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Is Power the Same as Violence?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2875 words Published: 12th Oct 2017

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  • Huang Li



For a long time in history, the coercive side that power involves and the destructive results that power rivalry brings have all along depicted power as horrible and deterrent. It has been viewed as closely related to force and violence, or to a large extent very similar. It is only until the time of modern democratic societies that the meaning of power is gradually enriched with the increasing role of rational recognition in power relations.

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This essay intends to show that power is not the same as violence; it is more than that because of the most fundamental difference: rational recognition. Power is not only composed of coercive force that resembles violence, more importantly it involves the force of social recognition which violence is short of. Power is a mutually regulated communicative process rather than simply exercised by the powerful over the powerless.

After identifying some basic differences between power and violence, this essay will focus on the discussion of power and power relations, to explore the major difference between power and violence – rational recognition and why it is so. On one hand, it will show that power can create violence and it consists of coercive elements by demonstrating why power is not a one-way event; on the other hand, this essay will proof why power is more of mutual constraint that rational recognition and willingness of acceptance from others can identify power from violence.

Scholars like Weber views power as means than ends, backed by violence, threat or inducement; Mann illustrates power as resources that can be occupied; Parsons and Foucault both intend to reconstruct power but still proceed in the realm of violence theory. This essay mostly follows the ideas of Honneth, Arendt, and Habermas, but attempts to avoid another extreme of equalizing power to purely power of rationality or power of consensus through communicative process. It sees power as a combination shaped by both coercive and rational forces, avoiding placing power in the opposite of violence since in history power has been devastating too and violence could be “an attempt to achieve justice” (Gilligan, 2000, 11).

Basic Differences: Power Dependent on Numbers and Violence on Implements

Arendt defines power in the context of groups of individuals, as “the human ability not just to act but to act in concert” (1972, 143). One individual alone does not generate power; power is the aggregate strength of all the individuals in a group. So the exercise of power is preconditioned with numbers. Unlike power, violence does not require numbers or groups in order to be violence.

Rather, it depends on implements to “multiply strength, to a point at which they can replace it” (Arendt, 1972, 145), instead of becoming power. Violence is designed and applied for expanding one’s physical strength that it is totally instrumental and always a means for certain purpose; but power in itself can serve as an end. There is categorical distinction in this sense.

Is Power a One-way Event?

If violence is not the end, it is a “blinding rage that speaks through the body” (Gilligan, 2000, 55) and the hope of those who do not possess power. So violence could start from the powerless against the powerful, such as slaves against slave owners, or the ruled against the ruling. Such power relations see those in power as subjects and those under the power objects, to be controlled and manipulated. Power in such a one-way model is pillared by certain condition which is understood as its source. Mann identifies four sources of power: ideology, economy, military and politics (1970, 35) that people who occupy these resources will own power.

A society is thus divided into two kinds of people in a one-way power structure. If the will of those in power is not executed, the ruled will be punished, possibly by violence, and they stand up to resist, with violence, for power. It is not difficult to reach the conclusion that in a binary opposition, power and violence can be cause and effect of each other and they are actually two sides of one coin.

Derived from the Hobbesian proposition, it should be admitted that power do contain certain aspects of violence, historically or theoretically, when it is understood as something can be possessed like resources. However, what can be relied upon by the ruled class for their struggle if they don’t have any resources at all? In the case of ideology, any interpretation by the powerless will be meaningless and invalid, why would those in power necessitate oppressing and controlling them? Will there be any struggle inside the powerful and the powerless?

Power is Mutually Agreed: Rational Recognition of Imbalance

Clearly such violence-illustrated power is not the whole picture. Power is more than something can be owned and preserved; it only exists when is “exercised by some on others” (Foucault, 2003, 126) and will be “dispersed once the group ceases to exist” (Arendt, 1972, 143). Power is the “structural feature of human relations” (Elias, 1998, 188). Slaves have power over the slave owner too as long as they are valuable to him; their power depends on the degree to which their owner relies on them; so is the case between parents and children, and teachers and students.

