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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

Arendtian Power Seized by Violence

Summing up her second chapter in On Violence, Hannah Arendt writes, “power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” Further distinguishing power and violence, Arendt notes that power is always legitimate, while violence never will be. Power and violence both refer to “man’s rule over man,” but in two seemingly contradictory ways. Power, for Arendt, is a potential; an “ability to act in concert.” This means that power can exist as a potential and never be exerted. Power is in itself impotent; it does nothing. As an example of impotent power, Arendt writes of the French student rebellion, which she calls “a textbook case of a revolutionary situation that did not develop into a revolution because there was nobody, least of all the students, prepared to seize power.” How can power move from a potential to an actual event? If, for Arendt, power is a potential that exists in a group, what does it mean to seize it? How does one seize it? Seizing power implies a movement of power from potential to action. It also implies leadership. Someone’s hands must grasp the energy of power. To seize power, one must have authority from the group, trust enough for the group to follow. This authority allows for one to guide the group’s latent energy into action. But this authority can only be attained through an act of violence, which posits “One against All,” thereby making power explicit. Violence reveals the group divisions which undergird power—it allows the group with power to recognize itself through the violent actor. Contrary to Arendt’s thesis that violence and power are opposites, we find that violence is necessary for power to turn into action; power alone does nothing. Violence may not create power, but it allows for power to enact its capacities.

Seizing power is that which transforms a revolutionary situation into a revolution, a powder keg into an explosion. But what does it mean to seize power? Arendt defines power as the “human ability to act in concert...and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.”3 Power is a potential energy, an abstract group that is “kept together” by the capacity to act together. To “seize” power, then would be to latch onto this potential, to direct this collective energy into an action committed in concert. But what constitutes the capacity to guide this power?

An immediate answer would be political institutions, which Arendt calls “materializations of power.” But political institutions can only be such materializations on the basis of authority. Arendt defines authority as “unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey;” it can belong to either a person or office. A group obeys one with authority. Thus authority is what allows a person, or office, to guide power into an action by guiding the group. But how does one attain authority? How does authority come to be in a revolutionary context, in a context where the powerful group is unified only by a willingness to act in concert, not by adherence to any particular authority—where the powerful group is amorphous?

An amorphous powerful group, such as a revolutionary one, gives authority to one who enacts violence. To explain why, we must first define our terms through Arendt. Arendt identifies five different common terms which refer to the domination of man over man (power, strength, force, authority, and violence) and delineates between each of them. We have already defined power. Arendt calls strength as an individual property, but does not define it; we can refer to strength as the individual potential to act, as opposed to power’s collective potential.3 An action based on strength or power exerts force, which is the “energy released by physical or social movements.”6 Arendt refers to violence as the multiplication of strength by implements. An act of violence, then, is an individual release of force, amplified by implements.

Violence posits “One against All” in its most extreme form. Fundamentally, it delineates the agent of violence from the one receiving the force. It defines the agent in negation; the agent of violence is not a part of the group that they are acting against, thereby creating a different group which, in their singular violent act, consists of just themselves. The violent act creates the “I” which is against “them.”

By creating the “I” against “them” through this violent action, the agent of violence shows, in actual reality and not merely in potential, that there can be a group that exists against “them.” If the powerful group is one linked merely by their ability to act in concert, then they are connected only by what they are willing to act upon. The group, and thereby its power, exists only in relation to what they are against. The latent potential energy of the group with power, the revolutionary group posited against “them,” sees that its power has a place in reality. The group sees the “I” exerting force, through an act of violence, in the same direction that they would exert force. Their power, dormant until this moment, finds an example of its release in this act of violence. The violence of one depicts the capacity of the power of all.

Fundamentally, violence, or strength with implements that releases force, makes the distinction between two groups explicit. Power is the substance of the division between two groups, for they would never act together in concert; they would only act against one another, in two different concerts. Violence reveals this division through the action of one person. By releasing force, he makes explicit what powerful divisions exist based on the actions they do to one another. In demonstrating that the “I” can represent the group with power through his use of violence, for “I” revealed the group to itself, the “I” gains recognition for its act. The “I” gains authority; he seizes the power of the group. An individual’s violent act creates the authority which seizes power.

Arendt posits that violence cannot lead to power, but fails to discuss how power moves into action. In discussing French student rebellion, she hints at the “seizing” of power as a way of moving power into action. “Seizing” implies an aggressive act, one which latches onto an energy and guides it—it implies the creation and following of authority. By exploring Arendt’s terms of domination, we found that authority, for a powerful group, is created by the violent act. The powerful group exists only insofar as it is willing to act in concert; such action is constrained to what the group would act upon or against. The violent act reveals the group to itself. It posits “One against All,” demonstrating, through the release of force, the opposition which constitutes the powerful group. By revealing the group to itself, the “I” who committed the individual violent act proves that he can lead the group. He already represented it in his violent action; the group would just add more force. Violence is needed to bring power into action. Violence allows for power to be seized by authority, and authority offers power’s energy the guidance to exert its force. By failing to articulate how power leads to action, Arendt overlooks the vital role violence plays in power. Only by such a gap can she claim that violence and power are opposites. But we see that, instead, violence is integral to power actualizing itself.

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