Philosophy, Politics 7 min read

A Tyranny Without a Tyrant

Hannah Arendt’s essay On Violence offers a unique perspective on the rise of unrest and violence in the 1960s. The reasons she gives have not been resolved, which may well explain the situation in the world today.
“Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” —Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt’s On Violence was published over fifty years ago, but it might have been written today. Arendt’s essay was informed by two aspects of the political climate of her time. First, there was the Cold War and a very real prospect of nuclear annihilation. Second, there were a string of student rebellions taking place on campuses around the world. While the particulars differ, the fundamentals of these two things—at least with respect to the issues Arendt writes about—are essentially mirrored today with the threat posed by climate change and the rise in unrest and riots, particularly in the United States, but also in Europe and elsewhere. The conclusion Arendt arrives at in her essay is thus perhaps even more relevant today than at the time of its publication.

On Violence pulls together many of Arendt’s ideas from her other works, tying those ideas into a common thread that leads towards a compelling conclusion. To understand her conclusion we must therefore work our way through the thread. Arendt begins by examining the term itself. What is violence? And what makes violence different from other concepts such as power, strength, force and authority? Arendt defines the terms:

With these definitions in place, particularly that of power and violence, Arendt constructs an argument to explain the dynamic behind the student rebellion. The same conclusion can be used make sense of today’s wave of unrest.

We begin with the modern idea of “progress,” which, until modern times, did not even exist. History was cyclical, it had no beginning and no end. If it did have an end, it was the end of the world, the day of judgement. There was no movement from point A towards point B, there was no “improvement.” If anything, there was a fall from a golden age. Modern science brought with it many discoveries that have began reshaping the world, a world which until that point had experienced little fundamental change. Thinkers started to look history as a process. They saw humanity moving from a state that was “primitive” towards something more “advanced.” The idea of “progress” was born:

The notion that there is such a thing as progress of mankind as a whole was unknown prior to the seventeenth century, developed into a rather common opinion among the eighteenth-century hommes de lettres, and became an almost universally accepted dogma in the nineteenth. … Now, in the words of Proudhon, motion is “le fait primitif” and “the laws of movement alone are eternal.” This movement has neither beginning nor end: “Le movement est, voilà tout!” As to man, all we can say is “we are born perfectible, but we shall never be perfect.”

With the idea of “progress” came the idea of “growth.” How do we judge success in a world that is moving somewhere, that is making progress? We demand growth. We want science to keep creating new technologies, we want industry to keep producing more things. Our economy must keep growing. Should growth even begin to slow down, we scramble to think of ways to “stimulate” the economy, to make it grow faster.

To manage this growth, we have developed a new form of government called “bureaucracy,” a vast administrative apparatus which will only keep getting bigger as it has to manage our ever growing world. Unlike other forms of government, not only is a bureaucracy not representative—we don’t elect the bureaucrats—its size and structure eliminates individual responsibility. When everybody is responsible, no one is. It is rule by Nobody:

“… bureaucracy or the rule of an intricate system of bureaus 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 rule by Nobody. (If, in accord with traditional political thought, we identify tyranny as 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 …)”

This is a problem because it takes away our ability to act. What is action? Arendt distinguishes “mere behavior” from action by suggesting that action must necessarily interrupt some ongoing process, it must create change. Simply following a process would lead to predictable results, and this would not be action. The function of bureaucracy, on the other hand, is to maintain the status quo, to maintain an ongoing process and minimize any disruption. In a way, it is the antithesis of action. Political freedom requires action, and by taking away our ability to act, our political freedom is also taken from us. As Pareto wrote: “freedom … by which I mean the power to act shrinks every day, save for criminals, in the so-called free and democratic countries.” Furthermore, the system cannot be argued with, because nobody is responsible:

In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.

And this is what in Arendt’s opinion was the likely cause of the student rebellions. By gathering together on campuses and on the streets, for the first time in their lives people feel power. They experience what it’s like to act in concert. Whether or not they are able to effect change, there is at least a sense of common action, a thing they have been completely deprived of:

I am inclined to think that much of the present glorification of violence is caused by severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world. It is simply true that riots in the ghettos and rebellions on the campuses make “people feel they are acting together in a way that they rarely can.”

And violence? Violence is inversely related to power. “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. … Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” The more power you have, the less need you have for violence. As power slips away, violence is used by those who are losing it. At its final stage, when there is no power left at all, violence turns into terror, which is “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.” Thus we see an explosion of violence, from any side that feels it is losing power. A failing state will use ever more violence to maintain control. The people, finding themselves in a world where action has been made impossible, will turn to riots.

Again, we do not know where these developments will lead us, but we know, or should know, that every decease in power is an open invitation to violence—if only because those who hold power and feel it slipping from their hands, be they the government or be they the governed, have always found it difficult to resist the temptation to substitute violence for it.