Surging Democracy
Notes on Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought
Adriana Cavarero


Preface to the English Edition

History is always unpredictable, as Hannah Arendt has said, but sometimes its rapid pace takes us particularly by surprise. Here, I will give a personal narrative of it by focusing on the period between the publication of the Italian edition of this book and the present moment of writing this preface. Less than ten months.

Democrazia sorgiva had just been published in Italy, in October 2019, when, a few weeks later, the new “Sardines” movement was suddenly packing Italian piazzas with thousands of people protesting the antimigrant, sovereigntist, and hate-speech propaganda of the Lega, a right-wing party competing in the impending regional elections, whose political leader, Matteo Salvini, was dominating the populist vote in Italy’s polls.

The Sardines phenomenon was a notable one, quickly proliferating in cities and towns, from north to south, and inundating the media and the news. Observers were puzzled by the totally nonviolent behavior of such a large number of people, of every age and social condition, joyously gathering in public spaces to fill them up with their bodies, like sardines. Although the Sardines explicitly opposed the spreading of racism, intolerance, and hatred among the supporters of a populist leader fomenting hostility toward ethnic minorities and fueling prejudices and resentments, the piazzas crowded with Sardines were not framed by the typical marks of protest and struggle, and even less by rage and insurgency, but rather by the thrilling emotion of participating in political demonstrations within a shared public space.

I must confess that, by joining the Sardines and singing the mid-twentieth-century antifascist anthem “Bella Ciao” together with thousands of people assembled in the piazza, I too felt this emotion. And, on a strictly personal level, I was excited by the perception that the Sardines were rediscovering and experiencing that form of plural, horizontal, nonviolent, generative, and affirmative interaction, which, revisiting the Arendtian notion of politics in this book, I call “surging democracy.”1 Needless to say, my emphasis here falls on a local phenomenon, on events that occurred in Italy and were a source of personal intellectual satisfaction.

The concept of surging democracy that I discuss in this book, however, goes far beyond this particular setting, engaging with a variety of historical phenomena that regularly occur wherever people, by gathering in public spaces to protest or demonstrate, experience their ability to engender power—a diffuse, participatory, and relational power, shared equally, or better still, a power constituted by political actors who are unique and plural. It is the one situation, Arendt points out, in which we can experience “public happiness.” As such, she suggests, it pertains to certain happy phases of revolutions, notably the American Revolution, when the movement of insurgency and protest, often violent and aimed at liberation, is suspended, allowing the human taste for freedom and emotional participation to surface. In truth, the boundaries between the struggle for liberation and the direct experience of freedom are often blurred, as Arendt notes. Moreover, she warns that it is frequently very difficult to say where the mere desire for liberation, to be free from oppression, ends, and the desire for freedom as the political way of life begins. Yet, when people gathering in protest and fighting for liberation happen to savor the taste of a democracy-in-the-making in its nascent stage, they do recognize it as a distinct and thrilling experience of political freedom.

Commenting on the Italian squares packed with Sardines, columnists and critics at the time accused the movement of being naïve and superficial, lacking an effective political agenda. What do the Sardines want, they argued, besides an understandable protest against a populist demagogue who has large popular support, and against the devastating effects of his vicious rhetoric? Which party or institutional project do the Sardines support, beyond appealing to general issues like those of equality and inclusion, respect for differences, and responsible public language?

However, this line of thinking missed the political core of the phenomenon, that is, its being a manifestation of a specific, performative type of politics that is enacted when people congregate, reclaiming a public space, or, to borrow Judith Butler’s terminology, when, in order to protest, bodies gather in a shared space, displaying the protestors’ corporeal plurality. Tellingly, the political performance of the Sardines lay in their very name, that is, in the physical relationality of bodies that fill public squares and enjoy the political experience of this interactive fulfillment. By gathering, they disclosed the significance of their main claims, which affirmed: We are plural, each an embodied uniqueness, distinct and equal, rejecting exclusion and enacting inclusion. We embrace and empower differences. We display differences in flesh and blood, freed of the political and cultural game of rejection. We congregate bodily to protest segregation and racism. And there is happiness in experiencing and sharing the public exhibition of our incarnate plurality. There is joy in physically engendering freedom.

Then came the coronavirus and, all of a sudden, the squares were empty. Nobody, no-body there. Everybody in lockdown. Then came the social distancing, which in fact is a physical distancing: distancing of bodies. Neither joy nor happiness, but fear, mourning, and grieving. Notwithstanding the initial shock, Italians responded to the required mandate of physical distancing by singing together from balconies and windows, their voices joining and sounding in the emptied squares and streets. They sang popular songs, above all “Bella Ciao,” a chant of resistance and hope, linked to the liberation from fascism. Commenting on this vocal phenomenon, Bonnie Honing has insightfully spoken of a “serenade for democracy.” We did miss democracy, but not the democratic government ruling the country, which was working well enough and doing its best to face the contagion, also because Italy provides universal health care access to all. We missed the recent experience of surging democracy, the thrill of congregating in public spaces, the square packed with thousands of bodies, the taste for freedom in the form of physical relationality. Once again bodies were at center stage, now not because of their urge to congregate and actively perform the political significance of plurality, but because of their being the very vehicle of contagion, the spreading of which feeds on assembled bodies, their physical relation, contact, their breath and touch, in proximity.

