Hannah Arendt has a short book called On Violence that appears to be the closest thing she ever wrote to a pamphlet or zine for mass distribution. In the middle of the book is a glossary of sorts for some key concepts that get thrown around in political discourse haphazardly: power, strength, force, authority, and violence. I understand her desire to set the matters straight on these words’ meaning as an attempt to prevent political actors, people willing to take meaningful and directed political action, from falling into ideologically sterile beliefs or patterns of behavior that would disable that political action from taking effect.
She begins, and this is significant, with an assessment of the political landscape during the cold war era and the mentality confronting a generation of people having grown up in a time when the world itself could vanish at any moment. This situation brought the high politics of international relations into the consciousness of common people in a way that only climate change could now, with the affect largely drawing on fear. The Berlin Wall was still up and the narrative of two competing superpowers with opposing and irreconcilable modes of governing still prevailed and the capitalist west was set apart from the communist east. Mutually assured destruction of every human world (in her own sense of the word ‘world’) had become the culmination of a century of technological innovation in war-making and previously unthinkable slaughter. A single decision by a group of men in identical suits sitting in a dark room that the public has never seen could end everything. It was in this setting that Arendt sets about to enable her readers to think, to traverse the conceptual landscape of political and economic philosophy that constitutes the heritage bequeathed to us and find a way forward.
After setting the historical stage, we get some treatments of some political trends including the fantasy of unending progress and economic growth, the function of war in politics, and the effect of Marxism on revolutionary thought. But I would prefer to dive right into her glossary of terms to come to grips with their specific deployment. Each of these five terms has a unique meaning and they never seem to form some kind of order or hierarchy, so it is important that we grasp each on its own.
First, in her own words:
“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 that someone is “in power” we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name…
Strength unequivocally designates something in the singular, an individual entity; it is the property inherent in an object or person and belongs to its character, which may prove itself in relation to other things or persons, but is essentially independent of them….
Force… should be reserved, in terminological language, for the “forces of nature” or the “force of circumstances”… that is, to indicate the energy released by physical of social movements.
Authority[‘s]… hallmark is unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey; neither coercion nor persuasion is needed… To remain in authority requires respect for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.
Violence, finally as I have said, is distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designated and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, in the last stage of their development, they can substitute for it.” (p44-46)
So, power only exists in human plurality, such that some have the ability to reorganize the community taken as a whole and have more freedom to act on it than others. The existence of power necessitates inequality in a group of people, or the reverse. Strength is an attribute of an individual, with some people being physically stronger than others by fact of nature or training. Strength is a physical property of a body. Force is relational and between bodies, a rather mechanistic term that’s close to ‘energy.’ Force can be imposed on others by acting together and doesn’t necessarily mean the enactment of blunt trauma. Authority seems the most cultural and least natural of the five, with it largely being the result of rituals and positions held by a person but within institutions. Neither force nor violence nor even strength should be required to maintain authority, and when those means are called upon to keep authority it is a sign that that authority is diminishing. Violence is a tool. Like technology, violence is implemented by someone and against another for a purpose. In other words, violence is only ever a means to an end and never an end in itself.
And there we have it. These terms are the common expression of thought in times of political uncertainty, that is, when authority is crumbling or power is breaking down. In the situation of a rebellion, war, or revolution (or the mass protest that always raise their prospect), we are suddenly thrown into an assortment of forces that require navigation through. Her point is that we have no easy path which shows itself immediately upon attaching oneself to any of these terms, whatever destination one may believe themselves to be traveling toward. The only consistent privilege Arendt ever seems to give is for a situation in which political action remains possible, the term ‘action’ being something with a specific meaning which I will explain later.
I take it that Arendt’s book is primarily aimed at Maoists of her era and other revolutionary Marxists searching for the right strategy to realize their political dreams, some of which having momentarily settled on violence as the cure-all. If only enough people are convinced that the true form of power is the violence inherent in the system (so the rationale goes), then a counter-violent force will coalesce and a revolution can take place, with power transferring from the capitalist to the socialists. The violence of capitalism is all around us and if we don’t push back with the most radical political action they can conceive, then capitalist violence will continue, say the fired-up communists. But as we receive from Arendt, the lesson here is that power and violence are not the same thing, nor does violence compose the power bloc entirely (like a collection of atoms compose an object). This is the ideological error of materialism that has survived in many forms since the dawn of philosophy, but gained a popular traction on the left since the Marxists took over the theoretical high ground on the left sometime in the late nineteenth century.
