When Violence Shapes Public Policy

It seems like rioting (or the threat thereof) has become a form of participatory democracy. Nothing reveals the disintegration of authority and the common good so much in our society as the more and more frequent resort to violence. That this is particularly connected to police and the use of force, undue or otherwise, is a political problem with philosophical implications.

Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish-American philosopher who wrote much about social issues, published a book fifty years ago called On Violence. She was alarmed at the “glorification” of violence among New Left thinkers and campus radicals, and much of what she said sounds particularly applicable to 2021.

 “The more dubious and uncertain an instrument violence has become in international relations, the more it has gained in reputation and appeal in domestic affairs.” She decried the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s book on revolution, The Wretched of the Earth. The French intellectual wrote that “irrepressible violence,” as advocated by Fanon, “is neither sound and fury nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man recreating himself.”

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Sartre was a terribly bloody-minded intellectual who said that “in the first days of the revolt, you must kill: to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man.”

Applying this to the looting of a Target store might seem like a stretch, but there is a similarity in the response of both the judicial system, prosecutors and judges etc., and our nation’s opinion makers and the engagé New Left intellectuals Arendt reacted to. Elite thinkers like Sartre could praise violence even when it was bloody because they never had to run for their lives. The American Establishment, which is most of the mainstream media, the Silicon moguls, the “enlightened” CEOs of Corporate America, and the majority of the political class, probably never buy goods at the stores that are looted in the cities; and if they sometimes go to restaurants that have been vandalized, they most likely never lose their employment because of rioting. For them, social problems can remain safely rhetorical.

The cost to society, however, is something all of us will have to pony up for. Violence is a disintegrating, destructive force in society. Arendt talked about the opposition between power and violence. By power she meant, “the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” Human beings “acting in concert” is what government represents in its best sense. 

“Power,” she said, “is indeed the essence of all government, but violence is not.” Without power, there is chaos, and power is by its nature participatory. Rioting to respond to a police action (however tragic in outcome), or to the outcome of a trial, or to influence such a trial by menacing the social fabric, is not the same as political protest. The fact that the Establishment, by which I mean the opinion makers of our society, not only tolerates but even, in a way, facilitates the violent protests (with the oxymoronic “mostly peaceful” description) shows a deterioration of the common assumptions of the social compact that is necessary for human community.

The wag who said that Russia’s tsarist system of government was autocracy mitigated by assassination could say that America’s rule of law apparently needs regular doses of riotous behavior. Looting has become a response to perceived injustice, and the elite don’t seem to be very concerned about it except to blame the police and “systemic” racism. Thus, vandalism of the private property of others, which affects the employees and consumers of neighborhoods far from the stately homes of the elite, has been practically legitimized. In Cleveland last summer, hundreds of policemen were called out to witness (but not intervene too forcefully) a riot that destroyed millions of dollars of property. Although hundreds of people, mostly out-of-towners, were arrested, none were prosecuted. 

The power invested in institutions of public order has, of late, been routinely subject to violence. Arendt said, “To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high.” If the judiciary itself responds to extra-legal considerations, there is corruption. But what society can survive in which violence is resorted to so frequently? There were almost 20,000 homicides reported in 2021; this is added to the burden of the astronomical damage to private property and the impoverishment of the resources of communities to secure order in the streets.

Back to On Violence: “Power and violence are opposites: where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” 

Arendt wrote a half century ago. Would that our “leaders” could listen to the concerns she voiced about the social consequences of violence. Even our bishops speak more about “systemic racism,” a phrase not free from ideological associations, than the rising tide of self-destructive violence that not only threatens individuals but even our way of life. Why is the presentation of our social doctrine so often couched and reduced by the language of CNN and The New York Times? I know soundbites are hell, but do I dare say we should think that of offering more of a choice than an echo of bien pensant opinion? 

When violent means are tolerated for political goals, we are in for a heap of trouble.

[Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images]


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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