In light of the rapid time sequence that replaced the experience of surging democracy with the necessity of physical distancing, the situation in Italy indeed seemed paradoxical. Now bodies, prohibited from political interaction in a shared public space, started to perform, isolated in private rooms, a public ethics of care: care for the health of others, given that every singular body could be contagious and infect other bodies. As epidemiologists and scientists made clear, physical distancing and wearing masks, rather than serving the individual instinct of self-preservation, in fact protect the community from contagion, first and foremost the fragile bodies of the elderly and of those who are particularly vulnerable because of their health or social condition. Caring about the most vulnerable bodies during the pandemic has meant physically distancing oneself while ethically empowering the corporeal dimension of human relationality.

There were, of course, people who embraced this ethical commitment actively, engaging in volunteer action and mutual aid. Moreover, there were caregivers of a special kind, practicing public ethics in its most essential form: doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other health care workers, whom people in lockdown celebrated with choruses of applause and songs from windows and balconies. “Our angels,” they were called. Columnists and critics did not miss the opportunity of accusing Italians of romanticizing “heroes” and extolling their “courage.” Yet the applause was far from a simple regression to traditional folklore attitudes. It was difficult to reconcile a certain emphasis on our ethical “sacrifice” of staying at home, in order to care for the bodies of others, and the impressive performance of exhausted workers, at the brink of personal collapse and at risk to their own lives, taking care of infected bodies in hospitals and intensive care wards. We perceived that their public ethics of care, their inclination toward others, their bending over vulnerable human bodies, was quite intensive, and we applauded and sang out of solidarity and gratitude.

Then the number of victims and the pandemic spreading worldwide rendered us mute. Awareness arose, everywhere, of the event’s unprecedented historical dimension and of the changes affecting our “normal” lives, perhaps also an opportunity for rethinking human life, its vulnerability and livability, along with the political community and the natural environment we are part of. As a matter of fact, the environment benefited immensely from the lockdown, while the human world seemed to freeze and disappear. Venice’s canals had crystal-clear water in which octopuses danced for the first time in hundreds of years. No people were on the street in New York, while Central Park was blooming more gorgeously than ever. Some of us were amazed at the beauty of these surreal scenarios, feeling guilty for enjoying the view of a world without humans. Many, however, had to cope with the nostalgia of the human world as we knew it.

Then the more usual human world resurfaced, presenting us with its all too familiar ugly face, that of racial murder. On May 25, in Minneapolis, George Floyd, an African-American man, was killed by a police officer who pressed a knee on the back of his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. A video of the killing circulated worldwide, in which Floyd could be heard repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.” Suddenly “I can’t breathe” became the rallying cry of thousands of people taking to the streets and filling public squares, in the United States and across the globe, protesting structural racism and police brutality, the old sin of America, the persisting sin of democratic American history. “Cumulative rage, despair, and grief surged like a tidal wave,” read the New York Times, resulting in “one of the most explosive trials of American racism in modern times.” Despite the worldwide lockdown, which kept billions of people at home, in the United States and elsewhere bodies started to inundate public spaces again. A sudden and spreading rage against injustice, inequality, and the daily hardships faced by African-Americans was at the core of the new demonstrations, along with the unresolved legacy of slavery haunting American democracy from its foundation.

It was perhaps the first time in history that thousands of bodies gathering in protest confronted the reality of a pandemic that called for physical distancing. Nevertheless, they marched together, sang and shouted with urgent voices muffled behind masks. In most cities the demonstrations were peaceful. In several cases, the protesters wore masks and tried to enact an unprecedented political performance by situating thousands of bodies at a distance within the public space they shared. In other cases, people took a knee and whispered for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, “I can’t breathe.” This happened in Italy, too, including during a demonstration held in an old piazza in Verona, in which I participated. In Berlin an estimated fifteen thousand protesters filled Alexanderplatz with signs that read, “Germany is not innocent.” In Bristol the statue of a slave trader, Edward Colston, was ripped from its plinth and thrown into the harbor, while in Belgium protesters targeted memorials to Leopold II, the Belgian king who made Congo his own genocidal private property. Many other removals of statues occurred across Europe and the United States.

Columnists and critics, along with some political leaders, argued that tearing down statues means lying about history. Yet history does not consist of more-or-less neutral chronicles of facts and events, but, as Walter Benjamin taught us, it is instead made up of the victors’ hegemonic narratives about these facts and events. Instruments of simplification and celebration, statues illustrate the historical tale of the winners. By standing erect in public spaces of appearance, they consolidate and transmit the winners’ account of the progress of history, no matter if such a progress entailed deportation, enslavement, or extermination of entire populations. Statues in public places are conspicuous, if not provocative.

