“Impotent bigness uses empty violence to lash out against the vulnerable to compensate for its own utter inability to change the world in any meaningful way. “
he great 20th century political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote a great deal about the feelings of powerlessness that had befallen those of her generation. These casualties included the lonely subjects of modernity who became isolated and detached by the emergence of capitalism and liberalism, the tragic victims of prejudice and oppression, and—most famously—refugees and the stateless, who were left without even the basic “right to have rights.” Why this occurred is directly tied to Arendt’s theorizing on evil; along with Augustine, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche, Arendt was among evil’s shrewdest analysts. Her most famous work is on the infamous “banality of evil,” which has become forever associated with the thoughtless mechanic reasoning of bureaucrats like Adolf Eichmann, as they carried out mass murder. Arendt chimed that the banality of 20th century evil was reflected in the desire of totalitarian subjects to surrender even their capacity for critical thought and dissent to a fascist leader (and his propagandistic apparatus). These subjects could not even become demonic or “radically evil”—as Kant and Arendt herself once thought in The Origins of Totalitarianism—because a radically evil person knows the good and chooses to do evil. The banal bureaucrat of death thinks nothing of good or evil, and only of orders and power.
Less attention is paid to another dimension of Arendt’s analysis: political leaders who embody the traits of “impotent bigness,” as she framed it. In an era where the American President is obsessed with “bigness” and continues to enjoy mass appeal among post-modern conservatives (analyzed by myself and others here), it is worth looking into this matter.
Modernity and Power
Last week, I published a piece at Merion West entitled “Why Millennials Are Angry,” which discussed the feelings of powerlessness—of being a wasted generation—that prompts many younger people to gravitate towards either reactionary or socialist views. The reasons are very similar to what Arendt herself would have diagnosed 70 years ago. The classical world of antiquity was characterized by a deep sense of human powerlessness before nature. This was reflected in a variety of different mythological and religious traditions, from the Buddhist insistence on liberating one’s self from the root of all suffering in desire to the Daoist call for “effortless action” to integrate into existence. While very distinct in many respects, these philosophies share an insight that much of life’s suffering comes from trying to master a world that permits no master. In a Greek context, heroes such as Achilles and Oedipus lived in a universe governed by fortune and fate. For a time, the bold and powerful figure might be able to win fortune’s favor and, consequently, ascend to venerated status. However, like all mortals their efforts were doomed from the start to eventual tragedy and annihilation. In the underworld, the best one could hope for was an eternity of meaningless peace and changelessness, a point that led Achilles in The Odyssey to exclaim that he would rather be a slave on earth than to rule over the “breathless dead”:
“But you, Achilles,/ There is not a man in the world more blest than you—/ There never has been, never will be one./ Time was, when you were alive, we Argives/ honored you as a god, and now down here, I see/ You Lord it over the dead in all your power./ So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.’
I reassured the ghost, but he broke out protesting,/ ‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!/ By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—/ Some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
The Christian and Islamic worldviews constituted a significant shift in this fatalistic outlook. Monotheists projected that the imperfections of the world were not build naturally into it but, instead, emerged as a consequence of sinful human actions. One of the reasons St. Augustine came to criticize the Manichean heresy that good and evil were equally powerful in nature was the desire to locate wickedness not in supernatural powers but in the corruption of the human heart. This was a dark philosophy but also one brimming with hope for redemption and true peace at the end of time. Of course, this could not occur through human efforts alone. The early Christians followed their classical forebear’s cynicism about nature, reframing it as a cosmic struggle between good and evil within the human soul, which humanity could not win alone. The intervention of God—whether through the various prophets or even as the God-Man in the figure of Jesus Christ—was necessary to secure or salvation from the horrors of existence. However, this was still a serious break with the fatalism of the past, as the monotheistic injunction was on human beings’ willingness to take responsibility for their own salvation, with the occasional assist from the divine.
With the advent of the modern world, the final traces of antiquarian fatalism were absorbed into new philosophies emphasizing the power and glory of human beings in-and-of-themselves. They drew on monotheistic philosophies stressing the centrality of human existence in the cosmic drama, while gradually dropping even passing references to a divine (and transcendent) being necessary to empower us. Humanism became the order of the day, spawning a variety of offshoots in liberalism, capitalism, and socialism. Each of these respective moral and economic philosophies is united in their conviction that the highest good is the amplification of human powers to the extent possible. This will enable us to eventually conquer nature itself, transcending the limitations imposed upon us by arbitrary fate.
In his book Why Liberalism Failed, the political philosopher Patrick Deneen points to the fundamental paradox of modernity and post-modernity: We wanted absolute freedom to recreate ourselves as Prometheus promised, but to do so, we needed power above all else.
