Just a question of grades?

Power and violence are often used more or less as synonyms. Thereby violence is simply defined as a stronger form of power.

Elias Canetti, for example, writes: “Violence is associated with the idea of something that is near and present. It is more coercible and immediate than power. […] Power on deeper and more animalistic levels is better described as violence. […] If violence takes more time, it becomes power.1

According to this definition, the difference between power and violence is only a gradual one. Power is defined as limited or institutionalized ‘mitigated‘ violence. Whereas violence is seen as a more intense, immediate form of power. But is this really true? Is violence really only one form of power, as Bertrand Russell, Elias Canetti, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many others claim?

Power can not be forced

Tyranny is based on command and compulsion to obey. But does a dictator really gain more power through the fearful obedience of the people? Power can not occur under duress:

The most effective command always comes from the barrel of a gun, which can count on immediate, unquestioning obedience. What never comes from the barrels of a gun is power.2

In the case of the dictatorship, it is clear that power and violence can even be opposites. Tyranny, as Montesquieu noted, is the most violent but at the same time the most powerless form of government. The number of those it supports is the smallest in comparison to other forms of government.


According to Byung-Chul Han in ‘What is power’, the difference between tyranny and power is the ‘degree of mediation‘. At the highest level of mediation, power and freedom coincide. In this case, power would be most stable and recognized by almost everyone. ‘Bare‘ violence, on the other hand, lacks any mediation, it wants to completely erase the otherness.

Power of the majority

In a democracy it is popular support that gives power to laws and institutions:

When the Athenian polis spoke of its constitution as an ‘isomy’, an organization of equals within the law, or when the Romans called their ‘res publica‘, the public thing, a ‘civitas‘, an association of citizens, they had in mind another concept of power and law, the nature of which was not based on the relationship between those in command and those in obedience, and which did not equate power and domination [and violence].”3

However, the power of the numerical majority can also become threatening. “Undivided and uncontrolled power [not controlled by laws] can create a uniformity of opinion that is hardly less ‘coercible‘ than violent oppression. Thus a majority rule based only on power can […] oppress minorities in a terrible way.”4

In Myanmar, for example, Buddhist monks helped to defeat the dictatorship by nonviolent means. But now ‘radical Buddhists‘ are forcibly expelling the Muslim minority of the ‘Rohingya‘.

Mysteries of power

This is where Tocqueville‘s influence on Hannah Arendt‘s understanding of politics comes to the fore. Alexis de Tocqueville already warned of the danger of a majority dictatorship at the beginning of the nineteenth century in his work ‘On Democracy in America‘. He saw civil cooperations such as associations or interest groups as a means of counteracting the ‘atomizing’, individualizing tendencies of democracy.

Arendt: “In its true sense, power itself can never be possessed by one person alone; power always appears, as it were, in a mysterious way when people act together, and it disappears in no less mysterious ways as soon as a person is complete with himself.”5

Desert of abandonment

Even in an open society, political action has to regain the space in which public power can unfold, again and again. It is this public space for which ‘freedom needs to be achieved‘. This free space ‘transforms into a desert‘ when tyrannical arbitrariness destroys its legally defined boundaries. In this ‘desert of abandonment‘, the only moving or freezing principle is fear.

Totalitarian movements […] are possible wherever masses exist […] masses are not held together by common interests and lack any specific class consciousness that sets itself specific, limited, and achievable goals. The expression ‘masses’ can be found everywhere, and only where we are dealing with groups that, either because they are too numerous or because they are indifferent to public affairs, cannot be structured in any organization based on common interests in a world experienced together, i.e. no parties, no interest groups, no local self-government, no trade unions, no professional associations. The mass human being is an isolated, atomized individual who can no longer be integrated into an organization based on interests.”6

World-less: the atomized mass-subject

The isolated, atomized mass man cannot form alliances on the basis of his interests. For s/he cannot even clearly identify these interests due to the lack of a location.

Arendt understands the individuals of mass society as ‘uprooted‘ and ‘worldless‘ people who no longer have a specific place from which to defend their particular perspective. This creates communicative powerlessness that subjectively corresponds to the feeling of being superfluous.”7

Second birth through a political action

According to Arendt, we are born into a world that existed before we were born. But as soon as we become aware of our existence, we become involved in the events by speaking and acting. Arendt regards this intervention as a kind of ‘second birth‘. It confirms the ‘bare fact‘ of being born (Greek: ‘zoé‘) and takes responsibility for it.

