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Extended Book Review [Reviewer’s Commentary]

Authors have various perceptions from different angles as to the origins of violence. Arendt addresses the macro aspects of violence as they play out among nations. Her perspectives are mainly national or international in nature. Yet she uses terms that will be familiar as manifestations of Authoritarian Personality as discussed on this web site. Arendt sees political violence as having five aspects. They are worth illustrating:

“POWER corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. ...The extreme form of power is All Against One; the extreme form of violence is One Against All.”

[This is one way the herding instinct survives! Herding instinct leads to power in both nature and in society.]

“STRENGTH unequivocally designates something in the singular, an individual entity; it is the property inherent in an object or person and belongs to its character, which may prove itself in relation to other things or persons, but is essentially independent of them.”

[Arendt is basically right here. In terms developed on this site, strength means the inherent properties: survival of fittest, which typically includes smarts, wile, resourcefulness, adaptability, and agility in addition to strength of one sort or another. Aggression employs strength as well as the above qualities. The greater the strength, the more it can gain, even if the gains must be given up later.]

“FORCE, which we often use in daily speech as a synonym for violence, especially if violence serves as a means of coercion, should be reserved, in terminological language, for the ‘forces of nature’ or the ‘force of circumstances (la force des choses), that is, to indicate the energy released by physical or social movements.”

[In terminological language, “force” and “energy released” are not at all the same thing. Force is a pressure or stress that may or may not expend energy. If force accomplished something, like giving an object impulse, moving it, then energy is expended. Force is a static concept; energy is dynamic. A strong person can exert more force than a weak one. But either can accomplish work (release or consume energy), for example, by carrying a load down or up a hill. By the same token, a typical group can exert more force than a typical individual. In an individual, the development of force arises from one’s genetic make-up. That is the area we prefer to explore for solutions, for genes are at the root of violence.]

“AUTHORITY relating to the most elusive of these phenomena and therefore, is a term, most frequently abused, can be vested in persons--there is such a thing as personal authority, as, for instance, in the relation between parent and child, between teacher and pupil--or it can be vested in offices, as for instance, in the Roman senate ...or in the hierarchical offices of a church...” “(A father can lose his authority by beating his child or by starting to argue with him, that is, either behaving to him like a tyrant or by treating him as an equal.) To remain in authority requires for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest ways to undermine it is laughter,”

[This is a relative and comparative term, implying neither difference nor equivalence between two or more individuals or offices. Aside from that trivial difference, Arendt shows great insight, intuition, into how authority works. And it is spot on for the content on this site. Obedience is blind most of the time, but mistreatment can turn off many of the otherwise blindly-obedient. The 2006 US election was a clear indicator of this feature of authority in action.]

“VIOLENCE, finally, as I have said, is distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, in the last stage of their development, they can substitute for it.”

[In this sense, the extra strength gained by terrorism is psychological. By a huge margin, violence of the 9/11 magnitude instilled a fear that overrode, and still overrides, any fear of several more likely ways by which an American will actually die. Yet we do not fear these other ways anything like the way we fear terroristic violence.]

Arendt povides much more. On one most-importent issue we quote:

"The enormous growth in productivity in the modern world was by no means due to an increase in the worker's productivity, but exclusively the development of technology, and this depended neither on the working class nor the bougeoisie, but on the scientists. The intellectuals... suddenly ceased to to be a marginal social group and emerged as a new elite, whose work, having changed the conditions of human life almost beyond recognition in a few decades, has remained essential for the functioning of society. There are many reasons why this new goup has not, or not yet, developed into a power elite but there is indeed every reason to believe with Dniel Bell* that 'not only the best talents, but eventually the entire complex of social prestige will be rooted in the intellectual and scientific communities'." (*Notes on the Post-Industrial Society, The Public Interest, No. 6, 1967.)

"...For better or worse--and I think there is every reason to be fearful as well as hopeful--the really new and potentially revolutionary class in society will consist of intellectuals and their potential power, as yet unrealized, is very great, perhaps too great for the good of mankind. But these are specualtions."

Well, one Dr. Khan did his part in making Arendt's fear come to pass. But of course, all Khan really did was bring the potential for a nuclear disaster closer than it would have been otherwise.

So how does all this fit together with the concepts of Authoritarian Personality, AP, and the extreme expressions variously labeled Sociopathy, Psychopathy. or Narcissism, SPN, to coin an acronym for this cluster of personality types? SPN is the most extreme expression of the AP. SPN is capable of Hitler-, Stalin-, Pot Pol-like behaviors while the APs follow them too blindly. Genocide in the ultimate degree is a common result.

From Altemeyer: AP is a mind set defined by 1) aggression, yet 2) hierarchical submission and 3) conventionalism in its simplest terms. In Arendt’s terms, it contains elements of a) power, b) strength, c) force, and d) authority in expressing e) violence, physically, psychologically, or both. In this light, Arendt’s careful rendition affirms the simple view of the AP and its SPN captors. The AP--lower in aggression than the SPN without conscience--readily submits and goes along for the ride. AP folks (sheep in Lederer's terms) give the SPN full authority in Arendt’s meaning of the word. Sheep now seems to be the wrong metaphor. Sheep never question, moderate authoritarians do. Nevertheless, American history from 2001 through 2007 followed the foregoing script If Theodor Adorno, Bob Altemeyer, Paul Babiak, Joe Conason, John Dean, Robert Hare, William Lederer, Mahmood Mamdani, Stanley Milgram, William Pfaff, William Polk, Jessica Stern, Martha Stout, Jim Wallis, Bob Woodward, and Phillip Zimbardo are even half right in their many views of how recent historic events depend on human perwsonality. The 2006 voter rebellion fit Arendt’s view of the authoritarian dynamic regarding authority itself. Moderate authoritarians felt betrayed by their government’s leader. Arendt and Stern are in good accord on the alienation and humiliation features that radicalize individuals and motivate violence and terror in their various forms.

Moderate authoritarians comprise most of America’s middle class; these folks make the nation work and glue it together. Most of them reside in rather structured jobs and professions such as accounting, administration, computer and programming and system management, aircraft maintenance and pilots, bus, cab and truck driving, coaching, engineering, enterprise foremen, supervisors, and managers, physicuans, health providers and workers, armed services and police, law, small business owners, tradespeople and even some laborers to cite a few examples.

Many if not most of these folks, being moderate authoritarians, are well-suited for their professions. They just insist on being treated fairly.

Arendt didn't have the benefit of all the resources we have relied upon, yet she resonates even today.

This little book of 102 pages in paper-back, including notes, deserves serious study by anyone concerned about modern violence, its origins, and dangers.

From Wikipedia: Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906 – December 4, 1975) was a German political theorist. She has often been described as a philosopher, although she always refused that label on the grounds that philosophy is concerned with "man in the singular." She described herself instead as a political theorist because her work centers on the fact that "men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world."


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