis of human disempowerment.” That is the opening sentence of the final chapter of a new book by Philip K. Howard, “Everyday Freedom: Designing the Framework for a Flourishing Society.” Howard is a longtime friend of the Arendt Center, who has spoken at our conferences and appeared as a guest on our podcast, here. In his latest book, Howard offers an Arendtian understanding of our current predicament, based on the phenomenon of disempowerment, or what Arendt in On Violence calls Praxisentzug, a German word for the suspension of action. For Arendt, “huge party machines have succeeded in overruling the voice of the citizens, even in countries where freedom of speech and association is still intact.” She saw the “crucial feature in the student rebellions” of the 1960s to be that they were “directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy.” As Arendt famously wrote, “Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule of Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”
There is a lot of talk today about the crisis of democracy, but very few people understand that the roots of that crisis are in the rise of bureaucracy and elite control of our public institutions. As I’ve written,
The crisis in so-called democratic governments today is best understood as a crisis of disempowerment. Instead of feeling empowered to govern themselves, citizens and non-citizens alike experience government as a vast bureaucracy impervious to popular control. The corruption of elections by obscene amounts of money, the sprawling administrative state that is not answerable to public criticism, and the use of gerrymandering to protect incumbents mean that individual citizens have little if any real power in American politics.
Citizen Assemblies, Civic Assemblies, Citizen Juries and other practices of deliberative self-government are best understood as a response to the experience of disempowerment in politics. In that way, they are attempts to revive American democratic self-government within the tradition of republicanism. The "deliberative wave" behind the turn to citizen assemblies seeks to re-engage citizens in the active practice of self-government.