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.
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).
Thinking through the Human Condition: Arendt and Anthropology
Answering Arendt’s Indictments of Social Science
My blog post today is the first of a series of contributions that aims to bring Arendt’s thought into conversation with cultural anthropology, my home discipline, and other modes of social analysis. At first glance, Arendt and anthropologists would seem to make for strange bedfellows, since their arguments have rarely intersected in any explicit way: Arendt engaged little if at all with cultural anthropology in her wide-ranging corpus, and anthropologists have tended to avoid Arendt, despite the inspiration they often take from other philosophers and political theorists. Nevertheless, the guiding premise behind this series is that Arendtian and anthropological analyses can be brought together in a manner that offers a great deal to wider contemplation of the human condition. This potential can only be realized, however, if we also recognize the frictions that emerge from their contrasting starting points and lines of argument.
Peter Baehr’s recent book, Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences (2010), offers an enlightening vantage on these frictions and the difficulties they present for such an encounter. Indeed, Arendt regarded sociology and the other social science disciplines with the utmost skepticism. On the one hand, she took issue with what she regarded as their deterministic theories of historical causality and their misguided presumptions about human self-interest. As she contended in The Human Condition, the social sciences “[aimed] to reduce man as a whole, in all his activity, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal” (p. 45). In so doing, they not only denied the existence of human freedom; they also reflected—and helped to perpetuate—the very mass societies they ostensibly explained. At the same time, the social sciences operated (in Arendt’s understanding) on the core assumption that “human conduct springs essentially from self-interested, instrumental, and utilitarian considerations” (Baehr, p. 14). This premise rendered the social sciences utterly incapable of coming to terms with the non- and even anti-utilitarian nature of totalitarianism.
Such shortcomings were only further compounded by social scientists’ reliance on established conceptual models and their penchant for historical analogy. In Arendt’s view, the social sciences were entirely too quick to cast specific social phenomena as reflexes or symptoms of underlying transhistorical processes (such as the materialist dialectic proposed by Marx). As a result, they were prone to untenable generalizations that occluded salient differences between distinct social and political forms (such as totalitarian concentration camps and institutions of slavery). In keeping with this complaint, Arendt harbored particular scorn for Weberian ideal types like charisma and bureaucracy, which she regarded as devices to “normalize” particular phenomena and make of them “an item or case of something already known” (Baehr, p. 26).
Arendt’s criticisms certainly apply to some forms of social science scholarship, particularly those that seize opportunistically on specific instances to engage in the kind of grand theorizing that bleaches human intercourse of particularity, emotion, and moral import. In such moments, complex human realities can and do become mere grist for the conceptual mill. Yet her dismissal of the social sciences ultimately strikes me as overdrawn. Many social scientists explore the conditions of human autonomy and historical novelty with greater nuance than she was prepared to admit. Moreover, many of them challenge the notion that human activity can only be explained in utilitarian terms. Cultural anthropology, in particular, has repeatedly highlighted how human beings arrange their lives in ways that defy scientific models of rationality.
Baehr remains a strong advocate of Arendt’s theorizing, but he also demonstrates the subtlety of social science analysis through three appreciative critics of her work in the 1940s and 1950s. The interdisciplinary scholar David Riesman, for example, found Arendt’s analysis of totalitarian society too sweeping: Arendt exaggerated the capacity of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes to rework human subjectivity, and ignored human beings’ stubborn ability to retain their individuality, exercise their agency, and otherwise elude total domination (Baehr, chapter 2, especially pp. 45-56). Riesman thereby drew worthwhile attention to the ways that Arendt, in her zeal to convey the pervasiveness of totalitarian power, neglected the sociology of everyday life.
