Monday, July 15, 2013

How Development Breeds Violence

In celebration of their 50th anniversary, The New York Review of Books has been reprinting excerpts from notable pieces (usually by equally notable authors) from past issues. The excerpt in the current issue is from "Reflections on Violence" by Hannah Arendt, a political theorist and philosopher who saw enough violence in her time to claim the right to make her observations. (The hyperlink on the title leads to the original full article.)

Arendt's article turns out to be a penetrating attack on the prioritizing of "progress" (and associated concepts, such as "growth" and "development") above all other concepts. By viewing "violence" as a specific instance of the more general concept of "action," Arendt suggests that an unanticipated consequence of development is the creation of conditions in which violence is more likely to erupt:
Finally, the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant. The crucial feature in the students’ rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy. This explains what at first glance seems so disturbing, that the rebellions in the East demand precisely those freedoms of speech and thought that the young rebels in the West say they despise as irrelevant. Huge party machines have succeeded everywhere to overrule the voice of the citizens, even in countries where freedom of speech and association is still intact.
Arendt's article appeared in the February 27, 1969 issue. Thus, it involved a reflection on most of the turbulent Sixties and the particularly violent year of 1968. Unfortunately, it resonates just as effectively with the present day, whether we are talking about confrontations arising from the Occupy movements or this weekend's reaction to the Zimmerman verdict in Florida. When action is prevented by "official channels," human nature will seek out other ways in which to act. Violence emerges as the inevitable corollary of those who sought to make the world a better place and ended up with one in which it is better for only 1% of its inhabitants.

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