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Hannah Arendt: On Power

Author(s): LEO J. PENTA

Source: The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1996), pp. 210-
Published by: Penn State University Press
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Hannah Arendt: On Power

The work of Hannah Arendt, especially her most seminal work, The Human
Condition (1958b), is usually interpreted and critiqued in terms of her con
cept of action. While the centrality of this notion is unquestionable, its rela
tionship to her radical redefinition of power is generally given rather short
shrift. Power, when it becomes a topic of critical discussion at all, is seen
secondarily, and its redefinition is treated merely as one of the consequences
of her notion of action.1 Yet Arendt's radical notion of power, as I will at
tempt to show, is central to her normative reconceptualization of the politi
cal by means of the notion of action.
Therefore, what I would like to do in this essay, albeit in a somewhat
elliptical form, is to read Arendt on her own terms from the point of view of
an interest in the question of power.2 This reading centers, in the first part of
this paper, around what I will argue to be the two concepts which can best
get to the heart of Arendt's distinctive notion of power: (1) language under
stood from a hermeneutic perspective and (2) a decidedly relational consti
tution of the political self. These are clearly overlapping notions, yet they
are distinguishable according to the aspect from which power can be viewed:
either in relation to action seen formally as a particular kind of human activ
ity or in relation to action seen in terms of agency, that is, with respect to
those who act. In the second part of this paper, I will further clarify Arendt's
notion of power?as based in communication and relation?by contrasting
it with the classic modern view of power as unilateral domination.
As a preliminary step, however, an initial justification of the centrality of
power from within Arendt's work is in order. This justification can be found
textually in the way in which Arendt herself links the notion of power to the
undisputedly central notion of action. Contextually, the pivotal nature of
chapter 28, "Power and the Space of Appearance," to the discussion of ac
tion in part 5 of The Human Condition points to a more than secondary


Copyright ? 1996 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.


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relationship. Here she distinguishes power from both violence or force (seen
instrumentally and physically in terms of the possession of implements) and
strength (seen as individual physical ability), and she links it inextricably
with the boundless potential for action present when people gather together
under uncorrupted conditions of communication "where word and deed have
not parted company" (1958b, 199-207).3 In On Revolution, Arendt explic
itly characterizes this relationship using the metaphor of the relationship
between "the elementary grammar of political action and its more compli
cated syntax, whose rules determine the rise and fall of human power" (1977,
173). Moreover, if we compare a predicate applied uniquely to action in The
Human Condition and uniquely to power in On Revolution, we find an al
most total congruence. In the former, action is characterized as "the only
activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things
or matter" (1958b, 7). Power in the latter work "is the only human attribute
which applies solely to the worldly in-between space by which men are
mutually related" (1977, 175). On the basis of this and other textual evi
dence, I would like to characterize the relationship between action and power
in Arendt as correlative rather than subsidiary. From this correlation it is
possible to expose the implicit grounds of Arendt's explicit characterization
of power, and to support its radicality.
We can apply this correlation by recalling two of Arendt's most important
characterizations of action. First, action is essentially linked to speech.
"Speechless action," she writes, "would no longer be action because there
would no longer be an actor, and the actor, the doer of deeds, is possible only
if he is at the same time the speaker of words" (1958b, 178-79). Second,
action is inextricably connected with the disclosure of the who, the agent or
initiator, a human being who is not only simply other but distinct. "This
disclosure of 'who' in contradistinction to 'what' somebody is?his quali
ties, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide?is im
plicit in everything somebody says and does" (179). I would like to show
how both of these essential and explicit attributes of action are implicitly
enfolded within Arendt's discussion of power.


While it is apparent and recognized that speech and action form an insepa
rable pair in Arendt's work, this same link between speech and power is
rarely recognized. Yet it would not be incorrect to say that her characteriza
tion of power comes closer to expressing the discursive component of action
than any of the other categories that she closely links with action. These

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include the "space of appearance," the "public realm," and the "web of rela
tionships," all of which have a decidedly spatial and/or visual connotation.
In fact, under close scrutiny Arendt's discussion of power can be seen to be
informed almost entirely by categories of language, more specifically, of
language understood according to a hermeneutic paradigm. In other words,
the qualities essential to Arendt's unique description of power can be re
duced almost entirely to the qualities of speech understood as conversation
within the transcendental horizon of language. The reciprocal activity of
speaking and hearing has primacy over both the spoken and the speakers,
and such activity depends ultimately on the fact that language can never be
entirely objectified by its users. Therefore, our concern is with speech as
medium of human interrelation, which, though it always appears within spe
cific semantic and pragmatic configurations, is not reducible simply to any
of these.4 The argument for this correspondence between power and speech
will take the form of a weaving together of the many strands that make up
Arendt's unique understanding of power. By taking up each strand in turn,
we can clarify an additional aspect of the correspondence between power
and speech. No one point of comparison carries the full weight of the argu
ment. Rather, the concurrence of a series of aspects, a number of interwoven
strands, form the argumentative rope from which the conclusion hangs.
As an initial indicator of the speech-power link, let us consider the central
characterization of power as it first appears in The Human Condition: its
connection with the "space of appearance" (1958b, 28, 199-207). Arendt
sees this space from the perspective of the twofold quality of human plural
ity?distinction and equality. It is thus circumscribed by the poles of unique
distinctness and communality: the dialectic of the "who" and the "we" of all
true political action. This space is an expression of the idea of the "in-be
tween," which, according to the general sense given it by Arendt, "relates
and separates men at the same time" (52). Power, unlike strength, force, or
violence (from which Arendt specifically and unequivocally differentiates
power), is neither a property nor an instrument, nor any sort of monadic
phenomenon, but rather has its existence inter homines, when people act
together in public. It is that which constitutes the public space between those
in action. "Power is what keeps the public realm, the potential space of ap
pearance between acting and speaking men, in existence" (200). Power can
perhaps be characterized as the medium of the originary political being to
gether of human beings in action, "the lifeblood of human artifice," whose
raison d'etre is the web of human affairs and relationships (204). It can be
further characterized as the essential human "in-between," first as to its ex
periential localization and then, more broadly, as to its proper ontological

