Cooperative vs. Coercive Power

There are several mealy-mouthed, bumper-sticker phrases being used in political debate to which we turn our focus this week - ''cut and run'' and its linguistic cousin, ''in the face of terrorism we have to do something. We can't just sit around and do nothing,'' or some variation on the idea that state power ultimately rests on military power.

Therefore, according to the logic of this narrow definition of power, those who oppose war are somehow weak do-nothings.

Of course, so-called ''legitimate'' violence, or the ability to make war, is power. But what kind of power? Is there any other kind of power that is more powerful than military might?

How you answer those questions will likely determine whether you think our manly, tough-talking, war leaders in D.C. are worthy of your support, skepticism or scorn.

If you haven't finished compiling your summer reading list, put Jonathan Schell's "The Unconquerable World'' near the top. Schell provides a deep look at the history of modern war and revolutionary violence, illuminating both the weakness of power and the power of supposed weakness; that is nonviolent political action.

One of the more interesting chapters is titled ''Cooperative Power,'' which contains a fascinating analysis of the thought of political theorist Hannah Arendt, author of ''The Origins of Totalitarianism.''

Though Arendt ''did not oppose violence on principle, and in her book 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' she supported the death penalty for Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who ran the transportation system for Hitler's extermination program,'' she rejected the conventional wisdom that violence equals power.

''Violence and power are not the same,'' she wrote. ''Power and violence are opposites; where one rules absolutely, the other is absent,'' which is why ''to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant.''

How could Arendt make such a claim? Arendt observed that power is ''created not when some people coerce others but when they willingly take action together in support of a common purpose. Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.''

Schell goes on to point out that Arendt wasn't saying anything original here. In fact, the intellectual father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, made the same point. ''Liberty, when men act in bodies, is power.''

In Arendt's view, Schell writes, ''power did not reside, as is usually said, in officials who issue commands but in citizens who follow them.'' Instead of seeing power as the ability to assert one's will even in the face of opposition, ''Arendt answered, with Hume, Burke, Gandhi, and Havel, that in a deeper sense power is in the hands of those who obey the commands." Even Clausewitz, let us recall, was of this opinion, for he understood that military victories were useless unless the population of the vanquished army then obeyed the will of the victor.

Schell doesn't uncritically accept Arendt's definition of power, suggesting instead that power ''based on support'' be called cooperative power and power ''based on force'' be called coercive power. ''Both kinds of power are real. Both make things happen'' and ''to the degree that a people is forced, it is not free.''

You can't really appreciate the insight Schell provides unless you consider the unquestioned assumption in all this war talk that coercive power is the only kind of power that exists, as expressed in the claim: ''If we cut-and-run from Iraq, it will be seen as a sign of weakness.''

But isn't it possible that our reliance on coercive power over an uncooperative people is seen, not as a projection of strength, but as a sign of desperate weakness? Students of Chinese martial philosophy might think so. ''Those who excel as warriors are not martial. Those who excel in combat do not get angry. Those who excel in conquering the enemy do not do battle. Those who excel in employing men act deferentially to them,'' according to Tao Te Ching.

While I don't think the world is ready for disarmament, to overlook the limits of military power and the unexplored power of nonviolence is just plain foolish.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.