The Predictability of Human "Progress" - "On Violence" - Ch. 1 by Hannah Arendt

On Violence - Ch. 1

Chapter one is a very reflective look at the first half of the 20th Century, and its connection to human history and the idea of progress. Arendt considers the development of the tools of war into weapons which have complete destructive potential as something which can no longer be ignored. She considers the Marxist view of the unending movement of progress in history, as well as its incarnations in her time during the 1960's New Leftist movements. Contrary to their thought, she makes the argument that human beings are not simply predictable algorithms that need to be figure out and manipulated. Rather, the human person's free will prevents such theories or manipulation from ever fully being accurate. Thus, we must not assume that history is some type of chronological progression, but become ever more aware of what authentic progress should look like. 

How Technology Has Changed the Nature of Violence

Arendt begins this reflection by pointing out that something unexpected has happened in the 20th Century which was not foreseen. While people like Lenin, and others, predicted it to be a century of wars and strife, Arendt points out that no one understood that technology would develop the weapons of war to the point in which mankind could annihilate himself from the earth. War now is not fought to be won, but to deter it altogether, as to engage in war with our most advanced weapons would mean mutual destruction of both nations. This gives war a character different from all previous generations. 1 "The technical development of the implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict."

What is the way out of such a problem, there doesn't seem to be an answer. The technological means by which violence is applied seems to have overshadowed any good that could come as an end. Arendt here introduces an interesting principle regarding the use of such weapons. 3 "Since the end of human action, as distinct from the end products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals." 4 In other words, since we cannot predict what the end result of actions will be, it is more important to make sure that the means by which we act are ethical and set the correct precedent for others to follow. This unpredictability is exacerbated by the nature of violence itself, which Arendt holds to have uniquely high amount of arbitrariness and chance to it, a randomness that cannot be understood or solved even with game theory or simulations. The fact that the means of violence suddenly outweighed the end of war, itself, was unexpected. 5 Yet, war is still with us because there seems to be no other final solution for international problems. 6

"That war is still the ultimate ration, the old continuation of politics by means of violence, in the foreign affairs of the underdeveloped countries is no argument against its obsoleteness, and the fact that only small countries without nuclear and biological weapons can still afford it is no consolation." 7 Arendt points out that not only does violence breed unpredictability, but those scientists who work in government and claim to have hard science in which to understand the future, and how to apply these weapons, neither think philosophically or have any understanding of the future. Rather, very quickly their supposed scientific "conditions" go from speculation to accepted fact without any real correspondence to the reality which has no happened yet and in which no one knows what will happen. How dangerous, then, to put these weapons on the hands of such men and under the influence of a pseudo-science. 8 Such "laws" by which one would try to predict the future contradict the definition of an "event," something which specifically breaks from the normal course of affairs. 9 "Predictions of the future are never anything but projections of present automatic processes and procedures, that is, of occurrences that are likely to come to pass if men do not act and if nothing unexpected happens; every action, for better or worse, and every accident necessarily destroys the whole pattern in whose frame the prediction moves and where it finds it evidence." 10

On the flip side, violence also cannot be relegated to mere happenstance or randomness, for its been part of human affairs since the beginning of humans. Sometimes its so natural that it precedes into the background of what we think to analyze or notice, like all familiar things at times. 11 Indeed we are reaching a time, though, in which violence cannot be ignored as just another means of the old structures continuing on because the level of violence capable of being implemented today could change the shape and nature of society altogether. Society then is threatened to become reformulated around this reality of complete destruction through modern violence. The threat of annihilation is always present now, such that even peace time is simply "the continuation of war by other means...". 12

Violence and the "New Left" of the 1960's 

A distinguishing factor that Arendt makes between how the Communists and Fascists viewed violence was that for the Communists the conflict between the classes was already inherent in the structure of reality, and thus violence may be a secondary means to an opposition which is more fundamental, like pangs required to give birth. The Fascists more directly embraced violence, though Arendt says that in terms of the "New Left," this is changing and they too are embracing it more directly. 13 [I don't think that Arendt is denying the absolutely bloody catastrophe that Communism brought with it in the Soviet Union, I think she is more talking about the writings of Marx themselves, not its result.] 

