Politics, Violence, and Complicity: A Few Notes on Arendt’s On Revolution

One of the most problematic elements of On Revolution, as we have discussed a bit in class and also on the blog with the Zinn article, is her resounding silence about the constitutive genocide coterminous with the American Revolution she otherwise praises highly. This silence is problematic not only in itself as a re-inscription of at-best problematic historical assumptions (as Cetin points out in his comment on the Zinn article), but also because Arendt goes to great lengths to praise the constitutio liberatis element of the foundation of the United States. In fact, I think a lot of her claims with respect to the political tasks of her own day are centered around the forgetting of this constitutional freedom in terms of institutions within the United States. Given the way she frames her discussion of this rise and fall, I’m not sure what the historical facts of institutionalized racism (written into the documents of this so-called constitutio liberatis) do to the argument other than displace a large part of it, rendering it a one-sided valorization of the United States which risks re-inscribing and justifying this legacy unless it is supplemented with a much more detailed critique and inspection than I am capable of here (indeed, I am even guilty of speaking in much too broad strokes in this introduction, insofar as there is an obvious distinction which needs to be made between the genocide of native peoples and the history of the trans-atlantic slave trade).

With all this in mind, I want to explore the way in which the rhetoric of violence functions in this book, in full view of the danger that Arendt has an entire book dedicated to this question which I am not invoking here. Perhaps Arendt’s silence about the constitutive violence in the histories of genocide and slavery are due to a historical naivety, and call into question the historical sensitivity of the narratives that she tells. However, in this post I want to bracket this more obvious problem and suggest that her silence on this type of violence actually involves significant problems for the concept of violence, and thereby the concept of politics, that she offers in the book. If we look at the rhetoric of violence in relation to the arguments that Arendt makes in the book, I think it becomes clear that her understanding of violence and politics are rather symmetrical and flat, incapable of giving us much of a foothold in specific problems of violent revolutionary acts. I want to stay focused on exploring the conceptual arguments in On Revolution about violence, but my operative assumption throughout is that if Arendt were to include an analysis of slave rebellions in the early United States, for example, she would be forced to reconcile with the problem of asymmetrical violence that is pervasive in many revolutionary situations, and therefore with the dilemma of violence as a potential strategy or tactic in political movements which she simply wants to preclude from the discussion. I think that Arendt’s silence on this question renders her understanding of violence to be politically unhelpful, and insofar as I do not want to suggest simply a dangerous and generic praise of revolutionary violence, I will turn briefly to some reflections on violence in 1970s France and Italy by Daniel Bensaïd in his recently translated memoir An Impatient Life.

As I understand it, there are basically two key arguments about violence in On Revolution, which lead to the same primary conclusion. Although Arendt notes at the outset of the book that it is necessary to attend to the problem of violence, as the “common denominator” of war and revolution (8-9), it seems that her argument regarding it is only focused on the French Revolution, insofar as I can’t find any passages in the book which deal with violence in the United States. Here at the outset of the book, though, Arendt tips her hand as to where she is ultimately going: we must take up the question of violence and revolution so that we do not lapse into a glorification of violence as such, which is anti-political.

The first argument comes in chapter one on Machiavelli, around pages 25-31 in my edition. She turns to Machiavelli because she thinks he is the first to consider the problem of a body politic as a lasting earthly/secular institution. Arendt rejects the association of Machiavellian violence with realism, and argues instead that his invocation of violence is indicative of the twofold complexity which will dominate her discussion of revolution in the latter part of the book: the tasks of foundation and the tasks of lawgiving. At this point, I’m unsure of exactly what Arendt is up to in her critique of Machiavelli; she claims that he solves these questions through a recourse to God, and simply dismisses realism from the table by arguing instead that Machiavelli insisted on violence because of his “futile hope” that some men could possess virtues we associate with the divine. Perhaps she has a fuller argument regarding Machiavelli in other works, but this conclusion struck me as counter-intuitive because the reason she invokes him in the first place is because she thinks he is the first thinker of a secular realm, and yet she rounds off his arguments by claiming that he resorts to deus ex machina conclusions.

The second argument is more pointed, tacitly biographically-oriented, and starts with the mention of Saint Just comparing virtue with crime. (82) Arendt argues that this quote from Saint Just can be understood as a splitting in direction of the French and American revolutions. Because she holds that a revolution must be committed to the foundation of freedom and lasting institutions, she thinks that the emphasis on the exigencies of necessity to solve social problems in the French Revolution led to the legitimation of boundless violence. Again I’m unclear on how parts of this argument work, and I don’t intend to just invoke clarity as something to hide behind. It seems that because of the considerations coming from pity, Arendt thinks that the revolutionaries in France were more susceptible to unlimited violence.