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As localization, the "in-between" expresses both the horizontal plane of

power, in contradistinction to the usual vertical understanding, and its rela
tive independence from the relata between which power is located. Power is
not power over, as the normal usage suggests, but power with, because it
constitutes essentially the space of action. In a general hermeneutic sense,
all speech is localizable in precisely the same way: as horizontally directed
conversation with, out of the center of language.
The localization of power between, rather than in agents, emphasizes at
the same time the essential ontological condition of plurality, the condition
Arendt defends as essential to the realm of action. This coincides with the
plurality that is a condition of language and conversation. Because power
also has to correspond to the essential human and political condition of plu
rality, it is necessary to take leave of the notion of power as possession. This
reconfiguration has its complement in the notion of speech as the actuality
of human plurality. Both relationships to plurality are explicitly mentioned
by Arendt.5 A conversation can "belong" to some-one only inauthentically if
it is truly a conversation and not a monologue. Similarly, it is, according to
Arendt, purely metaphorical to ascribe power to an individual. Further, she
describes power as the place marker of action that persists through time. It
exists as the standing potential to act among those not yet acting or of those
who have previously acted. Moreover, it is precisely the presence of power,
that, far from hindering further action, or consolidating past action, holds
open the possibility of new action and promotes it (see 1958b, 199-207;
1970, 40-56). To use a metaphor of Arendt's, though this time an optical
rather than her usual spatial ones, this phenomenon is the "brightness" of
power, the transparence of power for the action within it.
The notion of language as the most original human "in-between" seems,
however, not only to furnish the paradigmatic origin for the in-between char
acter of power, but to be itself the overarching human reality that is capable
of grounding the role Arendt assigns to power. It can be eminently said of
language with regard to conversation that it both calls forth and sustains any
actual dialogue. This is reinforced in the German formulation, where Arendt
writes that power stiftet, literally "gifts" or "donates," the space of appear
ance, as well as preserves it after the moment of action (Vita activa oder Vom
tatigen Leben [1981a, 198]). Language is, at once, the continual potential
for conversation and the conditio per quam of actual conversation. Although
language precedes conversation and outlasts it, it is transparent for the con
versations that appear in it, but at the same time it does not itself appear in
unmediated fashion in any specific conversation.
It is possible to trace this same configuration with respect to the other
facets of the notion of power as explicated by Arendt. These include the

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special nature of the potentiality of power, its spontaneous generation and

limitlessness, the fact that it cannot be saved or stored up, and, finally, its
relationship to tradition.6
Power for Arendt belongs to a class of potentialities "that can only be
actualized but never fully materialized," thus making it "to an astonish
ing degree independent of material factors, either of number or means"
(1958b, 200). This pertains despite the material dependency of the
nonidealized space of appearances. If we take into account her strict ex
clusion of the mental activities (thinking, willing, judging), as well as hu
man labor, from the space of appearances, then we are forced to have re
course to language itself in order to find content for the sort of potentiality
to which Arendt is referring. Only a conversation actualizes the spoken
without reifying it while at the same time being inseparable from the em
bodiment of the discussants. The conversation has an actuality in the ex
ecution of embodied speaking and listening, but cannot itself be considered
to be simply corporeal.7
Closely connected to the question of potentiality is Arendt's contention
concerning the spontaneous generation of power that characterizes the mo
ment of power's actualization. Her repeated formulation for this is "Power
springs up" (1970, 52; 1958b, 200). This moment of actualization of power
is also connected with the already-mentioned topos of the generative and
preservative function of power and points to the connection between power
and freedom. On the one hand, power presupposes the space of appearances,
which it conserves; on the other, it is supposed to generate this space. From
the perspective of action, the same is true: Power makes action possible;
action, however, generates power. In the context of the problem of freedom,
this circle takes the form of the question of the relatively unconditioned
beginning of a series that goes beyond the mere act of the will. The structure
of the hermeneutic circle appears to represent the paradigm for this relation
ship. The hermeneutic circle is meaningful in terms of language as the loca
tion of human being in the world, and concomitant openness for the world.
We stand already within the original discourse of language, in order to be
able to begin any conversation, and before any particular conversation be
gins. It is conversation that introduces us into itself and that "holds" the
conversation, conducts the discourse, since we already, from the point of
view of language, stand within the conversation (see, e.g., Maraldo 1974).
Power "springs up" just as a conversation begins in that the horizon of the
possible activity both precedes the actual occurrence and continues after it.
Power generates, and at the same time presupposes, that which is generated,
just as the conversation in virtue of language itself generates and presup
poses itself in the same moment.

