All is Messy in Violence and War

There are major concepts, definitions, and themes addressed throughout Hannah Arendt’s attempt to deconstruct the various social movements and their political focus during the riots and protests of the 60s and 70s of the last century. This deconstruction is especially made clear with her clarifications regarding that time period’s violent upheavals in the name of Marxism, a philosophy she says in incompatible with violence altogether. The dichotomy Arendt outlines between Violence and Power however, will be the focus of this report. To further the paper’s emphasis, the definitions of what Violence and Power are will be examined within the structure of Arendt’s dichotomy. It will contrast Arendt’s definitions of power and violence in respect to related fields of study that attempt to reconcile the same concepts found within Arendt’s dichotomy and what potential implications this overall structure may have on various perspectives within the realm of politics.

The last paragraph of the book, there is a sentence written which states, “every decrease in power is an open invitation to violence.” Further, on page 56 Arendt writes, “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” Here in lies a glimpse of the dynamic relationship that is portrayed in the book between power and violence. The level of violence determines the level of extant power and visa versa. Arendt claims that violence is not a component or tool of wielding power, as is traditionally regarded; but rather the “item” that fills the void when the essence of what power actually is has vanished from the scene. Therefore, the question we must ask is, what is Arendt’s definition of power? On page 44, power “corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” For example, within the field of Political Science, this type of definition of power can be seen as rather peculiar. The predominant, but not exclusively accepted definition of power, is the attempt to describe its essence (something that just exists) rather than identify it to any plausible action or concrete phenomenon.

Power, as recognized by various disciplines such as International Relations and Political Science, is the ability or official capacity to exercise control; authority. Arendt extends further her clarification of power by writing,

“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.”[i] 

Arendt’s definition and subsequent description is a rather bold assertion against the prevailing current of power classifications within related fields of study. Violence on the other hand, outlined on page 46 “is distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying national strength until in the last stage of development, they can substitute for it.” That violence is the aggregation of separate individuals whose “capacity of character” is proven to other individuals, hence an amalgam of capable and independent people.

Having outlined the definitions of the Power and Violence within the dichotomy, I will focus for the rest of the paper on the nature of this dual relationship. To reiterate Arendt’s assertion on page 56, “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” One characteristic of power many relative fields and Arendt can agree upon is that power needs legitimacy, however the author uses this quality to distinguish her conception of power’s relation to violence from that of the more traditional normative. For example, power needs to be legitimate, but because power exists only when there is a legitimate foundation for it, violence as a tool becomes irrelevant and unnecessary. If violence was used in the framework of Clausewitz, under the wisdom of Arendt’s vision, in that, war is simply a continuation of policy by other means, then in reality the legitimacy of that pre-existing power has ceased (or failed) because it was unable to convince its subjects, citizens or neighbors of its right to maintain itself. Traditional norms within the body-politic have always considered violence to be a legitimate tool of those in power, rather than an indication of the established power’s lack of legitimacy. Therefore, where power starts to decline in being able to gain the majority’s acceptance to its rule, violence is the only other means of force that can fill that void where the power once stood.

There are many potential reasons as to why Arendt could have desired to deconstruct the traditional conceptions of Power and Violence in this manner. For one, she could have been concerned by the student protests gaining traction all across the globe in the wake of a devastating Vietnam war, straining the public’s patience; or she could have simply been attempting to clearly understand the forces at work around her. There is one reason I would like to suggest as to why she focused on this specific type of dichotomy. In the beginning chapters of the book she addresses the existence of new means of warfare, especially in regards to nuclear weapons. That violence (or war) as its capacity to produce destruction stands today, can no longer be understood as the traditional means to an end, or tool of power. Her claim, in regards to the existence of nuclear weapons and how the arsenals continue to grow in the name of security and deterrence, is that the means now overwhelm the ends. She quotes a Russian physicist on page 9 writing, “A thermonuclear war cannot be considered a continuation of politics by other means. It would be a universal suicide.” What is her goal then, in light of this indicated reality, in outlining the nature of the Power and Violence dichotomy?

Here may lie an underlying reason to Hannah Arendt’s attempt to portray a new picture on power, and on violence in a modern world of nuclear arsenals that could kill each person in the world a few times over. One motive I believe is potentially the attempt to make others aware of the fact that human rationality in understanding their behavior may not be able to keep pace with our species ability to create new forms of technology, especially when most of this technology is applicable to violence and war. Therefore, I would like to end this paper with a relevant joke.

There are two aliens that appear identical and are looking down at planet earth. The first alien asks the second, is there life on planet Earth, and if so what is it like? The second alien indicates that the more dominant of the species just invented thermo-nuclear, inter-stellar missile guidance systems. The first alien has another go at a question, “Are the humans an intelligent species?” The second alien gives out a loud chuckle and replies, “No, they pointed the missiles at themselves.”


[i] Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1974. Print. [page 44]

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