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.