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Hannah Arendt on How Bureaucracy Fuels Violence

“The rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”

“Every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise,” Freud wrote to Einstein in their little-known correspondence about violence and human nature.

In her indispensable 1970 book On Violence (public library), the celebrated German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) considers the evolving role of warfare in the context of the twentieth century. Writing a generation after the Atomic Age and at time when the threat of biological weapons was just beginning to penetrate our collective conscience, her meditation is all the more poignant and timely half a century later, in the age of drones and WMDs and all the political negotiations that surround them.

Hannah Arendt (Photograph by Fred Stein, 1944)

Arendt writes:

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 their 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 glamor. “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.” Moreover the game bears no resemblance to whatever war games preceded it. Its “rational” goal is mutual deterrence, not victory.

She adds:

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.

But one of Arendt’s most prescient points has to do with the burden of bureaucracy as a trigger for social unrest:

The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could 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.

Considering other theorists’ definitions of power as “the instinct of domination” driven by the urge “to command and to be obeyed,” Arendt argues bureaucracy is its greatest aberration:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux 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 the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the 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. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

On Violence remains an immensely insightful read. Complement it with Susan Sontag on the violence of photography, then revisit then revisit Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning, the power of being an outsider, how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, and our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil.

Published October 14, 2013




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