The political sociologist Raymond Aron thoughtfully resisted Arendt’s notion that totalitarianism constituted a radical break with previous modes of rule. He related the emergence of totalitarianism to the existence of monopolistic political parties in Germany and the Soviet Union. He dissected the ways that totalitarian terror, especially in the Soviet Union, was legally codified and administratively routinized, rather than being entirely inscrutable and haphazard. And he insisted that totalitarian ideology was open to flexible application and transformation in a fashion that Arendt, with her focus on its uncompromising deductive rigidity, did not acknowledge (Baehr, chapter 3, especially pp. 77-87). On the basis of these specific claims, Aron contended that totalitarianism bore intelligible continuities with older modes of tyranny. As he did so, however, he admittedly shied away from the “mysterious margin” of nightmarish absurdity that he too observed in totalitarian regimes—and that Arendt traced so evocatively.
Finally, the sociologist Jules Monnerot sharply underscored the ways that totalitarian ideologies mobilized the fervor of their adherents through party gatherings, mass celebrations, and other ritual encounters. In the process, he likened totalitarianism to religious traditions (above all, Islam) in a fashion that resonated with other treatments of totalitarianism as a “secular” or “political religion” (Baehr, chapter 4, especially pp. 95-99). Arendt pointedly refused any such equation. In her account, religion provides limits and standards that protect the sacredness of human life; totalitarianism, by contrast, pursues the notion that “everything is possible and permitted,” and it regards particular human beings as superfluous and dispensable in its effort to transform human nature itself. Yet as Baehr notes, Arendt’s position did not resolve the question of totalitarianism’s (lack of) relationship with religion as decisively as she might have thought. In the end, it failed to take into account many witnesses’ quasi-religious experience of totalitarian performances, and it neglected the fact that religious forms and expressions did suffuse totalitarian discourse in demonstrable ways.
The point of Baehr’s book is not that we need to side either with Arendt or with her social science critics exclusively. I happen to find Riesman’s objections quite trenchant, but I also believe, like Baehr, that Aron’s confident diagnosis fails to grapple with the chaotic madness that characterized the Nazi and Stalinist regimes.
And as much as Arendt’s position on ritual and religion might be interrogated, her insistence that we maintain fine distinctions—and not succumb to easy generalizations and conflations—is a valuable one. One implication of this point is that we should be duly suspicious of any intellectual stance, including Arendt’s, which dismisses an entire realm of disciplinary inquiry root and branch. As Baehr’s book shows, rigorous social scientific scholarship can usefully probe the limits of Arendt’s assumptions, evidence, and arguments—just as it can lead us to a greater admiration of her insights.
Last week I attended a public lecture at Fordham University given by Richard Bernstein, a philosopher on the faculty of the New School, the subject of the lecture being "Hannah Arendt on Power and Violence" and the sponsor being Fordham's Philosophy Department.
The lecture began with some discussion of who Hannah Arendt was, e.g., German-Jewish intellectual, had an affair with Martin Heidegger when she was an 18-year-old student and he was a married professor in his 30s, wrote her dissertation on St. Augustine, escaped from Nazi Germany before things got really bad, met and became friends with Walter Benjamin in Paris, unlike Benjamin was able to escape to the United States, and famously wrote about totalitarianism, and the trial of Adolf Eichmann (architect of the Nazi concentration camps) and the banality of evil (which sums up my own previous encounter with Arendt's thought). Of course, that's just a cursory summary of a rich and eventful life.
I joined a few of my colleagues from the Philosophy Department at Fordham and met with Bernstein prior to the lecture for some discussion, and he mentioned that, although Arendt was not a practicing Jew, at the end she asked that someone say Kaddish for her at her funeral.
Admittedly, it's not all that unheard of for folks to suddenly get religion when the end is near (no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes), and for individuals who have been disconnected from their traditions to suddenly want to reconnect. But what I found poignant about this request is that she asked for someone, rather than someone specific, which I take to be a sign of isolation in that typically it would be the immediate family who would say the prayer. No doubt, there were many who said Kaddish on her behalf, not the least on account of her significant work during and after World War II on behalf of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and in general as a political philosopher with a strong sense of social justice.