The structural aspects of this argument are made much more clearly in the latter half of the book, which is where Arendt really cashes out her arguments around revolution and violence. Here Arendt argues for a simple distinction in terms of the origin of power: the Americans held that human power originates in mutual pledges and reciprocity, whereas the French equated power with the pre-political and thus equate it to violence. On this point I understand Arendt to be saying the violence is actually wholly opposed to the political, rather than pre-political, but again I’m not sure I understand how the argument works or how it differentiates her from a similar position as the French.

It would also be more helpful if Arendt invoked specific instances of violence so that we could get a better sense of what she is talking about. She even admits that the quote from Saint Just is a “youthful witticism,” and I’m unsure how seriously we should take it, especially as having much explanatory power regarding the outcome of the French Revolution, must less other twentieth century revolutions, which Arendt wants to categorically paint together as being characterized by the central dogma of the necessity of violence. (106)

The conclusion we are left with is a rather Manichean separation of violence from politics — as I understand it, for Arendt if there is violence, then politics is impossible. However, the arguments that undergird this claim are not very developed, and ignore specific historical examples of violence in the actual revolutions themselves, not the mention in the concomitant acts of genocide and colonialism. As I said, I think it is especially these latter issues which require a more nuanced account of the relationship between violence and politics, insofar as acts of oppression almost always involve asymmetrical violence, and thus revolutionary counter-attacks which use violent means are in no way comparable to other situations of political violence, and in fact involve the questioning of violence as a tactic and/or a strategy.

Daniel Bensaïd provides a helpful counter-example to Arendt’s flatfooted understanding of revolution and violence, and thus I’ll turn briefly to some of his reflections in his memoir in order to bring this post to a close. Like Arendt, Bensaïd is concerned with boundless political violence (and here I should parenthetically note that in fairness to Arendt, I have not involved any discussion of Auschwitz and other twentieth century atrocities, which surely come to bear on her understanding of political violence). Bensaïd gives the example of when Che Guevara personally executed an agent of the dictatorship who had infiltrated the guerrilla army. He notes that this example is often given as an example of a sadistic impulse on behalf of Che, but he helpfully rules out this argument, pointing out that “instead of speculating on psychological interpretations of this action, it is better to reflect on the choice of assuming such responsibility, rather than retreating behind an anonymous chain of command and shifting responsibility to subordinates.” (146-147) Bensaïd further notes that although it is impossible to actually disentangle political dimensions from extreme existential and psychological questions, to reduce politics to the latter, as Arendt does through her reference to Saint Just’s witticism, is “the path of depoliticization.” This is because it takes concrete political decisions made within limit situations and turns them into spectre-like tendencies and inevitabilities that somehow characterize the entirety of a complex situation. I was actually very surprised by Arendt’s claim towards the end of the book that she thinks revolutions are the outcome of specific deeds and events (247), given the way violence works in her argument as I’ve shown here.

Bensaïd does not simply want to valorize violence, for basically similar reasons as Arendt, although the symmetrical split between violence and politics is absent from his text. Instead, he forces us to deal with the reality of specific situations. This long quote is helpful for setting up where he is coming from in contradistinction to the types of arguments that Arendt sets forth:

“The recent development of technologies and strategies, however, invites us to investigate the anthropology of violence — a question absent from the debates of the 1960s and 70s. The revolutionary tradition, in fact, was accustomed to a certain insouciance, opposing the violence of the oppressed to the violence of the oppressors as if there was no common ground at all between them. The cruel reprisals of the oppressed, attested to in many circumstances, were in most cases viewed as the product of a temporary contamination by the brutality of those above. […] More generally, the revolutionary left has held the classic metaphors of violence as the ‘midwife’ or ‘locomotive’ of history, and not sought to go beyond these. Such justified violence was deemed necessarily in the direction of progress.” (153)

Through a reconstruction of the foundation of the Lotta Continua movement in mid-70s Italy, Bensaïd warns against understanding violence as a political strategy, i.e. as a continuation of politics by another means. However, Bensaïd discusses his own experiences in the Ligue Communiste at length, including acts of violence and mock violence. Rather than a strategy, I think his experiences show us that violence cannot be ruled out of revolution as a possible tactic. As he puts it, “As long as social relations remain relations of force, the oppressed will not be able to exercise the force of their right. The hypothesis of a dialectical turn, by way of which gentleness would ‘enter the heart of the most violent by seeing the vanity of everything’, sadly remains, as far ahead as we can see, too hazardous to form the basis of politics. It is also why one can be resolutely peaceful without falling into the illusion of an angelic pacifism.” (166)

