Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
3Jun/132

The Delusion of the Omnipotence

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“There is a difference between a man who sets out to murder his old aunt and people who without considering the economic usefulness of their actions at all (…) build factories to produce corpses. (…) Perhaps what is behind it all is only that individual human beings did not kill other individual human beings for human reasons, but that an organized attempt was made to eradicate the concept of the human being”.  –  “And all this ... arises from – or, better, goes along with – the delusion of the omnipotence (not simply with the lust for power) of an individual man. If an individual man qua man were omnipotent, then there is in fact no reason why men in the plural should exist at all – just as in monotheism it is only God’s omnipotence that made him ONE.”

-Hannah Arendt / Karl Jaspers: Correspondence 1926-1969

Arendt distinguishes two historical boundaries that separated pre-modernity from modernity and liberalism from total domination. In her books The Human Condition and Between Past and Future Arendt discusses the profound changes which modernity brought about through technological progress and simultaneous world alienation, by withdrawal from the common world to self-reflection, by division of the world into subjectivity and objectivity, by substitution of philosophy and politics with an instrumental understanding of theory and praxis, and loss of the interwoven phenomena of authority, tradition and religion as guarantees for the stability of political communities.

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All this opened the way to transgress traditional boundaries and to give in to the temptation to be omnipotent. The totalitarian movements transformed the nihilistic “all is allowed” into “all is possible”.

Is is precisely the same thesis that Freud, Castoriadis and others advanced: the lust for omnipotence is neither an exception nor the experience of a limited number of human beings but the general experience of early childhood. The experience of omnipotence precedes the recognition of otherness. Recognition of the other has to be learned in the course of development from the pre-social to the socially shaped human being. According to philosopher and psychoanalyst Joel Whitebook, we are thus confronted with a constant working of  “the negative” in us.

“The experience of omnipotence is significant for the normal as well as for the abnormal child, for youth and for adulthood. Examples can be found in religious, aesthetic and erotic experiences, in the state of being in love, in mass phenomena and in certain forms of psychosis.”

In this context it is worth analysing the different forms of violence and asking why and how they transgress the boundaries to omnipotence. For example, we can distinguish between hooligan crowd violence, sniper killings in wartime and the mass murder committed by the Norwegian Anders Breivik. Transgressing boundaries in the case of hooligans consists of crossing the boundary from respect for the physical integrity of the other to illegal physical injury, in the case of snipers from a ban on killing to legally controlled or uncontrolled killing of enemy combatants, and in the case of Breivik in the annihilation of all representatives of the enemy. In Eichmann’s case, as we know, the maximum transgression consisted in the endless annihilation of entire peoples and populations.

What we find in the first case, the fierce violence of hooligans, is lust for power and temporary transgression. Here a code of honour prescribes that violence should be fierce and brutal, but not fatal, that those not involved should not be attacked, that the use of weapons is forbidden and that conflicting groups should be similar in number and strength. Hooligans do not intend to destroy their opponents but merely to gain victory over them. Consequently their violence has nothing to do with delusions of omnipotence, but a great deal to do with lust for power. There is, however, an element in their behaviour that could pave the way for omnipotence. They themselves describe this as a kick, a surge of violence that can be produced instantly and only stopped on the threshold of destroying the other. In the interests of journalism, the American journalist Bill Buford socialized with British hooligans for some time and observed in himself the euphoria that accompanied each transgression, a sense of transcendence that rose to ecstasy, where the individual was completely absorbed into the crowd. “Violence is one of the strongest sensations of pleasure." He described the vast majority of hooligans as what we might call ordinary neighbours.

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The second group are the snipers. What makes them transgress boundaries is the lust to kill enemies as defined by the state, the army or the militia to which they belong. Chris Kyle, for example, the best sniper the US army ever produced, officially shot 160 enemy combatants in Iraq, 250 in his opinion, and described killing as his job and the war as his area of work.

“When you kill someone the first time, you’re stirred up. You think: Am I really allowed to kill this guy? Is this OK? But once you kill an enemy, you realize it’s alright. You do it again. And again. You do it so the enemy cannot kill you and your compatriots. You do it until there’s no one left to kill. "

Chris Kyle became a killing machine employed by the state.