And that brings me back to Bernstein's lecture, the main part of which was a summary of an influential essay that Arendt wrote for the New York Review of Books back in 1969, entitled, "Reflections on Violence". And if you haven't read it already, I do recommend it. It's clear that Arendt wrote the essay in response to the escalating violence occurring in the United States during the late 1960s, which included increasingly more violent antiwar demonstrations, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the rise of militant movements especially within the African-American community, and rioting in inner city slums, which caused harm especially to African-American populations. No doubt, the escalation of violence bore some similarity to the rise of Nazism in Germany, motivating this essay.
I won't reproduce this rather lengthy essay in its entirety here, but I do want to note some salient points.
To begin with, Arendt thinks it's important to distinguish between violence and power (as well as force and strength). Violence, unlike power, is technological in nature--violence "always needs implements" so that:
The revolution in technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the question of means and ends, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means, which it both justifies and needs. Since the end of human action, in contrast with the products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.
Now what she's saying here is very much in keeping with the intellectual tradition known as media ecology, the type of approach associated with scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman. Whereas McLuhan said that "the medium is the message," for all intents and purposes, Arendt here is saying that the means is the message!
Arendt goes on to note that traditionally, violence has been seen as an instrument of power, but that technological advances in warfare (she mentions the possibility of robot soldiers!), weapons of mass destruction (especially biological weapons that can be used by small groups rather than large states), and guerrilla warfare (and what we now call terrorism) have led to a reversal of that relationship. In many ways, this is a very prescient observation:
What all these very uncomfortable novelties add up to is a reversal in the relationship between power and violence, foreshadowing another reversal in the future relationship between small and great powers. The amount of violence at the disposal of a given country may no longer be a reliable indication of that country's strength or a reliable guarantee against destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power. This again bears an ominous similarity to one of the oldest insights of political science, namely that power cannot be measured by wealth, that an abundance of wealth may erode power, that riches are particularly dangerous for the power and well-being of republics.
Arendt also goes on to make a similar point about the use of violence for revolutionary aims. Noting the leftist leanings of the baby boomer generation (e.g., the hippies), she points out:
This is the first generation that grew up under the shadow of the atom bomb, and it inherited from the generation of its fathers the experience of a massive intrusion of criminal violence into politics - they learned in high school and in college about concentration and extermination camps, about genocide and torture, about the wholesale slaughter of civilians in war, without which modern military operations are no longer possible even if they remain restricted to "conventional" weapons.
But noting the then recent shift to militancy within "the movement" (as it was known), she again invokes a key critique of the technological environment and its discontents:
Their behavior has been blamed on all kinds of social and psychological causes… Still, it seems absurd, especially in view of the global character of the phenomenon, to ignore the most obvious and perhaps the most potent factor in this development, for which moreover no precedent and no analogy exist–the fact that, in general, technological progress seems in so many instances to lead straight to disaster, and, in particular, the proliferation of techniques and machines which, far from only threatening certain classes with unemployment, menaces the very existence of whole nations and, conceivably, of all mankind. It is only natural that the new generation should live with greater awareness of the possibility of doomsday than those "over thirty," not because they are younger but because this was their first decisive experience in the world. If you ask a member of this generation two simple questions: "How do you wish the world to be in fifty years?" and "What do you want your life to be like five years from now?" the answers are quite often preceded by a "Provided that there is still a world," and "Provided I am still alive."
That sense of pessimism became very much characteristic of the 1970s, and continued into the 1980s, eventually dispelled by Reagan's rhetoric of optimism, economic recovery, and the fall of the Soviet bloc, but also coincided with the revolution in personal computing that in turn led to the rise of the internet. Has that sense of pessimism returned anew, in the post 9/11 decade where concern about terrorism, warfare, and the loss of liberty are still present, and especially in light of the financial disaster of 2008 that continues to affect the global economy? Are movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street leading the way to increased freedom and justice both in the world? Or are they a prelude to increased violence?
