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No-Rule: Thinking about Obama v. Trump Through Hannah Arendt and C.L.R. James

Barack Obama delivered a rousing speech at the recent Democratic National Committee Convention in support of Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Presidency. At the crescendo of the address, Obama exhorted: “We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled.” Let’s think through this understanding of ruling for political leadership.

Obama argues that Donald Trump, Clinton’s primary opponent for the nation’s highest elected office, embraces an elite conception of leadership grounded in a sovereign leader ruling over a mass. Trump is not only mendacious according to Obama; he is a believer in an authoritarian notion of rule whereby the freedom of a mass of people must be granted solely through the agency of a single lawgiver, the supreme head of state. I’ve called this notion of freedom elsewhere a species of ‘sovereign marronage.’

President Obama rejects all appeals to identification of leadership with a singular sovereign entity in favor of a collective project to forge a Union together. He rejects Trumpism’s premise that America must become Great again, first because, in liberal terms, Obama believes America is already Great; and second is the idea of rule thought to materialize via reclamation of a bygone Greatness fundamentally flattens out dissent and reifies xenophobia, sexism, racism, and other pernicious antagonisms and forms of exclusion.

Obama’s address underscores the U.S. Declaration of Independence, ratified in the city where the convention occurred. He passionately argues it’s “We the People,” not “I” the President, who governs. It’s We the People who “shape our own destiny,” all those in the polity, both citizen and non-citizen.  A political society determined by the actions of We the People, perpetual Dreamers, is one based upon no-rule.

The political theorist Hannah Arendt maintained that versions of no-rule in the aftermath of Herodotus demarcated polities “without a division between rulers and ruled.” Arendt’s unconventional translation of isonomia — literally equality under the laws –as no-rule, highlighted this.

No-rule is a framework Obama contends Clinton will uphold and Trump shall deny if elected. This stance is rich philosophically and simultaneously jarring to hear from the present occupant of one of the world’s most powerful positions, for candidates seeking to acquire the job of President do so through extensive campaigning and promotion of their unique singular vision of politics meant to connect with the collective’s strivings for a better future.

America does operate on rules. Take for example the rule of law. There are parameters within which the nation’s inhabitants have to follow stated procedures and regulations. Should a person subject to the rule of law be deemed in violation of juridical dictates, there are legal consequences. The rule of law is a facet of American statecraft Obama strongly advocates  despite structural injustices adversely affecting certain individuals and communities within its juridical composition. What concerns us, however, is the relationship between rule and leadership, not the existence of rules.

Consider, then, alternatives to sovereign flight from enslavement in our political imaginaries surrounding what constitutes the free life. A vision of a future world articulated by the mass rather than a sovereign, offers a bottom-up vantage point for collective refashionings of a polity and its peoples. The architecture of that dreamscape can be formulated without devising its own notion of ruling, and that’s what is powerful.

In 1950, the Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James drafted his work American Civilization. James remarks in the closing paragraphs: “If the masses cannot govern, then nobody ever can.” Following the quelling of the Hungarian Revolution six years later, James wrote a pamphlet on the meaning of ancient Greek democracy for the world of his times. The central motto was the same words as its title: every cook can govern.

James made an often-overlooked distinction in these works between “rule” and “governance.” He imagined the state as a sphere where rulership had no place. Governance, though, involved, in James’s estimation, the collective We, the desires of a mass, and the implementation of actions and accountability devoid of elite sovereign interference and domination. Every one of us is a political cook. It is We who are the governing apparatus. It is We in whom the rhetorical gestures toward hope and change find their concrete locus. Such building-work is difficult but necessary.

It’s unclear eight years later if the Obama administration entirely succeeded in creating an atmosphere for the flourishing of no-rule governance. Nor is it clear whether the policies of Hillary Clinton will match the august picture Obama painted of her promise.

What’s indisputable is Trump’s proud adoption of hierarchical authoritarian rule-based leadership. And this We must reject. Now.

Neil Roberts

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