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".

Childism by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was Hannah Arendt's student and biographer. She also was a brilliant philosopher,  intellectual, and psychoanalyst. Her many books include Freedom and Karl Jasper's Philosophy, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World,  Anna Freud: A Biography,  and The Anatomy of Prejudices, Subject to Biography: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Writing Women's Lives.  She had recently completed her last book, Childism, just before her untimely passing on December 1, 2011.

The Arendt Center asked one of our interns, Anastasia Blank, to read Childism and prepare a series of posts highlighting some of the most interesting and compelling insights and arguments. Over the coming weeks, she will provide a chapter-by-chapter look at Young-Bruehl's book. We hope you are inspired to read along. You can purchase the book here.

Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s final book, Childism, offers stunning insight into the first few years of life that have long since been forgotten. Young-Bruehl, who was Hannah Arendt's biographer and who died late last year, practiced psychoanalysis for almost thirty years and possessed a strong interest and training in child studies. She was a child advocate and this work is an effort to highlight the persisting injustice that befalls the children of our society, an overarching prejudice that she names "childism." Motivating Young-Bruehl's work is the conviction that “Harming children cannot stay the norm, there is no rationalization for this behavior.” The harm of childism does not necessarily refer to physical abuse, but encompasses various acts against children, acts that demarcate them as different and less important that adults.

This is not a contemporary phenomenon, as prejudice against children reaches far back in historical societies. And yet Young-Bruehl does think contemporary American society has seen a rising prejudice against children.  Childism includes abuse, but it extends even to the well-remarked upon helicopter parenting of well-meaning parents who push their children to fulfill the parent's own desires and needs in developmentally inappropriate ways. Childism is based upon a widespread fallacy, that children are expected to serve the needs of the adults that care for them.

Young-Bruehl identifies the childism stereotype as a foundational fantasy, one that,

"can be defined as a belief system that constructs its target group, 'the child', as an immature being, produced and owned by adults who use it to serve their own needs and fantasies”.

While Childism might be thought to be concerned with child abuse, it is more broad in its scope. “Child Abuse and Neglect (CAN)” arose as a field of study in the early 1970’s, encompassing a body of clinicians, advocates, analysts, and researchers. Their aim was to protect children and to bring attention to the existing prejudice against children in social and political institutions. Young-Bruehl contends that in their narrow focus on protecting children from abuse, CAN proponents overlook the parental motivations and origins of the prejudice towards children. Her argument is that when the instigating factors behind "childism" are uncovered, there arises the potential to protect America’s children as a group, instead of the lucky few who come under the attention of child protective services or have access to therapy.

Childism explores the negative view our society has taken towards children; the children within our society are falling prey to the “projections” of their caretakers.  Young-Bruehl argues that too often parents' inner pain suffered when they themselves were children is now being taken out through violence or neglect on their own children.

She asks that we take a look at our own inner conflicts and try to understand the motivation for the type of action and beliefs one holds toward children.  The common belief in "the natural dependency of children," is, she writes,

one of the key reasons for the prejudice against them not to be recognized as such or its being so easily rationalized. Adults who argue that children do not and should not have rights, for example, base their arguments on children’s natural dependency, making assertions about their lack of agency or capacity for choice, expression of interest, or reason. But such arguments are prejudicial against children’s development; by declaring that children do not have these capacities, the arguments are really contributing to the difficulties children have in developing the capacities.

As an adult, a caretaker, or a caring person, it is our duty to offer guidance, support, and love during a child’s development. Believing that children are incapable and dependent, whether intentional or not, leads to projections of a specific dependencies for the child and accords to adults the role of guide and authoritarian ruler. It is this prejudgment about the adult-child relationship that Young-Bruehl asks that we consciously reevaluate.

I invite you to read through this book with me over the coming weeks and investigate the critical question, “Why do parents sometimes turn against their children?” This is not to say that many parents are innately evil or should not have children. It is instead an inquiry into the motivations behind their prejudiced behavior. The book asks: how can identifying significant prejudicial feelings lead to a change away from childism.

-Anastasia Blank


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.

Human Rights Project Welcomes Rebecca Hamilton

The Human Rights Project at Bard College

Presents Rebecca Hamilton

"Fighting for Darfur: The promise and peril of mass movement advocacy for human rights."

She will speak tonight, March 26, 2012 at 5PM, in RKC 103 at Bard College.

Rebecca Hamilton is a journalist at Reuters. Over the past year she has been a Special Correspondent on Sudan for The Washington Post, a Pulitzer Center grantee, and a fellow at the New America Foundation. She has written up her multi-year investigation into the impact of the U.S.-based citizen advocacy movement on Darfur policy in Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide.

In recent years she has conducted over 150 interviews with policy-makers on Sudan within the previous and current U.S. administration, interviewed those deployed to Sudan with the African Union, and spoken with both the survivors and the perpetrators of the atrocities in Darfur. In partnership with the National Security Archive she has obtained the declassification of 600 cables related to U.S. policy on Sudan. Her writing has been published in a range of outlets including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Christian Science Monitor and The International Herald Tribune.

Born in New Zealand, she moved to Australia at 15. She was awarded a Knox Fellowship to attend Harvard and graduated as a joint degree student from Harvard Law School (Juris Doctor) and Harvard Kennedy School (Master of Public Policy) in 2007. Before beginning to work full-time on Fighting for Darfur she worked as a lawyer at the International Criminal Court. She currently resides in New York and is admitted to the New York bar.

She will be discussing her recent book on Darfur and the activist movement that grew up in response to the violence there, "Fighting for Darfur":


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.