I think Hannah Arendt at least helps us to formulate some important questions, and reminds us that however unpredictable the ends may be, we would do well to pay close attention to the means being employed.
There is also some further common ground between Arendt and McLuhan (a point first brought to my attention by my old classmate Paul Lippert, who was also in attendance at Bernstein's lecture). For Arendt, violence requires technology. For McLuhan, technology is a form of violence. The relationship between the two is certainly worth considering, even in relation to the seemingly benign technologies we refer to as new media. What is the violence that they do, to our political arrangements, our economic and financial arrangements, our social organization and way of life?
To return to Arendt's essay, her essay was primarily concerned with the differences between power and violence, which she argues amounts to an almost diametrical opposition. Arendt notes that most scholars and intellectuals see violence as a manifestation of power, perhaps its ultimate manifestation. But they're wrong. And noting the connection between power and rule, Arendt makes a rather interesting aside about bureaucracy in discussing the traditional equation of power with violence:
These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man - of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.
Now, I'm not sure I would agree with her about bureaucracy being the most tyrannical of systems, but I would note that bureaucracy is what James Beniger referred to as an invisible technology, and what Lewis Mumford viewed as a type of machine, in some instances a megamachine. Bureaucracy is a reflection of machine ideology, inhuman and inhumane, and inorganic as well. So I think Mumford probably agreed with her point when he read the essay, as I assume he did, back in 1969.
Back to the point, Arendt argues that power is not simply about domination, that obedience and command go hand-in-hand, so that individuals who are willing to obey are also willing to give orders to others, and vice versa, and conversely individuals who resist obedience to authority also resist being placed in a position of authority over others.
But more importantly, she stresses the role of consent of the ruled, or governed, the centrality of cooperation to the establishment of power. This is consonant with Kenneth Burke's view that rhetoric is not about conflict, but rather about identification, about establishing, maintaining, and increasing common ground. This also falls in line with Jacques Ellul's arguments about the role of propaganda in technological societies, especially integrative and sociological propaganda, where the main goal is to establish and reinforce the legitimacy of the society, and keep people from questioning or acting in ways that work against the effective functioning of the social machine.
Some may also note the similarity of Michel Foucault's views on power, but then there's the question of whether he was aware of Arendt's work and just didn't acknowledge her influence (as he didn't acknowledge the influence of others, e.g., Erving Goffman). But let's take Jean Baudrillard's advice, and "forget Foucault" and stick with Arendt (and I would venture to predict that by the end of the century Foucault will largely be forgotten, and Arendt's thought will still be discussed).
Anyway, all this is not to say that power minus violence is necessarily a good thing, as Arendt explains:
Indeed, it is one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence that power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence relying on instruments up to a point can manage without them. A legally unrestricted majority rule, that is, a democracy without a constitution, can be very formidable indeed in the suppression of the rights of minorities and very effective in the suffocation of dissent without any use of violence. Undivided and unchecked power can bring about a "consensus" that is hardly less coercive than suppression by means of violence. But that does not mean that violence and power are the same.
Consensus may be tacit, and can continue as long as the power structure is not challenged. That is how a single master can control many slaves who outnumber him and could otherwise overpower him. That's how political systems in decline can still cling to power, as long as no one internally, or externally, challenge their rule. Now, let's hear some more of what Arendt has to say:
To switch for a moment to conceptual language: Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification through something else cannot be the essence of anything. The end of war – end taken in its twofold meaning – is peace or victory; but to the question, And what is the end of peace? there is no answer. Peace is an absolute, even though in recorded history the periods of warfare have nearly always outlasted the periods of peace. Power is in the same category; it is, as the saying goes, "an end in itself." (This, of course, is not to deny that governments pursue policies and employ their power to achieve prescribed goals. But the power structure itself precedes and outlasts all aims, so that power, far from being the means to an end, is actually the very condition that enables a group of people to think and act according to means and ends.) And since government is essentially organized and institutionalized power, the current question, What is the end of government?, does not make much sense either. The answer will be either question-begging -- to enable men to live together -- or dangerously Utopian: to promote happiness or to realize a classless society or some other nonpolitical ideal, which if tried out in earnest can only end in the worst kind of government, that is, tyranny.