The materialist temptation is to reduce these list of terms to one term and place that one term at the ground, holding up all of the others. The mechanical nature of force, its near-equation with energy, allows it a place in the realm beyond or underneath the human and its community. With force as our basic concept hiding behind all of the others we can dawn the lab-coat and appear as a scientist that devises strictly neutral laws of nature. Armed with a materialistic ideology (a word, ‘ideology’ that can be used anytime you here someone repeat the same concepts over and over again, seeking to explain all of your ideas within the terminology of their own), we gain in prestige or mass appeal what we loose in strategic assessment of a political arrangement. Violence or the threat of potential violence is not the only force running through the field of power and keeping people in power.
Authority does not require fear but can be won in persuasion and/or skillful maneuvering, although no more convincing at all is needed when achieved. Authority is even here defined as a lack of coercion, such that one can gain authority only by seeming to be worthy of trust, believability, etc. and not merely relying on force. When such violent measures are resorted to, one in power suddenly looks naked in that power: one loses authority and draws the contempt of the people that such power is being exerted on. Authority is lost and power looks isolated, cut off from the support and respect which it required in order to achieve that power. No doubt, power can still be maintained without authority and the standards that authority “rests on” may shift to the point where authority is lost to part of a constituency but not all, but power ruling over people (or simply manipulating them to act someway instead of another) can’t survive long without authority and its accompanied respectability and admiration.
The point Arendt is making goes to her political predicament and (if the situation of the cold war is not so far away from the situation now in America) ours: we cannot just rely on an escalation of confrontation to win political power. Those who insist on this kind of brute materialist analysis wouldn’t know what to do with the power they had won if they had been gift-wrapped it and not had to fight for it at all. And there are such groups, typically anarchists, who have brought the radical left discourse to this point (Tiqqun, The Invisible Committee, and the rest of the smorgasbord that make up ultra-radicals). It is only logical that anarchists would be willing to go this far because, aside from their not total but very common ideological materialism, they claim to be a force entirely concerned with counter or anti-power. Communists, on the other hand, are all-too-willing to use whatever tools available to gain power in the fight against capitalism and anarchists, despite their fierce historical opposition to them, open the way for the seizure of power by the next-most organized authority ready to jump at the opportunity. The historical and linguistic similarities between these two traditions are the undeniable heritage of anti-capitalism and left-Hegelianism in Europe, disputes aside.
Power and authority does not disappear when you evacuate the current factions, parties, or institutions holding power of their force or their means of implementing violence. This is the materialist fallacy of treating force and violence as coextensive with trauma and the infliction of pain; forces are not atoms nor are they the relations between the atoms holding them together, such that reorganizing them into a different shape will also eliminate power. People organized effectively will “give off” a force that can alter, suspend, or overthrow power, but the potential for this force to exude itself only exists when people are compelled to resist or disobey. Power falls apart and leaves in its death a vacuum when a critical threshold of people lose confidence, respect, or consent towards those in power, or, in other words, when power loses its authority and must resort to violence. What makes presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald trump so popular now in the internet age of finance capitalism is the large number of people who disapprove of their leaders but are suddenly feeling the effects of their horrendous leadership leading up to and after the financial collapse and subsequent bailout of corrupted money institutions. The revelations that the massive outgrowth of technologies surrounding the internet has been accompanied by a massive surveillance and loss of media-ted freedom has also contributed to a spiteful, though atomized response. With these actions the American government has lost authority, so that the most popular presidential candidates across the political spectrum can call for drastic action and use revolutionary rhetoric. The amount of authority still remaining can be quantified by polls and surveys only imperfectly.
