Power and Violence

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In lieu of reading questions, I have decided to link to and comment on this post by Rob Farley (let me add that you won’t really be able to understand what I’m writing about in this post without reading Rob’s first; I won’t be offering an extended reconstruction of his argument).  Farley is a relatively well known blogger and International Relations Scholar (he currently teaches at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky).   He’s also a good friend of mine from graduate school.  He wrote this last June, primarily as a response to the recent protests in Iran.  Farley’s main point, I want to argue, is fundamentally Arendtian, though perhaps not in the way he thinks it is.

Farley’s main argument has to do with the fact that, in a confrontation of violence between the people and the political state, the outcome is almost never in doubt  (cf. Arendt, On Violence, p. 48).  The problem for the nation-state emerges when its police or soldiers refuse to exercise this violence, which for Arendt, is an example of why the effective use of violence crucially depends upon power, even as violence constantly threatens to destroy this power.  This is dramatically exemplified in the Tiananmen Square protests in China (from 1989), and in particular, in the event in which the lone protester stood in front of and stopped a column of tanks.  In this dramatic confrontation, we see that violence is of no use at all without power, that when the power of a protest confronts violence, it confronts not other men but men’s artifacts (see Arendt, p. 53), and that the exercise of violence might be “successful” but might also become counterproductive (see Arendt pp. 53-55).

Interestingly enough, then, I think Farley’s specific allusion to Arendt, wherein he discusses the state in terms of bureaucratic violence, is somewhat beside the point.  Arendt’s core idea, I want to argue, is not that the state has become bureaucratic and so responsibility has become defused; rather, her most important insight is this relation between violence and power–between action in concert and the continuing efforts of the state to contain it without destroying it.  Thus, what is of interest to Arendt is not just that the state has enormous capacities to kill lots and lots of people, but also that this activity is of only of limited use.  Killing millions of Vietnamese in the Vietnam war, one of Rob’s examples of state capacities, ended up being pretty much useless, because the one thing that cannot flow out of the barrel of a gun is power.

Anyway, let me highly, highly suggest that you go read the post and watch the videos he links to.  It’s long but well worth your time.

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