Arendt does acknowledge that power needs legitimacy, which brings us back to consent, and which she differentiates from justification. Is there a difference that makes a difference here? Perhaps. Justification requires some sort of rationale, some logic, some explanation. Legitimacy is merely a matter of agreement, of assent on the part of the group, or the majority. In this sense, legitimacy works on the relationship level of communication, as a form of metacommunication, whereas justification works on the content level of communication, to use the terms developed by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues, based on the systems view of Gregory Bateson.
Given that violence is different and distinct from power, Arendt notes that violence has the potential to disrupt and overcome power, and to do so quite easily:
Violence, we must remember, does not depend on numbers or opinion but on implements, and the implements of violence share with all other tools that they increase and multiply human strength. Those who oppose violence with mere power will soon find out that they are confronted not with men but with men's artifacts, whose inhumanity and destructive effectiveness increase in proportion to the distance that separates the opponents. Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.
So, violence can destroy power, but it cannot create power. When governments resort to violence, it is a reflection of their loss of power. And the use of violence to maintain or gain power has unwanted, often unanticipated effects (typical of technology, after all), boomerang effects. Arendt notes, "the much-feared boomerang effect of the 'government of subject races' (Lord Cromer) upon the home government during the imperialist era meant that rule by violence in far-away lands would end by affecting the government of England, that the last 'subject race' would be the English themselves." Or as Edmund Carpenter (and Marshall McLuhan) put it, drawing on the Book of Psalms, they became what they beheld.
In keeping with the Arendtian approach, I think it's correct to say that violence is not war, and I would say that there can in fact be war without violence. A state of war can exist without any battles actually taking place. This has been the case in the Middle East between Israel and various Arab states since Israel declared its independence. And of course it was the situation we referred to as the Cold War. War, as Kenneth Burke pointed out, requires a massive amount of cooperation within each society at war, and a certain amount of agreement on the ground rules for war (e.g., the Geneva Convention). Indeed, terrorism can be distinguished from war insofar as terrorists do not play by any rules, and do not seek any form of agreement on how to conduct hostilities. War is violence constrained by rules, therefore akin to a game, whereas violence itself knows no rules, and is no game. McLuhan observed that war is a very effective form of education. Violence, on the other hand, teaches us about nothing except itself. Violence only teaches us to be violent, or to avoid violence.
Arendt also differentiates between violence and terror: "Terror is not the same as violence; it is rather the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control." Of course, this concept of terror is an older understanding of state-produced terror, the "reign of terror" as it were. But perhaps we can base a more contemporary understanding of terrorism based on this view, with the idea that terrorists seek to destroy power, and to exert a form of control without actually taking power. This perhaps would be a way to distinguish between terrorists and genuine rebels and revolutionaries.
So, Arendt summarizes the distinction between power and violence in this way:
Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.
Arendt also discusses the role of rage as a cause of violence, and this leads her to consider "black rage" as it was known in the 60s, the anger expressed by African-Americans and the violent acts that stem from that anger, notably the riots that occurred in Harlem, Watts, Newark, and elsewhere. This leads to an interesting comment on expressions of "white guilt" as a collective phenomenon:
Where all are guilty, however, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are always the best possible safeguard against the discovery of the actual culprits. In this particular instance, it is in addition a dangerous and obfuscating escalation of racism into some higher, less tangible regions: The real rift between black and white is not healed when it is being translated into an even less reconcilable conflict between collective innocence and collective guilt. It is racism in disguise and it serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the Negro population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality.
