Hannah Arendt's View On Violence As A Challenge To Modern Politics

Written and published in 1970, the book On Violence, which Hannah Arendt composed as an extended composition, questioned the use of violence, analysed the links between warfare, legislative issues, violence, and power. It was composed during a period referred to as a century of wars and revolutions when activists from both the left and right advocated violent actions, which was believed to be the common denominator. These perspectives of governmental issues through the prism of violence were embedded in what she calls the western tradition of political reasoning, which historically goes back to antiquity and the Greek philosopher Plato. Forming three chapters, this book illustrates Arendt’s utilisation of other persuasive scholars to differentiate her point and discredit their position, as in the case of Jean-Paul Sartre who similarly to defending violent action sought to glorify it. Furthermore, political ethicist Mohandas Gandhi tested certain presumptions about the temperance’s of modern western advancement, and technological progress, and presented a manner of opposing colonial oppression and injustice grounded in violence through a system of self-transformation and nonviolent political action. Similarly, to Gandhi, Arendt dismissed the idea violence could be used to achieve moral ends in politics, however, in contrast to Gandhi, Arendt’s solution finds a non-obligatory adaptation of legislative issues dependent on the styles of collaborations we might have with each other and the sorts of spaces we can create when we acknowledge the differences between us and act together in public. In understanding why, in Arendt’s view, violence posed such a challenge to modern politics this paper will firstly examine Arendt’s comprehension of what she called totalitarianism, exploring an increasingly broad positive vision of political issues that could oppose totalitarian regimes. It will proceed on to directly analysing the four significant contexts of her debates on violence and finally, looking at how her book On Violence, identified with some of her earlier work, and simultaneously considering the ramifications of Arendt’s comprehension of political power and how it is different from violence.

In Arendt’s work The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951 the premise of which lies in the battle against autocracy in Europe. Her writing reflects upon Nazism, and Nazi prejudice and more specifically imperialism. Similarly, to other thinkers at this time what she does with this concept of totalitarianism, is to use it to understand the common or shared relationships between national communism and socialism. Her work centres on secret societies, Arendt notes ’The secret society of totalitarian regimes is the secret police; the only strictly guarded secret in a totalitarian country, the only esoteric knowledge that exists, concerns the operations of the police and the conditions in concentration camps’. There were two conditions Arendt believed gave rise to Nazi and Soviet despotism, the first of these is capitalism and what she calls mass society, and the second is prejudice and imperialism. Moreover, Arendt discusses the rise of the global economy in the 18th and 19th centuries by bringing previously stable objects such as property and housing into cycles of production and consumption, the civilised world.

What the market economy creates are masses of individuals without binds to one another or any interest in political frameworks. Arendt contends that these individuals are easily swept up into mass movements that guaranteed them power. Arendt is offering an almost Marxist account of how capitalism creates masses of impoverished people, but in contrast to Marx, Arendt affirms that this process will not necessarily bring about a revolution that will bring justice, but it will rather destabilise society and create the conditions for supremacist mass movements. Similarly, Arendt presents a reading of Thomas Hobbes as the philosopher of what she calls the bourgeoisie following the Marxist expression. She contends that what Hobbes concocts in leviathan is a hypothesis in which individuals have no interest in the public good but retain only their private interests. What the Hobbesian state for Arendt becomes, is a structure set up to defend private extremist interests of citizens who lose interest in politics, and the public good and the Hobbesian state develops into a machine directed towards the accumulation of power. The Hobbesian state is impenetrable or impermeable to the movement of citizens and it becomes a colossal power structure that develops authoritarian inclinations. When all modern European states are organised around Hobbesian lines, they conflict with each other because the Hobbesian state is intended to increase its capacity to the detriment of individuals, but in addition to the detriment of other states. What Arendt endeavours to outline is in what way modern European politics is shaped by the competition between these Hobbesian expanding states that seek to develop and increase their power.

Utilising this record of modern European states Arendt discusses imperialism and begins to identify the close relationship between violence and politics in modern history expressing that rapid imperial expansion, particularly the struggle for African colonies changes imperialism from a fundamentally economic process, into the prevailing form of European politics. However, what these imperial encounters in Africa and other parts of the world lead to are doctrines of racial prevalence to justify their domination of other people. What Arendt does is look at the extraordinary mercilessness of Imperial politics, the scope of slaughters and genocides carried out by western governments, she contends that this brutality this violence at the core of Imperial politics leads politics itself to become seen as a violent movement. For Arendt, it is globalization driven by imperialism that makes politics seem inherently associated with violence, and she asserts that these racial violent Imperial politics become one of the conditions for Nazi race hatred in Europe and ultimately for the holocaust.

