Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

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 Way Forward

It is a fallacy to think that political thinking can exist separately from economic thinking. Hannah Arendt, no economist, saw clearly that the origins of totalitarianism were, in large part, traceable to the importing of economic thinking (unlimited growth) into the political realm, where politics is concerned with geographical, social, and moral limits. The economic victory over politics at that time went under the name of imperialism. Today, under the rubric of globalization, economic thinking continues to subsume political thinking to economic calculations.

The economic crisis of the last four years has brought with it a particular challenge to politics. The crisis is so large and so devastating and it so completely threatens to undermine our ways of life that there is a feeling of political futility. What possibly can be done to address this crisis? From out of this futility arises a kind of head-in-the-sand approach that denies the crisis instead of addressing it. One end point of such an approach is the kind of technocratic governance by bureaucrats now holding sway in Greece and Italy, as well as in a selection of American cities and counties. If we are to avoid giving up our political self-determination and if we want to engage the crisis rather than submit to it, we must first understand it, something that few politicians have been willing to do.

To confront the depth of our ongoing crisis, it is helpful to look at a new report out from the New America Foundation, authored by Daniel Alpert, Robert Hockett, and Nouriel Roubini. This report was sent to me by a long-time supporter of the Arendt Center. It is well worth reading in full.  A few basic facts to set the stage:

•Four years into the Great Recession, more than 25 million working-age Americans remain unemployed or underemployed;

•The employment-to-population ratio lingers at a near-historic low of 58.3 percent;

•Consumption expenditure remains weighed down by massive private sector debt overhang left by the bursting of the housing and credit bubble a bit over three years ago (even if debt levels are coming down, as Floyd Norris argued today in the NY Times.)

The basic argument that Alpert, Hockett, and Roubini make is that economists and politicians have misunderstood the nature of the financial crisis. As a result, our responses have been ineffective. As they write: "The principal problem in the United States has not been government inaction. It has been inadequate action, proceeding on inadequate understanding of what ails us. "

So what is really the problem? Alpert, Hockett, and Roubini argue that the crisis is a conjunction of an extreme a credit crisis along with two other long-term trends that exacerbate that crisis. While most commentary and political response has focused on the credit crisis, the importance and impact of the two long-term trends have been largely overlooked. The two trends are:

First, the steady entry into the world economy of successive waves of new export- oriented economies, beginning with Japan and the Asian tigers in the 1980s and peaking with China in the early 2000s, with more than two billion newly employable workers.

Second, the "long term development that renders the current debt-deflation, already worse than a mere cyclical downturn, worse even than other debt-deflations is this: The same integration of new rising economies with ever more competitive workforces into the world economy also further shifted the balance of power between labor and capital in the developed world. That has resulted not only in stagnant wages in the United States, but also in levels of income and wealth inequality not seen since the immediate pre-Great-Depression 1920s."

The upshot of these two trends is that wage labor in developed countries is under continuing downward pressure. Whether the limpid economic recovery continues or not, the wage levels of the pre-crisis period will not return and those workers who earn wages for their performance will continue to experience lower real wages and thus a deteriorating standard of living.

What many still have not wanted to see is that the crisis itself was a response to these trends. For the last 20 years, the decreasing wages of workers in developed countries was hidden and compensated for by increasing debt, both private and public. As the report sees,

Easy access to consumer credit and credit-fueled rises in home values – themselves facilitated by recycled savings from emerging economies’ savings – worked to mask this widening inequality and support heightening personal consumption.

There is a chart in the report that itself shows the problem with crystal clarity. In Figure 2, we see that until 1982, the wages of workers and the income of non-wage earners (thus the higher-paid supervisory workers) was largely equal. Beginning in 1982, however, the earnings of non-wage earners began to rise significantly faster than the income of wage workers. This is at least one original source of the increasing inequality of the American populous and it is exacerbated by an increasingly less-progressive tax code and also by the increasingly profitability of capital investments in the global economy. As the report concludes,

Because many workers were no longer sharing the fruits of the economy’s impressive productivity gains, capital was able to claim a much larger share of the returns, further widening wealth and income inequality which by 2008 had reached levels not seen since the fateful year of 1928.

For anyone concerned with politics in the 21st century, understanding our current economic predicament is essential. That is why reading such a lucid report as this one from the New America Foundation is so important. It is, this weekend, your weekend read.

New America Foundation Article, The Way Forward