Maybe the tearing down of statues is not a central point within the international phenomenon of the Black Lives Matter movement protesting police violence and structural racism in the United States and other western democratic countries. It works, however, as a symbolic gesture inviting current democracies to eventually come to terms with their hegemonic narrations of history—sometimes, literally, a monumental history. The past cannot be undone, but its narration and monumental illustration can. Actually, the sign reading “Germany is not innocent” was immediately understood by the people in Berlin. While regularly interrogating its Nazi past—and at the same time facing the recent resurgence of a neo-Nazi party—Germany does not fail to do the same with its colonial past. An exhibition held in 2017 at the German Historical Museum in Berlin detailed and documented in-depth German genocidal racism in Africa. On the other hand, while demonstrating in Italian piazzas for Black Lives Matter, we knew in a special way what “I can’t breathe” meant, given that by pronouncing that sentence we cannot help thinking of the thousands of migrants who, leaving the African shores on rubber boats doomed to sink, suffocate daily in the waters of the by-now marine cemetery of the Mediterranean sea, while the European coastal states go on arguing about which of them is supposed to send rescue ships or welcome them in its ports. When Salvini ruled in Italy as interior minister a few years ago—Salvini, the same populist leader the Sardines were contesting in their joyful squares—he closed Italy’s ports to ships carrying rescued migrants. Truly, the issue of migrants’ lives and other lives that matter less or do not matter—lives that are not grievable as Judith Butler would say—is a particularly urgent one, entrenched in the very core of democracy, whatever we intend by this name.

It is difficult to speak of the present and interpret it philosophically. While I am writing this preface, some scholars are speaking of the pandemic as a catastrophic event, affecting history on a global level, which will change our lives and impact the consolidated, geopolitical patterns of society and the economy. With regard to the international diffusion of the movement protesting structural racism in the United States and elsewhere, other scholars speak of a political event that calls America and Europe, along with democracy itself, into question. One could also simply say that, in times of change, the time has come for current democracies to rediscover the ideas and practices that originated them at the threshold of modernity. Tellingly, when she speaks of America, Arendt links this origin to the experience of revolution, intending it as the communal experience of political freedom that eventually should become “constituted” in new political institutions.

No matter how these constituting attempts have failed historically, we must keep in mind that history is unpredictable, indeed, it never stops occurring and surprising us. Things keep happening. Maybe we happen to live in a time when liberal democracies are historically compelled to confront both the racial pathology that structurally affects them and the experience of surging democracy from which they stemmed and by which they were constituted. If it is true, as Arendt claims, that attempts at constituting freedom cannot exist without interaction in public horizontal spaces, shared by citizens who actively display that ontological condition of plurality that makes them unique and equal, perhaps we can look at the actual demonstrations for Black Lives Matter through a certain lens of political hope. Systemic racism, beyond being a human shame, is structurally incompatible with the very concept of democracy. The revolutionary experience from which modern democracies arose consists of a plural, horizontal interaction that makes inclusion its material kernel and exclusion a logical contradiction. Inasmuch as the thousands of people protesting racism and crowding the squares with the rallying cry “I can’t breathe,” in a time of pandemic, exhibited their embodied plurality in public spaces of appearance in order to claim justice and equality, they exhibited the original human taste for freedom, too, and, along with this taste, notwithstanding their rage and indignation, they experienced the familiar thrill of interacting with each other. It is a democratic thrill, consistent with the collective emotion of participating in the nascent stage of democracy, that germinal form of diffuse, equally shared and inclusive power, which alone, according to Arendt, deserves the name of politics.

I know that my present analysis, tentative and provisional as it can be in times of historical accelerations, risks running off toward utopia while calling on an imaginary of hope. But there is no historical change without hope, and perhaps there is no action either. In order to change, to let things happen for the better, to overcome racism and inequality, to rediscover the birthing core of democracy and turn the shared experience of freedom into constituted social and political institutions, we do need an imaginary of hope. After all, as Arendt says, political changes enacted by the rediscovery of freedom, although unpredictable, keep resurfacing in history with “an utmost weird precision.”

Verona, August 2020


1. In consultation with Adriana Cavarero, I have employed the term surging democracy as a translation of the book’s original title of Democrazia sorgiva. The Italian word sorgiva has a number of connotations, which are difficult to entirely convey in English. Among these are the notions of both source and origin, especially in regard to the origins of a river or a spring. Cavarero plays upon the related etymologies, which include the act of rising up, linked to insurrection, as well as the act of appearing or emerging. These various connotations come together to create a generative, affirmative vision of political interaction, figured as a surging democracy that wells up spontaneously amid a plurality of bodies assembled in the Arendtian “space of appearance.” The adjective surging thus attempts to convey this thrust of upward energy along with the germinal quality of a democracy in its incipient stage. Cavarero unpacks the etymological implications of this term in particularly rich detail in Chapter 1. [—Trans.]