Reflections on Drone Violence and Robot Soldiers: Lessons from Hannah Arendt
In this post, I extend Arendt’s thoughts on violence and power to modern drone warfare, which represents the ascendency of violence through technological and bureaucratic means. Without the “social check” of human-centred violence, drone warfare becomes severed, or alienated, from a concerned domestic citizenry.
Hannah Arendt’s “Reflections on Violence” is a complicated article, situated within a distinct political climate, and yet of remarkable relevance for today. Writing in 1969 for the New York Review of Books, Arendt witnessed the rise of “mutually assured destruction”, the student protests that swept the globe in 1968, and the ongoing grind of communism in Eastern Europe. Her thesis surrounds the distinctive role of violence and power. Violence is instrumental, while power is generated through consent. Arendt takes aim at those who conflate the two terms and celebrate violence as a form of power. Indeed, for the German-American philosopher, this easy conflation is telling of the taken-for-granted presence of violence in history and politics.
In the long shadow cast by the age of the atomic bomb, Arendt writes that the New Left pursued peaceful forms of protest that were met with some success, as with the resistance movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam. But violence has returned as a political form of expression—both in thought and practice. This shift is hardly surprising for Arendt. Humankind’s life may even depend on violent action, given that “the proliferation of techniques and machines which, far from only threatening certain classes with unemployment, menaces the very existence of whole nations and, conceivably, of all mankind”. She singles out John-Paul Sartre, who wrote that violence “can heal the wounds it has inflicted”. Or as Mao wrote: “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun”.
Underwriting the desire to employ violence to reach a “better beyond” is the belief in a Progress driving History. Progress is imagined as a transcendent guide, a raison d’être, and is found prominently within Karl Marx’s work. His materialist dialectic sees social syntheses arising out of conflict and contradiction. But this linear reading of time is inaccurate for Arendt, and has the effect of overplaying the role of violence (in the guise of war and revolution) in making history (rather than non-violent action). Indeed, the hegemony of violence as a political act and explanation leads Arendt to parse out violence and power in order to recover the latter’s non-violent genesis.
Her entry point is once again through the figure of Marx. While Marx understood the utility of violence, he—along with Lenin—located power within the ownership of the means of production. While the ruling class could certainly use violence, for Marx, the distinctive form of revolutionary violence that has emerged throughout history (and signified the changing mode of production) is always the outcome of contradictions inherent in the class-system of society. This thesis is countervailing to the preponderance of opinion in political science. As for back as Max Weber, the state was understood as “the rule of men over men, based on the means of legitimate, i.e. allegedly legitimate, violence”. In this definition, power is seen as a form of command and coercion, a near biological instinct that expresses itself differentially according to the form of rule. In a monarchy, coercion manifests as the rule of one over the many; in an aristocracy, it is the rule of the best over the many; and in a bureaucracy, it is the tyrannous rule of “Nobody”.
And yet this rule of man over man is accompanied by a no less historical version of power: recall the Greek “isonomy” or the Roman civitas. Both of these versions of power could be defined as the “power of the people”; the citizenry giving their consent to the laws. Power therefore needs numbers, a mass. Violence doesn’t quite have this same requirement, given the technologies of mass-violence available. And while consent does not have the “unquestioning obedience” that an act of violence does, the support the people lend to political institutions is vital for their growth or decay. Finally, writes Arendt, while unchecked “consensus” can clearly violate the rights of a minority, this does not itself mean that power is the same as violence.
In fact, violence is usually a “last resort” – and is the surest sign of a faltering government regime. Of course, in a clash between government violence and the violence mete out by a rebellion, the superiority of the government will usually prevail. But rebellions rarely function like this, given that government power depends on consent more than it does coercion for its long-term viability. Governments depend on people consenting to the rule of law no less than they depend on police forces willing to use their weapons. This introduces an important element of contingency: everything depends on the power behind the violence. Violence is thus an important form of coercion, one that is often coextensive with, but not the same as, power. This leads Arendt to conclude that:
“Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification through something else cannot be the essence of anything”.
Further, violence depends on what Arendt calls “implements”.