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A further characteristic of power for Arendt is its essential limitlessness

once actualized. "For power, like action, is boundless. ... Its only limita
tion is the existence of other people" (1958b, 201). This same sort of de
limitation can be postulated for the idealized, though not thereby mentalized,
conversation?insofar as such discourse can be considered in abstraction
from the physical limitations of the participants, and its own accidental con
ditions as fundamentally unbounded with regard to its potential continua
tion. A conversation is of itself never closed since the ultimate result, the
final word, always remains to be said, must always remain outstanding as
long as the conversation exists as a conversation, and not as a firm and un
changeable result. To have the last word means to destroy the conversation
as conversation. The participants do not carry the unlimited possibility of
continuation of the actual conversation, but language itself grounds the lim
itlessness of the conversation.8 Once again, this property of discursive speech
permits us formally to trace the limitlessness of power back to the contours
of the primary unlimited actuality of conversation.
The markedly ephemeral nature of power, its dependence upon the self
generative expansion and sharing of power, leaves for Arendt a further mark
upon power: It cannot, as power, be saved or stored up. Instead, it must be
continually renewed and regenerated. The demands of continuity and daily
life force us to attempt to fixate power in some fashion in forms of political
organization. In Arendt's work this refers particularly to the typically mod
ern question of the political constitution and legitimization of the state. Such
a fixation of power, and the mistaken equivalence of power with violence
and its instruments?as necessary as it might seem in the world of Realpoli
tik?is never original power, but at best a borrowed power in need of contin
uous renewal (1970, 47-56). It remains always dependent upon the primary
spring of power generation in order for the structures to continue as more
than relics. The disregard of this quality of power means the eventual but
certain demise of the structures erected upon it. The temptation to circum
vent the demise of such empty structures by resorting to violence cannot save
power, but rather carries the forms of organization further from their roots. A
consistent striving for the reification of power leads to its certain loss.
In this point as well, we can draw a comparison to language. What is
spoken, what is communicated in conversation, is always something new
and unique that is lost almost as soon as it is spoken. The conversation relies
on the continuous renewal of what is spoken, which is always new, even
when the words are the same. This speaking in the context of the conversa
tion cannot be captured and stored (except as memory) without some form
of reification. These remain products that can never totally recover the origi
nal and never lose their dependence upon the never-to-be-repeated spoken

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word.9 Therefore, such products become less clear and less easily under
standable the further they are removed from their origin. Such products can
also never replace the living contact with conversation, and the waiving of
such contact, in order to remain at a particular recorded stand of the conver
sation, opens the way for the loss of the "thread" of the discussion, and to the
eventual breakdown of the living conversation.
The final point in our comparison is the historical force Arendt attributes
to power?what we could term the remembered in-between. This character
istic of power consists in the possibility of efficacious, action-provoking
memories, stories of that which has taken place in the space of appearances
without the mediation of things, and that means without resort to homofaber.
Such a historical effectiveness of power pertains, therefore, not to the forms
of organization of power, but rather to the possibility of a direct passing on
of original power over time. Since power as a historical force can hardly be
separated from tradition as linguistic event, the connection here between
power and language is immediately evident. This power of memory implies
not a final fixation of the living conversation, but rather the passing of what
is remembered into the unavoidable conversation with the past in which we
stand, and in which that which is remembered can itself remain alive and
effective. This is not a history of ideas, much less an idea of history, but
political history as a collection of stories which, although they reach us now
only as fragments, have passed inextricably into our language. At work here
is the power of language through time, a recognition of which Arendt gives
us in her essay on Walter Benjamin: "Any period to which its own past has
become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the
phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwart
ing all attempts to get rid of it once and for all" (1968c, 204).10
The fragments of language, which are comparable to "pearls" and "coral,"
are deformed, sedimented, and fragmented. They remain powerful, how
ever, as long as they are still able to inform collective, public action.
Our comparison has sought to show that an extraordinary convergence
obtains between the constitutive elements of Arendt's notion of power, and a
hermeneutic conception of language. Without exception, this point-by-point
inspection of the Arendtian properties of power points to a linguistic para
digm which is their common point of departure. But beyond this, the com
parison uncovers the qualities of language that ultimately ground the claims
made for power.11 This stronger claim of our comparison, from which we
will proceed, maintains that there is an essential agreement between power
and language and proposes that power in Arendt's meaning of the term is
equivalent to the power of language. This stronger claim can be grounded
upon the nature of the elements used in the previous comparison. The points

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of comparison do not pertain to any merely accidental characteristics of lan

guage, but rather lift up elements that pertain eminently to language as such.
They have to do with the original, inalienable traits of language which return
in a derivative fashion in power. In order to buttress this position, we must,
however, show how it complements the reconstruction of a notion of a po
litically constituted self in Arendt. Therefore, our comparison can be under
stood as a first step toward freeing power once and for all from an instru
mental, but also from a monological, subjectively based framework of the
If we turn now to the question of the disclosure of the "who" through action,
the other root of power in Arendt's thought becomes apparent. The impor
tant categories here are those of plurality and solidarity. Arendt unequivo
cally affirms the plurality and particularity of human beings over universal
categories. She writes, "Not Man but men inhabit this planet" (1981b, vol.
1, 19). At the same time however, she insists on "the simple truth... that no
man can act alone," that all true action is action in concert (1978, vol. 2;
1981b, vol. 2, 180). Neither totalitarianism (nor any other political or meta
physical subsumption into the one), nor individualism and its accompanying
doctrine of sovereignty or rulership are acceptable within these fundamental
parameters for the political. Under this premise, Arendt's discussion of ac
tion can also be viewed as that of the constitution of the political self in the
tension between human distinctness and human collectivity. This, however,
is precisely the formulation of the power question when it is considered
from the perspective of the actors, rather than that of action in itself. We are
concerned here with the path from the "who" to the "we" of action by way of
the in-between of power, insofar as therein both the unique who of plurality
and the common we of solidarity must be constituted. Thus the question is
one of the constitutive relation in power that reciprocally grounds both the
uniqueness and communality of political agents or selves. Posing the ques
tion in this way rejects both atomism and organism in favor of a personal
relational view mediated by the power of action in concert. When seen from
the aspect of the interest in the individual as actor, we have here the question
of the relational constitution of the political self.12
Although Arendt does not directly address the issue of constitution in her
work, I believe that her discussion of power and action lead to it, and that it
is possible to reconstruct the outlines of her answer to such a question. We
can begin ex negativo by tracing her exclusion of the two characteristically
modern alternatives of constitution: self-reflection and socialization or a social
construction of the individual. Neither approach, for Arendt, can lead us to

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an appreciation of a self that could be truly called political (and it is pre

cisely the possibility and dignity of the political that inspires her thought).
The first option is clearly rejected in Arendt's critique of modernity and its
relationship to the loss of the political. This rejection can be traced in its
theoretical dimension through her critique of Bewufitseinsphilosophie in all
forms.13 In its practical, historical dimensions, this rejection is again visible
in her analysis of imperialism.14 The second option is ruled out from her
analysis of totalitarianism. The crux here is her demonstration that totalitari
anism ultimately attempts to ground public relationships on a basis of undif
ferentiated equality.15 Furthermore, as can be shown from Arendt's critique
of Heidegger, an acceptable paradigm for constitution must overcome the
egoism of transcendental intersubjectivity (see 1946b; 1981b, vol. 2, 172
94; and tangentially 1969). Adialogical construction of the self, which might
suggest itself from this critique and from Arendt's close ties to Jaspers, points
us in the right direction, even though it falls short in several crucial aspects.
It is possible to link elements of Arendt's position to the mutual constitution
of the self in reciprocal relation to an other, as Jaspers's existential commu
nication and Buber's Ich-Du have done. This is helpful since it moves the
question of constitution outside of the reflexivity of the subject to the in
between, which is for Arendt power as speech. Such a paradigm falls short,
however, of Arendt's demand for a plurality in action that is more than dy
adic, and for a publicness of action that motivates her rejection of love as a
political factor. These criteria of plurality, and the publicness of action and
power, lead us beyond a dialogical conception toward one that sees the self
within a field of mutually constituted others, within a "you" (plural). There
is for Arendt no political self prior to the power relationship with others, or,
from the point of view of the community, no we of action prior to the power
relationship of the self and the others.16 The personal in Arendt, however,
must be separated from the subjective as self-constituting and self-controlled
and is thus much more akin to the notion of a public persona, through which
sounds the character. Such a person, a "who" rather than an I, appears in
public and is seen better by others than by the person herself. Neither homo
naturans nor atomic subjects populate the Arendtian political realm, but per
sonal identities constituted not privately and singly from the inside out as it
were, but publicly and collectively from the middle of the in-between out
ward. The desire to "get behind" such "masks," to find some ^wfc-ject, some
hypokeimenon, something that grounds appearance without itself appearing,
destructively intrudes upon the political actor because behind the person is
not some "true self," but the natural human being as undifferentiated species
being or the individualist thinking ego, which by its very nature cannot ap
pear.17 This personality is comparable for Arendt to the Greek daimon and

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the source of humanitas, which can be achieved "only by one who has thrown
his life and his person into the 'venture into the public realm'?in the course
of which he risks revealing something which is not 'subjective' and which
for that very reason he can neither recognize nor control" (1968b, 73-74). In
contradistinction to the medieval notion of person as incommunicable intel
lectual substance, this notion is based on the presupposition that "man can
communicate himself (1958b, 176). The mediation of personal uniqueness
is the actual communication of this uniqueness as its realization in action.
That which "carries" the political is neither under, over, nor in it, but rather,
solely in-between those who are related and constituted through it.
With this assertion, however, we have closed the circle and come once
again to power in Arendt's sense, and to the linguistic paradigm through
which, as we have argued above, it functions. The discursive dimension of
action and the relational constitution of political persons dovetail in the al
ternative notion of power presented by Arendt.


In order better to clarify the consequences of such a relationally rooted con

ception of power in the realm of political action, let us compare some of its
major features with those of what we might call the classic modern notion of
power. It is assumed here as a starting point that there is an "ideal type" of
power that is characteristic of modernity and that has remained essentially
the same, despite various nuances that have appeared in its formulation. This
ideal type is rooted in the paradigmatic displacement of the notion of the
political by Thomas Hobbes. With M. Riedel we can describe the result of
this displacement as the centrality of "human beings as productive subjects,
who 'make' themselves citizens" (1975, 176; my translation). The charac
teristics of such a modern ideal type of power yield the foci around which
the contours of a communicative-relational theory of power, which I will
call here power2, can become visible by contrast. I would like to compare
five such foci.