This is what Arendt calls ‘Natality’:

The narrative [bio-graphy] [again] is a memory of an action, which is itself a constantly renewed birth and strangeness that draws its ontological potential from the fact of our birth. It is through narration […] that political thinking is actually realized. Through the re-narrated action that narrative constitutes, man refers to life or belongs to life, insofar as human life is inevitably political life. The narrative is the first dimension in which a person lives, through bios and not through zoé, political life and/or life handed down to another person.8

Arendt, therefore, understands political responsibility not only in the sense of representative democracy as the responsibility of politicians and states(wo/)men:

It is the collective responsibility, the responsibility that we all share for the things that are done in our name by groups and political bodies to which we belong.”9

Arendt’s understanding of politics differs from the traditional understanding of politics, which equates power with domination. This is because it shifts the accent to political action in a public (counter-public, half-public, or half-private) free space, which is what makes the action of power possible in the first place.


Power is conveyed in ‘discourse‘ or in a dispositive of power that is superior to discourse:

In contrast to bare violence, power can combine with meaning. By means of its semantic potential, it inscribes itself in a potential of understanding. […] Something only becomes significant or meaningful when it is placed beyond itself in a network of relationships, in a continuum or horizon of meaning. […] Power will therefore have to inscribe itself in a horizon of meaning […] in order to be able to control the process of understanding and action effectively.”10

Only in terms of power – its dispositives and discourses – do things, spaces or positions become significant. In this sense, every interpretation of the world is ‘will to power‘. It expresses itself in discourse.

Taking for true

This is why Friedrich Nietzsche emphasizes the perspectivity of all truth: the ‘vanishing point‘ of perspective is always the will to power.

Hannah Arendt refers precisely to this Nietzschean understanding of perspectivity when she claims that the mass human being in his/her placelessness has lost the specific perspective from which s/he can evaluate events.

For Nietzsche, there is no ultimate truth, every ‘cognition’ is a holding for the truth from a specific perspective. Likewise, according to Hannah Arendt, it is decisive to distinguish between truth and sense, or between thinking and cognition. She refers to Kant’s concepts of reason and understanding:


While understanding is in search of true knowledge, thinking as the search for reason leads to meaning. Our opinions are often based on our ideas about what seems significant and meaningful to us, not only on what is true.

Therefore, although facts and opinions must be strictly distinguished, they are not antagonistic to each other; they are still in the same field. Facts are the subject of opinions, and opinions may be of very different interests and passions, may differ widely and yet all may still be legitimate as long as they respect the integrity of the facts to which they refer.11

Public opinion is a mediated power and is guided by certain discourses.

Power is that which brings into existence and maintains in existence the public sphere, the potential space of appearance between the actor and the speaker.”12

Common cause

When a brutally suppressed protest suddenly attracts public attention, opinion can become a power, that has often forced even the most violent potentates to abdicate.

Public opinion in civil society does not have to use violence to be effective. It empowers by its approval and disempowers by its rejection. Focusing and directing public attention is the most powerful means of nonviolent revolt. But public opinion is an ambivalent power.

According to the general opinion, ‘public opinion’ is characterized by the virtue or vice of unpredictability […] It is literally transitory and has no status because it is not forced to be stable […] it does not even have to be constantly volatile. Public opinion […] is by law neither identical with a general will nor with the nation, ideology, or the sum of private opinions […] But this average […] sometimes retains the power to oppose the means that are capable of ‘directing public opinion’, it resists the ‘art of changing public opinion‘ which, as Rousseau also writes in his letter to d’Alembert, is ‘not familiar with reason, virtue or law.13

The bad reputation of the ‘opinion’

From classical Greek philosophy to Immanuel Kant, ‘opinion‘ always had a bad reputation. According to this tradition of thought, it lacks a sufficient foundation in rational thinking. ‘Doxa‘ often referred to empirical ephemeral knowledge based on sensual observation. In contrast, ‘pure knowledge‘ can only be attained through thinking.

