The Relationship Between Power And Violence In Hannah Arendt’s Thought.

This essay aims to discuss the concepts of power and violence, and their relationship in the thought of Hannah Arendt. Her essay On Violence will be taken as the entry point of the discussion. Firstly, this essay will define violence and power as Arendt thought them, and secondly through an analysis of their relationship in her thought it will provide a critique of violence and power. What will become clear is that the consequence of her argument is that power ultimately lies in the hands of individuals.

Arendt sets her discussion of violence apart from what she sees as the mainstream discourse of the topic. According to her, this discourse takes violence to be identical with power. It culminates with Mao saying that ‘power comes out of the barrel of a gun’ (Arendt 1972, 113). Instead, Arendt argues that while related, power and violence are distinct concepts. Power arises from the consent of groups. Arendt defines it as ‘the human ability not just to act but to act in concert (Arendt 1972, 143). It is created at the moment of the initial getting together of a group of individuals, and dispersed once the group ceases to exist (Arendt 1972, 143). It relies purely on the number of individuals supporting the group, or rather, within the group. Violence does not require numbers in that sense. It relies on implements (Arendt 1972, 106). These implements Arendt sees as multiplying strength, to a point at which they can replace it (Arendt 1972, 145). Interestingly, according to Arendt, violence also to some degree is governed by luck (Arendt 1972, 106).

The two less important, but also related concepts are the aforementioned strength, and force. The former Arendt defines as something belonging to the individual (Arendt 1972, 143). As such it is distinct from power, as that belongs to groups of individuals. The latter is used to designate the ‘energy released by physical or social movements (Arendt 1972, 143). Habermas understands Arendt’s conception of force as meaning imposing of one’s will on another (Habermas 1994, 212). However, it is more likely that by force she meant the measure of power, rather than the imposition of one will on another. The above description of force, indicates that it is not the power of a physical or social movement, but instead it is the vigour with which they proceed.

The role that power and violence have in politics is of crucial importance to the understanding of their relationship. Violence, according to Arendt, has the role insuring the stability of international relations. She notes a suitable replacement has not yet been created (Arendt 1972, 107). According to her, no such replacement could originate so long as ‘national independence’ and ‘the claim to unchecked and unlimited power in foreign affairs are identified’ by nations (Arendt 1972, 107). This reveals her stance as ultimately anti-sovereign. This comes as a consequence of her definition of power, as something belonging to groups of individuals.

In Arendt, there are two main points to be noted regarding the role of violence in domestic affairs. The first is that when the power of violence in international relations diminishes, the greater it appears to be in domestic relations (Arendt 1972, 113). The second is that any government that relies entirely on violence, has no power. Arendt notes that in saying that tyranny is both the least powerful and the most violent form of government (Arendt 1972, 140).

Power, according to the opposite of violence. Where violence interacts with power, it inevitably destroys it. By the same token, violence can never create power (Arendt 1972, 152). Elsewhere, Arendt defines power as a question of strength or weakness (Arendt 1977, 152). In concert with the definition of strength given above, shows that to Arendt, power is the combined strength of all of the individuals belonging to the group.  In that same essay, Arendt also claims that ‘political freedom, consists in being able to do what one ought to do’ (Arendt 1977, 161). This can only mean freedom from the power of other individuals.

Here it is important to remember that when one speaks of power, one must speak of power over something. Foucault defined it as existing only as exercised by some on others (Foucault 2003, 126). His characterization is important, as power is only known in comparison with other power. That is, the power possessed by a government can only be known in comparison with another government. This shows that when Arendt speaks of political freedom, she means the freedom from another’s power. This also means that for an individual to possess freedom, is for that individual to be able to create power, by forming new groups.

Lastly, according to Arendt, power is always known as a power potential (Arendt 1958, 200). It is the potential to the force an action of a group will have. This potential must rise or fall depending on the number of individuals in the group.

Arendt outlines two extreme forms of the interaction between power and violence. Those are the extreme form of power, All against One, and the extreme form of violence, One against All (Arendt 1972, 141). Those interactions are only real in so much as the power or violence are exercised. Arendt uses the example of a disruption in a lecture. If one individual was to successfully disrupt the class by some violent means, where all other students wanted to continue peacefully, it would be not due to the individuals greater power, but rather due to the groups choice not to exercise its power. This choice is marked wherever a minority takes control over a majority. While in a classroom, the violent means may merely be yelling or incessant talking, in the context of a government the violence might proceed by military means. These means are used to in a sense, subdue the majority, and to cause it to not exercise its power.