Modern theories of power (irrespective of their accidental differences) pro
ceed from the assumption that power is a disposable property of a substance
envisioned as a "carrier." In early modernity, Hobbes thinks of this "carrier"
in a relatively simple sense in that he subsumes human action under the
category of the res extensa in order to be able to give a mechanistic account
of power.18 Nevertheless, the conception of power as a disposable property
is valid independently both of the theoretical construction of the "carrier"

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and of whether power is considered as a substantial property or as an exter

nal-relational property with relation to the object over which power can be
exercised. In other words, this conception of power extends also to those
later modern theories that construe substantiality as subjectivity. In every
case power is localized in a self, in a collective, or in a personified concept
as a subject that has power. This is true even when a certain transcendental
intersubjectivity is granted, or when the horizon of being becomes the deter
minant of the human.19 The structure of possession of power in an agent that
stands in an actual or virtual?but in any case external?relationship to the
object of its power is theory-determinant.
There are several corollaries that flow from this. First, power is conceived
as operating according to the model of efficient causality. Because the sub
ject presides over power, has power, or can call it its own, power can be used
as an effective means to an end according to the instrumental pattern of
making. Power can be seen, in a sense, as the "efficacity quotient" of a po
litical subject, hence, for example, Max Weber's classic definition of power
in Wirtschqft und Gesellschaft as "the probability that one actor within a
social relationship will be in position to carry out his own will despite resis
tance" (1978, 53). Second, power always appears in connection with the
capability of the acquisition, accumulation, and application of this posses
sion at will. The power calculus can thus be seen, even before the theories of
political economy, or along with them, as the "economic" structure of the
political.20 This conception leads to the extreme reification of power; its po
tential for successful strategic action is materialized as the transition from
power to physical violence. The difference between power and violence be
comes one of mere quantity.
Power2, in contrast, does not inhere in the actors, but exists between those
who act as the condition of their action. It arises and exists neither as a
property nor as possession at the disposal of the actor, but rather as a phe
nomenon of reciprocal relationality. We have traced this to a notion of the
reciprocal constitution of the interpersonality of the political itself. Power,
as the power of embodied discourse, is generated in the communicative rela
tion, which is coterminous with the constitution of the political self as per
son out of the we of action. The determining relation of power2 is thus one
that does not presuppose already constituted relata, but rather coincides with
their constitution. It does not presuppose the structure of "having in..." or
of disposability, but rather withdraws from instrumental control in virtue of
its insertion into the openness and unpredictability of the communicative
relationship. Therefore, no component of efficient causality remains a part
of it. It does not belong to the ends-means calculus, but instead can be seen,
in view of the personal nature of the political relation, as an end in itself.

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Instrumentalization or reification must then be analyzed as pathologies that

are symptomatic of the deformation of the communicative relation and not
as inherent characteristics of an increase of power. Power and violence re
main qualitatively different and thus not transformable into one another.
The dynamic of power is typically determined in principle by its unlimited
growth and accumulation, as Hobbes's "perpetual and restless desire of power
after power that ceases only in death" (Leviathan, chap. 11; 1839, vol. 3,
85f.). Such augmentation is characterized teleologically. Its end is unity in a
strong sense. When both of these parameters?increase and unity?are taken
together as a characterization of power, its dynamic can be termed expan
sive unification. When, in turn, this expansive unification is linked with the
substantive characterization of power averted to above, we can bring the
power process to the pregnant, even if abstract, formulation of duality seek
ing unity. The terminus a quo of this process is the possessor of power, which
stands in opposition to a plurality of alienated others as potential possessors
of power. With respect to their foreignness vis-a-vis one another, these oth
ers are all equal, and the state of nature, the war of each against all, can be
reduced to the binary situation 'one against all'. The dynamic of power pro
ceeds from an original, allergic, nonconstitutive duality. Since the quality of
the relationship is determined at the outset by conflict and war, classic theo
ries of power are essentially unable to envision peace before absolute unity
has been reached, except in the form of an equilibrium of battle. Power and
real peace are mutually exclusive (see Luhman 1969, 157).21 The terminus
ad quern of this unifying dynamic is a unity that, as for power itself, consists
in domination and possession of the other. This goal of absolute unity re
mains invariable over and against possible conceptions of the structures for
its realization (e.g. iibergreifen, fusion, preestablished harmony of monads),
as well as over and against varying conceptions of the form of this unified
domination, as the I, as Being, as Matter, and so on.
The radical possibility of power that overarches all, and that is at the
same time definitive dominion and the end of all dominion, is the power of
annihilation. It is the surest form of possession and the transformative de
struction of possession in one. It is based in the possibility of the violent
killing of the other, the hinge of Hobbes's (and other) conceptions of the
constitution of the political. The radical limiting situation of unity is not
only the absolute solitariness of thinking, but also perfect, albeit ultimately
self-destructive, power as total annihilation of the other.
If we contrast this with power2 from the point of view of its dynamic, we
can see a twofold difference that follows from its communicative concep

