“Moreover, if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy. … To tear the mask of hypocrisy from the face of the enemy, to unmask him and the devious machinations and manipulations that permit him to rule without using violent means, that is, to provoke action even at the risk of annihilation so that the truth may come out—these are still among the strongest motives in today’s violence on the campuses and in the streets. And this violence again is not irrational. Since men live in a world of appearances and, in their dealing with it, depend on manifestation, hypocrisy’s conceits—as distinguished from expedient ruses, followed by disclosure in due time—cannot be met by so-called reasonable behavior. Words can be relied on only if one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal. It is the semblance of rationality, much more than the interests behind it, that provokes rage.”
—On Violence (65-66)
In On Violence (1970), Arendt argues for political action and power as opposed to violence. According to her conception, power is political, and it is an end in itself. It is brought into being through the political and public “acting in concert” of a plurality of human beings. Violence, on the other hand, is instrumental in two senses of the word: it can only be carried out through the use of external instruments, and it is a means that cannot supply its own end. Rule by violence becomes a possibility wherever real power is being lost, and while violence may destroy power, it can never produce it. Violence relies on goals external to itself for its justification, yet it is also a means that can devour its own ends.
More particularly, and to place the passage in the proper late-1960s context, she is interested, on the one hand, in the extreme potential for violence produced through twentieth century technological developments and, on the other, the question of violence perpetrated by and against oppositional student groups in the western world. The two are, of course, related in complex ways. Arendt is worried about the unleashing of a vicious cycle of violence, in which students actively seek to provoke the police with the express purpose of bringing an underlying “fascism” or naked state violence to the fore. Similarly, she writes, in the 1930s, fascism’s opponents had at times even celebrated its victory because it would reveal the internal contradictions of a “civilized society” that held violence and repression at its core. “We saw how that turned out,” is the implied conclusion.
What is at the root of this cycle of violence? From the outset, Arendt rejects biological explanations based on some innate human aggressiveness emerging from our animal selves. According to the bio-psychological line of analysis, human impulses towards violence can be so dangerous because they have been blocked and severed from their original “natural” purpose of species preservation. They have become redirected in a way that makes them irrational. Arendt rejects this characterization and instead seeks to identify the rationale behind violence. She finds it partially by examining rage against injustice, which arises “only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not…” (63). She goes so far as to recognize that “… under certain circumstances violence—acting without argument or speech and without counting the consequences—is the only way to set the scales of justice right again.” (64)
That rage and violence against injustice can be rational, though, in no way makes them political. Indeed, they are “without argument or speech,” and she explicitly characterizes them as “antipolitical.” What Arendt describes, then, is an unpolitical cycle of violence, which forms a synthetic dialectic. She additionally reveals that, despite themselves, the two parties to the dialectic are, by essence, largely the same. The students rebel against the Establishment and the System, but they fail to recognize what these have become or their own role in their operation. They romantically cling to the Marxist notion of a bourgeois-proletarian dialectic of class conflict when 1) the embourgeoisement of the post-war working class had stymied its revolutionary potential, and 2) this was in no small part due to scientific advances that made the intellectuals and the scientists the new mandarins, over and above the class warriors of the bourgeoisie. And who are the future intellectuals and scientists if not the students, themselves? The students are raging against the machine of technical conquest that produced the bomb and napalm, but they are simultaneously reproducing the machine, through their very being.
Violence emerges when political power is lost, and political power dissipates when there is no space for human action in which power can be renewed. Arendt writes:
I am inclined to think that much of the present glorification of violence is caused by severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world. It is simply true that riots in the ghettos and rebellions on the campuses make ‘people feel like they are acting together in a way that they rarely can.’ (83)
Violence is, then, a false politics that serves to placate the frustrated political actor. It becomes an outlet for a political impulse that has been blocked, according to Arendt, especially by our belief in modern progress. Progress as “growth, the relentless process of more and more, of bigger and bigger” increases demand for administration. Bureaucratization, in turn, increases the appeal of violence precisely because it is unpolitical:
In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant. The crucial feature in the student rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy.
Bureaucratization and the ideal of progress block politics because the idea of politics, the notion that human beings might initiate the radically new and unexpected in the world, is fundamentally alien to them. They are, instead, built upon the idea that everything can be accounted for and made predictable through the universal dictates of objective science and technique.
