Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Power, Persuasion, and Organization


John Duncan has in interesting response to Bill Dixon’s Quote of the Week this week. Dixon wrote about the importance of power (as opposed to violence or domination) in political life. And he worried that power was being lost and, what is more, becoming impossible to hold on to or acquire in the modern world. He writes:

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.

Duncan wonders how power can be created and made in our world. He answers:

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.

I am particularly taken by Duncan’s discussion of persuasion as a source of power.

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.

These thoughts on the possible manufacture of power in modern politics raise important points about modern social justice movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and also the horizontalidad movement in Chile. One question we should ask is why the Chilean movement has proven so powerful whereas OWS (and now it seems also the Tea Party) has fizzled and died.

Exploring the lessons of the Chilean movement is indeed the theme of an interview Zoltan Gluck conducted with Camila Vallejo and Noam Titleman, leaders of the social justice movement in Chile (Zoltan is a former student of mine, just a shout out of congratulations!)

In response to a question about the connection between leaderless and consensus based ideology of OWS and how it relates to the Chilean movement, Noam Titleman answers:

Let me say that I think the Chilean movement does place a special emphasis on its decision-making processes and does truly want to involve everyone in these processes. But one of the reasons that the movement has been able to build such strength has been its ability to concentrate its collective force in an organized fashion. That is, not just leaving decisions to the sort of ritualistic or experiential feeling of being in one place with a lot of people and discussing things, but actually putting them into action. And this obviously requires a high degree of organization. I think there is a danger that by criticizing institutions, we end up criticizing organization and that’s really a big mistake. I think that horizontalidad allows us to make sure that the decisions are made by everyone, but in the execution of those decisions we need to have some sort of organization, otherwise we are doomed to be in a beautiful, noble, and naïve movement but not a not very efficient one.

Organization is, of course, another way power can be created in modern politics. That is, unless protest leaders are so caught up in theories of oppression, domination, and hierarchy that they are unwilling or unable to organize or lead.

Thomas Frank makes this point vividly in a recent essay in The Baffler. Frank is reviewing a series of recent books about Occupy Wall Street. Frank is clear-sighted in detailing not simply the limits of OWS, but of the books that are now pouring forth about the movement. The books are all, he writes, “deeply, hopelessly in love with this protest. Each one takes for granted that the Occupy campaign was world-shaking and awe-inspiring.” Not only is this wrong, it prevents these authors and I would add most liberal supporters of Occupy Wall Street from confronting the stunning failure of Occupy Wall Street. Here is Frank:

The question that the books under consideration here seek to answer is: What is the magic formula that made OWS so successful? But it’s exactly the wrong question. What we need to be asking about Occupy Wall Street is: Why did this effort fail? How did OWS blow all the promise of its early days? Why do even the most popular efforts of the Left come to be mired in a gluey swamp of academic talk and pointless antihierarchical posturing.

What Frank points to is the dominance of academic talk and theorizing. Surprisingly he makes the case that this is true of both OWS and the Tea Party. The books about OWS and the protesters, Frank writes, cared more about the “mechanics” of the protest—the fact that it was non-hierarchal, open, inclusive, and consensual—than any ends, goals, or accomplishments. Whereas the Chilean movement embraced getting things done and working to build institutions, the anti-institutional bias of the theorists within Occupy Wall Street militated against building an organization. Talk was allowed, but no persuasion.

As John Duncan writes in his comments, persuasion cannot be empty or purely mechanical. 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.” This is deeply true and it requires the openness to leadership and inspiration that the forces guiding Occupy Wall Street would not allow.

What distinguishes revolutions from rebellions is that while rebellions merely liberate one from rule, revolutions found new institutions that nurture freedom. What has happened in Egypt is so far only a rebellion. It has liberated Egypt from the yoke of tyranny. Time will tell whether Egypt will experience a revolution that builds institutions of freedom. At the core of Arendt's political thinking is her insistence that freedom cannot exist outside of institutions. As had Montesquieu before her, Arendt saw that power, freedom, and collective action belong together.

What the new experience of American power meant was that there could not be and could never be in the United States a single highest and irresistible power that could exert its rule over the others. The states would limit the federal government; the federal government would contest state power; legislative power limits executive power; judicial power bridles the legislature; and new forms of power in voluntary organizations, political clubs, and advocacy groups all limit the power of professional politicians. Since written laws cannot control power, but "only power arrests power," freedom depends upon institutions that can continually give birth to new centers and sources of power. Together, this diffusion of power in the United States meant the "consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same."

What Dixon, Duncan, Titleman, and Frank help us see in an Arendtian vein is that power today will only reappear if we work to build and found new organizations and new institutions. Such a building requires vision as well as tactics. Arendt offers us one vision: it is the ideal of federalism, the radical diffusion of multiple sources of power throughout society. That vision is in danger of disappearing today under the fiscal and political forces of centralization. If it is to be resisted, those who would resist it will have to be willing to articulate a vision of a different way. In Frank’s words, it will require a movement.

whose core values arise not from an abstract hostility to the state or from the need for protesters to find their voice but rather from the everyday lives of working people. It would help if the movement wasn’t centered in New York City. And it is utterly essential that it not be called into existence out of a desire to reenact an activist’s fantasy about Paris ’68.

Frank’s essay is bracing reading and should keep you warm with thoughts over this cold weekend. Enjoy. It is your weekend read.


Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

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  1. “I think there is a danger that by criticizing institutions, we end up criticizing organization and that’s really a big mistake. I think that horizontalidad allows us to make sure that the decisions are made by everyone, but in the execution of those decisions we need to have some sort of organization, otherwise we are doomed to be in a beautiful, noble, and naïve movement but not a not very efficient one.”

