The Weakening of Power Through Violence10-10-2011
"Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it."
--Hannah Arendt, On Violence
As revolutionary movements take flight in the Middle East and around the world, many today look back to the 1960s with a romantic fascination. Hannah Arendt had great respect for the student protest movements—most of all she appreciated the joy they took in acting in public. And yet, she was also critical of the use of violence. Arendt approached political violence during the late 1960s as a sign of the decline in power.
In her engagement with the rhetoric of the student movement, Arendt identified what she took to be a key misunderstanding: the belief that violence could create power. In her lexicon, however, violence is not the outward manifestation of power but a sign of its decline. Power draws citizens to work for and with a government; violence, seeks to force such compliance. According to her colorful example, only perfectly obedient “robot soldiers” could overcome the basic dependence of governors on the support of their citizens.
True power depends on a strong representative link: a person is in power to the extent that others empower him. Arendt appeals to James Madison’s words “all government rests on opinion” to support this assertion. Governmental power requires citizen support.
And following the law recommits the citizen and the government to the original grant of power. Such extension sustains the decision that grounded the institution through the original action (in Arendt's sense of the ability of people to come together to create something new).
Since power relies on empowerment over time rather than a simple earlier instance of foundation or enforcement through violence, Arendt sees it as fragile. Power can be lost at any moment. In her further reflections in On Violence she addresses the complex ways in which a government’s very response to violent protest can undermine its own power in the sense of being empowered. For both supporters and challengers of a regime, only action, not violence, can create power.