In reality, if an individual or group acquires the power to implement self will, such power is not fully discovered if the ruled do not acknowledge it; they do not just accept power, they make certain responses to it based on their own will. So power is not necessarily a unilateral process where one is dominated and controlled by the other; it exists in interdependence and mutual constraint among people with differentiated level of resources; it is both “pervasive and negotiated” (Gosling, 2007, 3). Not only will power be regulated and negotiated between the ruling and the ruled, but also within themselves. The former power relations are coercive because the power is legitimized by laws, regimes or organizations. The latter may be absent from these elements but power relations and interactions still takes place because some individuals will still tend to persuade and influence others in exchange for recognition of authoritative positions, through knowledge, money and personal network, in order to implement one’s own will and better response to such power relations at the “ most micro levels” (michel-foucault.com).

In fact, power relations at the micro level are where those power relations between hierarchies originate. At the very micro level, it is to a larger extent the power of rational recognition rather than the power of force that leads to certain power relations. Since interdependence always exists among people regardless of their power positions, power relation is a dynamicequilibrium and mutual power regulation is always there, even in the extreme case of slaves and slave owner. However if the power relations regulated by rational recognition are neglected, those based on them at the macro levels will be shaken.

Although power relations are mutually regulated and communicative rational, the degrees of interdependence are different, which lead to unbalanced relationships among the players. In fact, power to some extend is just demonstrated by such imbalance; violence too is demonstrated in kind of imbalance; but power goes further if it is identified different as it means others’ recognition of such imbalance. When the imbalance is maintained in the form of pure coercive force, it is violence; when rational force is included, it starts to turn into power. Under any circumstance, power is the combination of both.

Bifacial Nature of Power

When examined under Habermas’s context, in the terms of “facts and norms”, power includes two dimensions as well, described as “facticity and validity”. The facticity dimension reveals the coercive nature of power that power, in any kind of form, potentially contains coercive forces in realizing goals and excluding all impediments. Such aspect of power is underpinned by violence or the threat of violence which exist as real and concrete facts. The other dimension is validity that refers to power’s tendency of gaining rational recognition from the others. Though the two dimensions coexist in power and so does the tensions between them, they are not always equally demonstrated. In a tyrannic society, power shows more coercive side of its nature whereas the power of rational recognition is more compelling in a democratic society.

Violence Does Not Create Power but Destroys It

As discussed so far, power involves elements of coercion and it can generate violence. But is it the case the other way around that violence can also produce power?

In many scholars’ understanding, violence is viewed as a resource that “can be mobilized to enforce the compliance of others” (Ray, 2011, 13). Usually exercised by those in power, it creates the ability of an individual or group to achieve their own goals or aims even if others are trying to prevent them from realizing them. Thus violence is naturally seen as a source of power.

However, is what one has gained by using violence, or what violence has created, truly power? When a government turns into violence against its own people or a foreign country, or an individual uses violence to acquire what is wanted, it is generally because power in their hand is running out and violence is the last resort. While such a government or individual does not lack means of violence, they are in fact in short of power; to be more accurate, they are lack of recognition of their wills by others. When violence as a resource is utilized against another, it not only consumes the resource itself but also diminishes what little power is left over. Violence is always the choice of the impotent, not the powerful.

Viewed in this sense, violence only equals to coercive means regardless of other’s recognitions. It emerges when “social ensembles are incoherent, fragmented and decadent” (Wieviorka, 2009, 165). Therefore, as violence “inevitably destroys power, it can never generate power” (Arendt 1972, 152). There is no “continuity between obedience to command (the enactment of power) and obedience to law (as legitimate authority)” (Ray, 2011, 13). A government that solely relies on violence has no power and “tyranny is both the least powerful and the most violent form of government” (Arendt, 1972, 140).

Reproduction of Power and Violence

In the past, power is largely associated with gains of interests, or occupation of social resources like those identified by Michael Mann. In Honneth’s Struggle for Recognition, he reveals the “force of recognition” behind power. Once this point is taken into consideration, the reproduction of power will no longer be just about violent competition, or rivalry for social resources, rather, the willingness of others to acknowledge and accept.

