Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
13Feb/130

Let’s Talk About Power

Something happened on February 3rd that has never happened before, and in contrast to the event that provided the circumstance for its happening, it is almost a footnote in our discussion of what we really witnessed that day.

Superbowl XLVII was held in New Orleans last week. It was an awesome game filled with unique shows of strength, human agility and competition, and momentum swings. I have always loved sports for this reason, they can showcase the apex of physical discipline, potential, and unity. They are an active metaphor -- literally, of action.

Football may be the most apt war metaphor we have. A team is a conquering nation set upon invading the other teams turf. No individual effort of strength or force can bring victory. A win is a team win, brought upon only through clear unity. But last Monday these representations became even more pronounced. Just after halftime Jacoby Jones, a speedy receiver who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens and is a product of New Orleans, took a kickoff 108 yards for a score. The guy was flying, clearly the fastest man on the field that day. Don’t tell me that in part he was not driven by the energy of performing back on his hometown. The man represented the city in this game. It was a triumph for New Orleans. There was a cheer beyond the Stadium. Frankly, most in the stadium were outsiders, only visiting the city for the event, unaware of the fact that Jones was a native. Just after Jones scored the power in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome went out. Oh yeah, the Superdome has been renamed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, because that changes things... Anyway, according to Entergy, the energy company supplying the power to the stadium, the outage was the product of a glitch from outside of the Superdome. Does anyone else find this oddly poetic?

I know, who wants on the festive day of the Super Bowl, with all its earning potential, both inside and outside of the city, all of its ability to showcase the most celebratory elements of the crescent city, who wants to return to the conversation of race, gentrification, education, and power, and their relationship to one another? But we are not over it. New Orleans is not over it. Yes, thousands of people descend upon this city for the Super Bowl to spend millions of dollars in the most extravagant of ways. The restaurants stock up on expensive meats. Champagne and Courvoisier VSOP are flowing. The private escort sector brings in outside recruits and stocks up on Bolivian marching powder (I mean, come on, do we really think that’s not happening?). Thousands of locals pay their rent and grocery bills through this commerce contract. But is this not an opportunity to re-examine what happened?

Katrina was a stark reminder of the inequality within our county. It awoke the common shout of the forgotten. This lens is not only applicable to the gulf region. It was an opportunity to zoom out and see where else this glitch is taking place. But that of course takes action. An action of self-inventory on the part of the power institutions in this county, as well as individuals. And for the most part these institutions have proven themselves anything but ‘powerful‘ at least in terms of Arendt’s vision of the word. They are money-strong and possess the weight of force, but these alone can lead only to a politic of totalitarianism. “True power,” again, “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 deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

Have we done that? Have we, as a nation, conducted the self-inventory necessitated by Katrina?

For thirty four minutes the power in the Superdome was out. The images of the players stretching on the field were an odd, ironic, peculiar, haunting flashback to the Fall of 2005, when the turf of the Superdome became the staging ground of a mismanaged relief effort, and another reality TV show for so many around the county watching it on television.

I do not mean to say that people were not moved to action by Katrina. On the contrary, the country united in the wake of the storm and at the shocking disclosures of our government's impotence. But, possibly we have let a great part of the story go, cataloguing it under ‘what happened” We have disbanded. Labeled what happened in New Orleans as “there” and thus divorced from the “here.” We have allowed ourselves to become disempowered. I’m just saying, just asking, have we moved beyond our active, democratic right (and even mandate) to diagnose the source of a power outage?

It was a great game though. After 34 minutes of sedation the momentum shifted. The San Francisco 49ers almost pulled off a historic comeback, before the Ravens defense finally held its ground on a last down goal-line stance. It was a pretty game. A show of individual strength, a collision of forces, an art brought to being in the action of power.

For 34 minutes the fans at the Superdome, as well as the hundreds of millions of people watching across the globe, waited for power to come back. Advertisers, of course, lapped up the extra T.V. time. In between the commercials images of players from both teams laying or sitting and stretching on the turf of the Superdome were broadcast out to the world.

Let’s talk about power...Hannah Arendt writes, “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 deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

In addition, Arendt makes a clear distinction between power, force and strength. Power is the only of the three that in order to exist requires a union of people, “and vanishes the moment they disperse.” It is only in the “public realm” that power meets its “action potential,” and what “first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of power and final impotence.” Cease to actualize, and the power is out. In this sense democracy is the products of power, and legitimate, firm standing, only in this active action of its members, and not on the collection of force or display of strength.

In many ways New Orleans has moved beyond Katrina. The rebuilding, re-conceptualizing of the city is well, well on the way. Much of this movement has come from grass-root structures, as well as political institutions, though the latter are often mired in a economics based debate over what New Orleans ‘should‘ look like. And yet the discussion of what happened here and what still happens is often brushed aside too quickly. In 2005, a glitch from outside of the city, outside of the congregation space, had completely disempowered it.

-Nikita Nelin

14Jan/132

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