Hannah Arendt on Power and Violence : The Transcript of a Lecture

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K.J.O’Meara

On December 11th 1968, Hannah Arendt presented a lecture at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. During this lecture, her focus was to interrogate and discuss the role of Power and Violence in modern politics. This topic ultimately became the subject of her 1970 work ‘On Violence’, and for a greater insight into the thoughts that she laid bare here, there is no better place to look than this essay.1 Those who have read Arendt in the past will recognise a number of themes which focused the attention of her earlier works, and those topics she was only just beginning to contemplate before her death in 1975. Consequently, this lecture provides a unique insight into the overarching body of thought which constructed her system and particular style of political theory, exploring a number of topics she engaged with throughout her entire life. The following is the transcript of that very lecture, any footnotes have been added for reference.2


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Collectively and in action, change is its countenance. Now it is as though nothing is more likely to intensify our vitality than its proximity. Something we are usually hardly aware of, namely, that our own death is accompanied by the potentially immortality by the group to which we belong, and in the final analysis of the species, moves now into the centre of our experience that is in collective violence. And the result is that it is as though life itself, the immortal life of the species, nourishing, is at the way by the set eternal dying of its individual members is ‘surging upward’, as Fanon says, is actualized in the practice of violence. Now I think it would be wrong to speak here of mere emotions. It is after all one of the outstanding properties of the human condition that finds here in an adequate experience that is that individual death is survived by the species, or the group.

In our context however, the point of the matter is that these experiences, whose elementary force are not endowed, have never found an institutional political expression. No body-politic I know of was ever founded on the equality before death and its actualization in violence. It is undeniably true that the strong fraternal sentiments engendered by collective violence have mislead many good people into the hope that a new community together with a new man will arise out of it. The hope is an illusion for the simple reason that new human relationship is more transitory than this kind of brotherhood, which can be actualized only under conditions of immediate danger to life and limb.


This however is but one side of the matter. Fanon concludes, his praising description of the experience in the practice of violence, by remarking that in this kind of struggle, the people realise that life is an unending contest.3 That violence is an element of life. Doesn’t it follow that praise of life and praise of violence are the same? Sorel, at any rate, thought along these same lines already sixty years ago. And long before Konrad Lorenz discovered the life-promoting function of aggressiveness in the animal kingdom, violence was praised as a manifestation of the life-force, and specifically of its creativity.4

Sorel, inspired by Bergson’s ‘Elan Vital’, aimed at a philosophy of creativity designed for producers and polemically directed against a consumer society and its intellectuals even then.5 That is, not against the bourgeoisie, not against the capitalist in the old sense of the word. And the reason why Sorel held on to his Marxian faith, even though he hated the consumers, consumer-society and its intellectuals much more than he hated the bourgeoisie; the reason was that he believed the workers were the produces – the only creative element in society.6 And the trouble is he saw it was only that the workers suddenly refused to play the revolutionary role as soon as they had reached the satisfactory level of working and living conditions. However that may be, there was something else that become fully manifest only in the decades after Sorel’s and Parito’s death, and was incomparably more disastrous for their view. The enormous growth of productivity in the modern world, as strictly speaking, is by no means a growth in the worker’s productivity. It is exclusively due to the development of technology. This depended neither on the working class nor on the bourgeoisie but on the scientists.


Now to those who contemplate the immense change of our everyday world, and compare it with the development of our mental categories to interpret the world, it seems as though it is much easier to change the world than our ways of thinking. For we all know that what an extent this old combination of violence, life and creativity has survived in the rebellious state of mind of the new generation. Their taste for violence again is accompanied by glorification of life and it flagrantly understands itself as a necessary violent negation of everything that stands in the way of the will to live. When Fanon is speaking of the creative madness present in violent action, he is still thinking along the lines of a tradition which is at least a hundred years old. Now nothing I think is more dangerous, theoretically, than this tradition of organic thought. You saw it in all three. You saw it in power as well as in revolution, and power in violence. Or in the concept of progress, in the concept of power and in the concept of violence.


In the way these terms are understood today, life and life’s elegit creativity are their common denominator, so that the precedence of violence is justified on the grounds of creativity. So long as we talk about these matters in non-political biological terms the glorifiers of violence will have the great advantage to appeal to the undeniable experiences inherent in the practice of violent action. The danger of being carried away by the deceptive plausibility of such metaphors is particularly great of course where racial issues are involved. Racism, white or black, is fraught with violence by definition, because it objects the natural organic facts of white or black skin, which no persuasion and no power can change. All one can do when the chips are down is to exterminate their bearers.


Violence and interracial struggle is always murderous, but it is not irrational. It is a logical and rational consequence of racism; by which I do not mean some rather vague prejudices on either side, but an explicit ideological system. Today’s violence, black riots and the much greater potential of the white backlash, are not yet manifestations of a racist ideologies and their murderous logic. The riots, as has recently been stated, are articulate protests against genuine grievances and much the same is true for the backlash phenomena. The greatest danger is rather the other way around. Since violence always needs justification, an escalation of violence in the streets may bring about a truly racist ideology to justify it. In which case, violence and riots may disappear from the streets and be transformed into the invisible terror of a police state.


Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational so long as it pursues short term goals. Violence does not promote causes, but it can indeed serve to dramatize grievances and to bring them to public attention. Conor Cruise O’Brien, who some of you may know, once remarked in a debate we had in New York, violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard. And I think this is a very witty, not only witty but a quite profound witticism. And indeed, violence, contrary to what its prophets try to tell us, is much rather the weapon of reformists than of revolutionists. France would not have received the most radical reform bill since Napoleon to change the education system without the riots of the French students, and no one would have dreamt of yielding to reforms of Colombia University without the riots during the spring term. Still, the danger of the practice even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short term goals, will always be that the means might overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly its only result will be that the whole climate of the country has become more violent, and that the eventual defeat will bring about conditions considerably worse than those existing before.


Finally, the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. The crucial feature in the student’s rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy. The dissentient resistors in the east demand free speech and thought as the preliminary conditions for political action. The rebels in the west live under conditions where these preliminaries seem no longer to open the channels for action. That is for the meaningful exercise of freedom.


The transformation of government into administration, of republics into bureaucracies, and the disastrous shrinkage of the public realm that went with it, has a long and complicated history; and this process has been considerably accelerated during the last hundred years through the rise of party bureaucracies. What makes man a political being is his faculty to act. It enables him to get together with his peers, to act in concert, and to reach out for goals and enterprise which would never enter his mind, let alone the desires of his heart, had he not been given this gift to embark upon something new. To act and to begin are not the same, but they are closely interconnected. All the properties of creativity ascribed to life in manifestations of power and violence actually belong to the faculty of action in general.


And I think it can be shown that no other human ability has suffered to such an extent by the progress of the modern age. For progress, as we have come to understand it, means growth – the relentless process of more and more, bigger and bigger. The bigger a country becomes in terms of population, objects and possessions, the greater will be the need for administration, and with it the anonymous power of the administration. Pavel Kohout, a Czech author writing in the heyday of the Czech experiment with freedom, defined a free citizen as a ‘citizen co-ruler’.7 He meant nothing else but the participatory democracy of which we have heard so much. Kohout added that what the word, as it is today, stands in greatest need of may well a new example if the next thousand years are not to become an era of ‘super civilized monkeys’. Now this new example we may indeed stand in need of, will hardly be brought about by the practice of violence. Although, I am inclined to think that much of its present glorification is due to the severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world.


It is simply true that the riots in the ghettos, and the rebellions on the campuses it has been said made people feel they are acting together in a way they rarely can. We don’t know if these occurrences are the beginnings of something new, the new example, or the death pangs of a faculty that mankind is about to lose. As things stand today when we see how the superpowers bog down under the monstrous weight of their own bigness, it looks as though the new example will have a chance to rise, if at all, in a small country or a small well defined sector in the mass-societies of the large powers. For the disintegration processes, which have become so manifest in recent years, have crept into everything designed to serve mass society. All public service is afflicted with it. Schools and police, mail and transportation, traffic on the highways and in the big cities, bigness itself is afflicted with vulnerability. And while none can say with any assurance where and when the breaking point will be reached, we can observe, almost to the point of measuring it, how strength and resilience are insidiously seeping from our institutions, drop by drop as it were.


And the same is true I think for the various party systems, all of which were supposed to serve the political needs of modern mass-societies in order to make representative government possible where direct democracy would not do, because as John Selden said “The room will not hold all”.8 Now I could add, but this is too far away from your own experiences, the recent rise of nationalism everywhere which is usually understood as a world-wide swing to the right, but evidently is also swinging away from bigness and centralized government. Again we do not know where these developments will lead us, but we can see how cracks in the power structure of all, but the small countries, are opening and widening. And we know, or should know, that every decrease of power is an open invitation to violence; if only because those who hold power, and feel it slipping from their hands, have always found it difficult to resist the temptation to substitute violence for it. Thank You.


Notes

1 Hannah Arendt (1970) On Violence, New York: Harcourt Press.

2 The audio of this lecture can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMUae5HXgOQ

3 Frantz Fanon (2001) The Wretched of The Earth, London: Penguin Books.

4 Konrad Lorenz (2002) On Aggression, London: Routledge.

5 Henri Bergson (2012) Creative Evolution, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.

Georges Sorel (2012) Reflections on Violence, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.

7 Gunther Grass and Pavel Kohout (1968) Briefe über die Grenze, Hamburg: Wegner.

8 John Selden (1856) Table Talk of John Selden, S.W.Singer (Ed.), Second Edition, London: John Russell Smith, p. 35. 

Published by K.J.O'Meara

K.J.O'Meara (Ba, MLitt) is an independent British political theorist whose academic interests include: The English School of International Relations, Arendtian Political Thought, Political Hermeneutics, Biopolitics and Critical Film Theory.

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