One of its greatest spokesmen, Jean Paul Sartre, seems to more openly justified violence than the writings of Marx themselves, though he uses the same method of dialectical materialism to reach his conclusion. Sartre sees the application of violence as a means of man recreating himself in a new image, whichever one he wants. 14 "... the idea of man creating himself is strictly in the tradition of Hegelian and Marxian thinking; it is the very basis of all leftist humanism. But according to Hegel man 'produces' himself through thought, whereas for Marx, who turned Hegel's 'idealism' upside down, it was labor, the human form of metabolism with nature, that fulfilled this function ... all notions of man creating himself have in common a rebellion against the very factuality of the human condition - nothing is more obvious than that man, whether as member of the species or as an individual, does not owe his existence to himself..." 15

Continuing on the "New Left" in the 1960's, Arendt says that they originally were a non-violent movement, having shared the experience of their parents who returned from a world war in which so much genocide took place, to having the threat of nuclear bombings in the Cold War. This non-violence didn't necessarily last, though, and again a contradiction is popping up between their theory and practice. 16 She mentions how the student protests of the 60's, in her mind, represent a rebellion against the development of technology for mass warfare. 17 "... the simply fact that technological progress is leading in so many instances straight into disaster..." 18 This was the first reality that the baby-boomer generation was faced with, nuclear destruction. 19 "In short, the seemingly irresistible proliferation of techniques and machines, far from only threatening certain classes with unemployment, menaces the existence of whole nations and conceivably of all mankind." 20 

Yet, even in these university protests violence bubbles to the surface. Why would the leadership in the universities yield to such violence? 21 Because "... administrations and boards of trustees are half consciously aware of the obvious truth of a conclusion of the official Report on Violence in America: 'Force and violence are likely to be successful techniques of social control and persuasion when they have wide popular support.'" 22 But again, it seems odd that Sartre, and the New Left, would espouse violence when violence is not necessarily primary in Marx's works. 23 On the other hand, it is unlikely that their revolution will ever take place if they rely on organic rebellions of the oppressed classes, who in reality exist more by ideology than reality. 24 

If there was anything good to come from the New Left in the 60's, it was their push for "'democracy and the individual's participation in it. Ironically, though, this one good thing reflects nothing of Marx or Lenin. 25 Also not aligning is the view of moral character social justice of the New Left, and its lack of foundation in Marx, 26 who dismissed moral sentiments as emotions. 27 "... Marx, as we know, had quite effectively tabooed these 'emotions' - if today the establishment dismisses moral arguments as 'emotionalism' it is much closer to Marxist ideology than the rebels - and had solved the problem of 'disinterested' leaders with the notion of their being the vanguard of mankind, embodying the ultimate interest of human history." 28 

"Progress" and Violence

The idea of progress, Arendt says, was not something that really existed until the 17th Century. Then it became the idea of humanity gathering together the knowledge of the past. In the 18th Century the idea shifted to a universal education of mankind. With Marx there was still a sliver of the Enlightenment idea in that progress would not be unlimited. Marx potentially heralded in the end of history with the "freedom" he brought to the working class in Communism. 29 But later in the 19th Century, though, progress came to be understood as a process which has no end. Man will never be perfect, so Marx's interpretation of the Hegelian dialectic onto history will never be concluded. The seeds of the past will be brought forward in synthesis as we move unendingly towards perfection. 30 "Of course, there are a few melancholy side effects in the reassuring idea that we need only march into the future, which we cannot help doing anyhow, in order to find a better world." 31 

Progress, viewed in terms of humanity as a whole and abstracted from the individual, is guided by Marxist theory as a pathway into the future. 32 This pathway, it is held, is supposed to be somewhat certain, synthesizing contradictions of the past into a predictable future, "... offering a comfortable, speculative or pseudoscientific refuge from reality." 33 A science applied to human beings and society, though, can hardly be unending. If people have believed this it is because of the seemingly unlimited amount of reality to explore in the physical sciences. But this does not apply to the social sciences, and "progress," 34 as such continued and unending change regarding humanity just could as easily bring about its destruction. "Not only has the progress of science ceased to coincide with the progress of mankind (whatever that may mean), but it could even spell mankind's end, just as further progress of scholarship may well end with the destruction of everything that made scholarship worth our while. Progress, in other words, can no longer serve as the standard by which to evaluate the disastrously rapid change-process we have let loose." 35 

Arendt closes chapter noting that it is wrong to view history as a continual improvement of progress, while there many be a continual growth in understanding the natural workings of the world, human action is by no means so predictable or clear cut, as we are free beings who choose our own fate. 36

1 - Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. Harcourt, Brace, and World Inc. (New York, 1969) Pg. 3.
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