‘Tyranny Without a Tyrant’: Hannah Arendt on the Root and Growth of Violence

4 min

It's funny how peaceful all this recent protesting for change has been. In fact, it’s so peaceful that average Americans, trying to go about their lives as normally as possible, are simply surrounded by love and feelings of euphoria.

I speak tongue-in-cheek, of course, for the exact opposite seems to be the case. The video of a Black Lives Matter protest in Utah is only the latest, high-profile example. 

According to media reports, the video shows a 60-year-old local driving through Provo during a Black Lives Matter Protest. The vehicle is quickly surrounded by protesters, one of whom pulls a gun and shoots through the passenger window. The injured driver guns it, hightailing it out of the area, while protesters try to stop him, the shooter sending another bullet through the rear passenger window.

Police later arrested 33-year-old Jesse Taggart in connection with the shooting; reports indicate he also attempted further violence following the incident.

Unfortunately, we can’t chalk this up to a one-time incident by a crazed-person in a southwestern town, because many of our largest cities have experienced similar incidents of violence. Even CHAZ/CHOP, the allegedly peaceful people’s utopia in Seattle, has given way to violence. Clearing the area on July 1, officials cited violence as the main reason why the “unlawful assembly” can no longer continue:

[E]nough is enough.

The CHOP has become lawless and brutal. Four shootings—two fatal—robberies, assaults, violence and countless property crimes have occurred in this several block area.

Why all this violence? Where will it end? And how do we make sense of everything that we’re going through right now?

Philosopher Hannah Arendt pondered similar questions 50 years ago during the riots and social upheaval of the late 1960s. Writing in The New York Review of Books she noted how racial injustice drives violence, but cautioned that “Violence does not promote causes,” it only serves to “dramatize grievances and to bring them to public attention.”

Violence, Arendt theorized, often emerges in heavily bureaucratized societies. “The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence,” she declares.

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.

It’s hard to deny that we live in a bureaucratized state. Just look at the first few months of COVID-19, in which government agencies ruled the roost with predictions, models, and dictates on proper protocols for handling the virus. Or consider the many other bureaucracies which rule our lives through schools, social work, businesses, and more ordinary government regulations. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised when we see society lash back at this form of “tyranny without a tyrant.”

Yet Arendt cautions that violence which lasts more than a short time can never end well:

Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world. (Emphasis added.)

Violence and corruption have been a regular part of American life for several weeks now. The moves to disband CHAZ/CHOP because of this violence show that some leaders are beginning to put their feet down and stand up for law and order, but will such a trend continue?

If we want to live in a violent society, then according to Arendt, we should just continue the cycle we’ve practiced for the last few weeks. But if we want to once again be a peaceful, productive society, working for the good of our families, friends, and communities, we need to stand against the violence before it’s too late to turn back.


Image Credit: 

Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe, CC BY-SA 3.0

Annie Holmquist

Annie Holmquist

Annie Holmquist is the editor of Intellectual Takeout. When not writing or editing, she enjoys reading, gardening, and time with family and friends.

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Police reform protesters tried protesting peacefully and Rump responded by telling all employers to fire anyone who participated. More proof liberalism is a mental disorder


Progressivism is the mental disorder not liberalism. We departed long ago from "liberalism" by using the term for everything that wasn't conservative. Jefferson was a classic liberal. Classic Liberalism should be promoted, but only to people who can handle reality. For some people reality leaves a lot to the imagination. It can be dangerous in the wrong minds since it has been FUBAR by fools who use it interchangeably when the mean to say leftist politics.
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Hello Annie, Thank you for this piece. I am an admirer of Arendt and wrote my undergraduate thesis on her political theory of Natality. On the topic alone, I can respect someone who simply holds this opinion. However, I have to admit that inserting Arendt into this discussion is bizarre for a number of reasons. First of all, did you read the entire article in The New York Review of Books or did you simply read the little abstract/introductory paragraph the the link you provided? Because I’m willing to absolve you of intellectual dishonesty if you aren’t familiar with her larger work on Totalitarianism, political and social theory in her work like, The Human Condition, or even her book, The Crisis of The Republic (which touches on not only violence but on civil disobedience), but I fear not only that, you didn’t even read this entire article in question. So I’ll assume that you only read this abstract/introductory paragraph in this article. In this alone, seem to be mislead. You are ignoring her claim That “France would not have received the most radical reform bill since Napoleon to change her antiquated education system without the riots of the French students [in May 1968],“ and the same is true for Columbia University. Now I have to admit, Arendt isn’t consistent with her claim here but what is more important is her larger concept on the “irreversibility“ and utter “uncertainty” of “Action” (a much loaded word for Arendt - see, The Human Condition, Vita Activa) and Particularly to act in concert with others (see her thoughts on “Pluralism”). It is then one’s freedom realized - even if that violence is the more of action.


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..... Furthermore, Your angle is odd and your conclusion u supported, namely, that “we need to stand against the violence.” That isn’t her conclusion at all. Otherwise we’d be complicit with State oppression manifest in its overwhelming bureaucracies which seek to divide and minimize our role in the Republic to “argue with; present grievances to; place pressure upon” any single person.” One thing you must understand is Arendt fondness for the Hellenism - to the point that she was once called a Hellenophile. Therefore, she considers the engagement in public discourse one of the highest goods. This is antithetical to a fully bureaucratic society. This is why she is known for her statement to “think without banisters.” Bureaucracies are isolating to the to the point of thoughtless repetition of behavior. Anyway, I would really encourage you to be more familiar with a thinkers work beyond a single article. (Note: it’s a common misunderstanding but Arendt rejected the title “philosopher” and gave preference to the title “social theorist.” I wish you well. Joe