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The article “Power” by Hannah Arendt is a 1970 publication that discusses the aspect of power and violence in the political world. In this article, Arendt discusses and defines power and violence at length, thereby bringing out the difference between power and violence. The principal argument in this article is that power and violence cannot coexist, and the existence of one means that the other one is absent.
Also evident is the fact that whereas violence has the capacity to eliminate power, it is impossible for power to emanate from violence. As such, violence has to be studied from the aspect of where it emanates from as well as its nature. It also clear that governments can only exist with power, and violence cannot sustain any government. The idea of violence as an illegitimate thing is contested since violence depends on the defining party.
The author of this article starts by highlighting the misconception held by many politicians about violence in the political world as a display of power. A common misconception that has been raised in this article is that most politicians think that power in ruling people is equivalent to exercising legitimate violence, also well known as organized violence. The subject of power and violence has been examined in this article by analyzing the views of other political scientists and sociologists, and Arendt contests the definitions provided by many authors. To many authors, power is displayed as “an instrument of rule” (p. 36), which exists because someone dominates the other one.
Indeed, the views of many on what power really are portrayed as drawing respect from others as a result of issuing commands. It is for this reason that many think that a person who reigns by the rule of the gun has the greatest power. And to add to this notion, the article highlights that some think of power as “a kind of mitigated violence” (p. 38), which does not differ greatly from the view that power is best manifested through violence.
Failure of political science in distinguishing terms such as power, strength, force, and authority has also been criticized by Arendt (p. 45). The author highlights that treating these terms as synonyms in political science blurs the difference between power and violence. It is appreciable that the author defines the terms clearly and power emerges as being an entity owned by a group as opposed to the strength that is individualistic.
Force emerges as energy coming from social movements, and authority is said to exist when respect for individuals or office is maintained (p. 45). These definitions are helpful in that it is possible to see violence as an instrument that is more individualistic, and it is reinforced by strength. From these definitions, it is also easy to identify any violence that may come disguised in the name of the authority. This is applicable in our current society since any institution that claims to be exercising authority can be tested by how much it respects those who are under the institution.
Trying to separate power from violence is not an obvious task, more so in modern society. Even as this article tries to draw a clear line between power and violence, power and violence are almost inseparable. Take, for instance, the high violence experienced close to the end of the 20th century, as stated by Puniyani (p. 8). This has been viewed as a “Clash of Civilizations,” but it has been a wrongful exercise of power along religious lines. The U.S., which is considered a superpower, unfortunately, used imperial power to violently attack nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. This illustration questions Arendt’s argument that power implies the majority being in support of the governing authorities.
Imperial power and violence, therefore, appear to be one and the same thing as they represent “One against All.” To support this view, Puniyani (p. 10) highlights that the U.S. was highly criticized by global peace ambassadors, let alone other Muslim countries on its Iraq attack, implying that power is not an instrument in the hands of the people. In addition, it is evident that violence is still used as a means of dominating others; thus, power appears to be organized violence.
The argument that violence can never be legitimate is contestable. According to Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois, violence can hardly be categorized since it is “in the eye of the beholder” (p. 2). For instance, the state may use the military to wage war, and in this case, this is considered to be a permissible act or otherwise legitimate violence. However, a mob or the actions of revolutionaries are likely to be viewed as illegitimate and, therefore, violent acts. It possible to visualize violence as a means of acquiring power contrary to Arendt’s argument: power cannot emanate from violence. Think of a colonized nation that has to utilize violence through revolutions without which there is no liberation.
This implies that violence is not always corrupting though it can corrupt absolutely, just like power does (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois, p. 2). The view that violence can be legitimate, however, does not approve violence as a necessary instrument either in political or social domains. Perhaps a clear line between violence and power can therefore be drawn when violence is categorized as criminal or political. This would also help establish instances when violence can be a threat to power.
From this article, it is possible to visualize what would happen if there is no power. Arendt argues that “where power has disintegrated, revolutions are possible” (p. 49). This is because the existence of power implies the availability of people who are ready to counter any violence, and the government is deemed to survive. On the other hand, a government that is solely dependent on violence cannot exist. Arendt argues that “even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of the rule is torture, need a power basis-the secret police and its net informers” (p.50). This is a strong implication that power is superior to violence, and violence is only executed successfully when there is enough power.
This concept brings us to the conclusion that for any government to exist and run successfully, such a government must be endowed with power, which is ultimately the support of the majority. It clear that violence and power are almost inseparable since powerful governments continue to use violent means to dominate. It is also evident that violence is not absolutely illegitimate, and instead, violence is best defined by the “beholder.” Indeed, the very difference between violence and power is somewhat outlined in this article, making the article relevant in our political age, which is struggling to posit what power is and the means to achieve it.
Arendt, Hannah. “Power”. Arendt, Hannah, On Violence, pp. 35-56. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
Puniyani, Ram. Religion, power & violence: expression of politics in contemporary times. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005.
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Scheper-Hughes, N. and Bourgois, Philippe I. Violence in war and peace: an anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.