Traditionally, power has been considered the central concept of politics (Morgenthau 1965, 4– 5)1 and, likewise, it has often been directly or indirectly reduced to some form of coercive violence. Dispelling this confused equivalence is the aim of On Violence (Arendt 1970b), and it is part of Hannah Arendt's general attempt to provide an adequate description of our worldliness, which in turn is the basic political condition.
Arendt's “definitions” are brief and cryptic at first glance:
Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. (1970b, 44)
[P] ower, far from being the means to an end, is actually the very condition enabling a group of people to think and act in terms of the means- end category. (1970b, 51)
Violence … is distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, in the last stage of their development, they can substitute for it. (1970b, 45)
Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. (1970b, 51)
Before starting to unpack the meaning of these definitions, however, it is necessary to gain at least a basic understanding of Arendt's stance in proposing them, that is, what exactly it is to define a concept, and why it is so important within her perspective. Perhaps unfortunately, Arendt was impatient about methodological questions, and thus we cannot point to a simple and compact description anywhere in her works; nevertheless, a careful reading allows us to gather the scattered elements into a picture that is faithful, I believe, to our author's intentions. After this methodological detour it will be easier to bridge the gap between what Arendt meant when talking about power and violence and the languages, lay and scientific, to which we are nowadays more accustomed. Once the meaning of Arendt's concepts is clarified, we shall proceed to compare her depiction with the role of “communicative power” within the political and social theory of Jürgen Habermas, and then with the mainstream debate about the definition of power in the social sciences, chiefly as reconstructed by Steven Lukes.