Power to the people

15 06 2009

The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. —Hannah Arendt

The events in Iran thrill, in every sense of the word: the demands for liberation, the fear of the reaction, the unpredictability, and as the most basic argument for a notion that power is about politics—the public gathering of citizens—and that violence is the antithesis of power, that it scatters the public and as such, eliminates power.

Violence: Witness the crowds literally scatter as the motorcycle cops accelerate into them, their riders swinging batons at anyone near.

Power: Watch the crowd assert itself against the agents of the state, pushing back against the police and security forces, as when those around a BBC reporter kept a security agent from interfering with his broadcast.

Unfortunately, as Arendt knew, politics was bound up in what she termed the ‘frailty of human affairs’, such that Wherever people gather together, [political space] is potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily, and not forever. Power is evanescent, ‘not an unchangeable, measureable, and reliable entity,’ but one utterly dependent upon the presence of others, a presence which can be dissipated by apathy, more urgent needs, and, of course, weapons.

But while violence can destroy power, it can never become a substitute for it.

Ahmadinejad and the Iranian security apparatus may succeed in dispersing these crowds, in denying these bodies politic their destabilizing (not least because of their unpredictability) potentialities, but in so doing will have condemned themselves:

[From the destruction of power] results the by no means infrequent political combination of force and powerlessness, . . . In historical experience and traditional theory, this combination. . . is known as tyranny, and the time-honored fear of this form of government is not exclusively inspired by its cruelty. . . but by the impotence and futility to which it condemns the rulers as well as the ruled.

Yes, there is always the concern about mob rule, but as the photos [hat tip: Daily Dish] and videos of protesters aiding injured policemen attest, the ‘mob’ in Iran are the ones wearing the uniforms—or the be-robed men directed the men in uniform.

Who knows how this will end: the beauty of Arendtian politics is inseparable from its terror, the potentiality from its frailty.

But still! To witness what we can do! The promise. . . !


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