Arendt’s On Revolution is obviously antecedent to Bensaïd’s reflections on the 60s and 70s movements, and to that extent it is a bit unfair to posit Bensaïd as a full-blown response. Yet I think he raises some complications and issues that are absent in Arendt, and specifically raises the question of complicity in terms of politics and violence. In Arendt’s binary, this is precluded from the outset, but has the cost of eliding the entire question of genocide and slavery through silence. By not bringing any specificity in regards to these questions to bear on her arguments about violence, I would argue that Arendt risks complicity with the victors of history, as is readily apparent in her consistent praise of the foundation of the United States, even if she wants to also problematize it by claiming that Americans have forgotten their foundation of freedom. By leaving the specific problems of violence in this constitution uninterrogated, it seems to me that Arendt offers no insight about politics and violence other than its Manichean and anti-historical opposition. By invoking violence as a tactic, alongside Bensaïd, I of course run a significant risk, but this risk would be made in full view of a partisan decision and standpoint, bound up in more concrete and intricate problems, and in need of a lengthy negotiation of overarching political strategy. In her remarks on violence, Arendt’s standpoint as a critic is illegible to me, and the resounding silence regarding the constitutive historical examples of violence in the United States and elsewhere leaves On Revolution in a position of historical complicity with this violence.

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9 Responses to Politics, Violence, and Complicity: A Few Notes on Arendt’s On Revolution

  1. grockhil says:

    Thanks, Dave. You raise some fundamental issues, many of which I hope we will have time to discuss during the next 2 class sessions. Bensaïd is a very interesting–and under studied–figure. Your incorporation of some of his reflexions on violence was helpful.

    Since I will have the privilege of being able to engage in some of these issues in my next few lectures, I’ll let others provide more developed responses here.

  2. holmesa1 says:

    Dave, I take your post to offer a two-fold critique of Arendt’s treatment of violence in revolution: first, that Arendt is a bad historian, that she is silent on the historical fact of slavery in the American Revolution and second, that this silence leads to an untenable theorization of revolutionary violence because it insists upon the separation of politics and violence. Arendt’s failure to adequately account for the necessary precondition for the so-called success of the American Revolution, namely, slavery, is indeed a problem for reading this book. What follows is a text based response, though I don’t think of it as a defense, of a few sections from On Revolution that I would like to draw some attention to before declaring Arendt’s account of violence in politics and revolution as untenable or, as you put it, flatfooted.
    Arendt’s insistence, in the end, on positing violence as something fundamentally opposed to politics has to do primarily with a picture of politics as something that aims first and foremost at persuasion. Politics, for Arendt, is an activity that one engages in as a means to the end of constituting principles that shape and guide life within a community. This picture of politics as something that is fundamentally discursive might be the grounds on which we could leverage a critique against Arendt. But if we grant that political engagement ought to be fundamentally discursive– that it ought to attempt to actually convince other people to join in the community or to partake of the revolution, not out of fear for their lives but out of the conviction that the pursuit is just and worthwhile– then it seems that violence is not an adequate means of attaining revolutionary change. In the introduction to On Revolution, Arendt writes, “Where violence rules absolutely, as for instance in the concentration camps of totalitarian regimes, not only the laws— le lois se taisent, as the French Revolution phrased it— but everything and everybody must fall silent. It is because of this silence that violence is a marginal phenomenon in the political realm” (9). It is important to note, first, that Arendt calls violence a marginal phenomenon in politics, it is not entirely absent. And second, that Arendt is concerned with the ability to speak and act with others, something that violence precludes. Arendt’s claim that revolutionary violence is not sufficient for the establishment of lasting institutions seems to be the real thrust of Arendt’s insistence that violence is anti-political.
    Arendt does not give a sufficient treatment of the problem of slavery in the U.S., that is for sure. But she does acknowledge that “the absence of the social question from the American scene was, after all, quite deceptive, and that abject and degrading misery was present everywhere in the form of slavery” and elsewhere that “The institution of slavery carries an obscurity even blacker than the obscurity of poverty; the slave, not the poor man, was wholly overlooked” (61).
    In both Arendt’s exclusion of the issue of slavery and her insistence that violence is not political, there is a privileging of thinking about revolutionary activity and politics more broadly as dependent upon a realm of appearances in which individuals can be heard. The real question, I think, is about the access or lack thereof to such a realm of possibility.
    Hewing in on the ambit of the book, I’m tempted to emphasize Arendt’s treatment of the American Revolution not as a blind plaudit of one revolution over another, but as an attempt to identify what kinds of revolutionary activity has been historically successful in carrying out the goals that sparked the revolution in the first place. For me, your post has raised the question of how and why we are to read Arendt’s text. It is obviously not a blueprint for how we are to go about starting or carrying on revolution of our own, neither is it a straightforwardly historical account of the past, or, if it is, it really misses the mark… We can certainly critique Arendt’s failure to account for the existence of slavery in Pre and Post Revolutionary America but I am afraid that to limit our engagement with the text with this critique would risk fundamentally missing the point of Arendt’s analysis, which seems to be to identify what kinds of revolutionary activity are successful. Violence, she seems to think, has not been one of them.