A controversial comment, to be sure, but one that is quite thought-provoking. And it is an altogether basic point, coming from a Marxist perspective, that one way that those in power maintain power is via a strategy of divide and conquer, and nowhere has this been more apparent in US history than in the division between black and white in the lower classes (as well, between the German working class and German Jews that was encouraged and capitalized upon by the Nazis).
Arendt also criticizes those scholars who argue for the inherent naturalness of violence as a biological imperative, and therefore its inherently irrationality. Instead, she notes that "violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals."
I can't help but note the interesting result if we substitute technology for violence in this quote: "technology being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, technology can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals."
The danger of introducing violence bring us back to Arendt's implicit take on McLuhan's medium is the message, that the means are the message, which is to say that the means become the ends.
Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.
Interestingly, Arendt suggests that "the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence." This returns to the point of bureaucracy as technology, that it is impersonal and dehumanizing, that you cannot question it or argue with it. Thinking about it, what Plato criticizes about writing in the Phaedrus applies to bureaucracy quite well, at least on those two points. Otherwise, in regard to Plato's 3rd major point about writing, we could modify the original critique and note that bureaucracy gives the appearance of a knowledgeable and accountable government, but in fact represents the complete absence of those qualities.
In his lecture, Bernstein stated that what people want is the freedom to act, to participate. That is what the exercise of power by bureaucracy, power without accountability, without responsibility (the key to responsibility being response as Martin Buber has insightfully stated), resists and essentially prevents.
Power based on participation is the formula for a just and stable society. Can technology, which is arguably inherently violent, actually increase genuine participation in the establishment of a legitimate order and power structure? Proponents of new media, such as my friend and colleague Paul Levinson, believe the answer to be unequivocally yes. There is no question that new media are undermining existing power structures all around the world, and here in the US. But can they form the basis of a new political order? Arendt's arguments cast some doubt on the possibility (and Neil Postman would undoubtedly agree), and should give us pause, as we ought to recall the unpredictability of the ends, and the overwhelming "power" of the means.
Arendt's essay also made me think about the close association that Marshall McLuhan made between violence and identity. According to McLuhan, violence is a response to the loss of identity, and constitutes an attempt to regain identity. In his final television appearance, with Mike McManus at the end of 1977, McLuhan stated,
All forms of violence are quests for identity. When you live out on the frontier, you have no identity. You're a nobody. Therefore you get very tough. You have to prove that you are somebody, and so you become very violent. And so identity is always accompanied by violence. This seems paradoxical to you? Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. So it's only the threat to people's identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers, these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.
Adding McLuhan's insight to Arendt's commentary, we can equate identity with power, loss or lack of identity with a loss of power and impotency. Identity not only tells us who we are, it binds us together in common cause, as a group identity.
This brings us back to Kenneth Burke's view of rhetoric as a means to foster identification. Through the forging of a common identity, we create the basis for cooperation and consent, and therefore, in Arendt's sense, power.
When group identity breaks down, cooperation and consent go into decline (this sounds chillingly familiar, come to think of it), and the power of the state/government ebbs. Violence then becomes the means to compensate for it. On the other side of the coin, when individuals or groups do not feel that they are part of the larger group identity, and consequently may feel a loss or lack of identity in contrast to the majority, they may resort to violence as a means of compensation.
Bringing Burke back into play (and, for that matter, Alfred Korzybski), it becomes clear that power and identity are very much symbolic phenomena. Identity typically is established by having and/or gaining a name. When we share the same name, the same surname, or the same nationality-name, we indicate that we have a shared identity. That is why shifts in language and also bilingualism can be seen as a threat to identity (witness the overwhelming resistance to Spanish in the US, and the problem of Quebec in Canada, which McLuhan was trying to address). Power is a function of symbolic order, and identity is a function of symbolic assignment.
