Frantz Fanon is the author of the highly-praised book “The Wretched of the Earth” which was written in 1961. In this book, the author justifies violence as the main instrument of the third world peoples’ struggle against the colonialists. His radical concept was adopted over the years by such iconic revolutionaries of the 20th century as Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and Steve Biko, and Malcolm X. In turn, in her work “On Violence”, Hanna Arendt examines the key problems and events in society and the world that have occurred in the 1960s. Based on the references to the Cold War, the American war in Vietnam, and the arms race, the author tries to understand the underlying mechanisms of violence and power. This paper aims to criticize Fanon’s view of power and violence by using Arendt’s arguments.
Violence and Power: Intersection, Reasons, and Manifestations
Fanon was perceived as a prophet and author of the social gospel in the minds of the opposition-left intellectuals. They demanded the liberation of colonial peoples from backwardness through collective catharsis, which could be achieved through revolutionary violence against the oppressors (Frazer and Hutchings 93). Claiming that revolutionary violence is the greatest response mechanism of the oppressed, Fanon made a significant influence both on the national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America, and on the radical left movement in Western countries.
Colonialism, as argued by Fanon, was not political and economic, but total domination. The system becomes a fatal trauma that is capable of distorting the life and personality of not only the oppressed but also the oppressors. However, it is the oppressed ones, who are able to recover from this trauma, if they have the opportunity to speak out and change the situation by speaking likewise during a psychoanalytic session (Fanon 23). Nevertheless, since no one hears the words of the oppressed and no one perceives them, they have the only opportunity to express themselves by taking up arms. This is the main postulate of Fanon that is discussed across his book on the issues that drive those who try to eradicate colonialism.
According to Arendt, violence used to be comprehended as the most terrible and extreme manifestation of power, of which war is the prolongation of politics (76). In “On Violence”, the author writes that violence and power are viewed by many scholars and politics as mutually defining phenomena. Moreover, this point of view is shared by both the left and the right. In her speech to Columbia University students in 1968, she highlights two positions on the correlation between power and violence. According to her opinion, violence is a radical manifestation of power, as considered by leftist theorists (78). On the other hand, rightist theorists believe that violence is behind any power. They urge to be realistic, stating that any power is based on violence or is its manifestation.
Based on the above, one can state that, in general, before Arendt, Fanon’s ideas were characterized by a reductionism of power and violence as interdependent phenomena. The analysis by Arendt regarding the nature of the relations between violence and power in society involves a debate with the tradition of leftist thought (52). She insists that the reflection of political powers with the organization of violence makes sense only if one follows Marx’s description of the state as an apparatus of oppression under the command of the ruling class. Considering that Fanon was little interested in Marx’s vision, his view of the interdependence between violence and power seems to be one-sided and lacks essential evidence.
Contrary to defending one’s I, which means holding a certain line and declaring personal values, aggression consists of the fact that a person invades the sphere of power and prestige of another, thus taking part of it for himself or herself. The motives here that can be quite righteous are the restoration of historical justice, as in the case of the African natives described by Fanon in the book “The Wretched of the Earth” (48).
The struggle for liberation, pride, and a thousand other reasons that undermine the value of the Africans are discussed there. In other words, it should be stressed that there is a phase of behavior that is potentially inherent in any person, and it can be triggered in certain circumstances. When, for some time, a person is completely deprived of the opportunity to give vent to aggressive tendencies, they take their own, engaging in neurosis, psychosis, blurred consciousness, or violence.
Furthermore, as stated by Fanon, in case of the ineffectiveness of aggressive actions, a final explosion occurs, and it is called violence. The violence is mostly physical in nature since the previous phases, in which the ability to act through reasoning and persuasion is preserved, were effectively blocked. As a rule, an external stimulus to the individual is directly transformed into an attack impulse bypassing the cerebral cortex.
Therefore, when a person falls into a rage, he or she is far from remaining aware of his or her actions, until they suddenly understand what was done. It seems that Fanon justifies the violence of the African nations that were colonized and wanted to break free from the abuse of their colonizers. However, Arendt argues that the violence lies in the banality of evil is related to its rashness and a lack of responsibility.
