Thursday, May 26, 2016

On Violence by Hannah Arendt

Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is "in power" we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. The moment the group, from which the power originated to begin with (potestas in populo, without a people or group there is no power), disappears, "his power" also vanishes. In current usage, when we speak of a "powerful man" or a "powerful personality," we already use the word "power" metaphorically; what we refer to without metaphor is "strength."

Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.

Recognizing that "[t]he technical development of the implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict," Hannah Arendt has decided to reflect on violence: its meaning, purpose, and goals. What she finds is significant conceptual confusion about the nature of violence. This confusion over violence, in turn, has led to confusion over power.

Indeed, much of this book is about the confusion between these two concepts. For Arendt, the distinction between violence and power is important. Power refers to the potentiality of group action and cooperation. Or, at least the ability to motivate/persuade/compel group action or group cooperation. Thus, insofar as we follow the law of the government, the government has power. This is an example of power compelled (at least in the abstract) by violence. But not all power is compelled by violence: the non-violent protests exemplified by Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are examples of power without violence.

Violence, in contrast to power, is a means to an end. (Arendt believes power is an end in itself--an idea she develops in her other works, but mostly takes for granted here). Violence is a tool of power, but it is never self-justifying. For Arendt, this distinction is important because one should not ask how to end violence, but rather, why violence is being pursued.

Her answer is that violence is almost always used because of an absence of power. Violence is the means that the powerless employ to attempt to gain power. And insofar as one would seek to prevent violence, one would have to attempt to empower.

Thus, Arendt takes issue with the general erosion of the U.S.'s separation of powers, the concentration of power in the executive branch, and more specifically, the replacement of political participation with bureaucratic management. Bureaucracy, for Arendt, is particularly dangerous because it replaces power-by-all with power-by-no-one. As she explains, in a bureaucratic state, there is no one to argue against, because the faceless and efficient bureaucracy is inherently un-democratic.

Nonetheless, Arendt is critical of violence:
Moreover, the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.
 Violence may effect the change one seeks; violence always makes the world more violent.

All in all, a great book. As with her other works, it was informative and thought-provoking. It's also the most accessible of her works--other than Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is reads more like news reporting with commentary. With that said, the book is also quite short, coming in at almost ninety pages. It may serve the purpose of introducing others to her work; for me, though, it did not serve the purpose of satiating my itch to read another work by Arendt. I think I'm going to have to pick up The Origins of Totalitarianism. Alas.


Christopher said...

Are bureaucracy and violence inherently connected?

Randy said...

I don't think Arendt would say they're inherently connected. I think she'd instead urge that bureaucracy creates the risk of powerlessness, which in turn creates the risk of violence.

I don't know if she would go this far, but I wonder if a consequence of her ideas is that because anyone is capable of violence, we all inherently have some power. And any system that takes that power away, or fails to recognize it, is a system at risk for inspiring violence.