Hannah Arendt’s “On Violence”

Georges Sorel, Theoretician of Syndicalism

Georges Sorel, Theoretician of Syndicalism

Frantz Fanon, Author of The Wretched Of The Earth

Frantz Fanon, Author of The Wretched Of The Earth

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

1969 has sometimes been described as a time of madness.  The year before saw youth uprisings in the United States, France, and Czechoslovakia.  The French students, protesting an ossified education system not only brought down the government; they managed to collapse the entire French Republic, a revolution that no one expected to succeed.  In Prague, a season of modest reforms of the communist government resulted in Soviet tanks rolling through the streets; thus a revolution that everyone wanted was destroyed.

The situation in the United States was, if anything, more chaotic.  Students were protesting the Vietnam War, of course; they were also protesting an ossified education system that refused to recognize the reality of minority student grievances against a system never designed to accommodate them, resulting in the insulting claims that the majority of African-Americans in higher education were not prepared to do academic work (an insult Arendt repeats).  The Democratic convention in Chicago unraveled in an epic scene of police overreaction to a few outlandish street theatrics, indicting the thousands of young people who wanted Hubert Humphrey to take a firm stand against the war in Vietnam as well as in favor of a hodge-podge of domestic programs meant to expand Pres. Johnson’s Great Society.  The SDS, once upon a time a group of idealistic liberals, split over the tactical issue of violence, with the far more radical Weather Underground insisting that urban terrorism was a legitimate use of force against an increasingly repressive state police power.

In 1969, Hannah Arendt weighed in on the matter of violence, first looking at then-recent history, then a quick survey of theoretical treatments of violence from syndicalist Georges Sorel and his call for the General Strike, through the first part of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, to what Arendt identifies as theoretically unconnected quasi-Marxist statements given by what was then called The New Left.  Finally, she attempts not only to define violence – separate from force, authority, and strength – and to examine if its use is ever morally legitimate.  What is most fascinating, not only from 45 years distant but in the context of recent events in Ferguson, MO, is Arendt’s attempt to discuss the matter of violence absent any concrete context of violence.  She begins her essay, for example, discussing a topic much in vogue at the time: how the rise of thermonuclear weapons have made war impossible.  The whole first section of the essay is written as if much of the anger among American youth and young adults wasn’t aimed squarely at a war the United States was waging in Southeast Asia.  It is almost uncanny how she manages to write about the impossibility of war at the very time she addresses American students radicalized by an unjust and illegal war.

Another serious problem is to consider Frantz Fanon a theoretician of violence.  She chides Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote the Introduction to an edition of Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earthfor not reading the whole of Fanon’s work.  Yet in identifying Fanon as a theoretician of violence demonstrates she, too, has neither read nor understood Fanon’s work.  It is neither theoretical nor an endorsement of violence as a practical political tool. Working as a psychiatrist with youth in Algeria during the long struggle against the French occupation, Fanon turned his clinical experiences in to reflections on how violence is both a rational result of dehumanizing conditions and results in the psychological and physical destruction both of the oppressor and oppressed.

The most important question regarding violence is one she never addresses, precisely because her entire discussion has no roots in anything actually taking place anywhere in the world.  Whether or not violence is successful as a revolutionary tactic is a political scientist’s question.  Whether or not violence is a rational response, as Fanon made clear it can be, to a situation in which human beings live within structures of governance and social control that deny their humanity continues to be one of two questions that, whenever violence and war erupt, never get addressed in our public discourse.  The other question regards the legitimacy of the state’s use of force and violence towards its own citizens, or in a situation such as a war or occupation, the use of force and violence toward an occupied population.  While in the abstract, Arendt concedes that the use of force by state actors against its own citizens, such as in Ferguson, MO, demonstrates the collapse of legitimacy, she never addresses the interlocking systems of violence, coercion, and dehumanization that produce a constant state of fear and anger among target populations.  If, for example, the actions of the Ferguson, MO police force in the wake of organized, peaceful protests are illegitimate, what about a police force that is nearly all white in a minority-majority community?  What kind of legitimacy does any police force have among minority communities in the United States, who have a long history of official repression and continue to experience daily humiliations and harassment by the most visible representatives of state power?  In such a situation, is not the question not the wisdom or rationality of a violent response by persons in communities who are exhausted by police harassment, but rather the on-going low-level violence these communities face?

In matters of international conflict, the cycle of violence between Israel and Palestine is a wonderful test case of the legitimacy of the use of force by state actors in a quasi-international conflict.  While this is only my opinion, it seems clear that matters of justice and right in the use of force have lost any relationship to actual events, especially since the rise of the second Intifada and the collapse of the PLO’s Fatah in the West Bank.  Both sides have legitimate claims both to international sympathies as well as international condemnation.  There will be no resolution to this conflict as long as both sides insist that the use of violence is a legitimate response to repeated injustices, attacks, and the death of citizens.  While certainly not tactically, or even strategically, wise, the use of violence, from the occupation, forced removal, and destruction of property Israeli settlers perpetrate on the West Bank to the barrage of rockets from Gaza are cycles that feed one another, with the result that the question of the legitimacy of violence no longer has any meaning, even though it is clearly the most important question that should be posed.

Arendt’s treatment of violence in this essay is theoretically interesting, while vacuous when dealing with specific instances.  Afflicted by racial and cultural blinders that were still common among persons of her age and status, she could not see, for example, that Jean-Paul Sartre’s misreading of Fanon was no more egregious than her own; that her insulting insistence that demands from African-American university students in the United States for reforms in a system never designed to accommodate them were not demands for the lowering of standards, but the dismantling of racially discriminatory policies and practices that insisted persons of color were not up to the task of academic excellence.  Finally, writing about violence absent any examination of the legitimacy of state violence (as opposed to the use of violence against the state) not only takes for granted the legitimacy of the state monopoly on violence that has been part and parcel of the western nation-state since its invention; it denies an examination of the pervasiveness of violence as part of systems of state control, particularly of minority populations, against which citizen action, while perhaps neither wise nor likely to succeed, nevertheless makes far more sense than passive resignation.

Since the use of non-violent resistance both in India and the United States, many western liberals have concluded that violence as a political tactic is not only immoral but self-defeating.  It is therefore not surprising that Arendt would claim that the use of violence against the state will fail, except in rare cases. Liberals, however, are never comfortable with the reality that violence is a tool for social control, very often with their tacit support.  While many liberals are “upset” by the shooting of Michael Brown, many whites are also “upset” with the reaction of the African-American citizens of that small town, as if their peaceful protests and demands for justice were somehow enough of a threat to the power structure to warrant their forceful suppression.  The vast amount of violence in Ferguson is not the fault of the African-American citizens, but the police.  That Arendt leaves no space for a discussion of this reality other than the banal but irrelevant truism that this demonstrates the collapse of legitimate authority demonstrates the void at the heart of her essay.

While certainly an important and informative work, at the end of the day, we should move beyond this finally unsatisfying treatment of the question of violence.

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