Speaking of the banality of evil, Arendt focuses on Eichmann, the Nazi operative, and questions whether he was an evil person, which made him do cruel things or not. The author claims that the cruelty of commonplace evil is associated with its organized thoughtlessness and irresponsibility. The so-called unconditional obedience to which Eichmann repeatedly referred is an expression of this position (Arendt 65). The essence of these theses is that evil is committed by ordinary people who accept the established order in society as a norm and faithfully fulfill the obligations prescribed by the current law. Arendt’s opponents believed that she was almost defending Eichmann, although it was his passive diligence that terrified her. The concept of the banality of evil has become one of the cornerstones in modern philosophy, and passions around Arendt’s controversial theses have not diminished until now.
The situation when people are fully deprived of the opportunity to realize their needs for self-affirmation is actually tragic. The concerns of the oppressed about the abuse of power sometimes border on neurotic obsession. However, the important question is not whether these theories are fair or not, but rather whether it will happen that in trying to eliminate aggressive tendencies, one thereby abandons values that are vital to the human nature or not. For example, self-affirmation and self-confidence can be noted as the essential features that largely identify the extent to which people can control their mind and be aware of aggression (Butler 12).
If the oppressed ones’ liberation would occur, according to fanon, the threat is that it can exacerbate the sense of their helplessness, thus stimulating an explosion of violence on an incomparable scale.
Another argument that can be used to critique Fanon’s viewpoint is that violence is rooted in powerlessness and apathy. Aggression has turned into violence so often and regularly that general disgust and fear of it are natural. Nonetheless, what is overlooked is that the state of powerlessness, which leads to apathy and can be exacerbated by the above-mentioned plans to eradicate aggression, is the source of violence. By depriving people of power, one contributes to the manifestation of aggression.
The acts of violence in society are often committed by those who seek to strengthen their self-esteem, protect their self-image, and demonstrate their importance to others. As erroneous or flawed as this motivation is, it is still a manifestation of positive interpersonal needs. One cannot disregard the fact that regardless of how much effort it may take to channel them in a different direction, these needs constructive (Arendt 82). Violence does not come from an excess of strength, but from powerlessness. As Arendt points out, violence is an expression of powerlessness, and this idea coincides with Fanon, who also believes that the oppressed use violence as they do not have other instruments.
There are those who are above and dictate the rules, and there are people who are below and must obey these rules. It was once said about the goodness of the hierarchy and the meaning of accepting one’s special place on this earth. However, Fanon argues that every utterance has a limit, both temporal and spatial, while it is another a point of view, from which unbearable situations and roles are visible (56). The reconciliation with them makes the surrounding reality and one’s own existence meaningless. Along with colonialism, Fanon also discusses the dictatorship of European countries.
He is confident that the countries of the first and third worlds have a common interest in each other. The latter are an important market for the former, while losing this market is likely to destroy the entire system of the capitalist world. “The right is on our side, and our position is fair”, as the book says about the oppressed peoples. In other words, Fanon urged the third world countries to realize that they are worth and rise from their knees.
Power and a sense of significance are interdependent, which identifies the pursuit of showing one’s meaning. The first is objective, and the second is the subjective form of the same experience. While power is usually extroverted, a sense of significance may not be directed outward at all, manifesting and achieving in meditation or other introverted, subjective experiences (Butler 18). However, it is experienced by the individual in the form of a feeling of power since it helps in integrating and effectively interacting with other people.
Power is always interpersonal, while its intrapersonal aspect is defined as strength. For example, Arendt believes that Bertrand Juvenal was right in his assertion that power is a social phenomenon and is a coordinated activity of people in groups (96). That is why the interpersonal concept of Harry Stack Sally-wan, the founder of the cultural school of psychoanalysis, is important. He believed that the feeling of power, as the ability to influence others in interpersonal relationships, is necessary to maintain self-esteem and accomplish maturity. When a sense of significance is lost, a person turns his or her attention to other, often perverted or neurotic forms of power, in an effort to find a replacement for significance.
In this way, it is possible to explain Fanon’s notion of power not only as the desire to overcome hopelessness, but also as a consequence of the need to acquire the sense of self-value. One of the problems in America is the widespread sense of loss of personal significance, which is internally experienced as powerlessness. Many people feel that they do not have and cannot have power, that they are denied even self-affirmation, and that they will not achieve anything. Accordingly, it seems to them that almost the only way out is an explosion of cruelty.
In this case, one should state that Fanon’s explanation of the interdependence between power and violence seems to be correct. When a person loses his or her self-esteem, and a certain type of power dictates the rules, it becomes quite difficult to continue to think rationally. Instead, Fanon calls to turn a new page, claiming that it is critical to develop new concepts and try to put a new person on his or her feet (124). The terrible inequality in the world divides humanity, while there are few concepts to guide in overcoming these divisions, as well as few guides to create a new society through struggling. According to Fanon, there is the rigidity of culture and some cruelty of capitalism, but there is also a clear conspiracy of the powers that changes the course of history.
