Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Violence and Power

So, in my previous post, Violence and Technology, I was getting into Hannah Arendt's 1969 essay, "Reflections on Violence", and the close relationship between technology and violence.  But, as I noted, her essay was primarily concerned with the differences between power and violence, which she argues amounts to an almost diametrical opposition.  Arendt notes that most scholars and intellectuals see violence as a manifestation of power, perhaps its ultimate manifestation.  But they're wrong.

Noting the connection between power and rule, Arendt makes a rather interesting aside about bureaucracy in discussing the traditional equation of power with violence:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man - of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

Now, I'm not sure I would agree with her about bureaucracy being the most tyrannical of systems, but I would note that bureaucracy is what James Beniger referred to as an invisible technology, and what Lewis Mumford viewed as a type of machine, in some instances a megamachine.  Bureaucracy is a reflection of machine ideology, inhuman and inhumane, and inorganic as well.  So I think Mumford probably agreed with her point when he read the essay, as I assume he did, back in 1969.

Back to the point, Arendt argues that power is not simply about domination, that obedience and command go hand-in-hand, so that individuals who are willing to obey are also willing to give orders to others, and vice versa, and conversely individuals who resist obedience to authority also resist being placed in a position of authority over others.  

But more importantly, she stresses the role of consent of the ruled, or governed, the centrality of cooperation to the establishment of power.  This is consonant with Kenneth Burke's view that rhetoric is not about conflict, but rather about identification, about establishing, maintaining, and increasing common ground.  This also falls in line with Jacques Ellul's arguments about the role of propaganda in technological societies, especially integrative and sociological propaganda, where the main goal is to establish and reinforce the legitimacy of the society, and keep people from questioning or acting in ways that work against the effective functioning of the social machine.  

Some may also note the similarity of Michel Foucault's views on power, but then there's the question of whether he was aware of Arendt's work and just didn't acknowledge her influence (as he didn't acknowledge the influence of others, e.g., Erving Goffman).  But let's take Jean Baudrillard's advice, and "forget Foucault" before we get all foucaulded up, okay?

Anyway, all this is not to say that power minus violence is necessarily a good thing, as Arendt explains:
Indeed, it is one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence that power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence relying on instruments up to a point can manage without them. A legally unrestricted majority rule, that is, a democracy without a constitution, can be very formidable indeed in the suppression of the rights of minorities and very effective in the suffocation of dissent without any use of violence. Undivided and unchecked power can bring about a "consensus" that is hardly less coercive than suppression by means of violence. But that does not mean that violence and power are the same.
Consensus may be tacit, and can continue as long as the power structure is not challenged.  That is how a single master can control many slaves who out number him and could otherwise overpower him.  That's how political systems in decline can still cling to power, as long as no one internally, or externally, challenge their rule.  Now, let's hear some more of what Arendt has to say:
To switch for a moment to conceptual language: 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 through something else cannot be the essence of anything. The end of war is peace; but to the question, And what is the end of peace?, there is no answer. Peace is an absolute, even though in recorded history the periods of warfare have nearly always outlasted the periods of peace. Power is in the same category; it is, as the saying goes, "an end in itself." (This, of course, is not to deny that governments pursue policies and employ their power to achieve prescribed goals. But the power structure itself precedes and outlasts all aims, so that power, far from being the means to an end, is actually the very condition that enables a group of people to think and act according to means and ends.) And since government is essentially organized and institutionalized power, the current question, What is the end of government?, does not make much sense either. The answer will be either question-begging -- to enable men to live together -- or dangerously Utopian: to promote happiness or to realize a classless society or some other nonpolitical ideal, which if tried out in earnest can only end in the worst kind of government, that is, tyranny.

 Arendt does acknowledge that power needs legitimacy, which brings us back to consent, and which she differentiates from justification.  Is there a difference that makes a difference here?  Perhaps. Justification requires some sort of rationale, some logic, some explanation.  Legitimacy is merely a matter of agreement, of assent on the part of the group, or the majority.  In this sense, legitimacy works on the relationship level of communication, as a form of metacommunication, whereas justification works on the content level of communication, to use the terms developed by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues in Pragmatics of Human Communication, based on the systems view of Gregory Bateson.

