Power, Violence, & Political Action

Image for post
Image for post

Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.

— Hannah Arendt

In this compelling quote from “On Violence” Hannah Arendt points to the difference between violence and power, specifically with regard to her understanding of politics. Ultimately, she aims to recover what she calls the raison d’être of the political — or what she otherwise calls freedom — because she contends that when understood merely in instrumental terms, the political space becomes a realm of violence where human freedom cannot occur. In other words, for Arendt, if the “political” is to be free of violence, it must be a realm of freedom, and not one of instrumentality, which is to say, a realm where human action consists of these actions that are a means to an end.

Arendt relates the idea of the instrumentality to the activity of production because production has a certain beginning and a certain end, with the activity in between, working in service of the end. The activity of production aims at an end product, a tangible reality in the world so that its outcome can be judged by its utility. As she further explicates in The Human Condition, “the issue at stake is, of course, not instrumentality, the use of means to achieve an end, but rather the generalization of the fabrication experience in which usefulness and utility are established as the ultimate standards for life and the world of [men].”[1] For her, by contrast, political action does not necessarily produce an outcome that can be regarded as a stable, tangible thing in the world, and hence cannot be judged by the utility of the latter.

Instead, political action is properly understood as an auto-telic performance rather than as a production. According to Arendt, endorsing a mere instrumental attitude in politics leads to judging political action by way of the goal realized at the end of political action, where this outcome itself can then be reduced to further means to other ends. The principle of instrumentality rests on a type of mechanical reasoning that assumes mastery and sovereignty as its preconditions. Such sovereignty, in turn, may imply the redundancy of plural perspectives, thereby effacing the possibility of the creation or affirmation of the fact of human plurality in political action. Arendt’s articulation invites some care then: if the condition of plurality of human beings is effaced from political action, action turns into a mere striving for a pre-conceived end, which covers over the indeterminacy and open-endedness of the outcomes of political action, as well as the plurality of human existence.[2]

This condition of plurality is what presents political action as a properly public endeavour, which manifests the freedom of the human beings who can enact certain principles in the world and create and recover their world in common. Informed by Montesquieu’s articulation of the “spirit of the laws,” what she understands as the principles of action are linked to the Greek verbs “archein” (to begin, to lead) and “prattein” (to pass through, to achieve), which together designate the verb “to act.”

In turn, political action gives us a world in common, in focusing on the principles around which to create and to build this world together such that a public space can turn into a political one. Such creation, in Arendt’s onto-political understanding of the world, can neither rest on an individual’s pursuit of their self-interest, nor the mere achievement of collective identity-oriented concerns.

Through the plurality of opinions, and the equality of the participants, the world is presented to the actors in political action as a world that they create and sustain. While seemingly this political space can be limited by way of pre-determined rules and laws, its creation rests on mutual promises based on worldly principles that bring people together in equality and plurality. The world articulated through political action allows for reflective political judgment — in judging the particular to bring to focus worldly principles such as justice, and public freedom — which stands in stark opposition to mere instrumental reasoning, which focuses on the ends in turn to justify the means to achieve such ends. For Arendt, political action should be judged by way of the worldly principle(s) it enacts, mainly because the enactment of such worldly principles is intimately linked with the human being’s capacity to begin something new, i.e., her ontological capacity for novelty.

Beginning something new does not denote political action that is devoid of motives and goals, but rather it means that political action cannot be judged by its motives or goals alone. Central to this beginning is political action’s characteristics of boundlessness and open-endedness, where the outcome of such action cannot be pre-determined. This is why Arendt differentiates between the activity of production (work) and the activity of praxis (political action) because the latter can properly manifest the indeterminacy of the outcomes of political action and hence the non-sovereign character of human beings in their relationality. For Arendt, praxis is human action that rests on a principle of action and not on its utility or outcome. Unlike poiēsis or making something, praxis is neither equivalent to the action’s motives and goals nor to the standard of utility that we have in the activity of production. Insofar as political action has a principle, it differs from the activity of production in that the political actor manifests this principle in acting in the presence of others.

The worldly character of political action, as that which reveals the conditions of plurality and equality of political agents in the political space, is related to an articulation of recognition which does not rest on an identity-based politics that understands recognition based on the abstract recognition of equality of human beings as part of some species. To the contrary, an Arendtian articulation of recognition would focus on the public appearance of each human being, where the human being is recognized as enacting worldly principles that reveal who they are. Such articulation of recognition is more than just an attempt to get to the root of the question of recognition — as it relates not only to the recognition of individual rights and liberties, that delineates private and public spaces and understands human freedom’s connection to the fine lines between these spaces — but also the recognition of one’s potential political agency in community.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 157, my emphasis.

[2] Cf. Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 189.

Endnotes

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 157, my emphasis.

[2] Cf. Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 189.

Yasemin Sari is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and World Religions at the University of Northern Iowa. Dr. Sari completed her PhD in Philosophy at the University of Alberta in September 2015. She was a DAAD Post-Doctoral Researcher at Goethe University, Frankfurt in 2016. As a political philosopher, her work mainly focuses on democratic political theory, especially as it relates to human rights, extra-institutional recognition, and the borders between citizen and non-citizen. Her current research takes up the global refugee crisis.

Quote of the Week

A weekly quote from Hannah Arendt examined through the lens…

The Hannah Arendt Center

Written by

The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College is an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt.

Quote of the Week

A weekly quote from Hannah Arendt examined through the lens of a scholar.

The Hannah Arendt Center

Written by

The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College is an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt.

Quote of the Week

A weekly quote from Hannah Arendt examined through the lens of a scholar.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store