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Arendt insists that violence does not give rise to power because she believes that social recognition is missed in violence. When power is taken as a combination of coercive and rational forces, it may be understood as a relationship of mutual recognition among a group of people backed by the potential threats each have for others. Therefore, the reproduction of power naturally includes attempts of occupying as much resources as possible for greater coercive capability; it is indispensible and more important to gain recognition from others. If authoritative coercion is a source of power, it is not the only source. Rational recognition also generates power.

So political power is not the potential capability to implement one’s own goals or realize one’s own interests, it relies on those over whom the power is exercised to define what power truly is. The power of a government is conferred through people’s recognition, or in another word, the coercive force of the government is agreed by the people. When applied at the micro level, it can also be stated that the power between individuals does not only arise in the lure of interests or in the constraint of violence, it rests in the one’s recognition of others’ will and authority over oneself. Only when such recognition exists, the will can be implemented without enforcement and power becomes power rather than violence.

Right to the contrary, what violence concerned is how one’s own goals are reached through forceful means. Violence is always destructive but never constructive. Terrorist attacks do not increase the power of the terrorists, it grows intimidation and controls; meanwhile it gives the government power to do what it cannot do in the past and to expand its sphere of influence. Violence reinforces state power and makes more violence necessary in order to maintain and reproduce violence.


When power is perceived under violence theory, man is to be controlled and manipulated, instrumentalized in a subject-object relationship which is all about one trying to dominate the other in struggles for power resources, in order to preserve power and oppress others from grabbing it. Power in that sense equals to violence, which is observed throughout history. While power will fail should it be not supported by forceful and compulsory means, it is not sufficient to have these only. What cannot be overlooked is an “infinitely complex network of ‘micropowers’, of power relations that permeate every aspect of social life” (Sheridan 1980: 139). Where rational recognition also creates power, power can be compellent but not violent simultaneously.

Thus, viewed in a rational context, man becomes a dialogue partner with the coexistence of competition, compromise and cooperation. Mutual regulation and interdependence is the one of the features of such power relationship and mutual understanding and respect is part of the foundation of power reproduction. Recognition of imbalance between people, particularly from those over whom power is exercised, legitimizes power and differentiates it from violence.

Power and violence are not the same; the former is more than the latter. Power “cannot be overthrown and acquired once and for all by the destruction of institutions and the seizure of state apparatuses” (Sheridan 1980: 139). Unlike violence, power is not unitary and its exercise binary; it is interactive; a very important part of power struggle is the rivalry for recognition. In modern democratic societies, the violence aspect of power is decreasing and increasingly giving way to the role of rational recognition in shaping power. The major resources of power is no longer just about military or economy of one’s own capability, it is more about how convincing it is for others to accept, and in the end, how well one’s power is recognized and received by others.


Arendt, Hannah, (1972), “On Violence” inCrises of the Republic, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, pp. 103-184.

Elias, Norbert, (1998), “On Civilization, Power, and Knowledge”, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, chapter 7.

Foucault, Michel, (2003), “The Subject and Power” inThe Essential Foucault, P. Rabinow, ed., New York: The New Press, pp. 126-144.

Gilligan, James, (2000), “Violence: Reflection on Our Deadliest Epidemic”, London: Jessica Kingsley, pp. 1-60.

Gosling, David, (2007), “Micro-Power Relations Between Teachers and Students Using Five Perspectives on Teaching in Higher Education”, available at: http://www.davidgosling.net/userfiles/micro power relations isl 2007.pdf, last accessed on 7 Dec. 2014.

Habermas, J., (1996), “Between Facts and Norms”, Massachusetts: the MIT Press.

Honneth, Axel, (1996), “The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts”, Massachusetts: the MIT Press.

Mann, Michael, (1970), “The Source of Social Power”, Cambridge University Press, chapter 2, pp. 34-72.

Michel-foucault.com, (2007), Key concepts, available at: http://www.michel-foucault.com/concepts/index.html, last accessed on 6 Dec. 2014.

Ray, Larry, (2011), “Violence and Society”, London: Sage, pp. 6-23.

Shabani, A. Payrow, (2004), “Habermas’Between Facts and Norms: Legitimizing Power?” available at: https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Poli/PoliShab.htm, last accessed on 6 Dec. 2014.

Wieviorka, Michel, (2009), “Violence: A New Approach”, London: Sage, pp. 165.


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