“Violence, we must remember, does not depend on numbers or opinion but on implements, and the implements of violence share with all other tools that they increase and multiply human strength. Those who oppose violence with mere power will soon find out that they are confronted not with men but with men’s artifacts, whose inhumanity and destructive effectiveness increase in proportion to the distance that separates the opponents. Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.”
This above quote is worth unpacking. For one, as Arendt has now established, violence can coerce people, but is not a form of power. This does not mean that violence cannot destroy power; it simply means it is no substitute for it. Second, violence is enacted through “men’s artifacts” or “implements”. Third, the inhumanity and destructive capacity of these artifacts increases as the targets of these weapons increase in distance.
As it turns out, implements are actually quite essential to Arendt’s analysis of violence. For her, the development of Cold War atomic weapons, and the strategy of “mutually assured destruction”, meant that “no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict”. Now, it might be quite obvious that violence—state violence or otherwise—needs artifacts or instruments. But what is the status of these “instruments”? For Arendt, violent action is rapidly overtaken by the instruments used. Instruments become agents; they become ends instead of means: “the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means, which it both justifies and needs. Since the end of human actions in contrast with the products of fabrication, it 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”.
Political goals are therefore transformed by the means available. This is quite the reversal, and one that has grave consequences. As she adds, “those engaged in the perfection of the means of destruction have finally brought about a level of technical development where their aim, namely warfare, is on the point of disappearing altogether”.
Modern warfare, or inter-state violence, possesses this peculiar switch, where means increasingly define the ends of violence, rather than the other way around. This is exemplified in drone warfare. The technology or “implement” of violence has reconfigured the nature of warfare itself—creating a permanent, unyielding, and borderless war, where the distinctiveness of “here” and “there”, “enemy” and friend” is dissolving into a more diffuse and irregular battlespace. The implement is easily picked up, put hard to put down.
There is a further consequence of drone usage by states to understanding the link between violence and power. Technological artifacts always exacerbate the schism between violence and power, and at their worst, can fundamentally alter the balance in a government. There are two “pushes” towards this new form of state violence – one is technology and the other is bureaucracy. As to the former, Arendt writes,
“No government based upon the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler needs a power basis, the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which would eliminate the human factor completely, and, conceivably, permit one man with a pushbutton at his disposal to destroy whomever he pleases could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence”.
In the above quote Arendt (perhaps in a throw-away line or perhaps in a genuine moment of foresight) states that only “robot soldiers” can prevent power from overtaking violence. Or put in the opposite way, robot soldiers alter the “social check” on violence. Power relies on consent, it is – and always has been – the fundamental element of rule, of society, and perhaps even of civilization. In short, as the modus operandi of government changes—as the instruments of violence transform—so too does the fundamental “social check” on violence.
The Vietnam War rolled humans into the war machine in a fundamental way – and it was the domestic dissent that followed American conscripts fighting an unjust battle that proved to be the “social check” that contributed to its eventual demise. And yet, technology can eliminate the need for widespread human consent because it reduces widespread human participation. By alienating the larger population from sovereign decisions over life and death, violence can be executed far more freely, and without the checks and balances associated with involving humans in warfare. Drone warfare is indicative of this elision: the “robot soldiers” Arendt warns about are are here. A “pushbutton” is now used a drone operator “to destroy whomever he pleases”. This is hardly science-fiction, it is science-fact.
Compounding the technological transformation of state violence is its bureaucratic foundation. These are twin-pillars of a tyrannous, alienating impulse. When violence is abstracted through technology and abstracted through the anonymizing effect of bureaucracy, we have a tyranny without a tyrant. As Arendt warns:
“Finally, the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. 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 CIA is a nominally a civilian bureaucracy, and the agency’s bureaucrats perform far-away violence (whether in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia) in total anonymity. Hardly Anybody knows the Nobodies that run the program of targeted killings. The strikes remain in a peculiar state of secrecy; lawsuits are blocked, and Nobody is held accountable—for grievances or otherwise. With modern drone warfare then, we see the reversal of the ascendency of power over violence, and the erosion that social checks held over implements. Instead, violence triumphs in spectacular fashion: a distinctive form of technological violence, underwritten by “robot soldiers” that are both alienated and alienating.
This is the lesson imparted by Hannah Arendt, well before she understood the modern meaning of a “Predator” and “Reaper”.