Sociology understands ‘opinion‘ as a personal view that someone has of something. In his/her opinion, man makes the world his/her own world – and gives it personal meaning. The emotional coloring of personal opinions makes them vulnerable to manipulation – for example, the populist politicians’ appeal to the selfishness of individuals or groups.


However, precisely this ‘considering as true‘ can also be understood in a neutral, less pejorative sense. In this understanding, opinion appears as a hypothesis or temporary lending of credibility. It can be understood as an assumption or approximation that first needs to be verified. Above all, this view would take into account the perspectivity of truth, which, for Nietzsche himself, is always merely a ‘considering as true‘ of a certain discourse or a belief within the framework of a certain dispositif of power.

All our imagining and looking at things is such that we mean [‘meinen‘] something, the existing, in it. In every opinion [‘Meinung’] I make what is meant at the same time and inevitably mine. Every meaning [‘Meinen‘] which seems to be related only to the object itself, becomes a possession and taking in of what is meant [‘des Gemeinten‘] into the human ego.14

The political public, so Arendt, can no longer distinguish between ‘truth’ and ‘opinion’. Just in times of fake news, this becomes very evident. Both, (‘scientific’) truth and opinion, equally must first prove worthy of their credibility.


According to Hannah Arendt, a public mediating process of reflection and negotiation is set in motion, when the hypothesis of personal opinion is confronted with other hypotheses. In the best case, this process leads to an insight that no longer only concerns my own position, but that which is beneficial to the ‘common cause‘ (‘res publica‘). Perhaps it is precisely this common ‘truth‘ that M. K. Gandhi wanted to ‘hold on‘ to in his ‘Satyagraha‘ attitude.

This is where the ethical persuasiveness of the nonviolent attitude comes into play again. For as soon as a rebellion (however justified it may be) is carried out violently, it is clearly no longer conducive to the ‘common cause‘. Rather, the group is openly exposing its self-interest, and this is precisely why it loses its credibility.

Judgment by opinion

Opinion is not knowledge, but an evaluation, for which and to which one is committed, it is a deliberate act or an act of will. This act always takes the form of a ‘judgment’ (yes or no), which must exercise on parliamentary democracy the power of control and the power of an authority to which one is subject.15

Nonviolent resistance creates evidence for the assumption that the rebels are not merely concerned with the enforcement of their own interests, but with the common good, the common cause. In this way, it proves worthy of the hypothesis and mortgage (the trust) of public opinion.

Power of the ego?

According to Bertrand Russell, all humans are prone to a ‘refusal to acknowledge the limitations of individual power‘.

It is precisely this that makes social cooperation so difficult, because each of us would like to see it modeled on the interaction between God and those who worship him, with ourselves taking the place of God. Hence competition, the need for compromise and government, and the drive for rebellion are accompanied by insecurity and periodic use of violence. And hence the need for morality to contain anarchic self-assertion.16

Violence: an expression of power?

Apart from the fact that Russell lends his voice to the discourse that regards egoism as the (only) driving human force, he does not distinguish very sharply between power and violence. The fact that he speaks of the ‘necessity of moral containment’ clearly reveals pure Hobbsian ‘wolf language’. He compares power with physical energy, which constantly changes its form. He states, that power is sometimes expressed as wealth, sometimes as public opinion, and sometimes as military power or violence. For Russell, violence is, therefore, only one expression of power. ‘The desire for power and glory’ is, according to him, the most powerful driving force for individual and social change.

Mimesis and compassion

However, the scientific evidence that compassion and cooperation are also dominant forces of evolution has grown steadily in recent decades. Thus, the neuro-scientific discovery of mirror neurons points to the importance of empathy in the development of social competence. Furthermore, the ‘mimetic brain‘ also shapes our emotional intelligence. This reflection of behavior even shaped the development of the human brain’s capability to develop verbal language.

When we observe the emotions expressed by other individuals through gestures, facial expressions, and posture, brain wave measurements reveal activity in the very areas of the brain that would be active by performing these actions ourselves.

The information coming from the visual areas, describing the faces or bodies expressing an emotion, goes directly to the insula [a brain area] where it activates an autonomous and specific mirror mechanism that immediately encodes it in the appropriate emotional formats.”17

Bodily understanding

The region of the brain called ‘Insula‘ forms a center of integration that translates sensory impressions (facial expressions and gestures of others) into inner states of the body. This enables our brain to directly recognize and our body, to directly feel what we see others doing. It activates the same neural (motor or visceromotor) structures that are responsible for our actions and emotions.