    Noam Titleman’s comments are an important qualification of the assumption that all we need is assembly–a most treasured “right”, in Arendt’s view–and the world will change. But I think it is important to fine tune further one point Roger made in the above commentary.

    Roger writes: “power today will only reappear if we work to build and found new organizations and new institutions.” I think that Arendt’s view is that power “appears” through action in concert with others, and via the skills–of persuasion, compromise, etc– Duncan outlined. Institution-building is a separate matter, necessary for the stabilization of what we might call the field of action long enough for the more instrumental goals, or aims, of the assembled to be achieved, and acts as the important “foundation” of freedom. Yet, while power, freedom (and the corresponding institutions guarding it) “belong together”, they are not the same thing.

    Arendt’s writing stands as a stark warning against thinking that the institutionalization of a “movement” marks the end or purpose of politics. It might be more accurate to say that every institutionalization is a beginning that needs to resist becoming an end in itself. Or, to put it differently, that politics, as the expression of the power of action with others, is an “interruption” process required to test whether the freedom guarded by institutions remains a reality.

    • Hi Kathy, thanks for fine tuning. Yes, power appears through action in concert with others. But we can only act in concert with others in and within institutions. There needs to be a polis in order to act and speak in public. Yes, we can found a polis, and we must, but political action demands a public. I think it would be a mistake to think of institutions as the end and purpose of politics; but it is also the case that politics depends upon and happens within institutions. Part of what can happen within institutions is the re-imagination and revolution and thus the re-founding of institutions. But to think of politics only as an interruption is also too limited. Arendt certainly values the importance of instituting power and creating different power centers. The over glorification of process is not something she ascribes to. Action is not simply process, but requires both a public sphere and also works that memorialize it.

      • Hi, again, Roger,
        Arendt specifically talks about the process-nature of action in The Human Condition, which is why the discussion of forgiveness and promise-making is so central as a “check” on action. Action interrupts business as usual with a new beginning. Does not mean that its “end” or purpose, in any instrumental sense, is that. But she also, frustratingly, defined action as purpose-less, in the instrumental sense. Which is perhaps why her theory of action is so frustrating to institutionalists.

        I would say that, yes, action requires public space but that is not only to be found in institutions, but in other public arenas: the street, various other assembly points, and public spaces. Institutions can also sometimes thwart politics and even the emergence of power when, as in the US Congress, they are taken over by special interests, or dominated by rhetoric demonstrating that words have become empty, or used to veil intentions.

        And action alone cannot memorialize the public sphere; for that, we require the “work” of historians, and other story-tellers and memorializers. Action is ephemeral, which is why it “depends” on work for its lasting effects, and efforts after immortality. We might even say that is the “work” of institution-builders, too.

        Does not mean Arendt is anti-institutional; far from it. Her theory of politics is not an “over-glorification” of process, but a recognition of the process-nature of action, and a warning that its “endlessness” needs to be bounded by institutions. But institutions need to be reinvented from time to time, or revivified, so as not to rigidify.

        And I agree, too, that word separated from deed annihilates power, becomes empty. One can criticize OWS for that; and the many books that seem to gloss over that fact fail to challenge its weakness. One might say it represented a possibility yet unfulfilled.

        Historically, we could also cite the Paris Commune of 1871, as an alternative illustration of the emergence of power combined with significant efforts at institution-building, ultimately defeated, but nonetheless significant.

  2. Thank you Roger and Kathy for getting this discussion launched and moving in such a vigorous manner. Your fine-tuning of each others’ views and artfully presented distinctions are instructive and conveys the respect you hold for each other.

    A few thoughts to share in reference to OWS.

    From an Arendtian perspective action always has two purposes: the achievement of an outcome and the revelation of an agent. Under the former, politics is a means. Under the latter, politics is an end. By judging OWS on outcome alone – its failure to institutionalize itself or influence the actions of established institutions — we may miss seeing OWS in its most arresting light.

    The space-of-appearance is a core Arendt concept and underlies the second purpose of politics. The space is latent in our togetherness and preserved as a potential reality for each of us by our constitution, our Bill of Rights, and our federated political structure all of which diffuse power throughout society. As Roger accurately points out, this structure (and the space it preserves) is in danger of disappearing under the forces of centralization that have so dominated modern political history.

    Under this line of thinking, the OWS movement’s conscious and determined refusal to make demands and institutionalize itself can be seen as the movement’s inherent message to the rest of us to remember this second purpose of politics before it is lost to oblivion. OWS may be best understood as a phenomenal event — the space-of-appearance calling attention to itself at the very time it is in danger of receding from our collective consciousness.

    The people of OWS chose not to institutionalize because they had a different purpose. Like others before them, they couldn’t sustain their power, but that is hardly a fault — one of power’s characteristics is that it is not sustainable. How they lost their power is pretty well understood. But where it came from, and how and why they got it to begin with, is not – it is these questions that their undistracted single purpose presence compels us to ask.

    Power is a deeply mysterious thing. It is not something that is bestowed on us, or exterior to us, but something generated from within and through ourselves. All of us belong to groups and organizations of some kind. So each of us is capable of generating power in the world through the groups to which we belong – public, private, large or small. So the central task when it comes to power is not to lament power’s absence in our lives and wait for its deliverance, but to assume responsibility for the groups and communities to which we belong (a primary Arendt Center theme) and, through the use of power-generating skills, engage in the activities that make power a reality.

  3. First of all I would like to say fantastic blog!
    I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I’ve had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there.
    I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted just trying to figure out
    how to begin. Any recommendations or hints?

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