The moment that many people are waiting for now, the great event that hope turns toward to reverse its fortunes, is here defined as the moment when power has completely lost its authority and when the violence becomes overt and visible. The time of the event, the time of kairos, the outpouring of activity that subverts all power and ushers in ‘the new’ could very easily get caught in this stage of violence in the waning hours of power’s grip. If all the preparation that is made is military in style, then it will be too easy for those insisting on violence as a means for revolution to lose the authority they falsely believed they never needed anyways and be crushed. Violent action taken against a power actually has the ability to become ensnared into a game that feeds such a power, diminishing and devoid of authority though it may be, with ample justification for its own police or domestic violence. Or otherwise, as Arendt puts it,
“Disintegration often becomes manifest only in direct confrontation: and even then, when power is already in the street, some group of men prepared for such an eventuality is needed to pick it up and assume responsibility.” (p49)
Staying at this level of street fighting and becoming fixated on the enemy in proximity opens up the way for a change in power, but who or what group plucks that power out of the streets and convinces the people that they are worthy of positions of authority is uncertain. This opening up of possible regime change intensifies the situation and raises the excitement level, but only those prepared to grab and hold onto power will come out with it. A second look into the revolutions of Egypt from 2011 and the current civil war in Syria exemplify the dangers of prolonged street fighting can take on a state, from within and without.
In times like these, power is effectively lost when its command structure disintegrates. The giving and accepting of commands is a major component for the instrumental use of violence, and must be presupposed by those with power in order that they maintain their power. But a power that has lost authority increases the likelihood that those receiving the commands will falter. Commands are like contracts that people believe will be honored but can only make referrals to laws, force, and character when they come to collect; when the structures that ensure such contracts or commands have lost the respect of the people, everything can change in a “flash.”
“In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always held absolute; but this superiority lasts only as long as the power structure of the government is intact – that is, as long as commands are obeyed and the army or police forces are prepared to use their weapons. When this is no longer the case, the situation changes abruptly. Not only is the rebellion not put down, but the arms themselves change hands – sometimes, as in the Hungarian revolution, within a few hours.” (p48)
These moments of power-loss bring about the prospect for a new form of government, where new ideas are given a space and new constitutions can be drawn up. None of these things can happen if the arms once used to repress peoples continue to remain with the government and their users obey commands. When the thrust of one’s political activity is reduced to violence mixed with some vague notions about ideal human life (or some exact notions about how to run an economy from 150 years ago), the authority of the existing power is reinforced not challenged and the potential for a new power will remain untapped. The public opinion of a people becomes the ultimate arbiter in these instances.
“The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in revolutions reveals in a flash how civil obedience – to laws, to rulers, to institutions – is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.” (p49)
This “support and consent” is not so easily detectable but it is easily observable in daily life. When or where the threshold is crossed from acquiescence to rebellion is not definable in an analytic way but becomes apparent in a mass event, a non-localized disobedience. In other words, a small group of people is not going to incite an insurrection but can seize power once that general disobedience and loss of authority has taken place. A situation of major power-loss and potential transition is a mass phenomenon that the great majority takes part in. Without this vast critical majority, any revolutionary practice is powerless, and this lack of power (just like with regimes losing their power by losing their authority) is what leads them to turn towards violence.
And power itself is not even won through war-like victories, where one force overcomes another and so seizes power. Gaining and keeping power is a group phenomenon that should not be confused with one army conquering another army. “Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow.” The violence that power deploys where it sees fit is but its instrument for maintaining that power it won not from battles but from acting and organizing itself prior to its seizure of power. When power is attempted to be gained by violent means, what we get is not a power but a terrifying obedience of people like they were soldiers or enemies. Violence: its commands, its obedience, and its fear are not suited for rule of a government in the same way as power is, which is where we get the totalitarian rule of terror.
“Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What never can grow out of it is power…
Rule by sheer violence comes into play where power is being lost… To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.” (p53)
The confusion of violence’s alliance with power for another principle, namely, that power is nothing but a control of violence, leads us down a troubling path – one that extents the operations of violence even further than the street battles within which violence takes place. The organization of violence and the organization of government are two separate creatures that ally with each other for their own mutual survival; a violence having completely severed itself from power and overtaken it can rule only according to its own organizational axioms. When everything looks like either an enemy or a subordinate to direct with the force of fear, government is transformed into rule by terror. Ignoring power’s cooperative operation and its legitimacy in the eyes of those it rules could be disastrous. To ignore the need for a plan within the designs of the powerful and a method for running the government once power is attained is to create a power vacuum that is too easily filled by violence.
