This will be the first in a series of essays on the political question of power. The goal in this first essay is to lay out the underlying political theory of power that will inform an analysis of current events in the essays that follow.
In face of the events of the last two years, violence has come to preoccupy our discussions. Whether it is the actual violence we witness or the threat of violence to come, it is easy to find reasons for fear and heartbreak. Interestingly, violence is often pointed at as a sign of power and authority, whether it be the newfound capacity for violence President Trump has put his hands upon or the violence of police upon civilians. In some cases this is brandished publicly in hubris and in others it appears to be a consequence of the authority invested in certain individuals. Almost all of these cases though point not to power, but to a breakdown in the ability for our folk concepts of power and violence to comprehend what we see.
After all, if violence is a form of power, why does violence appear to be impotent to bring peace to Syria and Iraq? If violence is power, then why are groups that lack mainstream political purchase the ones that seem most likely to engage in terrorism? If violence is power, then how is it that protesting citizens have brought down or paralyzed tyrannical governments, even if only briefly, across the world? That is because the reality of violence is not power.
This way of conceiving power, as being synonymous to one’s capacity for violence, shouldn’t pass the smell test given the way we usually think of power in other contexts. Consider the origins of the word itself. “Power” comes to us from the Latin word “potis” through Old French, which was much more closely entwined with its other derivatives, “potent” and “potential” (http://etymonline.com/index.php?term=power&allowed_in_frame=0). It meant the ability to act or the possession of a certain capacity or ability. Strangely though, in the 20th century, power became equivocated in political theory as one’s capacity for violence, with theories of sovereignty defining power as a monopoly on legitimate violence or the Realist Theory of International Relations operationalizing power specifically as a state’s weapons and capacities for military violence. This idea even became translated into Leftist thought, best exemplified by Mao’s famous quote, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
In 1969, Hannah Arendt identified this problem and argued that the received notions about power and violence held by both theorists and non-theorists did not actually correspond to the reality of political phenomena. Rather, she argued that we falsely equivocate a pile of terms and ideas, including power, command, authority, and violence. In one of her most concise summaries of her thought on the matter, On Violence, Arendt proposes not only that power is the core political phenomenon, but that it is the opposite of violence (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1969/02/27/a-special-supplement-reflections-on-violence/). She lays out the problem as follows:
“It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our language does not distinguish between such key terms as power, strength, force, might, authority, and, finally, violence—all of which refer to distinct phenomena. To use them as synonyms not only indicates a certain deafness to linguistic meanings, which would be serious enough, but has resulted in a kind of blindness with respect to the realities they correspond to. Behind the apparent confusion lies a firm conviction that the most crucial political issue is, and always has been, the question of Who rules Whom? Only after one eliminates this disastrous reduction of public affairs to the business of dominion will the original data concerning human affairs appear or rather reappear in their authentic diversity.”
(Arendt, On Violence : Section II)
Core to this mistake, in her thinking, is the belief that power is equivalent to the ability for a person to have their commands obeyed by others. She identifies this as one of two major traditions of thought on the relationship between government and power:
“These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody.”
(Arendt, On Violence : II)
This view may very well correspond to your received notion of power, as we often talk about it in terms of people in positions of authority making or legislating commands. It is also a notion that is deeply entrenched in political theory and political science. For example, as mentioned earlier, power is often defined in international relations in terms of getting what you want from others through coercion (military), exchange (economic), or soft (persuasive) power (Such as in Joseph Nye’s theory of soft power: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2307/20202345/full). While it is tempting to go down this road, as it provides simple capacities possessed by a state that allow one to evaluate its power, it fails entirely to recognize how these capacities are dependent upon the underlying power of social organization of which the state is a manifestation.
Arendt instead draws our eye to another tradition of thought in political theory that, though neglected, has often played a role in the actual practice of politics:
“However, there exists another tradition and another vocabulary no less old and time-honored than the one mentioned above. When the Athenian city-state called its constitution an isonomy or the Romans spoke of the civitas as their form of government, they had in mind another concept of power, which did not rely upon the command-obedience relationship. It is to these examples that the men of the eighteenth-century revolutions turned when they ransacked the archives of antiquity and constituted a republic, a form of government, where the rule of law, resting on the power of the people, would put an end to the rule of man over man, which they thought was “a government fit for slaves.” They too, unhappily, still talked about obedience—obedience to laws instead of men; but what they actually meant was the support of the laws to which the citizenry had given its consent.
