display | more...

On Violence is an essay published in 1968 by one of the twentieth century's foremost political scientists and an enlightened social commentator of her times, Hannah Arendt. Amidst the background of the Vietnam War and the global student rebellion, she discusses the role of violence in politics, its relation to power, and the nature of war. My citations all come from the edition published by Harcourt.

Although she is primarily concerned with the relation of power and violence in domestic affairs and politics, she does discuss the role of war in international relations. In doing so she reflects on the nature of warfare in the nuclear age, where war between the superpowers would be collective suicide and biological weapons allow "small groups of individuals to upset the strategic balance". Although superpower war remains unthinkable and the proliferation of biological weapons would slowly make wars between smaller nations unthinkable, she concludes that there remains no substitute for the "final arbitrer in international affairs". It is hard to develop a political solution that would replace warfare for as long as nation states claim sovereignity over particular areas, because, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, "Covenants without the sword are but words". In this view, the only way to eradicate war once and for all is through globalism and the liquidation of all nation-states (plans for a single European nation state after World War II sought to bring about this solution within Europe, but would not have lessened it globally).

Although the glamour of violence in international affairs and its political usefulness seem to diminish in the nuclear age, Arendt says "the more it has gained in reputation and appeal in domestic affairs". She discusses the hard-line rhetoric of the "New Left", citing of course Mao Tse-Tung's famous dictum that "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun". This is of course opposed to Marx, who believed that while violence was a tool used by the "ruling class" (ie. the bourgeois) to oppress the lower classes, it was not the source of their power - their power derived from the social forces which made them the ruling class. It is here that we encounter the crucial difference between the concepts of power and violence. Violence is an act of human volition, an act that by its nature upsets the status quo and forces someone to act against their own volition. Political power, rather, is what happens when human beings act in concert. All body politics derive their power from a number of human beings acting in concert - it is a fallacy to see a dictatorship as consisting in one man oppressing an entire population, for clearly he needs loyal power structures (police, army, security forces, etc.) to do so (as the Americans are discovering in Iraq in their need to now liquidate the people and organisations who had a vested interest in the perpetuation of the old regime). The power of an individual or a group can only go on as long as it can mobilise individuals to act in its name.

This sort of power, then, relies on authority - authority might be invested in a particular person or organisation, but it involves the power to command and be obeyed. A man has authority over his child - but he loses this authority as soon as he beats him, at which point he has resorted to violence to impose his short-term will. Power and authority can never spring from violence because violence can only really be used to achieve short-term ends, ends that require violence because they would not normally result from the status quo. Power consists in modelling the status quo to achieve ends automatically; violence consists in an outburst to achieve them in the short-term. Violence and power often co-incide, especially where the bearers of power feel it disintegrating - this instinct is natural enough and can be found many times in the history books, from the Russian Revolution of 1905 to any number of military dictatorships. But this does not mean that power is derived directly from violence - a government based solely on violence has never existed, for one. Even totalitarian rulers need the support of the police structures (who, in Russia, backed Stalin in his rise to power absolutely), and when they have achieved the complete atomisation of society by turning everyone into an agent provocateur they can rely on the tacit support of the entire population.

Similarly, in international affairs and in the history of revolutions, the monopoly of the means of violence has never ensured victory. At the time of Arendt's writing, this was most visible in the Vietnam War - although the National Liberation Front was technologically inferior to the United States (they had no considerable air power, no Project Igloo White, and in the first years carried out the battle with captured American arms), the United States was not able to impose its long-term will on the population through violence. Against the concentrated power of a large group of people acting in concert, their violence - fine for short-term ends, as a list of any major engagement in the war shows - could not achieve its end. This is because the means took over from the ends and became the thing of primary importance, always the danger in a long-term endeavour. The results of long-term endeavours are notoriously unpredictable, and violence most unpredictable of all because of the passions and reactions it invites. In addition, violence can never be legitimate in the way an entrenched power structure is - power is the natural result of men living together in a body politic, and is legitimised by the initial act of coming together and, say, framing a constitution. Violence, however, can have no such grounding in the past - it might be "justified", says Arendt, because of some end that needs achieving, but this is again a short-term thing.

On the issue of violence directed against power, Arendt concludes that this is more common in our times because of bureaucracy - the impersonal "tyranny without a tyrant" which seems to underline the impotence of the individual man. Violence by groups of people acting in concert not only draws them closer together for the duration of the action, but gives them greater strength to upset the status quo, even if only in a wholly destructive way. This, says Arendt, explains the tendency towards violence of the New Left and its belief that "the lumpenproletariat will lead the revolution". The true power of a minority would seem to rest on its use of nonviolent means, however - there can be no such thing as a "militant minority" because the only way a minority can achieve anything is with the tacit support of those around it. Violence undermines this support and so where it is present, power is absent. Violence cannot be used to create power, only destroy it - and any power structure that continues to resort to violence to defend itself will eventually find that violence has replaced power altogether.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.