The distinction or opposition between power and violence is not as apparent to the reader of Arendt’s book if both are seen through the male lens that has become conventional to us. However, the evidence that women tend to participate in public life in supportive roles, and in community-based roles suggests that many see power very much as Arendt outlines, as about collaboration and cooperation, and are uncomfortable with exercising ‘power over’. In a recent field trip to explore civil society participation in the midst of Colombia’s protracted violence and war, I asked the Casa de la Mujer, a feminist group based in Bogotá, whether they had generated their own vision of power. I am struck by how their analysis echoes that of Arendt:
Women must ask themselves, do they want to replicate exclusionary practices or encourage other types of political practices? Participation is about developing the commonality in our needs and how to negotiate individual and collective needs. Do we come together to put forward our needs or do we want to be exclusionary? Our proposals are not just for women, but for our families, for everyone. What type of political practices do we want to build? How do we not repeat other practices, including those among women? Power is denied us, how do we recognise the power of others? I don’t know whether we have an alternative idea of power. We work on subjectivities. I cannot be democratic if I don’t construct myself as a democratic subject. How as women do we build more democratic subjects? How do I find a balance between my personal interests and my collective interests? We need to reflect on new practices. This is a slow process. Families and schools are very authoritarian. We come from anti-democratic communities and the Church too. There is little acceptance of differences. We are very fundamentalist, left and right. The new subjectivities can materialise in new political practices. This question is in dispute in feminism. Power for what? Do we want power for human beings? Yes, but not that of men, based on exclusion. We want a power that permits men and women to reach agreements. That doesn’t mean that women are only victims. It means a construction. What is in us, which also reproduces exclusionary practices? Being victims takes away our own responsibility. In our work with women and violence, we think women are victims of violence. But we also analyse our responsibility, not for being beaten, but for not leaving the situation. We don’t say women have to deal with their situation alone, we are not talking about guilt, but that something in our subjectivity makes us accept these situations. How can you transform the situation? At least you can take action and go to a doctor or a lawyer. Power is passed on through valuing the autonomy and self-esteem of women. We don’t just suffer power. (Personal interview, Casa de la Mujer, Bogota, 1 April 2005)
Arendt’s distinction between power and violence is dependent on a particular understanding of power, one that appears counter-intuitive. Power for Arendt emerges when people decide to act together. Arendt is attempting here to distinguish between human interactions which originate from a prior acceptance of the right of the Other to exist, a reciprocal recognition that nevertheless can lead to actions to restrict the freedom of existence of the Other (that is, power over the Other), and one which seeks to deny recognition of the Other through pain on the Other’s body and/or mind (the exercise of violence). Arendt’s sense of power is actually profoundly different from conventional understandings of power, which I would argue derive mostly from masculine experiences and conceptualisations. For Arendt:
Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’ we actually refer to him being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. (1969: 44)
This does not mean that there are no strong disagreements. There are, and they have become louder and louder in recent years. This raises several issues. First of all, is it possible to link up the different peoples of the WSF as an embryonic form of a counter-hegemonic civil society? Second, how to transform the areas of widely shared consensuses into calls for collective action? Third, how better to explore the implications of both the agreements and the disagreements? For instance, should disagreements be the object of specific discussions in the WSF? How to conceive of the relationship between participants and organisers (the International Council, IC, and the International Secretariat, IS)? How to articulate such diversity with the common core upon which the WSF builds its identity and eventually develops its capacity to act?
However, underlying thinking and discussions about the nature of the Forum and its position in the array of forces present in the world today there linger thought-provoking questions stemming from an assertion that shapes way the Forums are organised: in order for the struggle against triumphalist turn-of-the-century neo-liberalism to be effective, it must go beyond the paradigms of political action that prevailed throughout the twentieth century. That really is a bold assertion. Is such a paradigm change really necessary? If so, is the present method of organising the Forums the best way to bring about that change?