Bureaucracy is also a key source of the very hypocrisy Arendt identifies above as a catalyst of rage and violence. It presents itself as the impartial bearer of technical truths, but bureaucracy is instrumental just like violence, which means it relies on external, political ends to provide its operating justification. Despite claims to neutrality, it must, by definition, serve political ends. Though also like violence, it constantly threatens to overflow its own bounds, overwhelming the ends with meaningless means.
The current dialectic in Europe, between a sometimes-violent populist revival and a technocracy claiming only to implement neutral economic truths, illustrates anew the dynamic Arendt identified in 1969-1970. The populist aims to reveal the hypocrisy of the technocrat by existing as the technocrat’s opposite, by declaring himself the true representative of the people’s good. But in being his opposite, he reproduces the same problem in mirror image. Both deny politics and attempt to substitute some form of absolute reason in its place. Thus, we ‘deal with’ our freedom by simultaneously declaring absolute control—via either technique or rule by populist incarnation—and giving up control absolutely—to the self-contained system of scientific principles or the populist leader. In Arendt’s examples, the enraged reaction against hypocrisy ends up producing the very violence against which it fights, most obviously when students force the government to react with open violence in order to prove that the violence had been there all along. Similarly, contemporary populism produces the negation of politics while fighting against the same negation of politics in another form. Technocracy completes and perpetuates the cycle as it explicitly aims to combat populism and discipline the popular will in favor of “impartial truths.”
In this context, the popular explosion of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is interesting in (at least) two ways: 1) Piketty justifies and provides fuel for populist rage against inequality. He demonstrates the magnitude of current gross disparities in wealth and shows them to be the result of policies that have been presented as the only sound technical reactions to contemporary economic truths. 2) He also dethrones the notion of the economic law. He reveals the fallacies of the postwar technocrats who believed their economic situation had been the natural result of the unfolding of “natural” economic developmental laws. Instead, we now know that their unprecedented situation, characterized by high levels of growth and employment along with historically low levels of inequality, came as a result of historical contingency mixed with deliberate and free political action. Their mistake was to reify their circumstances and then try and understand this “given” and “natural” phenomenon via scientific theory.
Arendt’s analysis of this very same time period, however, suggests that the human activity Piketty highlights was anything but “political action.” To caricature and simplify, efforts directed towards material well-being cannot constitute politically free action, according to her, because they are determined by the objective circumstance of human need. One could argue, though, that, in this, she may have fallen for the technocrats’ reification of political choices about material well-being into deterministic laws—even while she denounced their attempts to collapse human experience into behaviorist systems. The question then becomes whether an Arendtian politics is possible that is nevertheless directed towards the maintenance of the living organism in some way. In fact, both Arendt and Marx condemned inequality reduction as strictly unpolitical. Despite extreme differences in their notions of politics, for both of them politics is about human freedom, not life or living. It is a common misconception that Marx was arguing for the elimination of inequality. In fact, he denounced all attempts to do so as weakly reformist. The root of the problem was, rather, lack of freedom in a republican sense: It does not matter how well or equally you are treated if you are nevertheless a slave.
The characterization of inequality concerns as “unpolitical” seems to go too far, though, if we consider the idea that people cannot act politically and freely if they lack basic security and trust in the world. This is a point that Arendt makes in On Revolution, among other works, in which she writes that desperation can only produce violence and not politics. (This point could also work towards providing an Arendtian explanation for populist violence à la Golden Dawn, etc.) With this in mind, our fight against inequality could actually be understood as political action in the service of political action as an end in itself.
What Piketty has in common with Arendt is the condemnation of social “science” masquerading as natural science. Arendt shows how this can be a hindrance to freedom, and she understands it as something that is also fundamentally unworkable. The belief in its predictive power can only exist in denial of the unpredictable results of human action that will always undo the projected image of organized harmony. Piketty is criticizing the economic establishment on these same grounds, which is why his crusade against inequality challenges Arendt’s sharp dividing line between politics and mere life. While his data analysis shows that our world will tend towards more and more extreme inequality, Piketty emphasizes the fact that this tendency has been undone before, which implies that we can politically undo it again. Insofar as they both believe in and endorse the possibility and power of political action, it seems reasonable to assume that Piketty would also endorse Arendt’s important claim that,
If we look on history in terms of a continuous chronological process, whose progress, moreover, is inevitable, violence in the shape of war and revolution may appear to constitute the only possible interruption. If this were true, if only the practice of violence would make it possible to interrupt automatic processes in the realm of human affairs, the preachers of violence would have won an important point. … It is the function, however, of all action, as distinguished from mere behavior, to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably. (30-31)
–Jennifer M. Hudson