“Terror is not the same as violence; it is, rather, the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control. It has often been noticed that the effectiveness of terror depends almost entirely on the degree of social atomization… The decisive different between totalitarian domination, based on terror, and tyrannies and dictatorships, established by violence, is that the former turns not only against its enemies but against its friends and supporters as well, being afraid of all power, even the power of its friends. The climax of terror is reached when the police state begins to devour its own children, when yesterday’s executioner becomes today’s victim. And this is also the moment when power disappears entirely.” (p55)
This situation of totalitarian terror is one that few will remember at the time of writing, 2016, or could. It comes to us like a relic in a time where capitalist power has outlasted its internal and geopolitical opponents but also as perennial justification for the capitalist powers. But it could also come to us as a reminder how quickly things can disintegrate into cycles of violence and terror if we hold onto materialistic notions of the identity of power and force – or at least their difference being only one of degree.
So, violence and force are not the same as power and power is not composed of accumulation of forces or a mere monopoly on violence.
“To sum it up: it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.” (p56)
Power only relies on violence as a means to keep that power, but is not its essence. When power is kept in possession solely through the use of violence, people tend not tolerate such a power and it loses authority. In those situations when the authority of power is lost, commands are disobeyed and changes in power become possible, or at least more likely. As violence rages on and conquers all of its enemies, it turns the power of government into terror. A power won not through violence but through acting together in concert, forming a strategic plan and proclaiming themselves in public, is a power capable of legitimate rule by general consent of the governed. Such consent, Arendt will argue, is not the mere result of coercion or an acquiescence; the minds of the people are given more agency than they would have as mere subjects of a sovereign.
“This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as non-violence; to speak of non-violent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” (p56)
Somewhere early on in a political action, which Arendt defines as necessarily being an initiative that starts something new, the old debate rears its ugly head and a decision will have to be made on the ready-made and easy-to-use media template: “Are you violent or non-violent?”. The decision is a forced decision in Arendt’s terminology because the use of violence in an instrumental means to an ends does not exist in the civilian resisting violence and fighting back. Such resistance or reactive counter-attack against the organized and instrumental violence of the police or military has no clear instrumental use but the mere expression of outrage. The hastily labeled “violent protester” or the emblazoned headlines of “protest turns violent” are abuses of the word; violence is only a tool, a means to an ends, and to charge protesters of being an organized force explicitly deploying violence to seek some end is to vastly overestimate their force.
The word is being used here as a media device to discredit an action and bolster the authority for a power. The selective deployment of the word instills confusion in the reader and makes the whole affair look like a skirmish where neither force is to blame and it was another instance of natural forces colliding against each other. Two violent forces that await a victor and the defeated. In actuality, someone or some powerful group decided that a political action challenged their authority and put their power at risk, so they made use of the violence at their disposal. Without a power backing it, such counter violence is ensnared into the trap that the dominant power has set for it, unable to overcome it by force. “Politically speaking, the point is that loss of power becomes a temptation to substitute violence for power…” (p54)
No doubt, some will be inclined to provoke this violence: a kind of drawing out of the violence into public for the purpose of depleting a power’s authority in the eyes of the population. This often goes by the name “non-violent direct action” and has shown its effectiveness in various political campaigns, especially since the advent of mass media to make visible to the rest of the public the use of violence by a power. While effective, the label is misleading and a semantic impasse has developed where the strategy’s authority has grown so large that the media has borrowed its own terminology and selectively deploys its opposite. Like falling into the trap of street battling with a more powerful force, taking sides on this issue has become a means for reducing a popular force through division. But, again, this is a forced choice largely imposed by the forces of the media and internalized by its readers/viewers. Taking the extreme side too quickly produces the ideological weapon of “propaganda by the deed” which hopes to incite further act of violence in a less organized fashion (it hasn’t ever worked) and those led into the ideological error of valorizing violence as I have been addressing throughout this essay. Unleashing this violence, one that obeys commands (else it remains impotent) can be very effective at achieving its goals. In other words, be careful what you wish for.
What Arendt can teach us with this small book is that power is never achieved this way, at least not for long and not without much regret when all is said and done. What holds up power is more than violence and defeating power with little more than a superior force using violence is no means for creating a new power. There is more involved in the complicity of a people for a particular power than fear of violence. This makes the struggle for authority and the general consent of the people a more important battleground than the streets, especially for the intellectually minded.
Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. Harcourt Books, 1970.