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  • Logics of Power, Logics of Violence (According to Hegel)
  • Rocío Zambrana (bio)

Hegel, Science of Logic, power (Macht, Kraft), violence (Gewalt), absolute method, teleology, universality, singularity, Arendt

Hannah Arendt, who had little sympathy for Hegelian dialectics, makes an important observation about the need to draw a distinction between power and violence in her book On Violence. Arendt laments that “political science... does not distinguish among such key words as ‘power,’ ‘strength,’ ‘force,’ ‘authority,’ and finally ‘violence,’ all of which refer to distinct, different phenomena and would hardly exist unless they did” (Arendt 1969, 43). Getting clear on the conceptual distinction between power, authority, and violence is important, because it allows a precise grasp of political phenomena that are otherwise obscured. These distinctions allow us to differentiate and assess logics of power from logics of violence that political phenomena express.

Along these lines, Arendt draws her famous, albeit controversial, distinction between power and violence. The core of Arendt’s distinction is the [End Page 11] instrumental logic of means and ends. Power, according to Arendt, is “the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert” (44). It is what springs up when people come together and begin something new. Power is thus “an end in itself” (51). Rather than to an action’s goal or consequence, its legitimacy is tied to action itself—to new beginnings made possible by acting with others (52). In contrast, violence is “by nature instrumental” and “relies on implements” (51, 42). It “is ruled by the means-end category” (4). Ends justify the means. Means can override the ends. Power becomes not just something else, but its very “opposite” when it becomes a means, when it is led by external ends (56). It becomes violence. Accomplishing an end by implementing means displaces the legitimacy of action in a foregone past or a future beyond.

As elsewhere, in On Violence Arendt signals Hegelian and Marxist dialectics as exemplary of a dangerous intersection between philosophy, history, and politics. On Arendt’s view, Hegel’s signature notion of negativity sustains a teleological conception of reason, which yields an understanding of history that follows a means-ends logic. History is a slaughter bench that accomplishes the aims of reason. “Hegel and Marx’s great trust in the dialectical ‘power of negation,’” Arendt points out, “rests on a much older philosophical prejudice: that evil is nothing more than a privative modus of the good, that good can come out of evil; that, in short, evil is but a temporary manifestation of a still-hidden good.” For Arendt, “such time-honored opinions have become dangerous.” They displace the end of action from acting in concert. “They are shared by many who have never heard of Hegel or Marx,” Arendt writes, “for the simple reason that they inspire hope and dispel fear—a treacherous hope used to dispel legitimate fear” (56).

My aim in what follows is not to provide a defense of the textbook interpretation of Hegel—an understanding of Hegel that Arendt leans on. Rather, my aim is to examine Hegel’s own insistence on making a conceptual distinction between power and violence. My assessment reveals surprising overlaps between Hegel and Arendt, in addition to dispelling common misunderstandings of Hegel. To be sure, Hegel understands reason as “purposive activity” (1977, 22; 1969b, 24). Hegel indeed argues that the unfolding of natural and historical processes exhibits a logic or rationality. Attention to Hegel’s distinction between power (Macht, Kraft) and violence (Gewalt), however, suggests [End Page 12] that Hegel is as concerned as Arendt with means-ends rationality. Arendt and Hegel’s shared worry stems from the suspicion that an external end leads to a logic of means that does violence to the unfolding of matters themselves. For Hegel just as much as for Arendt, concrete matters are ends in themselves.

Power, according to Hegel, is the capacity that natural and social things and processes have to become what they are. The power of matters or things themselves (die Sache selbst) is their rationality or, as we will see, their “subjectivity.” Violence, in contrast, is what is suffered when a thing, person, or natural...


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