    • Dave Mesing says:

      Thanks for this critique, Amanda. I think it’s helped to bring out some general questions about reading this book in a more direct and succinct way, and I hope to hear from others about these questions, whether they directly relate to my post or not.

      I don’t intend to make a two-fold critique of Arendt in the manner you suggest, although I wasn’t clear enough about this in the first post. I don’t mean to say that Arendt is a bad/sloppy historian and therefore her remarks on violence and revolution fall flat. Although I’m happy to agree with Zinn and say that the United States was a class society from the beginning, something mainly ignored by Arendt in her explanations, I wanted to bracket that specific problem and start with her concepts, which are problematic because of what they exclude. I don’t mean to be nitpicky in dissociating the historical accuracy from the explanations/concepts themselves, but what I want to resist is making an abstract judgment about Arendt’s historical accuracy and then applying it to the entire book.

      I think you explain the conception of politics at work here in a more direct way than I did in the original post. Where I part ways is that we should grant that political engagement is fundamentally discursive. Framing it in this way already loads the dice because it assumes a stability that is never the case. Politics understood as a discursive engagement seems to presume a public/private split wherein something like the space for discursivity already exists. I think this understanding of politics is too narrow (this space is produced, contested in a manner that is often violent and definitely political, and antagonistic), and the specific example of the American Revolution helps bring this out. If politics is only a discursive space of persuasion, then we have to exclude some elements of the anterior period of “settlement” prior to the Declaration and Constitution, namely the genocide of native peoples. In the example of the American Revolution, the pre-condition for the constitutio liberatis is a massive violent act.

      I think slavery presents a second problem for Arendt, and I reiterate again that my original post wasn’t clear on this distinction. If the violent act of genocide is a blind-spot for the emergence of Arendt’s broad understanding of politics, then the co-terminous institution of slavery written into the founding documents of the country is a second problem insofar as a majority of the argument in the latter part of the book revolves around the necessity of stabilizing institutions for the preservation of the freedom won through the revolution. You helpfully point out that she does remark on page 61 that slavery is a testament to the deceptive social question in the United States, but slavery was a political institution.

      As genocide and slavery are both violent acts, my aim in bringing them together as a lens to examine Arendt’s argument was to argue that the question of violence in politics is always asymmetric and particular. So I don’t think Arendt is to be blamed for a one-sided praise of America so much as her conceptual understanding of the American situation is inadequate to the extent of being complicit with this violence through its silence. Perhaps an internal critique and reconfiguration of Arendt on these issues is possible. The quote in which she says that violence is a marginal phenomenon is interesting, but in terms of the argument, violence always seems symmetrically opposed to politics in a very important and fundamental way. By focusing on the rhetoric of violence, what I want to do is go after that fundamental point.

      I don’t mean to suggest that the lens of violence and politics is the only way to look at On Revolution, and I don’t intend this polemic as a wholesale dismissal of the text. It is an important and ambitious argument in its scope, and I think you do a good job in highlighting some questions about the politics of reading. I’m approaching the book from a partisan position, but I think that these issues are immanent to Arendt’s own vocabulary. I think that there are other lines of thought in this text that are useful methods, and so I’d resist wanting to reduce everything to violence, but I’d also resist praising this book for its explanation of successful revolutionary activity because it offers no critical teeth about who and what constitutive this success.

