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Ancient equality against modern democracy: resources of critique in Hannah Arendt and Ellen Meiksins Wood

Journal article
Authors Carl Wilén
Tomas Wedin
Published in Distinktion : Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory
ISSN 1600-910X
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion
Department of Sociology and Work Science
Language en
Keywords Equality; Athenian democracy; modern democracy; the American Revolution; Hannah Arendt; Ellen Meiksins Wood; isegoria; isonomia
Subject categories Philosophy, History of Ideas, Sociology, Law and Society, History and Archaeology, Philosophy, Ethics and Religion


Increasing discontent with the current status of democracy has prompted a renewed interest in Athenian democracy. This article contributes with the first comparative analysis of two political theoreticians – Hannah Arendt and Ellen Meiksins Wood – whose reactivations of ancient political experiences significantly predate recent trends. Despite the fact that Arendt levelled fierce critique against the Marxist tradition of which Wood was a part, it is shown how both thinkers involved a close consideration of the relation between the social/economic and the political in their analyses; regarded Athenian forms of equality as the differentia specifica when measured against modern incarnations of democracy; committed themselves to the controversial move to grant slavery a marginal role in their analyses; turned to the American Revolution to discern the specificity of the ancient forms equality and modern democracy; and how both departed from the mainstream definitions of democracy as a list of institutions or a number of criteria. We argue that Arendt and Wood reach similar conclusions about the distinctive form of separation between the political and the social/economic in Athens, reach different conclusions about the distinctive forms of collapse and separation respectively in the modern epoch, but nonetheless unite in their critique of the American Revolution. On those premises, the central aim is to investigate how the reactivation of Athenian equality can serve as a resource for critique of three forms of equality that underpins democracy in the modern age, which we designate formal, distributive and imaginary equality.

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