This immediate, empathic understanding of another person’s behavior in the ‘first person‘, made possible by the mirror neuron mechanism, is the neuronal prerequisite for empathy, which underlies our social behavior.

Empathy alone is not compassion, because a sadist can have considerable empathy with another person’s situation and use it to cause harm to that person. […] [Nevertheless,] compassion is often a result of empathy. […] We should also assume that empathy in itself contains something morally valuable, namely the recognition that the other person is a center of the experience.”18

According to Giacomo Rizzolatti, the mechanism of the mirror neurons embodies on a neuronal level a kind of bodily understanding that shapes our experience of our fellow human beings before any linguistic mediation. The affective contagion ‘from gut feeling to gut feeling‘ via facial expressions and gestures allows us to react faster in dangerous situations than would ever be possible by reflection.

Gestical proto-language

There is much to suggest that the pressure of selection towards complex forms of communication has favored the development of a sophisticated neural control mechanism of sound formation, which in turn has made it possible not only to control the specific production of sounds but also to create an ever-increasing, in principle an unlimited number of possible combinations, thus paving the way for a progressive liberation of the linguistic system from gestures.19

For example, in the early 1930s the linguist Sir Richard Paget showed how a verbalprotolanguage‘ could have developed from a gestural protolanguage. He demonstrated the mimesis between gestures and sounds in the roots of many words in languages that are very far apart.

Empathy instead of abuse of power

All things considered, a fact becomes evident: Namely, that the preconditions for nonviolence – empathy, love, and cooperation – are much more effective instruments for social change than the driving force of egoism and its accompanying symptoms – pride, status thinking, the desire for recognition, competition, and finally, repression of the power of others.

It’s about how I use my power. I want to treat other people in such a way that we can benefit from this power together. But it is very common to deal with this power differently, to want to have power over others. For example, one of the most popular forms of abuse of power is guilt. We assume that other people create our feelings. […] A central aspect of non-violent communication is the awareness that other people are not responsible for our feelings. The only thing that can affect our feelings is the attitude with which we react.20

Both tendencies – cooperation as well as competition or misuse of power – are undoubtedly inherent in all human beings. However, the nonviolent attitude does not leave it to chance which tendency prevails at any given moment. The nonviolent attitude overcomes the tendency of egoism with the inner attitude, that we are not separate from each other. Violence, on the other hand, begins when the conflict party is demonized or depersonalized.

Violence: A question of labeling?

An important element of our intention to treat an attacker as a human being is to avoid labeling him or her. […] Labels depersonalize, which is why soldiers so often use them to get over the natural psychological abhorrence we all feel at killing another.”21

The attacker sees him/herself as radically separated from us. The nonviolent actor, on the other hand, recognizes the unity that the attacker has lost sight of. The expression of this attitude (our nonviolent response to violence) may also make the opponent realize that s/he was wrong by seeing him/herself as separated. This is especially true when s/he carries out orders like policemen and soldiers and does not act violently out of his/her own conviction.

Suspension of alienation?

The nonviolent attitude aims at lifting the alienation, which enables the aggressor to declare us as enemies.

Precisely because nonviolence depends so much on the integrity and mental strength of the individual, the individual plays a greater role in nonviolent resistance than in any other form of resistance. Indeed, in nonviolent resistance, the clarity of the vision can at times be more important than the number of participants.

M. K. Gandhi compares the process of the non-violent individual that follows an inner vision to a stream:

The Ganga does not leave its course in search of tributaries. Even so does the Satyagrahi not leave his path, which is sharp as the sword’s edge. But as the tributaries spontaneously join the Ganga as it advances, so it is with the river that is Satyagraha.”22

Author: Eva Pudill


Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

>> The Cosmopolitan Attitude of Ahimsa

>> The Violence of the Caste-System

>> Ishvara Pranidhana: Mysticism as a non-Ideological Zone

>> Nonviolent Resistance Movements Worldwide

>> Trauma: nonviolent Coping with Injuries

>> Taking leave from Self-Victimization

>> Ressentiment: The Circling of Thoughts about missed Reactions