Politics-Violence Distinction in Arendt’s On Violence


This post traces two questions in On Violence: 1) On what basis does Arendt separate violence and politics?; 2) What are the political ramifications of this separation? I think these questions are pertinent to the ongoing discussion in the blog, however, and unfortunately, this post fails to engage in those discussions directly.

Interestingly in this particular text, Arendt does not develop her discussion directly around violence and politics. Even though she explicitly starts the middle chapter with the question of “violence in the political realm,” (35) she doesn’t elaborate on the political realm, as she usually does. Rather, she focuses on probably the second most politically qualifying concept for her (arguably first being action), that is power. Then, she pursues this initially set question in relationship to power and violence. She sums up her position as the following: “[I]t is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent” (56). We can trace this categorical contrast in her ideal typical characterization of those concepts.

As far as I can single out, there are three major characteristics of violence directly pertinent in Arendt’s contrast to power. The first one is its instrumentality. By that she means two different things: a- Violence is instrumental to achieve another goal further away that is not entailed in the activity itself. In that sense, violence is always a means. But among other similar means, violence is particularly a destructive mean because it tends to overwhelm the ends on the basis of which it is justified (4, 51); b- Violence is a form of activity that relies on instruments or implements. It is categorically tied up with tools to enhance natural strength (46). The second feature is that violence is always silence. The human capacity to speak and violence are mutually exclusive; hence violence cannot entail arguments or speech (64). Thirdly, Arendt ties violence with short-term goals, unable to initiate or facilitate the emergence of longer-term strategies (79). It is partly because violence, belonging to human action, is “unbounded”, its results cannot be predicted. Along the same lines with violence being a mean, violence is especially destructive as an unbounded action, because it would tend to result in more violence (80).

Corresponding to those three of violence, we can single out three opposite features to power: 1) Power is not instrumental: a- It is an end in itself. It doesn’t need to justify itself with a further end (52); b- It doesn’t need implements, tools that can be utilized by few people over many, but rather it needs numbers of people to get together and act in concert (42, 44). Power emerges out of the in between space (“inter-esse” as she likes to put it) created among peers. 2) Power is talkative: (I couldn’t find a particular passage where she makes the explicit connection in this text, but I am pretty sure that this deduction is accurate) Power is immediately tied up with a discursive space of equals where people can argue among each other and coordinate for concerted action. This can emerge simultaneously or consequentially to power. 3) Power opens up long-term possibilities, strategies, and creates foundations.  It is what lies under every political institution – which she elsewhere characterizes with durability/long term existence (41). In fact those institutions are mere manifestations of reified power.

All these above mentioned features of power belong to her particular understanding of politics as well. In fact they are among its pillars for Arendt. In that sense, power and violence contrast is applicable to politics and violence as well. By conceptually delimiting politics and violence, establishing the “authentic diversity” (44) among each other, Arendt arguably creates types that are similar to what Max Weber calls Ideal Types. She draws from those types in evaluating real world examples, where we can concretely see the ramifications of her violence/politics distinction.

In On Violence, Arendt’s primary case is the student movement in the 60s. The text can be read as a direct response to the discussions continuing at the time, especially in the US. She characterizes the movement as a generally non-violent and discursive movement. They consist mostly of young people repelled by the on going wars and violence, and retain their actions within a “theoretical and rhetorical” level (18).  Furthermore, they are positively defending participatory democracy. With all these features fitting into her type of the political, this movement is quite a political one for Arendt. UNTIL…

African Americans introduced violence to the movement. She writes, “Serious violence entered the scene only with the appearance of the Black Power movement on the campuses. Negro students, the majority of them admitted without academic qualification, regarded and organized themselves as an interest group, the representatives of the black community. Their interest was to lower academic standards. They were more cautious than the white rebels, but it was clear from the beginning … that violence with them was not a matter of theory or rhetoric” (18). For Arendt, entrance of this “interest group” to the scene didn’t just add a violent component besides the peaceful mainline, it has also influenced the character and direction of the overall movement. Arendt tackles with this issue by attacking what she names as the “glorification of violence.” For her, those “academically unqualified” black interest groups are not even reading their founding texts properly, they associate themselves with Marx without understanding his position, and even Fanon himself is better than his followers! (14n19). In short, she argues that African Americans in action debilitated the political character of this movement with their ignorantly glorified violence. She doesn’t make this argument in overtly racist terms, by equating violence with certain epidermal characteristics; however, her conception of violence-free politics is defined in such a way that it reproduces a racist (classist, sexist, and alike to be added as well) logic.

I do not want to rule out the argument that would indicate her, so to say “color blind”, theory as racist itself, but that is a broader discussion. For now, I think it suffices to point out that Arendt’s indication of an African American political agent, as the suspect to the corruption of politics with violence is not a coincidence. Her understanding of politics, despite not having a sign on its door banning people of color explicitly, (and arguably despite her intentions) is structurally exclusionary. In defining a violence-free discursive understanding of politics, she 1) fails to account for the social limitations of eligibility to such narrowly defined activity – from access to leisure time to discursive capabilities; 2) highlights groups who are eligible to this activity as the sole legitimate political agents. Both of these are problematic in various levels, most prominently because 1) it pushes systematically disadvantaged/exploited groups away from politics; 2) criminalizes the actions of those groups as anti-political.

A lot more to tell on that front, but finally, I just want to finish by acknowledging one merit in Arendt’s distinction between power and violence. That is when they correspond to grassroots politics and the institutional/state violence, respectively. Her concept of power is promising to theoretically designate the significance of non-institutional or not-yet-institutionalized political initiatives, riots, and movements. A recent example of that is the recent literature emerging on Gezi uprisings that reads state/police violence over the protestors along the lines of Arendt’s violence/power distinction (E.g. Murat Ozbank, Gezi Ruhu ve Politik Teori). However, Arendt doesn’t only think about state violence when she makes this distinction, she also addresses to revolutionaries, political activist, those who are struggling to counter forms of institutional violence.  At points where she addresses such kind of violence, that I guess we can call revolutionary violence, are those where the ramifications and limitations of her theory are most clearly revealed.


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2 Responses to Politics-Violence Distinction in Arendt’s On Violence

  1. Dave Mesing says:

    Thanks for taking the time to work through all of this–it adds a significant amount of depth to what’s going on in On Revolution. I’m still mulling it all over and look forward to re-reading parts of the book with these points clarified, but my initial response is your move at the end of the post to triangulate violence and politics with power is very helpful, and shows both more nuance and the limitations of her theory, as you say. After our discussion in class this week, my sense is that one of the primary things at stake for Arendt in the legacy of the American Revolution is the re-appearance of politics in the classic Greek sense, which otherwise was (and still “was” for Arendt at the time of writing On Revolution) in danger of disappearing from the world entirely. In this context, the inability to address institutional forms of violence within this re-emergence of politics in the constitution (small c and big C) of the United States marks out an additional limit to her theory.

    • ecetin says:

      Thanks Dave for your addendum. I completely agree that Arendt does not account for the forms of violence instituted by the American constitution. In fact, this blind spot – to say the least- shadows the promising aspects of her theory, i.e. her notion of power in conceptualizing grass roots politics against institutionalized violence.

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