SEMINARS @ THE FORUM
Last year online discussions took place about power in the contemporary world with prominent intellectuals and select City University of New York faculty and graduate students.
Every two weeks, a prominent guest from the world of journalism, politics, academia, or the arts composed a blog entry responding to a key text that addresses the concept of "power". You can view the daily responses from seminar participants, as well as the associated reading.
SEMINAR MEMBERS RESPOND
Rethinking State Power
Oct 2, 2008
What's frustratingly lacking in Arendt's piece is a more dynamic understanding of state power. She reduces power to a numbers game of consent—either you have it or you're deficient: "Indeed one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence is that power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence up to a point can manage without them because it relies on implements."
For Arendt, state power just is. It is an end in itself. It is not clear how it evolves, how it can be applied, mobilized, utilized, or why some countries have more of it. Historical processes, therefore, become simplified. As Arendt points out, the US lost in Vietnam because it confronted "an ill-equipped but well-organized opponent who is much more powerful." (Reminds me of the argument that if the American public had only supported the troops things would have been different.) Yet, despite the deficiency in the consensus of support for the war, the US had organized sufficient resources and manpower to have been able to act "in concert" enough to drop more bombs on North Vietnam than they did in all of Europe during WWII. How many countries would have had that capacity? Arendt's understanding of power does not leave much room for considering how US' own actions, policies, and strategies, or other variables such as geography and the infrastructure of Vietnam could have influenced the outcome of the war.
The way Arendt talks about power is largely in the passive sense. She does not speak in terms of how state power can produce even greater levels of state power. Instead, power can only be gauged by events that are symptomatic of its weakness, such as the presence of violence. She redefines "force" in this vein. Force is not something that state power can strategically apply towards an objective. It is rather the "energy released by physical or social movements." Thus, the greater the energy released by a social movement is, the weaker state power is.
In my view, Weber's understanding of state power, which is the struggle to impose a monopoly of violence in a given territory or political space, speaks more to dynamic and historical processes. The state becomes an agent of power, not simply a reflection of it. It struggles to build efficient institutions of resource extraction, reducing, as Spruyt points out, "cooperation and coordination problems between rulers and ruled, as well as between subjects themselves." This has historically meant violently sweeping local elites and their autonomous access to resources and coercion. But in their place the state has had to build new institutional networks (what Tilly calls "trust networks") with local populations, convincing them of the long-term advantages to social interests of say trade and marriage that such networks can provide. The state in turn charges fees. The state gets to regulate activities and disputes in order to prevent the disruption of social life, because that could interfere with revenue collection. That is why dueling, for example, was outlawed in several European countries in the seventeenth century.
The film City of God reminds of the process of state building on a smaller scale. In the Brazilian favela, when the drug gang took over, violently wiping out other drug gangs and opposition, it became the law in the neighborhood regulating the activities and disputes of the residents. The residents recognized it as the law as well. After all, the gang depended on the residents for its stream of revenue and tried to "protect" the neighborhood from anything that could disrupt life there and thus its sources of money. Thus if disputes got out of hand, with the possibility of bringing in the police, the gang squelched it with violence. It would not tolerate other violences.