  3. cvlvr says:

    While I must preface my brief remarks by saying that I likely find ‘On Revolution’ more repugnant than Dave, I fear his post mischaracterizes the book in a rather dangerous way. Arendt is not stupid, and her arguments, including the various ones Dave says he does not follow, cohere perfectly well. As Amanda rightly points out, Arendt does attend to slavery, and she does not argue that the American revolution was in any way non-violent. Again, as Amanda rightly points out, Arendt merely argues that it was successful relative to the French revolution, and this because it was in no way based on pity or on any idea of solidarity with one’s fellow man (p61).

    The horror of the book is that it is intelligent and WELL argued but based on an OUTRAGEOUS premise:

    “All rulership has its original and its most legitimate source in man’s wish to emancipate himself from life’s necessity, and men achieved such liberation by means of violence, by forcing others to bear the burden of life for them. This was the core of slavery, and it is only the rise of technology, and not the rise of modern political ideas as such, which has refuted the old and terrible truth that only violence and rule over others could make some men free. Nothing, we might say today, could be more obsolete than to attempt to liberate mankind from poverty by political means; nothing could be more futile and more dangerous.” p104

    The debate between Dave and Amanda over the precise relation for Arendt between politics and violence is entirely beside the point. From the start, Arendt tears the idea of freedom away from its relation to the social question. Arendt’s argument is not that politics is non-violent. Her argument is that anytime politics gets associated to a socialist economics by attempting to liberate immiserated people it becomes violent and fails in ending misery at all.

    The value in Arendt’s book then, despite the horror of its premise, is in its protest against socialist revolution (a movement based by definition on the social question) based on the problem of violence. Arendt issues socialists a very serious and important challenge. For her, “the whole record of past revolutions demonstrates beyond doubt that every attempt to solve the social question with political means leads into terror” (p102). The chief question for us as socialists reading this book then must be: ‘Is the relation between the social question and political means one that NECESSARILY leads to violence as Arendt insists? Or is violence rather a frequent accident of the pairing?’ If we cannot adequately address THIS question, then the book stands irrespective of what it says about slavery, Machiavelli, or anything else. If Arendt is right that every revolution based on the social question is inevitably violent then she is also right that we are in no position to demand one. Our job as theorists then is to show that she isn’t right.

    -Sean

    • crupert says:

      Sean, I just wanted to offer a different read on the that passage you quoted. It seemed to me that Arendt was criticizing the idea that a political overthrow of the established (repressive) powers is all that is required solve the social question. I think she makes the point in the book that this is basically the reasoning of the French Revolutionaries and their ideological descendants (Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, etc.). She is arguing that it was not just the repressive powers that necessitated poverty, but the very facts of economic development of that time. In her quote, “it is only the rise of technology, and not the rise of modern political ideas as such, which has refuted the old and terrible truth that only violence and rule over others could make some men free,” she is implying that things could be different today given our modern technology. Thus I read the last sentence, as “it would be folly to think, in light of so much evidence to the contrary, that political means alone will liberate mankind from poverty.” This is not to say that politics doesn’t play a role, even a pivotal role, but that it simply is not the kingpin it has been treated as.

    • Dave Mesing says:

      Sean, I think you raise an important and central issue, with which I basically agree, but I want clarify again that by focusing on the rhetoric of violence in the book and its relation to both genocide and slavery in the American Revolutionary period, my argument is not that it constitutes the central issue upon which everything else in the book rests. Instead, it’s simply the specificity of what I’ve tried to address above. If you are insinuating that my comments about arguments that I don’t follow are also meant to call the entirety of the book into question, that is also not my intent. It was part of the meandering nature of the original post, in an attempt to trace out the arguments I thought were most relevant to what I wanted to say.

      I basically agree that the project of marking out social questions from politics is seriously problematic, and of course I agree that it’s the very heart of her entire argument. However, I also think that one of the interesting elements of On Revolution is its multifaceted approach, such that minor or independent strands of the argument serve as compelling methodological and/or conceptual questions in their own right.

      Since I’m the one who invoked the task of the critic/critique question, I’ll make what I meant more explicit, even though this only really applies to me, and everyone will have to answer this question for themselves. Certain of Negri’s remarks about his historical work have been really decisive for me in this regard. In the postface of his book on Descartes, he has a condensed formulation about modern philosophers with which I agree and often return to as a motivation for my approach to the history of philosophy more broadly speaking. He writes: “Descartes and Hobbes, Spinoza and Leibniz, Kant and Hegel are not phantoms of thought (of a multifarious historical succession of ever-unresolved passions) but concrete alternatives within the reality of singular historical periods. That is why we love or hate them, why we consider them the very flesh of life or, conversely, skeletons that hinder our thinking. In other words, these alternatives mark the different virtualities that the power of the historical process is capable of and consists in.” (321)

      However, having said above that I welcome thoughts whether they directly relate to my original post or not, I don’t mean to police the comment thread. I’m fully confident in our ability to carry on more than one conversation about the book at once.

