Hannah Arendt: Reflections on Violence

Arendt These reflections were provoked by the events and debates of the last few years, as seen against the background of the twentieth century. Indeed this century has become, as Lenin predicted, a century of wars and revolutions, hence a century of that violence which is currently believed to be then- common denominator. There is, however, another factor in the present situation which, though predicted by nobody, is of at least equal importance. The technical development of implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict. Hence, warfare - since times immemorial the final merciless arbiter in international disputes - has lost much of its effectiveness and nearly all of its glamour. 'The apocalyptic' chess game between the superpowers, that is, between those that move on the highest plane of our civilization, is being played according to the rule: 'If either 'wins' it is the end of both.'[1] Moreover the game bears no resemblance to whatever war games preceded it. Its 'rational' goal is mutual deterrence, not victory.

Since violence-as distinct from power, force, or strength - always needs implements (as Engels pointed out long ago),[2] the revolution in technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the question of means and ends, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means, which it both justifies and needs. Since the end of human action, in contrast with the products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals. Moreover, all violence harbors within itself an element of arbitrariness; nowhere does Fortuna, good or ill luck, play a more important role in human affairs than on the battlefield; and this intrusion of the 'Random Event' cannot be eliminated by game theories but only by the certainty of mutual destruction. It seems symbolic of this all-pervading unpredictability that those engaged in the perfection of the means of destruction have finally brought about a level of technical development where their aim, namely warfare, is on the point of disappearing altogether.[3]

No one concerned with history and politics can remain unaware of the enormous role violence has always played in human affairs; and it is at first glance rather surprising that violence has so seldom been singled out for special consideration.[4] (In the last edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 'violence' does not even rate an entry.) This shows to what extent violence and its arbitrary nature were taken for granted and therefore neglected; no one questions or examines what is obvious to all. Whoever looked for some kind of sense in the records of the past was almost bound to look upon violence as a marginal phenomenon. When Clausewitz calls war 'the continuation of politics with other means,' or Engels defines violence as the accelerator of economic development,[5] the emphasis is on political or economic continuity, on continuing a process which is determined by what preceded violent action. Hence, students of international relations have held until very recently that 'it was a maxim that a military resolution in discord with the deeper cultural sources of national power could not be stable,' or that, in Engels's words, 'wherever the power structure of a country contradicts its economic development' political power with its means of violence will suffer defeat.[6]

Today all these old verities about the relation of war and politics or about violence and power no longer apply. We know that "a few weapons could wipe out all other sources of national power in a few moments,"[7] that biological weapons are devised which would enable "small groups of individuals ... to upset the strategic balance" and be cheap enough to be produced by "nations unable to develop nuclear striking forces,"[8] that "within a very few years" robot soldiers will have made "human soldiers completely obsolete,"[9] and that, finally, in conventional warfare the poor countries are much less vulnerable than the great powers precisely because they are "underdeveloped" and because technical superiority can "be much more of a liability than an asset" in guerrilla wars.[10]

What all these very uncomfortable novelties add up to is a reversal in the relationship between power and violence, foreshadowing another reversal in the future relationship between small and great powers. The amount of violence at the disposal of a given country may no longer be a reliable indication of that country's strength or a reliable guarantee against destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power. This again bears an ominous similarity to one of the oldest insights of political science, namely that power cannot be measured by wealth, that an abundance of wealth may erode power, that riches are particularly dangerous for the power and well-being of republics. ...

Hannah Arendt / Reflections on Violence


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