Such support is never unquestioning, and as far as reliability is concerned it cannot match the indeed “unquestioning obedience” that an act of violence can exact—the obedience every criminal can count on when he snatches my pocketbook with the help of a knife or robs a bank with the help of a gun. It is the support of the people that lends power to the institutions of a country, and this support is but the continuation of the consent which brought the laws into existence to begin with. (Under conditions of representative government the people are supposed to rule those who govern them.) All political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them. This is what Madison meant when he said, “all governments rest on opinion,” a statement that is no less true for the various forms of monarchies than it is for democracies. The strength of opinion, that is, the power of the government, is “in proportion to the number with which it is associated” (and tyranny, as Montesquieu discovered, is therefore the most violent and the least powerful among the forms of government).”
(Arendt, On Violence : Section II)
This is what so interested Arendt: power as that ability which enables us to work together to create a society. For this reason, she defines power as our ability “to act in concert.” She further qualifies power as “belonging to a group” and remaining in existence as long as the group persists. In many of her other works, such as The Human Condition, she explains that by “action” she further means those things we do in the public space that initiate and further a new endeavor. This view implies that power comes into being whenever people associate and is what allows us to cooperate and create a society together.
In contrast, she sees violence not as an end in itself, but a means that can destroy or undermine power – the means by which one can make it so people cannot work together. This may sound strange at first, but consider the way violence is used. For example, in a battle, the goal is not to engage in as much destruction as possible, but to undermine an opponent’s ability to coordinate their attack or to resist. In this same way, government forces, like police, use violence to break apart protests and undermine a group’s ability to communicate and coordinate their actions. And while the threat of violence can sometimes convince someone to obey a command, that threat cannot make someone come up with a new invention or create a new institution. Through collaboration though, we become capable of doing things far beyond what any one of us could achieve alone.
For Arendt, this was not mere armchair speculation, but a matter of experience. While living in France as a refugee from the holocaust, before Germany invaded, she worked to help Jewish refugees like herself escape to safety. No matter what violence Hitler’s forces brought to bear, people working together were able to create a route to safety for those they sought to destroy. When France fell, she then had to flee to New York, once more witnessing the power of collaboration to frustrate and stop the machinations of evil and violence. During her lifetime, revolutions shook the world and countless times she watched as tyrannical, violent leaders were overthrown by the collaboration of ordinary people.
“Since the beginning of the [20th] century, theoreticians have told us that the chances of revolution have significantly decreased in proportion to the increased destructive capacities of weapons at the unique disposition of governments. The history of the last seventy years, with its extraordinary record of successful and unsuccessful revolutions, tells a different story…The fact is that the gap between state-owned means of violence and what people can muster by themselves—from beer bottles to Molotov cocktails and guns—has always been so enormous that technical improvements make hardly any difference…In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always been absolute; but this superiority lasts only so long as the power structure of the government is intact—that is, so long as commands are obeyed and the army or police forces are prepared to risk their lives and use their weapons.
When this is no longer the case the situation changes abruptly. Not only is the rebellion not put down, the arms themselves change hands—sometimes, as in the Hungarian Revolution, within a few hours…Where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use. Hence obedience is not determined by commands but by opinion, and, of course, by the number of those who share it. Everything depends upon the power behind the violence. The sudden dramatic breakdown of power, which ushers in revolutions, reveals in a flash how civil obedience—to the laws, to the rulers, to the institutions—is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.”
(Arendt, On Violence : III)
This was something that was on display for the world during the Arab Spring. For example, in Egypt, we saw an authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in a matter of days by the collaboration among nonviolent protesters themselves and the noncooperation of the military with his commands (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring#Egypt). Arendt herself brought up the example of the Vietnam War, which was being actively waged at the time, to showcase how violence is impotent in the face of power. This idea has even seen itself given new life in the form of “Selectorate Theory” in the field of political science, which examines how the minimum necessary coalition of people needed to gain and maintain power shapes the behavior of political leaders (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/logic-political-survival).
In times like these, Arendt’s theory of political power is not only insightful, but inspirational. It reminds us that power inevitably rests in our hands and it is the sum of our choices that creates the society we live in. This tells us that no matter how much violence or strength a particular leader or coalition lays their hands upon, the power remains in the hands of the people and we have the ability, if we so choose, to work together to resist and transform events. We are not objects acted upon by history but the subjects that create it.