In this scenario, violence may appear to bring about power. Arendt would agree, that often it would be said that in such a situation, the minority is in a position of power. She would however disagree that what the minority possesses is genuinely power. While in the context of a classroom violent means are, usually, more restricted, in a political realm the use of violence has two uses. The first, in international relations, serves as a deterrent. The second, in domestic affairs, serves to infringe on individual freedom.

In the first case, Arendt claims that violence has become redundant (Arendt 1972, 108). She argues that, as an extension of international politics, it is only available to underdeveloped countries. That is because in highly developed nations, the means of violence threaten life itself, and can only be used as a deterrent (Arendt 1972, 107). Arendt would be surprised at modern warfare, where the means of violence have adapted. War has always, both in the past, and recently been waged by those with greater means of violence on those with lesser means. When the Third Reich invaded Poland, it has had the greater potential for violence. Similarly, the United States of America had the greater means of violence than Iraq had. What is clear, is that the potential for violence, which is built by a government is not merely for deterrence. Nor is it available, as a political means, merely to underdeveloped countries like Arendt thinks.

In domestic affairs, violence can serve to sever an individual’s freedom. This occurs both in a physical sense. One can be bound, or shackled. But more importantly, in a metaphysical sense, as one would be prevented from doing what one ought (Arendt 1977, 152). This forces the individual to the will of one power or another, and eliminates the ability of the individual to form power. The former occurs not by enhancing the power of those who control the means of violence, but rather by diminishing that of those who do not. The latter, happens by preventing the individual from being able to form new groups, which would result in a competing power being created.

Here, what is seen is a different role of violence than in international relations. There, violence is used as an extension of politics, either as a deterrent or as a threat. In domestic political affairs violence is a means of oppression.

Violence, also, appears to bring about power, though Arendt argues to the contrary. In a situation when one group, which is oppressed by another, gains the means to greater violence, it can overthrow the regime. This was most recently seen in what is being called the ‘Arab Spring’, where oppressive governments of countries such as Egypt and Libya are brought down by the people. Ideally, the people would then be the ones in power. It is also clear that people want to be empowered. The slogan of the Arab Spring attests to this: ‘The people want to bring down the regime’ (Abulof, 2011). If, as Arendt argues, the power belongs to the group, the function of violence in the case of revolution can be to assure that power.

History, however has shown that the fall of one oppressive regime often leads to the creation of a new one, which has the faults of the previous one. Kant alludes to this when he wrote in What is Enlightenment? that ‘a revolution may well bring about a falling off of personal despotism and of avaricious or tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform in one’s way of thinking; instead new prejudices will serve just as well as old ones to harness the great unthinking masses'(Kant 1996, 18). Kant was speaking of a revolution of thought, arguing that instead a change can be only brought about slowly. His warning highlights the need for those who create the power to be qualified, so that a new tyranny does not replace the old.

This problem is something that Arendt also has thought of. In On Violence she writes that revolutions are rarely started by those who have an interest in revolting. They are rather instigated by those who are motivated by compassion or a passion for justice (Arendt 1972, 126). There is nothing though to stop those leaders to feign compassion in order to attain their own ends. Such a false revolution has occurred in Libya in 1969 when Muammar Gaddafi led a revolt against the previous sovereign, King Idris (U.S. Department of State, 2012). Gaddafi’s forces called themselves the ‘people’s militia’.

Such a revolution clearly gave Gaddafi some sort of power, even though he was only supported by a small number of military officers (U.S. Department of State, 2012). It serves well to illustrate Arendt’s distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power. Legitimate power always comes from the people. Gaddafi must have recognized it, and that was the reason for why he wanted his militia to be called the ‘people’s militia’. Violence, can never be legitimate, though it can be justified. The Libyan revolution of 1969 could have been justified, however since violence was the only assurance of Gaddafi remaining in control of the country, his power was not legitimate.

As previously mentioned, Foucault characterized power as known only as it is exercised by some on others. The power of one group is known only when compared to that of another group. This makes it clear that if two groups with contrasting interests were evenly matched, neither would have power over the other. Likely, both groups would each consider themself more powerful. A situation of this sort could lead to violence. This highlights an important point which Arendt does not touch on. The illusion of greater power can lead to violence. It is illusory as there cannot be any power between two equals. It is also illusory, because as previously mentioned, it is only ever a power potential.