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tion. Its dynamic is not accumulative, but rather?following from its non
disposability?spontaneous, and ever in need of renewal. Its end cannot con
sist of an absolute totality, since the notion of an absolutely unitary speech is
self-contradictory. Therefore, we can proceed from the formula that the dy
namic thrust of power2 is a plurality that moves toward solidarity. This em
phasizes the point that no reduction of the human plurality by means of
the relationality of power2 is intended, but rather the relation from which it
springs is originally plural and nonallergic. The origin in a plurality that is
ordered toward the action of a we in solidarity receives its impetus, not from
alienation with respect to the other, but from its communicative relation taken
in the strong sense, that is, in view of action and the actors. Since the origin
of power2 does not rest on the original situation of war, there is at least in
principle the possibility of establishing peace within the horizon of power.
Power2 remains dependent upon expansion, but in a reverse direction: it aims
at an expanding solidarity of actors who retain a plural uniqueness within
the conditional and always penultimate unity of a we. The limiting situation
of power2 is thus not annihilation, but the possible reversal of the original
presupposition of classic power: 'all against one'. This limiting situation
destroys the communicative nature of power2 and implies a relapse into domi
native power whenever the communicative relation of those who share in
power becomes so deformed that the we collapses into the totality of the I, or
of some other overriding principle of unity.
I have previously distinguished the two notions of power at issue with re
spect to the internality or externality of the relations that they imply. I want
now to consider the power relationship with regard to the possibility of equal
ity within each type of relationship. This question must be seen in connec
tion with the previous one concerning the dynamics of power expansion. As
such, the typical power theory exhibits a progression from an original sym
metry and homogeneity toward a growing asymmetry as autonomic sover
eignty. This symmetry, when one looks at it in its most comprehensive form,
resides in an original equality, namely, the ability to kill the other. This ac
cords to each bearer of power an originally equal share of power in view of
its most radical form. The unity-seeking dynamic of power, however, re
duces this symmetry because successful domination demands the limitation
of this original equality with regard to the possibility of violent death. The
progressive advantage of an individual over its other, no matter how con
ceived, shows itself as sovereignty, which can only appear on the basis of an
asymmetric relationship. In the course of unification as the consolidation of
sovereignty, the continuing displacement must lead toward the eventual pow

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erlessness of all others with respect to the power monopoly of the sovereign.
This is not only the model of Hobbes's Leviathan, but also the implicit struc
ture of all modern theories that are adduced from a conception of worldly
freedom in absolute autonomy (usually of the will) in which power is thought
of only in connection with actual or ideal sovereignty. Symmetry is then
perceivable either as the point of departure or in isolation, while interaction
always demands the mediation of freedom?which is absolute from the out
set?by some form of sovereignty.
When we consider power2 and symmetry, the pattern is reversed. We can
trace a progression from an original asymmetry that is transformed into a
symmetry as isonomy through power2. The asymmetry of the origin rests on
the inequality of people as they exist prior to their meeting in the space of
appearance, in private, pre-political relationship. This is the inequality of a
human being as homo or as ego before it has been revealed and constituted
as an acting person vis-a-vis other persons. In the action relationship of the
we which is mediated by power2, the human being appears as fundamentally
equal to the others insofar as it can constitute itself as a who in relationship
to the we of action. The image power2 imprints upon the we of action is
isonomic rather than autonomic: a person is neither dominating nor domi
nated. In this relationship a freedom that is limited from its essence, thus a
finite freedom, is realized. This notion of freedom is neither in its origin nor
in its realization autonomous and sovereign, but is conceived from the out
set as compossibility with a plurality of others as a we of action. Power2 is
coextensive with this finite freedom.


As has become clear from the foregoing points of comparison, and as the
phenomenology of power confirms, the modern conception of power is char
acterized by an inseparable entwinement with violence. Violence is ensconced
both at the origin and at the end of power, and the border between power and
violence is quantitative and fluid. Arendt's exposition of power, in contrast,
insists on a sharp conceptual separation of the two, and locates the essence
of violence in physical instruments (see, esp., 1970, 35-56). If one takes
true action in concert as the point of departure, this separation is founded
finally upon the discursive mediation of the political relationship in power2,
and on the impenetrability of speech for physical violence. The typical no
tion of power, as property or as self-preservation, can be called intransitive.
Power becomes relational only in an instrumental sense, and violence is the
concretization and apogee of its instrumentalism: it makes physical contact.
Power2 is essentially transitive because it subsists relationally, but in such a
way that bodily untouchability remains preserved. The physical inviolabil

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ity of the person in conjunction with embodied discourse among persons

corresponds to the ideal of the political under the conditions of power2. From
this perspective, classic power is reduced to an ambiguous notion, which is,
in the last analysis, of an antipolitical nature.
Finally, I wish to emphasize the connection between the feeling of being
threatened and classic power theory.22 Fear, which one perceives in the face
of the radical point of departure of power?the ability to kill?and in the
face of the specific threat of unlimited accumulation and stockpiling of in
struments of violence, is based on a fundamental angst. This angst, under
stood as an ontological principle of power, attempts to sublimate its own
basis. This principle governs the logic of the power relationship that flows
from the friend-fiend dichotomy and has its continuation in reciprocal mis
trust, rather than solidarity. Power is the seemingly necessary "allergic" re
action to others grounded in the angst to which one will not admit. Its root
lies ultimately in the fact that the self of power constitutes itself egologically.
By comparison, this principle of angst is foreign to the communicative soli
darity of power2. Instead, power can be connected to a thought of Arendt's
that echoes an ancient category : public happiness. This notion connects public,
political action with the demand, not simply for life, but for the good life
(eudaimonia), which determines human happiness. The human being finds
happiness precisely in action with political others.23 But such action is al
ways connected with power2, my starting point for this analysis of Hannah
Arendt. Thus the thought of public happiness expresses the opposite of that
which was expressed in the connection between power and angst. Power2
springs not out of the sublimation of its own basis, but rather out of the
enjoyment of its publicness and its plurality as elements of human happi
ness. In the final chapter of the German edition of The Origins of Totalitari
anism, Arendt had already written, "Just as virtue in political life really is
love of equality in being powerful, so is fear actually the will to power in
powerlessness, that is, the will to dominate or, the will to be dominated"
(1958a, 276; my translation). This "love of equality in being powerful" is, of
course, predicated on a particular kind of "uncorrupted" political situation,
one in which, as Arendt writes, "[W]ord and deed have not parted company,
where words are empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to
veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and
destroy but to establish relations and create new realities" (1958b, 200).
Thus it is clear that Hannah Arendt's descriptive reconstruction of action
and political power also has a prescriptive side for political practice. This
prescriptive dimension implies a complex dialectic of power and power2, or

