Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
14Jan/132

When Power is Lost

Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and where deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.

 -Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Arendt’s conception of power is one of the most subtle and elusive features of her political theory.  Here Arendt poses the problem of power in terms of power’s loss, of powerlessness, which is also what she calls “the death of political communities.”

What is powerlessness? What, exactly, is lost when power is lost?

There are many ways to become powerless in the world of twenty-first century politics.  In the United States we often imagine that citizens would be powerless without their constitutional rights – the vote, free speech, due process.  In and around the world’s many war zones, the loss of military protection seems to produce a very different kind of powerlessness, one that is linked to both our physical vulnerability to violence as human beings and the persistence of violence between sovereign states (and within them.)  There is also the powerlessness that seems to follow from the dislocations or migrations of peoples, a condition that Arendt calls mass homelessness, which may come from the movement of peoples across borders or the redrawing of borders across peoples.  Poverty appears to be another form of powerlessness altogether, one that disrupts our capacity to appropriate nonhuman nature through labor and work and thereby sustain our lives. Arendt argues that mass destitution, alongside mass homelessness, is a form of powerlessness that is peculiar to the political condition of the modern age.

Many other kinds of powerlessness can be added to this list.  The list is disturbing not only for its variety and length, but also because the felt urgency of each danger invites us to elevate one or two above the others, so that we risk settling for powerlessness of several kinds in order to secure power in one or two “emergency” domains.  We choose between the power of kill lists and drone strikes and the power of due process for Americans accused of terrorism.  We weigh our powerlessness in the face of global warming against the powerlessness caused by the Great Recession, where the hoped-for “recovery” will be defined by consumption-led “growth,” rendered tangible by lower gas prices and more crowded shopping malls.  Or, we may think that US power in the globalizing world of free trade and faster capital flows is dependent upon “securing our national borders,” achieved through the quasi-militarization of immigration enforcement.  Hard choices are the stuff of politics - they are supposed to be what power is all about - but the dilemmas of modern powerlessness are peculiarly wrenching in large part because they are not readily negotiable by political action, by those practices of public creativity and initiative that are uniquely capable of redefining what is possible in the common world.  Rather, these “choices” and others like them seem more like dead-ends, tired old traps that mark the growing powerlessness of politics itself.

The death of the body politic, which can only occur by way of the powerlessness of politics itself, is Arendt’s main concern in the above quote.  In contrast to Hobbes, Rousseau, Weber, and Habermas, among others, Arendt distinguishes power from domination, strength, rationality, propaganda, and violence.  Located within the open and common world of human speech and action, power reveals its ethical and political limits when it is overcome by deception, empty words, destruction, and “brutality.”  Rooted in the human conditions of natality and plurality, and constituted by the gathered actions of many in a public space of appearance, power exists only in its actualization through speech and deed.  Like action, power depends upon the public self-disclosure of actors in historical time.  Actors acting together with other actors generate power.  Yet because we do not know “who” we disclose ourselves to be in the course of collective action, or what the effects of our actions will turn out to mean in the web of human stories, power itself is always “boundless and unpredictable,” which in part explains its peculiar force.  Given its boundlessness and unpredictability, power cannot be stored up for emergencies, like weapons or food and water, nor kept in place through fixed territories, as with national sovereignty.  Power therefore co-exists only uneasily with machpolitik. Power can overcome violence and strength through the gathered voices and acts of the many; it can also be destroyed (but not replaced) through the dispersal of the many and the dissolution of the space of appearance.  In-between gathering and dispersal, power is preserved through what Arendt calls “organization,” the laws, traditions, habits, and institutions that sustain the space of appearance during those interims when actors disperse temporarily and withdraw back into the private realm, only to reappear later.

For Arendt, the loss of power is the loss of our capacity to act with others in a way that generates, sustains, and discloses a common world.  Powerlessness is marked by the receding of public spaces. This may occur, for example, through the gentle decline of a formally constituted public realm into the technocratic shadows of the social, or through the brutal sovereign repression of spontaneously emergent spaces of appearance.  In both cases, our ethical and political incapacities to act together, and the philosophical inability to recognize power when we see it, are at the root of modern political powerlessness. Power-seekers, on Arendt’s view, would be well advised to cultivate a deeper political appreciation for both the immaterial force and fragility of human natality, plurality, and public space, which will be lost when power is mistaken for its rivals, like reason, strength, violence, or sovereignty.

-William Dixon

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

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  1. Thank you for this terrific post: “What is lost when power is lost?” Another way to approach the subject is to focus on the skills that bring power into existence.

    Express, discuss, decide, persuade, negotiate, compromise: these are the skilled activities that bring power into existence. These are the skills that direct the course of an organization and allow it to change without losing support of its individual members. The skills are used with other people (which is why they’re political). The skills require a space where their use can take place; imply a basic equality of participation; a reason or purpose to be together; and a love and respect for language and the power of well chosen words.

    To express oneself requires that one have something to express and the courage to bring it forward. Commitment to what the enterprise might become, and the opinions, ideas, insights, and vision that flow from that commitment must be conveyed in all their subtlety in clear understandable terms. Expression presupposes empathy — the ability to put oneself in the shoes of others to see things from their perspective, and think as though the enterprise were totally our responsibility. Expression presupposes an ability to form judgments, to have opinions and to use words in ways that evoke and reveal.

    Discussion carries with it the ability to listen, to probe, to suspend judgment in an effort to understand other peoples’ points of view. It requires a respect for others; an understanding that no one has a claim on reality; and a conviction that the truth of matters is best understood if discussed from different vantage points.

    The ability to decide is the intuitive personal and group knowledge of when expression and discussion must stop and action begin. Most important decisions are made under conditions of high uncertainty. That uncertainty is the element of risk. It is necessary to proceed ahead even in the face of risk. Discussion and expression must not become a substitute for doing. The ability to decide presupposes the will to shape the world (sustain the decision); and a willingness take responsibility and bear the consequences of action. It presupposes a respect for limits on debate, discussion, and expression; limits which are necessary to bring deliberation to a conclusion so that action can begin. It is a respect for process.

    Persuading is the art of convincing and winning-over others in a non-manipulative way. It presupposes strong convictions in one’s view of reality — particularly opportunities, threats, organizational strengths and weaknesses. It requires a well articulated vision of what the enterprise might become that is inspiring while solidly grounded. It requires a belief that the right words will bring others around to see things your way. It also implies a willingness to be persuaded oneself, to recognize and accept superior insights and understandings of others.

    Negotiate and compromise are the raw mechanics of reaching a plan of action. They’re the way of incorporating individual positions into group action. They’re the way of keeping the group together — honoring the insights and opinions of individuals — so that the group’s collective power might be felt in the future. These skills presuppose a willingness and ability to make and keep promises.

    The above activities are public in that they all take place in the company of others. The judgment that informs them, of course, does not: it is a product of thought. As we engage in these activities and get skilled at them, we encounter (if we are lucky) the exhilarating disclosure and public happiness so much a part of Arendt’s thought.


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