Power, Arrest, Dispersal01-31-2020
This essay was first published on November 7, 2011
“While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (200).
To read this line from The Human Condition in the wake of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, or in the midst of the Occupations that have radiated from Zuccotti Park across the United States and beyond, might be invigorating: aren’t both of these events expressions of power in Arendt’s sense, instances of the unpredictable human capacity to break out of the daily mire of authoritarianism or of capitalism and, acting in concert, to begin something new?
It might also be depressing, since Arendt seems to remind us of the fleetingness of this kind of power, which flashes up in a moment of action but then vanishes, leaving old forces of more familiar kinds—army officers, professional politicians hungry for Wall Street money—to reassert themselves.
But wait. Let’s allow ourselves to be a little more puzzled by what Arendt says here about power and action: “Power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.” On the one hand, it’s clear enough why Arendt would say this: she wants to underscore the distance between her use of the word “power” and some other, much more familiar ones. She doesn’t mean, as Weberian social scientists might, the capacity to control or influence others by virtue of the possession of some durable resource like money or guns. Perhaps she doesn’t even mean a “capacity” at all, in the sense of a state of unactualized readiness that precedes and enables an action: after all, action is supposed to be miraculous, so to think of it in Aristotelian terms simply as the actualization of a pre-existing potentiality might be, as she says much later, in The Life of the Mind, to “deny the future as an authentic tense.” She marks her distance from both of these uses of “power” by making power and action coeval. But, on the other hand, if power springs up between people when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse—if, as she says, seemingly echoing the Megarians whom Aristotle criticizes in the Metaphysics, power “exists only in its actualization”—then what is power but a synonym for action itself? Why has Arendt bothered to retain the term at all?
Notice, however, that Arendt does not quite say that power vanishes as soon as the action stops. Instead, she says that it vanishes the moment people disperse;
and this fact is apparently meant to distinguish power from the “space of appearance,” which, it seems, does disappear as soon as the action stops. On the preceding page of The Human Condition, Arendt had written that that “the space of appearance comes into being wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action,” and added: “its peculiarity is that, unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, it does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only with the dispersal of men...but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves.” So the arrest of an activity is not yet the dispersal of persons. And that means that power is not quite redundantly congruent with action after all. If we look for a little bit of Arendtian power to exist in the split-second before an action starts, we won’t find it, because power in her sense does not precede and explain the moment of action’s initiation. It does, however, survive or outlast it. Power is, as she says, what “keeps people together after the fleeting moment of action has passed.” It is what gives action duration, what draws a spontaneous flash of novelty on the part of a single agent (archein) out into a course of action in which others—some of the lingering, undispersed witnesses to the initial event—join, and which they extend and continue (prattein).
If we really wanted to look at events like the demonstrations in Tahrir Square or the Occupy movement through an Arendtian lens, then, our first step should be to stop talking about them as though they were simply moments, and as though the challenge were to find a way of prolonging or institutionalizing them without sacrificing their radical, disruptive force. Such representations falsely collapse the duration of these events into an instant, and they falsely suppose that their power lay in their momentariness.
Quite the contrary: one of the most striking things about the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, after all, was simply that they continued, even when many observers thought, whether with hope or with fear, that they were sure to dissipate in the face of violence, or the threat of violence, or simple exhaustion (indeed, they lasted long enough that the demonstrators had to improvise ways of organizing the performance of the rhythmic tasks associated with the maintenance of the human body—feeding, disposing of waste—that some austere versions of Arendtianism would exclude from politics). Likewise, the Occupation in lower Manhattan is now approaching two months old; it has an infrastructure and an organization, even if it is not organization on the military model of a chain of command; and it evidently has power in Arendt’s sense: the power to sustain itself over time, to attract new participants and observers, to refuse dispersal, to resist arrest. Its power lies, in part, in the way it orients its participants and observers toward the curiously hybrid status of its little bit of territory: a privately owned but publicly accessible park, not just a symbol but an instance of the intersection of corporate and state power, put on display and put under pressure by the ongoing presence of the Occupiers, which tests the limits of that promise of publicity. By organizing the attention of its participants and observers in this way, the Occupation has already, in its very existence and duration, transformed our sense of the shape of the world to which we belong, and of what is imaginable in it. That is hardly everything; but it is not nothing. The snow is coming: will they disperse? —will we?
Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago