Monday, October 06, 2008

Power and the people

With the help of Hannah Arendt it is not difficult to see why nonviolent action can be so effective, for she wrote: “Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together” (italics mine). Nonviolent action can be effective, because it is based on the concerted action of as many people as possible. But at the end of the quotation we see already also a weak point in nonviolent action, if not the weak point. This point becomes even clearer, when we read what Arendt writes next: “The moment the group, from which the power originated to begin with …, disappears, [power] vanishes” (Hannah Arendt, On violence, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, enz., 1970; p. 44). Actually, when writing this passage, Arendt referred to the power of one man and how it is based on his supporting group. As we have seen last week, this characterization of power is fundamentally LaBoétian. Defining power this way is very exceptional among political scientists, who usually define it as something like the possibility to impose one’s will. However, it provides much insight in how power works. It makes clear, for example, that it is not enough to mobilize people in order to bring down an usurper. It is also necessary to keep the people mobilized or to keep them ready to be quickly mobilized in some way. This is one of the most difficult problems of nonviolent action, and not only of this type of action. For most people watch rather a football match on TV than step into the street for a demonstration. And every ruler knows.

2 comments:

Nico Niveo Solón. said...

Huey P Newton. Once said, that power is the ability to objectively analyze phenomena and make it act in a desired manner. I believe in response to your post that this is a correct principal we can see throughout human experience. The human body although some would say has the power to do some things, in all actuality only has the ability to do so. Power requires the domination our ruling over some external phenomena, much is the relation of the mind to the body as the mind controls an the external functions of the mind only so far as it understands the abilities of the body. In a more social context we can see that while your description offers a more machiavelian approach to this explanation, we still have to deal with the fact that a qualitative description of the phenomena over which we wish to excercise power is not enough, this requires the formation of a group or in a more general sense the quantative accumulation of the elements necessary to excercise control that transform themselves into the qulitative expression of power. If we use the example once again of the body, for one to have the quality or ability to stand on one's hands, then they have to multiple hands (quantity) or have built up sufficient muscle mass (also quantity) in order to project the qualitative element of the ability or power.

HbdW said...

I know that Arendt's definition of power is unusual (and what you with Newton calls power, is called strength by Arendt), but I think that here is more than a playing with words. I think that it brings forward aspects of power that are often neglected and that I wanted to stress in my blog. It shows why social action often works and can work. But I do not want to deny that other analyses are possible. Things can often be considered under different aspects.
It is no wonder that you call Arendt's (and mine) description Machiavellian. The description goes back to Etienne de La Boetie (1530-1563), who defends in his "On voluntary servitude" and anti-Machiavelliand viewpoint.
How Arendt's definition of power can be useful has been shown by Gene Sharp. I am working on a study of it.