Published in 1958 Arendt’s book The Human Condition established a more positive conception of politics. She argues if we reach back to particular periods of antiquity, ancient Rome, ancient Greece, modern revolutions, we can see politics depends on two things, plurality, and freedom. For Arendt, plurality is epitomised by the contrasts among people, and when people come together in public they engage in debate and discussion, they express different opinions about what to do in politics and political life. For Arendt, politics is also about freedom and here she utilises the concept of what she calls natality, the possibility that each person brings something different to the world, presenting another opinion, acting unpredictably in a way that's disengaged from the weight of the past. Politics In this sense is both a field of diversity and difference because individuals are all unique, but at the same time, it's where people can break the chains of the past and do things that are new and unpredictable. Similarly, Arendt argues when people come together politically, they also generate power by unreservedly consenting to a specific strategy. For Arendt, this model of politics is a field of communication and free discussion between individuals based upon ancient Greek democracy. The distinction from totalitarianism here is clear if totalitarianism is a matter of power, the domination of racially different peoples, politics for Arendt must instead be a matter of free and equal discussion between people who regard each other’s disparities.

Arendt turned to the topic of violence amidst a period of social conflict in America; the assassination of black civil rights leaders, race riots, the war in Vietnam. Revolutionaries and radicals in the United States started to legitimise the use of violence in politics to overcome American racism, American capitalism, and American imperialism in Vietnam. The origins of Arendt’s exposition lie in a debate about political violence that she participates in, in 1967. Arendt’s debate on violence can be split into four categories. Firstly, the Cold War and the rise of atomic weapons. For Arendt, warfare preceding the invention of atomic weapons was viewed as a sphere of political action, glory, courage, and bravery where individuals were able to express their commitment to the public good. Warfare also seemed to be an effective means to determine disputes between nations, but as Arendt indicates this commonly guaranteed annihilation or apocalyptic game between superpowers will be the end whoever wins. What Arendt is drawing attention to is the immense development of the means of decimation, it implies war in the customary sense can never again be viewed as a form of politics, it's no longer a way of settling disputes. If the United States and the Soviet Union truly went into battle this would mean an end to politics because it would destroy the entire world. For Arendt, the development of atomic weapons implies that political scholars need to think of a method for understanding political power in a non-violent way.

Secondly, is the Vietnam War. For Arendt, the Vietnam War strengthens her point that politics cannot be understood through violence. It’s an example of the American Republic turning Imperial, rehabilitating some of the terrible habits of European powers from earlier in the century, however, what the warfare additionally indicates is the failure of endeavours to regard politics as a sort of science. Arendt sees the Vietnam War as the failure of attempts to treat politics as the organisation of violent power. She alludes to planners of the Vietnam War who attempt to calculate body counts, trying to figure out the most effective method to utilise America’s huge technological advantage against the Vietnamese, as ‘scientifically minded brain trusters’, and ‘councils of government assuming constellations testing their hypotheses against actual occurrences, treating the Vietnam War like a scientific experiment’. The issue here Arendt notes is that politics and political events are unpredictable, they're not like the conditions of a scientific experiment. To approach politics and political events as something that can be controlled through the use of violence or other means is to fundamentally misjudge that politics is a sphere in which people act freely and capriciously.

Thirdly and in particular comparable, to Arendt’s On Violence is an anti-colonial revolution. Arendt is composing this work during a period where revolutions against colonial powers are coming to fruition globally, and numerous thinkers are arguing that violence is an appropriate means for anti-colonial liberation. Arendt is reacting to two of these thinkers, Frantz Fanon, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Frantz Fanon published The Wretched of the Earth in 1961. Fanon educated in France is a champion of the Algerian insurgency which happens in the late ‘50s against French colonial rule. Fanon contends that the degree of individual violence is a purifying power. It liberates the native from his feeling of inadequacy, despair, and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect. Fanon draws together violence with liberation and claims violence was already present in political structures because of colonialism. He proceeds to state it may be conceivable to create politics that is free of violence, but revolutionaries and colonised people will initially need to use violence to re-establish their dignity and overthrow colonial oppression. This means violence can lead to just end. It’s not that Fanon wants to create a violent state after imperialists have been ejected, Fanon believes violence can establish a new and just order. French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre composed the preface for The Wretched of the Earth, and he legitimises violence in comparable terms to Fanon. He is more confident than Fanon and argues ‘violence can heal the wounds it has inflicted’. There is also a clear distinction between Sartre and Marx. Sartre wrote,” To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, there remain a dead man and a free man”. Marx speaks of changing man on a mass scale as opposed to Sartre’s liberation of man through an individual act of violence. For Arendt, she was not so much critiquing Fanon but Sartre in his defence of violence which additionally acts as a support of the use of violence in otherwise stable non-imperial regimes. Arendt is worried about the violence of anti-colonial revolutions that she thinks is some degree advocated being imported back to non-colonial societies. America might well be an Imperial power when it acts in Vietnam, however, it's not an Imperial power in the way that it behaves towards American citizens, hence the use of violence to liberate Americans in America doesn't make any sense to Arendt.