Anomie is the sociological term for lawlessness, for being an outlaw, rejecting society's laws and rules and norms. But it also means, in a sense, being without a name. Being nameless grants a license to kill, or otherwise commit violent acts that violate law, ethics, and morality. Anonymity reduces the barriers to violence, and distance aids in anonymity. It is harder to commit violence with one's bare hands than to pull the trigger of a gun, easier still to drop bombs from a plane, and easier still to push a button and launch a missile. Technology creates distance (as Max Frisch observed, it is the art of never having to experience the world), and grants a measure of anonymity.
Violence is a response to a lack of power. Technology is a response to a lack of power. Violence is a response to a lack of identity. Technology is a response to a lack of identity.
Lacking identity, the individual may try to make a name for himself or herself. This may involve achievement, typically through competition and success in surpassing others, which might be understood as a form of symbolic violence. But often enough, individuals make names for themselves through genuinely violent acts.
Violence is a response to loss of power/identity, but violence cannot restore power/identity, that is, cannot restore it to its previous state of being, its positive existence.
Violence can produce a new kind of power/identity, but only a negative form of identity/power, e.g., villainy/tyranny.
Technology is a response to loss of power/identity, but technology cannot restore power/identity, that is, cannot restore it to its previous state of being, its positive existence. Technology can produce a new kind of power/identity, but only a negative form of identity/power, e.g., villainy/tyranny.
Violence/technology/innovation is associated with the loss of our name/language/symbolic order. Violence/technology/innovation cannot restore our name/language/symbolic order.
Only we, as human beings, can bestow a name, can employ language. Only we, as human beings, can create an identity, can establish symbolic order. Only we, as human beings, can create power, and we have the potential to create power in a manner that Hannah Arendt would insist on, within an ethical framework, and grounded in peace, justice, and human rights.
Violence is divisive. Violence separates the hunters from the prey, the attacker from the target, the winner from the loser, the victor from the victim (as the saying goes, you're either one or the other, which represents a cynical worldview, of course). Violence is a zero sum game. Violence performed on one's self is internally divisive, but that's another story.
Technology is divisive. Technology separates the user from the used, the individual from the world, the actor from the acted upon, the subject from the object (technology objectifies the world, and the others who inhabit it).
Violence/technology is an I-It relationship, to use Martin Buber's terminology.
Power is unifying. Power brings together the ruler and the ruled, government and citizen, in consent and cooperation. Power binds us together (for good or for ill), in creating, maintaining, repairing, renewing, and revising the symbolic order.
Identity is unifying. Identity is a shared sense of self, group membership, imagined community, a common ground, a common name, an interconnectedness.
Power/identity is an I-You relationship, an I-You becoming Us.
All too often, power/identity is established through some larger form of divisiveness, a shared identity among insiders in contrast to outsiders, the identification of the other against which we define ourselves. Identity established through divisiveness is the same as power established through violence, it carries the seeds of its own disintegration, it is not sustainable. Divisiveness corrupts because any insider group can sense that they might, at some point, become outsiders, and that the only way to prevent this is to single out some other insider group and treat them as outsiders.
The problem before us is one that we have faced throughout our long history: How to overcome division and forge a truly unified identity. The name for this identity is no mystery: it is humanity. To achieve a global human identity there must be a global human power, a symbolic order, a mutual empowerment based on consent and cooperation.
Does this sound utopian? I am reminded of Buckminster Fuller's remark that we are in a race between utopia and oblivion. And even if it's not possible to achieve absolute unity, we certainly have made some significant progress towards that goal, and it certainly seems to me that we have the potential to make a great deal more progress if we have the will to do so.
And I think Hannah Arendt would agree that this positive sense of a will to power begins with thought, I believe she would agree with McLuhan that nothing is inevitable if we are willing to contemplate the possibilities and the consequences of our actions. And I think Arendt would say that we have to start by thinking, that it's only when we stop thinking that solutions seem hopelessly utopian and problems become insurmountable.
Dr. Lance Strate is Professor of Communication and Media Studies and Director of the Professional Studies in New Media program at Fordham University. He is the author of Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study, and On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology.
Click here to visit his blog.
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