When his marriage was threatened, he returned to the United States. There too, death remained his main topic. He became an alcoholic, was involved in brawls, shot two car thieves, set up a company to train snipers and took care of traumatized veterans by accompanying them to shooting ranges. In February of this year he was shot by one of the traumatized ex-soldiers at a shooting range. Chris Kyle received numerous awards. The nation is proud of him.

The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik represents the third form of transgression. His deed is not marked primarily by the lust for power or the lust to kill but by the ideological justification of an omnipotent action. He bombed the government district of Oslo, killing eight people, and massacred 69 participants of a social-democrat youth camp. He justified this act in a fifteen hundred page manifesto entitled 2083 A European Declaration of Independence. He claimed to represent a Norwegian and European resistance movement and to be a member of the “indigenous population” struggling against the decline of Norway due to uncontrolled immigration policies by liberals and representatives of a multicultural society.

“It is 100 percent certain that there will be a war between nationalists and internationalists in Europe. We, the first militant nationalists, are the first raindrops indicating that a big storm is coming. ... To die as a martyr for his people’s survival is the greatest honour in a man’s life.”

As a single perpetrator Breivik needed a particularly strong ideological justification and defined himself as a martyr who was sacrificing his life for the ethnic community. To do this he needed to distance himself emotionally from his fellow citizens and avoid any kind of interaction for several months, which he spent exclusively playing violent video games.

The same occurs with guerrilla groups. A crucial prerequisite for their deeds is the ideologically justified dehumanization of the potential victims and the transformation of the guerrilla fighters into cold-blooded killers. It is not only permissible to kill the “lackeys of imperialism” but the murders must be carried out in the most cold-blooded manner to be effective. In his Message to the Tricontinental in 1967 Che Guevara declared:

“Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”

We tend to underestimate the ongoing existence of violence and the lust for omnipotence. When we talk about recognition we forget the disregard, humiliation and negation of the other and consider this of secondary importance. When we talk about state monopoly on the use of force, we tend to forget that violence still exists, that there are permanent no-go areas and terrorist groups, and that there is violence that is permitted, trained and paid for by the state and violence exercised by our neighbours. Whether legal or illegal – there is an irreconcilable relationship between civilized behaviour at work during the week and violent behaviour on weekends, and between a democratic family father who respects the rule of law in one country and systematically kills in another.

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When Arendt searched the origins of totalitarianism she found them in the non-totalitarian modernity (unsolved minority problems, un-political human rights concepts, administrative colonialism, nationalist concepts of politics, etc.) Violence belongs to them. It holds in itself not only the negation of plurality and freedom but also the delusion of the omnipotence.

-Wolfgang Heuer

12Feb/130

The Politics of Non-Movement

Did the Arab Spring come from nowhere, or was it preceded by modes of social and political action that might have eluded our common conceptual frames? How do ordinary people in the Middle East manage and even alter the conditions of everyday life despite the recalcitrance of authoritarian governments? These questions formed the starting point for Asef Bayat’s lecture “Non-Movements and the Power of the Ordinary,” which he gave in Olin Hall on Thursday evening, February 7th. Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches in the sociology and Middle East Studies departments. Throughout his illustrious career, his research has focused on social movements, religiosity, and urban space in Iran, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states.

Contrary to common public perception, Bayat insisted that these countries’ subaltern populations do not resign themselves to adverse economic and political circumstances. Indeed, the region has well established traditions of activism among leftists, unionists, women, Islamists, and post-Islamists, among many other constituencies. But it has often proven difficult to create and sustain organized social movements when Middle Eastern states have been so reluctant to tolerate opposition. How then might citizens foster meaningful political change?

Bayat argued that many Middle Easterners, rather than overtly confronting authoritarian governments, have resorted to what he calls “social non-movements.” Such non-movements are defined not by formal lobbying and protest, but rather by fleeting moments of mundane but nevertheless contentious action. Such action constitutes a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” to the extent that it slowly alters everyday conditions in a manner that authoritarian state forces must respond to but cannot easily prevent. At the same time, social non-movements are propelled not by bureaucratic organizations that governments can readily identify and target, but rather by constituencies of dispersed individuals and groups who mobilize around common experiences and grievances.