In her classic essay “The Cyborg Manifesto,” the feminist critic Donna Haraway expresses such a point with all the optimism of the early 1990’s. Technology was finally becoming so powerful that we could utterly do away with tedious naturalisms such as sex/gender, biology, and, even, human nature. The future would be one where we could remake ourselves through scientific alterations: altering the genetic code to eliminate diseases, implanting devices to monitor every aspect of our functioning, even shifting between being a man, woman, or something else, if desired. This became tied to a variety of expressivist ethics emphasizing the importance of self-discovery and creation; why be what anyone, even nature, says you are if that is not your wish? Modernity and now post-modernity fulfilled the promise of Prometheus to humankind: that his gift would ultimately allow the gods’ creation to overcome the fatalism imposed by their masters. In our Promethean epoch, who would even want to be a god in the Greek sense if that meant being inevitably tied to controlling but one aspect of nature? As Haraway put it at the stunning conclusion of her essay, better to be a cyborg than a Goddess:
“It is not just that science and technology are possible means of great human satisfaction, as well as a matrix of complex dominations. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the super savers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”
Powerlessness and Impotent Bigness
However, this radically-creative future never arrived for many of us. To bring it about, it was necessary to establish the extraordinarily complex web of social systems and institutions that now dominate our world. In his book Why Liberalism Failed, the political philosopher Patrick Deneen points to the fundamental paradox of modernity and post-modernity: We wanted absolute freedom to recreate ourselves as Prometheus promised, but to do so, we needed power above all else. A powerless subject was not more than a god, as Haraway promised—but merely Icarus flying too close to the sun. The only way to generate such empowerment was the establishment of a massive regulatory state, which was twinned to a capitalist market utterly insulated from questions. Furthermore, there were all of the associated hierarchies of domination that have spawned such resentment today. When post-modern conservatives express resentment towards expert “elites” or Bernie Sanders supporters direct barbs towards the influence of money in politics, they express this point (albeit in profoundly different ways). The consequence is that modernity is defined by an ethos of creative empowerment, and yet many of us feel—with good reason—that we live in a society where our opinions count for little. As Arendt would observe in works such as The Human Condition, the systems and institutions we built to amplify our power gradually assumed such moral priority in the collective consciousness that they were almost unquestionable. Much like the religious precepts of old. Where once you could not criticize the power of nature or the will of God without looking like a fool, now anyone who questions the benefits of unbridled capitalism (and its corrosive influence on democracy) is told that this is simply the way it always has been—all the way back to the lobsters.
Fromm pointed out in The Authoritarian Personality, echoing Arendt, for weak personalities the differences of other people seem like a fundamental restriction on our power. This is because their difference means they cannot be understood easily, and so they represent something beyond our easy control.
This is where the appeal of impotent bigness comes in for Arendt. In a modern (or, now post-modern setting), there are few figures more transfixing than those who wrap themselves in the trappings of unlimited power. They appear like the culmination of a centuries long effort to expunge human limitations and recreate reality as we wish. In 2004, when Karl Rove criticized the “reality based community” and insisted that—as an empire—the United States creates its own reality now, he succinctly reflected this ethos, while simultaneously exposing its profound limitations. As it turned out, even a global super-power was very subject to the reality principle. Outside of the fantasies of a few affluent old men on a little blue dot, most of us recognized that the capacity to blow up a small country signified little beyond satiating a lust for violence.
As Arendt knew well, this is the fundamental and dangerous impotence behind all such desires for bigness. At our worst, many of us respond to our sense of powerlessness before the systems we created by turning to charlatans, who promise complete protection from all danger and limitations. The snake oil solution is using violence—backed by prejudice—to recreate the world through expunging all its unwanted elements. The foreigners, intellectuals, refugees and so on, who seem to limit our power through their difference, are easy targets in this respect. As the social psychologist Erich Fromm pointed out in The Authoritarian Personality, echoing Arendt, for weak personalities the differences of other people seem like a fundamental restriction on our power. This is because their difference means they cannot be understood easily, and so they represent something beyond our easy control. At its peak, the weak personality becomes sadistic and masochistic in wanting to destroy the difference and freedom of all others since that becomes narcissistically interpreted as the single biggest barrier to our own freedom. The actual task of establishing a new world free of domination is never on the agenda. This is why the bigness assumed by Rove, Trump, and others is impotent. Impotent bigness uses empty violence to lash out against the vulnerable to compensate for its own utter inability to change the world in any meaningful way.
As I opined in my essay on millennial anger, we have a choice now between moving forwards or moving backwards. Modernity and now post-modernity is a frightening place, but it also one filled with potential. To move past its limitations, we need to recognize two things. The first is that the establishment of empowering systems and institutions, which are eventually placed beyond question, is responsible for serious alienation. It exposes more than anything the hypocrisy of systems that are supposed to be about freedom yet instead continuously insist “there is not alternative” to the status quo. The second is that post-modernity is fundamentally a deeply lonely place, as Hannah Arendt anticipated that it would be. Despite mass improvements in our communications technologies through digital media, many feel a sense of isolation and redundancy, which may not have been present in the more localized communities of earlier epochs. Such loneliness facilitates the attraction of impotent bigness, as figures promise if you just give them enough power, they will expunge all the social differences that make one feel out of place. The solution to both problems has to be the creation of new forms of democracy and participation, which not only allow individuals to have a say in how to organize the world but allow them to form meaningful attachments with others.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof