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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Hannah Arendt and the opposition of violence and power

Given how violence-saturated our culture continues to be and how wedded we are in the U.S. to thinking of violence as the only viable form of power, it's refreshing--and  important-- to read Arendt argue that violence is the antithesis of power. She and Audre Lorde think along similar lines: that power arises through community or the deep relationship building that Lorde called erotics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Quaker Thomas Kelly also advocated the formation of strong, deep (in their cases, spiritual) community as the key to speaking truth to power. It's also notable that all but Lorde formed their convictions about community in response to the shattering ultra violence and worship of violence that characterized the Nazi regime (and is now characterizing many of those in political power in this country).

It's important that we not accept, even if half consciously,  the canard that violence is the only form or the best form of power, despite that message being dunned into our heads over and over through the propaganda machine, including the fictional culture (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Westworld, etc). People keep noting the peaceful nature of the women's marches last Saturday: that's obviously important. Any whiff of violence simply gives the other side the justification to respond with extremes of violence. We also have to keep noting that non-violence can bring significant change, despite the persistence of the belief in the popular culture, reinforced by TV fictions, that it never works and is a sign of weakness and ineffectuality. As with violence, sometimes nonviolence wins and sometimes it loses. The fact that war so often is a dead loss never seems to delegitimize it: we can't let the fact that non-violence sometimes doesn't work blind to us to the many times it does work. 

  From the New York Times:

 Arendt draws a sharp distinction between power and violence as well as between liberty and necessity.
What does this mean? In her lexicon, power and violence are antithetical. Initially this seems paradoxical — and it is paradoxical if we think of power in a traditional way where what we mean is who has power over whom or who rules and who are the ruled.
Max Weber defined the state as the rule of men over men based on allegedly legitimate violence. If this is the way in which we think about power, then Arendt says that C. Wright Mills was dead right when he declares, “All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.”
Against this deeply entrenched understanding of power, Arendt opposes a concept of power that is closely linked to the way in which we think of empowerment. Power comes into being only if and when human beings join together for the purpose of deliberative action. This kind of power disappears when for whatever reason they abandon one another.
This type of power was exemplified in the early civil rights movement in the United States and it was exemplified in those movements in Eastern Europe that helped bring about the fall of certain Communist regimes without resorting to violence. Violence can always destroy power, but it can never create this type of power.


As humane people, we have the important task of keeping non-violent protest front and center as shake up and turbulence increasingly characterize the political discourse.

1 comment:

  1. I read that there will also be an organized march by scientists in protest of TD's denial of climate change. We need more of these marches. They are a kind of affirmation of hope and do inspire.

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