The last classification is that of student protests, social equality, and black power. The 1960s saw the obstinacy of white domination in the United States begin to frustrate the social equality movement, and you see countless African Americans move to progressively radical violent strategies. Arendt notes that even as atomic weapons make violence in international relations questionable and uncertain in light of the danger of atomic warfare, revolutionaries at home are now turning to the possibility that they can seize political power through acts of terrorism or violent protests. Arendt dismisses the claims of anti-colonial revolutionary violence in the United States and contends that though violence might be advocated to liberate oneself from an oppressive power, such as the French empire, it can't be advocated in a Democratic society like the United States. In distinguishing between political power and violence Arendt expresses that there's a consensus not just on the revolutionary left, but on the right also, that power is very much like violence. If you want political power you will need to control the means of violence, or you will need to use it against the state. For the French Philosopher, Voltaire power consisted of making others act as he chose, for Max Weber, it was about asserting his will against others’ resistance. Arendt attempted to build a concept of power that is different from violence. On this point she returns to antiquity, looking at ancient Greece, and ancient Rome to find a conception of power that isn't based on a leader or a hierarchy telling people what to do, but rather a conception of power that's based on individuals freely choosing to act together in a certain way. This is a model of powers, a free accord that people come to, as opposed to one where an individual orders people around using the police or the army.

Arendt points out, violence, if one possesses violent means does not need large numbers of people, it doesn't need consensus or mass support. She makes a comparative point to that of Gandhi when he alluded to a machine gun in Hidden Swaraj, in that the instruments and implements of violence are extremely destructive now, and can be utilised in a particular way against masses of people. To disengage ourselves from this position Arendt writes ‘Violence as distinct from power, force or strength always needs implements‘ however, power depends on large numbers of people agreeing to act together in a specific way. Though Arendt wants to think of politics and wants to argue for a politics that isn't based on violence she likewise acknowledges that in specific cases, particularly colonial situations violence might be justified, and in fact, might be the only way to respond. For Arendt non-violent resistance worked in British India, but it wouldn't have worked against Germany or Soviet Russia and would have ended in massacre and submission. Arendt is not precluding violence altogether, she notes that it is justifiable but never will be legitimate, however, says that the use of violence is unquestionable in self-defence. She's not entirely unrealistic about the nature of politics in an oppressive supremacist world, however, she wants where conceivable to keep violence out of political life.

One objection that could be levelled against Arendt is one she raises when she discusses Gandhi. What would one be able to do or what would citizens be able to do when they're confronted with a highly oppressive government like National Socialism or Stalin’s Russia? Arendt is quite pessimistic about the chances of opposing totalitarianism from within, but she also makes the point that no government can rely just on the means of violence forever, therefore the claim here implicitly is that these extremely violent regimes are fundamentally fragile in some ways, because they don't appear to persuade or convince people to support them, they don't derive consent from the people, and they’re therefore lacking in political power. In looking back at Hobbes, Hobbes accentuates only the sovereign has the privilege to decide and to rebuff, the sovereign can command subjects to do whatever the sovereign thinks is necessary for peace. Arendt’s point is that a regime dependant on the instant acquiescence of all its citizens will never generate political power. It will depend on violence and for Arendt violence is not capable of sustaining a stable government or regime.

Arendt’s alternative came from the power of individuals, citizens who don't possess the instruments of violence. For example, Vaclav Havel, former Czechoslovakian legislator, essayist, and dissenter was part of a movement in the 1980s which ultimately brought down the authoritarian socialist regime in Czechoslovakia. Again, in Sudan, in 2019 there was a revolution which saw the ousting of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir, and that depended not on small gatherings of people wielding the instruments of violence against an oppressive regime, but people coming together in public to seize control of squares and public spaces, to speak and discourse with each other freely. “Thawra,” they chanted – revolution. These more recent protests and riots are articulate protests against genuine grievances a characteristic of which is restraint selectivity and rationality by groups who are angry at being singled out for others misguided policies.

Based on Arendt’s hypothesis of totalitarianism this paper has shown she had a worldwide theory about how modern politics had developed a fixation or relationship with violence, through the modern state, imperialism, and genocidal means of erasing racial differences. Arendt’s point was not that movements like this will consistently succeed she acknowledges that dictatorial regimes and groups that utilise the instruments of violence will often be able to destroy movements like this, but her point is that if we understand politics exclusively through the possession of violence we'll neglect to understand political freedom or the possibility of building up new kinds of politics based on free interaction between individuals and free discussion. For her, power, political power specifically, is very different from political violence and it's the deplorability of modern-day politics and modern political thought that the two have been conflated.  

16 December 2021
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