At this point, the conditions in which power and violence are possible will be discussed. As was already written above, power is created when a group gets together under a common cause. Habermas points this out when writing of Arendt’s concept of power. He comments that the fundamental manifestation of power is ‘the formation of a common will in a communication directed to reaching agreement’ (Habermas 1994, 212). According to Arendt then, power can arise when people are allowed the freedom to communicate, and to form groups.

The requirement of freedom as a precondition for power to arise, shows that ultimately, for Arendt, power lies with individuals. Assuming that have a sense of rationality, each of them is able to decide what goals he wants to achieve. If each is treated equally, they will all be able to attain any common goals. As such, the ability to create power, and what comes from it, power, belong to individuals. Not in the sense of each individual being in possession of power, but in the sense that each individual is equally capable of creating power.

Freedom not only necessary for power to be created, it is also necessary for power to persevere. Arendt writes that ‘violence can destroy power’ (Arendt 1972, 155), she means that it does so by taking away the conditions in which power can exist, and by forcing a group to disperse. Violence on the other hand, does not depend on any conditions, due to the variety of means that could be employed for violence. Violence, can arise under conditions in which individual freedom is guaranteed, as well as in those where individuals do not have their freedom. In the first case it can be employed as a means of deterrence. In the second case it can be employed as a means of revolution.

The question that arises when Arendt claims that violence destroys power, is: whose power? When a superpower like Russia has invaded the state of Georgia, did Russia’s power suffer? On one hand, the use of violence has served to deter others from an attack on Russia. On the other, the government of Russia surely had lost public support, and therefore, power, according to Arendt. This shows that while Arendt is right in arguing that power is destroyed by violence, there is also a second function of violence in regards to power. That is to assert the dominance of one power group. The price for that, according to Arendt, is paid by the victor in terms of his own power (Arendt 1972, 152). That price is however not always necessary. What of instances where the group who possesses the power wholly agrees on the use of violence, and it is confronted by non-violence? If such a group was to eliminate the opponent completely, and remain uniform, it does not seem that the groups power could diminish in any way. The price here would be limiting its own power, by eliminating any possible addition to it.

Arendt discusses the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, as an example of violence and power interacting in their pure states (Arendt 1972, 152). She uses the example to show that violence always destroys power. Whose power? The power of those who are subjected to it. In what sense does the victor pay in terms of his own power? According to Arendt, the victor pays due to the inevitable casualties that violence brings on both sides. Arendt seems to contradict herself here. On one hand the victor pays in terms of his own power. On the other, she suggests that this is because the ‘loss of power becomes a temptation for violence’ (p152), which suggests that the loss of power would have already occurred, before violence can truly take hold.

What is clear that Arendt wanted power to lie ultimately in the hands of individuals. It has also been shown that while violence, according to Arendt, can only destroy power, it also has other functions, which are preservation of power, and restriction of freedom. The conditions in which violence and power can arise have been shown, and distinguished between the two phenomena. Arendt’s understanding of the distinction and relationship between power and violence has also been shown. It is clear that the two concepts are related. Arendt is certainly right in arguing that violence can destroy power. It is clear though, from the above considerations, that it does not necessarily do so. Rather, the end for which violence is used determines the destruction of power. Arendt claimed that violence can never create power. This also has been shown above. In politics, a revolution, which could be said to bring about a new political power in a given state, rather, according to Arendt, simply gives that power control over the state. This is due to the power already having to exist, as it arises from the initial getting together of the group.


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Arendt, H., 1963. On Revolution. New York: The Viking Press.

Arendt, H., 1972. On Violence. In: Crises of the Republic. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, pp. 103-184.

Arendt, H., 1977. What is Freedom?. In: Between Past and Future. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, pp. 143-172

Foucault, M., 2003. The Subject and Power. In: P. Rabinow, ed. The Essential Foucault. New York: The New Press, pp. 126-144.

Habermas, J., 1994. Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power. In: L. Hinchman & S. Hinchman, eds. Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 211-230.

Kant, I., 1996. An answer to the question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’. In: P. Guyer & A. W. Wood, eds. Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 11-23.

U.S. Department of State, 2012. Background Note: Libya. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 08/06/2012].

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