Without a doubt, even modern people are so used to this kind of behavior. They say that it is what is happening, and do nothing to try to improve it. Such cynicism diminishes the responsibility of people to demand that their authorities fulfill their obligations. If one is not angry, regardless of his or her political views, the culture of democracy will continue to deplete in connection with these revelations. Western countries require political stability and tranquility in the society.
However, this cannot be achieved, given the dire situation in which the populations of the newly independent countries are. Therefore, after a vain search for at least some guarantees that the former colonies are not able to give, the capitalists demand to deploy military units on the territory of the young state or sign military or economic agreements with them (Frazer and Hutchings 102). Private companies pressure their governments to at least establish military bases in third world countries to protect the economic interests of these companies. Moreover, the capitalists even ask their government to insure the investments that they nevertheless decide to make in this particular region.
In fact, it turns out that only a few third world countries manage to fulfill the conditions of Western trusts and monopolistic associations. As a result, without guarantees of security, capital does not go to the former colonies, but remains frozen in Europe and the US. It is losing its mobility even more as its owners refuse to invest in its own economy. Profits are then paltry, and even the most daring optimists get frustrated when calculating balances.
Therefore, Fanon states that the oppressed nations must not accept such terms. They should reject the condition to which the West coerces them. Colonialism and imperialism have not paid all the bills yet, rolling down their flags and withdrawing the police from their former territories (Fanon 136). For several centuries, the capitalists behaved in the colonies like inveterate war criminals. Deportation, brutal murder, forced labor, and slavery are the main methods used by capitalism to multiply its wealth, gold reserves, as well as to establish its power.
The philosophical and political analysis carried out by Arendt is undoubtedly an important milestone on the path of recognizing totalitarianism as one of the most sinister phenomena in world history. When speaking about Fanon, it also has not only historical, but also metaphysical origins, focusing on human existence and setting questioned the radicalism of the previous forms of philosophical and political reflection.
The all-encompassing and ubiquitous manifestation of cruelty, arbitrariness, fanaticism and soulless bureaucracy of totalitarian power surpasses the traditional horizons of philosophical thinking (Frazer and Hutchings 96). The radical formulation of problems by Arendt and fanon motivates contemporary thinkers to evaluate and comprehend many phenomena of human civilization, politics, and culture in a new way.
Today, when countries fight radicalism, terrorism, extremism, and other similar issues, they seem to forget that these are also forms of expression, among other things. They arose from the fact that no other statement from the point of view of those who feel oppressed and traumatized is impossible. The current system creates such a zone of protection as it has learned to ensure the safety of its leaders, including their values and methods of suppression, turning to their benefit.
It suits everyone and everything in separate niches – for the left, right, and other political powers. For example, the case of George Floyd, who was killed by the police, and the subsequent Black movement shows that the voices of African-Americans were not heard for a long time, and it motivated an extensive movement with violence. In this connection, it can be regarded as the expression of their feelings, which is caused by hopelessness. While violence cannot be justified, the discussions of Fanon and Arendt help in better understanding it to elaborate on the ways to improve the system.
To conclude, Fanon believes that the oppressed people have the only opportunity to manifest violence to make sure that their voices will be heard. As for power, this author states that the colonial context shows the dictating nature of power, and a lack of empathy and rationality makes the lives of the colonial countries unbearable as the actions of those who power are dehumanized. Arendt understands power as the ability to act collectively, where power belongs to the groups and exists as long as these groups exist. Fanon and Arendt agree that violent practices can sometimes be useful to change the world.
However, Arendt appropriately notes that they are also able to turn it into a world full of even more violence since hopeless and angry people have no internal resources to create a new, equal society. Therefore, it is important to reconsider and redefine the understudying of violence and power, which would allow for preventing misappropriation and paying attention to different interpretations of these concepts.
Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1970.
Butler, Judith. “Violence, Non-Violence: Sartre on Fanon.” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, vol. 27, no. 1, 2006, pp. 3-24.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the World. Grove Press, 1960.
Frazer, Elizabeth, and Kimberly Hutchings. “On Politics and Violence: Arendt Contra Fanon.” Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 7, no. 1, 2008, pp. 90-108.