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of power as it is usually practiced and understood in the contemporary sys

tems of money, administrative control, and media mastery, on the one hand,
and the potential available within contemporary society for the generation
of relational power, on the other. The possibility and conditions under which
power2 in Arendt's sense springs up and (perhaps) perdures in contemporary
society, its organization, scope, and consequences, are however, subjects of
another essay.24

Katholische Fachhochschule Berlin

1. A recent example is D'Entreves (1989). The notable exception to this pattern is
Habermas, the title of whose important and insightful essay "Hannah Arendt's Communica
tions Concept of Power" (1976) announces a decidedly different interpretational stance. Al
though the essay itself appears, in many respects, more to read Habermas into Arendt than to
read Arendt on the basis of her own assumptions, Habermas does provide us with at least two
key insights into Arendt's work: both a recognition of the centrality of the issue of power and
a recognition of the link between power and speech. I agree in principle with Canovan, Luban,
and others who would accuse Habermas of a "creative mis-reading" of Arendt, rather than a
close reading of Arendt's own thought (see Canovan 1983 and Luban 1979). Some of
Habermas's most recent references (in interviews) to Arendt and the notion of "communica
tively generated power" (kommunikativ erzeugte Macht) integrate this notion of power into
his distinction between system and lifeworld. He sees this spontaneously generated commu
nicative power as the only alternative to the administrative systems of power and money that
threaten to overwhelm the lifeworld and the democratic "Meinungs-und Willens
bildungsprozesse" that go on within it (cf. Habermas 1990, 136, 94-95).
2. For a more detailed and in-depth treatment of the arguments developed in this essay,
see my "Macht und Kommunikation" (1985).
3. Although Arendt here uses force as a synonym for violence, in On Violence (1970,44
45) Arendt specifically separates the term force from violence and reserves it for the imper
sonal energy of nature or circumstances. She purposely does not use it to designate the hu
man forms of coercion short of violence that can corrupt the mutual relationship between
words and deeds upon which the space of appearances is based. Initially, I am assuming with
Arendt an uncorrupted political situation in order to clarify her concept of power. At the end
of the paper, I will return to pose briefly the problem caused by various corruptions of this
situation, some of which, as feminist theorists have pointed out, pertain to the very form in
which the political is conceived within the tradition of patriarchy (see, esp., Pateman 1989).
4. The emphasis here is on the fact that, as human beings, we speak, though always in
languages, and that this, as Aristotle notes, is essentially related to the politicalness of human
beings (see Politics 1253a). I do not want to suggest a single, transcendental, human lan
guage, though language may be a sort of transcendental characteristic of humanity. In a gen
eral sense, I am following Gadamer (1960). Arendt clearly would reject a view of language
such as the one expounded by Levinas in which language is explicitly limited to expression,
cleansed of action (see Totality and Infinity [1979, esp. 202-3]).
5. Compare page 178 of The Human Condition (1958), "Speech... is the actualization of
the human condition of plurality ..." and page 201, "Human power corresponds to the con
dition of plurality to begin with."

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6. For a more completely developed version of this argumentation, see my "Macht und
Kommunikation" (1985, 96-106).
7. In The Human Condition Arendt does not distinguish, as she does later in The Life of
the Mind (1981b, vol. 1, 36-46), between Korper in the Newtonian sense of a mere physical
object and Leib in the sense of an enfleshed living organism that presents itself to its environ
ment. Thus in The Human Condition, animal laborans, insofar as it as an expression of mere
corporeality, has no place in the space of appearances. The point is to avoid any reduction of
power to something that is merely a Korper, an object like the products of work. It is also
significant that in The Life of the Mind (198 lb, vol. 1, chap. 13) Arendt connects embodiment
with the soul (Seele), as opposed to the mind (Geist). The speech of the body is original and
nonmetaphorical, while thinking can only express itself metaphorically (see Major 1979).
8. Such a notion of the unending conversation is certainly not foreign to Arendt's phi
losophy: It is her model for the never-concluded striving for meaning that ensouls human
finitude and that she sees exemplarily expressed in Lessing's view of truth (see her "On
Humanity in Dark Times" [1968, esp. 26-31]). Also relevant here is the centrality of Arendt's
faithfulness to Kant's distinction between Verstand and Vernunft, which she interprets as the
distinction between achievable truth as facticity/scientific certainty, and meaning which con
tinually needs to be won anew.
9. See, for example, Plato's protestations against the written word, which he presents in
Phaedrus (274c-277c) and in the Seventh Letter (341b-344d). Arendt makes explicit refer
ence to Plato's position in connection with her discussion of the relationship between think
ing and speaking in The Life of the Mind (1981b, vol. 1, 115-19).
10. See also Thinking (1981b, vol. 1, 212) and The Human Condition (1958b, 205), as
well as Young-Bruehl's "Hannah Arendt's Storytelling" (1977).
11. I have not explored here the implications of this interpretation for Hannah Arendt's
claim to think politics without metaphysics. However, it is clear that the outlines of a social
ontology begin to appear when one probes some of Arendt's key presuppositions. In addition,
it seems that the difference between Arendt and Habermas's appropriation of her theory of
power into his theory of communicative competence becomes clearer. Habermas's under
standing of the role of linguistic performance is strongly procedural, whereas Arendt's is not.
Both have what may be termed communicative dimensions to their theories of action, but
their underlying conceptualization of communication differs.
12. Because they are not directly addressed by Arendt, I have excluded from explicit consid
eration here questions about the nature of solidarity with respect to plurality, about the nature
of the "we" of power with respect to difference; questions that are central to much contempo
rary discussion. Particularly by thematizing issues of gender, race, and class, within the hori
zon of the renewal of public action, the question of respect for difference within and between
collectivities becomes important (see Young 1990, esp. chaps. 6 and 8, and Fraser 1989).
13. This critique spans almost all of Arendt's work and encompasses the entire modern
tradition. Three important stations in this critique are her critiques of Heidegger (1946b),
Nietzsche (1981b, vol. 2, chaps. 13 and 14), and Descartes (1958b, part 6).
14. "Imperialism" is the title of the second part of Origins of Totalitarianism (1951); it
attempts, in part, to show how the progressive loss of the ability to act in concert reflects the
development of bourgeois individualism's push toward isolation. See also Arendt's earlier
article: "Expansion and the Philosophy of Power" (1946a).
15. Throughout her work Arendt staunchly maintains a strong distinction between the
political and the social (see, esp., 1958b, ? 6, and 1977, chap. 2, 59-114). This separation
seems to have very early roots in her critique of sociology (cf. her review of Mannheim
[1930]). Her experiences in America confirmed and deepened this view. In 1946, she wrote
to Karl Jaspers: "The basic contradiction of this country is political freedom in the midst of
societal servitude" (see Kohler and Saner 1985, 67).

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16. Though there is no apparent evidence of influence, Arendt's position?with respect to

the plurality of constitution?seems to echo a theme of Mounier's personalism: "The person
only exists towards others, it only knows itself in knowing others, only finds itself in being
known by them. The thou which implies the we, is prior to the I?or at least accompanies it"
(1952, 20). A broader question that can be raised here pertains to the philosophical underpin
nings of the paradigm shift that is implied in Arendt's notion of the constitution of the self out
of the political we of action. On the one hand, although she never really abandons the lan
guage of Bewufitseinsphilosophie, she has clearly broken its bonds. On the other hand, a clear
sense of what might replace it does not emerge in her work. In particular, the influence of
American philosophy on Arendt's work needs further exploration. This also bears on the
issue of whether Arendt should be seen as an American philosopher or as a European philoso
pher in America (see Betz 1992).
17. For Arendt's very sparing use of the term person, see On Revolution (1977, 106-8)
and "Karl Jaspers" (1968b, 72-75).
18. Cf. his definition of power in De Corpore (chap. 10, 1; 1839, vol. 1, 127f.) and in
Leviathan (chap. 10; 1839, vol. 3, 74).
19. For Heidegger Dasein is infected by the will to power and Sein-Konnen is considered
generally in the phenomenological tradition as the root of political power.
20. Cf. Hobbes's Leviathan: "The value of a man is... his price?that is to say, so much as
would be given for the use of his power" (1839, vol. 3,76). The pairing of power and money
accompanies Arendt's linking of Hobbes and the bourgeoisie in "Imperialism," part 2 of The
Origins of'Totalitarianism. According to Habermas in his Theorie des kommunikativen
Handelns (1981), power and money function as the media for the colonization of the lifeworld
over and against the potential for communicative action (cf. vol. 2, 400-419 and 471-77).
21. The predominance of war has an ontological basis that has been extensively worked
out by Levinas in Totality and Infinity (1979).
22. I have been made aware of this connection and its importance thanks to a paper by
Fink-Eitel, read on 7 May 1983 at the Catholic Academy of Freiburg, with the title, "Power
as a Theme of Modernity." See also his book Dialektik und Sozialethik (1978, 12).
23. Arendt devoted an essay to the topic "Action and Nthe Pursuit of Happiness,'" in
Politische Ordnung und menschliche Existenz: Festgabe fur Eric Voeglin (1962). She uses
the figures of the American revolution as witnesses for her claims about the relationship of
action and happiness. Jefferson, for example, compared perfect beatitude with "life in Con
gress." By comparison, fear is an antipolitical principle.
24. I have attempted to do this through the lens of concrete experience in terms of the
political, yet nonpartisan, practice of local community organizing by the Industrial Areas
Foundation in the United States. The generation of islands of relatively uncorrupted collec
tive political action in the midst of economic and political systems mat colonize the lifeworld
seems to be the form of power2 when it is translated into the really existing conditions of
public life (see my "Organizing and Public Philosophy" [1992]).

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