  4. holmesa1 says:

    Hey guys,
    I have some specific comments/responses on a few of the points you three have made… then a more global point about the book/the relationship between the social question and violence:
    Dave, I’m wondering what you mean when you say that violence is always “asymmetric and particular”… If by “asymmetric” you mean that that violence is always imposed from the side of something like a state apparatus, then while this claim is for the most part right, we are no longer talking about revolutionary violence… or, at least we are no longer talking about violence as the means through which revolutionary change is sought. I think it could be useful in this conversation to make some distinctions about what kinds of violence we are talking about but I would first need to understand how asymmetric and particular violence is meant in the really helpful comments you’ve offered.
    Sean, first a semantic point: Arendt’s critique of the French Revolution isn’t that it depended on solidarity and pity. These are importantly distinct. She says on page 78 that pity is the perversion of compassion but its alternative is solidarity. Solidarity, she seems to think, is a productive form of political unification. The danger is mistaking pity for solidarity… something the French Revolution is indeed guilty of on her account. “It is out of pity that men are ‘attracted toward les homes fables,’ but it is out of solidarity that they establish deliberately and dispassionately a community of interest with the oppressed and exploited” (79).
    As Matt suggested, there might be ways that Arendt is not merely critical about an attempt to deal with the social question just that we have to be careful of the extent to and way which we engage projects like ending poverty as a political goal. In an essay of Arendt’s “Introduction into Politics” in the book The Promise of Politics, Arendt makes a distinction between principles, goals, and ends. It’s worth thinking about with regard to the social question. Drawing from Montesquieu, Arendt says that a “principle” is that which inspires and sustains a certain form of government (or, we might say, revolutionary action)—virtue in the case of a republic, honor in a monarchy, fear in a tyranny. Political principles emphasize the beginning and inspiration for revolutionary/political activity and there is a kind of recognition of the unpredictability of such activity. And an “end” on the other hand, posits, well, an end, at which revolutionary activity aims… this end is achieved through any means, usually this entails violence. So, it seems actually, Sean, that the question of violence is not at all peripheral but is central to the problem we leftist/socialist are confronted with in thinking about how to take up the social question politically.
    Looking forward to talking about this in class with y’all later tonight!

    • cvlvr says:

      Amanda,

      Don’t know why you’d tell me that violence is not peripheral but central to the idea of socialist revolution since my entire post was saying exactly that.

      About solidarity, I was talking about reasons Arendt gives for why the AMERICAN revolution succeeded and was not talking about the French. I never said solidarity was the same as pity, just that Arendt thinks the American revolution succeeded because the revolutionaries were not moved by pity nor motivated by solidarity. Arendt writes that the american revolutionaries were worried about freedom and violations of its foundational principles and NOT worried “because they were moved by pity or by a feeling of solidarity with their fellow men” (p61).

      -Sean

    • Dave Mesing says:

      I don’t mean that violence is always imposed by a state, but rather more generally that not all instances of violence in revolutionary situations are identical. By insisting on its asymmetry, I’m trying to counter-act the way in which I understand Arendt to posit a clean symmetrical break between manifestations of violence and political acts. I think that violence can be and often is a political act, and differentiating between types of violence and contexts in which violence arises is clearly an important task. I can understand how the example I alluded to of a slave rebellion would not be thinkable in terms of Arendtian politics because the question is not political for her. To that end, I realize that posing the problem in the way that I am posing it is in blatant discontinuity with how Arendt understands politics.

      However, the more pointed historical examples of violence that I want to challenge Arendt’s particular understanding of the American revolution on are genocide and slavery. I do not think that a political understanding of this event is understandable apart from these acts of violence. For the sake of conceptual distinction, we could grant that the genocide was one precondition for the constitutio libertatis, and the slavery was an institution that was coextensive with it. I can’t think of these events as non-political nor non-violent, which leads me to the basic conclusion that the relationship between violence and politics of more complicated than the arguments I find about them from Arendt in On Revolution. I realize that she is unequivocal about condemning both events, but I think that the failure to address these problems in these terms is a serious one, unless an immanent critique and reconfiguration of these concepts is possible.

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