Monday, December 28, 2009

Cooperative Power (1)

One of the most thoughtful recent critics of the philosophy of nonviolence is Jonathan Schell, who gained fame years ago for condemning the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 2003, Schell published “The Unconquerable World” in which he argues that far more has been accomplished under the banner of nonviolence than most people realize and that nonviolence, or “cooperative power” as he calls it, remains a potent force for positive change. In his own recounting of the contributions of Gandhi to thinking about nonviolence, he emphasizes Gandhi’s commitment to noncooperation with injustice, to a direct, unhesitating, even fearless confrontation with powers that limit human freedom and agency. It is Gandhi who most convincingly argued that nonviolence was, in fact, freedom in action because the steps one takes to express oneself nonviolently arise from the actor’s “own judgment, inclination and conscience, not in helpless, automatic response to something done by someone else. He is thus a creator, not a mere responder.” For what it is worth, by the way, I want to add here that Gandhi always claimed he would opt for violence over passivity, which underscores that for him what mattered most was the proactive intervening in a situation, not nonviolence itself. But he regarded nonviolence as the more active, creative, and EFFECTIVE (my caps) alternative.

In striving to find a more positive way to capture the active, creative, and effective side of nonviolent practice, Schell has coined the term “cooperative power.” In so employing this term, Schell builds on the work of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt who distinguished violence from power. She argued that any form of coercion or force was actually antithetical to power, which she saw as a voluntary, active, and communal process. Power for Arendt “corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” For her, power in human terms refers only to people willingly taking action in support of some joint enterprise. To express this more familiarly, we might say that for Arendt power derives ONLY from the consent of the governed. Government enjoys power only to the extent it is able to gain consent. When that consent is withdrawn, it becomes powerless. Arendt would add that an authoritarian government can force consent through violence, but this is not power, only a substitute for it. And the long term price for substituting violence for power is extremely high in the energies dissipated and the anger generated.

Persuaded that much of what Arendt argues has merit, but still doubting that violence is not a kind of power unto itself, Schell introduces his own distinction between “cooperative power” and “coercive power.” The first is based on support, the second on force. The first emerges when people work together voluntarily for some public good; the second occurs when violence or the threat of violence shapes action. Schell further argues that love is the functional equivalent of cooperative power and fear of coercive power. In the next post, we will explore how all of this relates to education as the practice of nonviolence.

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