Given that violence is different and distinct from power, Arendt notes that violence has the potential to disrupt and overcome power, and to do so quite easily: 
Violence, we must remember, does not depend on numbers or opinion but on implements, and the implements of violence share with all other tools that they increase and multiply human strength. Those who oppose violence with mere power will soon find out that they are confronted not with men but with men's artifacts, whose inhumanity and destructive effectiveness increase in proportion to the distance that separates the opponents. Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.
So, violence can destroy power, but it cannot create power.  When governments resort to violence, it is a reflection of their loss of power.  And the use of violence to maintain or gain power has unwanted, often unanticipated effects (typical of technology, after all), boomerang effects.  Arendt notes, "the much-feared boomerang effect of the 'government of subject races' (Lord Cromer) upon the home government during the imperialist era meant that rule by violence in far-away lands would end by affecting the government of England, that the last 'subject race' would be the English themselves."  Or as Ted Carpenter (and Marshall McLuhan) put it, drawing on the Book of Psalms, they became what they beheld.

Arendt also differentiates between violence and terror:  "Terror is not the same as violence; it is rather the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control."  Of course, this concept of terror is an older understanding of state-produced terror, the reign of terror as it were.  But perhaps we can base a more contemporary understanding of terrorism based on this view, with the idea that terrorists seek to destroy power, and to exert a form of control without actually taking power.  This perhaps would be a way to distinguish between terrorists and genuine rebels and revolutionaries.

So, Arendt summarizes the distinction between power and violence in this way:
Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.
Arendt also discusses the role of rage as a cause of violence, and this leads her to consider "black rage" as it was known in the 60s, the anger expressed by African-Americans and the violent acts that stem from that anger, notably the riots that occurred in Harlem, Watts, Newark, and elsewhere.  This leads to an interesting comment on expressions of "white guilt" as a collective phenomenon:
Where all are guilty, however, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are always the best possible safeguard against the discovery of the actual culprits. In this particular instance, it is in addition a dangerous and obfuscating escalation of racism into some higher, less tangible regions: The real rift between black and white is not healed when it is being translated into an even less reconcilable conflict between collective innocence and collective guilt. It is racism in disguise and it serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the Negro population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality.

A controversial comment, to be sure, but one that is quite thought-provoking.  And it is an altogether  basic point, coming from a Marxist perspective, that one way that those in power maintain power is via a strategy of divide and conquer, and nowhere has this been more apparent in US history than in the division between black and white in the lower classes (as well, between the German working class and German Jews that was encouraged and capitalized upon by the Nazis).  

Arendt also criticizes those scholars who argue for the inherent naturalness of violence as a biological imperative, and therefore its inherently irrationality.  Instead, she notes that "violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals."  

I can't help but note the interesting result if we substitute technology for violence in this quote:  "technology being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, technology can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals."

The danger of introducing violence bring us back to Arendt's implicit take on McLuhan's medium is the message, that the means are the message, which is to say that the means become the ends.
Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.
 Interestingly, Arendt suggests that "the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence."  This returns to the point of bureaucracy as technology, that it is impersonal and dehumanizing, that you cannot question it or argue with it.  Thinking about it, what Plato criticizes about writing in the Phaedrus applies to bureaucracy quite well, at least on those two points.  Otherwise, we could modify the original critique and note that bureaucracy gives the appearance of a knowledgeable and accountable government, but in fact represents the complete absence of those qualities.

In his lecture on Arendt at Fordham University (as noted in Violence and Technology), Richard Bernstein stated that what people want is the freedom to act, to participate.  That is what the exercise of power by bureaucracy, power without accountability, without responsibility (the key to responsibility being response as Martin Buber has insightfully stated), resists and essentially prevents.  

Power based on participation is the formula for a just and stable society.  Can technology, which is arguably inherently violent, actually increase genuine participation in the establishment of a legitimate order and power structure?  Proponents of new media, such as my friend and colleague Paul Levinson, believe the answer to be unequivocally yes.  There is no question that new media are undermining existing power structures all around the world, and here in the US.  But can they form the basis of a new political order?  Arendt's arguments cast some doubt on the possibility, and should give us pause, as we ought to recall the unpredictability of the ends, and the overwhelming "power" of the means.

I have a little more to say about violence, technology, power, and identity, but I think I'll save it for another post and end here.

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