When Power Runs Riot06-07-2015
(Featured Image Source: The Real Truth)
By Jeffrey Jurgens
“Where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use; and the question of this obedience is not decided by the command-obedience relation but by opinion and, of course, by the number of those who share it. Everything depends on the power behind the violence. The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in revolutions reveals in a flash how civil obedience--to laws, to rulers, to institutions--is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.”
--Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”
Both “ordinary” citizens and political theorists have been inclined to regard physical violence as the most pointed and dramatic expression of power. This understanding rests on the premise that power entails “the rule of man over man” in a relationship of authoritative command and unquestioning obedience. Violence, in this account, represents either the “prerequisite of power”--that mode of action which makes dominion possible--or the “last resort [that] keeps the power structure intact.”
Hannah Arendt challenges this notion by drawing on the republican tradition. Power, in her reckoning, ultimately lies in the hands of the people, their ability to act in concert, and their willingness to offer their support to laws and institutions. Government thereby depends on the people’s consent and good opinion not simply for its legitimacy and authority but also for its very existence. According to Arendt, political institutions “petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them.” Violence, on the other hand, is defined by its instrumental character: it is a form of action that requires implements, but it is also, and more importantly, a means by which to achieve particular political ends.
Arendt relies on these definitions to undo the axiomatic linkage of power and violence. Even as she recognizes that the two phenomena often coexist empirically, she also insists that they must be pried apart conceptually: the power of the citizenry to act in concert is essential to the nature of government, but the same cannot be said for merely instrumental violence. Indeed, governments resort to violence at precisely the moment when the popular support on which their power rests has diminished. Yet such an exercise of violence only further undermines the prospect of the people’s consent: “violence appears when power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.”
I have been reminded of Arendt’s reasoning while contemplating the protests and rioting that recently occurred following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. In both instances, police officers engaged in acts of violence against young black men that from the outset revealed the fragility of their power in relation to minority populations that have been subject to centuries of mistreatment. These officers’ violence in turn prompted many citizens to question if not pointedly withdraw whatever support they may have had for local law enforcement. Citizens mobilized their power against the power of governmental institutions despite the fact that the police possessed an overwhelming advantage in the means of violence. Law enforcement officials’ inability to command obedience was especially obvious in those instances when groups of young people (predominantly young men) manifested their opinion by defying curfews and engaging in their own forms of violent action. They were not deterred by the military-grade equipment that the police brought to bear against them.
It is tempting to liken the unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore to the revolutionary situations that Arendt explores in “On Violence,” but we should not be too quick to let this romantic reading stand uncontested. Caution is in order not simply because many Ferguson and Baltimore residents who were angry with the police also condemned the young people who threw rocks, looted, and burned. It is also warranted because rioting has sometimes articulated a different constellation of power and violence than the one I just outlined.
As historian David Grimsted notes in “Rioting in its Jacksonian Setting” (1972), mob action in the antebellum U.S. was typically not a revolutionary attack on the political system but rather “an enforcement of justice within the bonds of society--an immediate redressing of moral wrongs or a removal of social dangers that for various reasons could not be handled by ordinary legal process.” Rioting, in other words, was commonly regarded as violence that circumvented the law but nevertheless expressed popular sovereignty. This confluence of violence and power was particularly evident when groups of white men, often applauded by white onlookers, attacked black people, their white abolitionist sympathizers, or other marginalized groups. Both the Whigs and the Democrats promoted such racially charged riots for their own strategic purposes, and citizen patrols organized by local governments often intervened only to keep injury and damage within acceptable bounds.
Grimsted also casts troubling light on the psychological appeal of rioting. In his view, mob violence “gives a sense of acting by a higher code, of pursuing justice and possessing power free from any structural restraint, and at the same time allowing a complete absorption in the mass so that the individual will and the social will appear to be one.” For anyone familiar with Arendt’s account of totalitarianism, these words are heavy with disconcerting implications. They suggest that violence can have corrosive anti-democratic effects even--and precisely--when it is undertaken in the people’s name.
In the end, Arendt is right to insist that “everything depends on the power behind the violence.” But while she uncouples the two phenomena in a revealing way, she may not fully appreciate the variety and intricacy of the relations that have obtained between them.