In an effort to lend empirical weight to these general claims, Bayat offered a series of illustrative case studies. One concerned the actions of the poor. In Egypt and many other countries of the Middle East, large numbers of rural residents have sought to escape grinding material scarcity by moving to larger cities and building their own homes from scavenged materials. The formation of these squatter settlements is rarely if ever coordinated by any formal collective organization, but it nevertheless results in a dramatic reshaping of the urban landscape. Although government forces may initially destroy homes built in this fashion, the persistent construction and reconstruction eventually compels them to alter urban planning protocols, provide water, electricity and other utilities, and incorporate these makeshift districts into the “official city.”

Another case study turned on pious women’s myriad efforts to carve out more satisfying places for themselves in Iranian public life. The Islamic Republic has long sought to regulate female bodily coverage in the street as one means of assuring the nation’s moral and spiritual integrity, but hundreds of thousands of women have opted to defy government dictates by wearing “bad hijab” (i.e., headscarves and chadors that leave a few centimeters of hair visible). These women’s subtle but consistent sartorial challenges, which circumvent but do not entirely disregard the state’s norms of bodily coverage, have gradually shifted the requirements that government actors can effectively enforce on a day-to-day basis.

Moreover, large numbers of women wear hijab while hiking, jogging, driving cars, and engaging in other activities that are not conventionally regarded as gender-appropriate, or they choose to live alone and unmarried rather than in the homes of their parents and spouses. Once again, these varied practices have not been centrally orchestrated or institutionalized, but they have nevertheless altered the terms of women’s participation in everyday life.

Bayat acknowledged that social non-movements like these can and do coalesce into more organized and concerted activism, and he recognized that both movements and non-movements constitute important means for subaltern groups to claim de facto citizenship. But he also insisted that these two modes of action cannot be readily equated. Whereas social movements pursue a politics of overt protest, non-movements engage in a quieter, less obtrusive politics of everyday presence and practice. They are also driven less by specific and explicit ideological commitments than by inchoate desires for more expansive and appealing life chances. Nevertheless, they also provide a nutritive context within which more articulate claims for rights and resources might be formulated.

Bayat’s lecture offered a suggestive framework through which to conceive practices and processes that often do not meet our established expectations of politics. Much of the ensuing discussion then attempted to probe and delimit the contours of his argument. What, for example, are the conditions in which a social non-movement might pivot into more cohesive and institutionalized forms of collective protest? How can a social non-movement be distinguished from a dissenting subculture or counter-public, more conventional forms of deviant or illegal behavior, or the glacial drift of wider social change? And to what degree does the notion of a social non-movement presume the existence of an authoritarian state, whether in the Middle East or in other parts of the world? Could we also identify non-movements, for instance, in the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe?

Here Bayat contended that non-movements were closely tied to authoritarian states that retain a degree of “softness.” That is to say, these states aspire to exert thorough if not complete control over the social field, but they ultimately lack the capacity to make such control a living reality. As a result, they necessarily leave “opaque spaces” that subaltern groups can turn to their own advantage. Bayat’s remarks obviously referred to the many Middle Eastern governments that have recently teetered or toppled as a result of the Arab Spring. Yet he also suggested that the gradual undoing of Prohibition in the 1930s U.S. might also illustrate the concept of a social non-movement and its long-term incremental effects.

In his reading, the ban on alcohol was undermined less by concerted lobbying and protest than by millions of Americans’ spontaneous, mundane but eventually consequential disregard for existing legislation.

To my mind, this apparent discrepancy was not a flaw in Bayat’s analysis as much as an invitation for further inquiry. Like the lecture as a whole, it demonstrated the rewards but also the challenges of breaking out of our intellectual ruts to wrestle with complexity in new ways.

-Jeff Jurgens

Readers who would like to delve further into Bayat’s argument should consult his book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010).