Hannah Arendt’s discussion of force, when defining vocabulary in “On Violence” is specific.

Force, which we often use in daily speech as a synonym for violence, especially if violence serves as a means of coercion, should be reserved, in terminological language, for the “forces of nature” or the “force of circumstances” (la force des choses), that is, to indicate the energy released by physical or social movements. (143-4)

This sentence packs a lot of complexity in a tight space. Forces of nature are elemental and arbitrary, but in a way different than violence, once energy is released. It occurs to me that one thing that these energies have in common is that they are frequently beyond human understanding and control. But the alternative defining energy, “force of circumstances,” deserves deeper consideration. Citing it in French alludes to a 1963 autobiography by Simone de Beauvoir, with the additional suggestion that the energy released by physical or social movements are potentially beyond understanding and control. I think this reading is fair, given Arendt’s implication that power (also released by social movements/moments) is intelligible and not particularly arbitrary.

Taking the first alternate definition, forces of nature there is the implication of individuated forces (i.e. earth, air, water, fire) making the term potentially singular in nature. The second, force of circumstances  seems more like a plural term although it is expressed as singular. Power is a plural term (humans acting in concert) while strength is individuated as a potential energy of a single human. Such distinctions are difficult to make with force.

If, as we say in Star Wars terms, the force is strong in a Jedi, then in that universe we are speaking of a sort of power similar to that defined by Arendt, but a power that is not human. Recall that Dagobah is a planet of murky swamps teeming with life which Yoda draws upon to perform acts of will. The force, in Star Wars, is a force of life generally beyond understanding and control, except by Jedi masters As such, it is plural without any discernible singular forms.

While I initially found it tempting to argue that force was demarcated by being inhuman in nature, it isn’t possible to embrace that with a Star Wars example. After all, humans are alive too. Looking closer at the Arendt, it seems clear that she sought to include the social aspects of force as well– and if we can concede that there are social forces beyond human control, then accepting this seemingly overlapping definition is still possible.

There are no Jedi here. Force, as a term, represents energy outside human understanding and control, even if it is derived from human instruments (productive forces) or social interaction (political forces). For Arendt, violence is derived from human instruments and ultimately beyond human control due to its arbitrary and often unintelligible results.

Defining power to be of a different category from violence is crucial to the understanding of political states, particularly when most theorists have tended to conflate them. In her lead-in to her definition of these concepts, Arendt cites The Notion of the State by Alexander Passerin d’Entrèves as one of the few who suggests  a separation, though she feels he does not adequately address it:

If the essence of power is the effectiveness of command then there is no greater power than that which grows out of the barrel of a gun, and it would be difficult to say “which way the order given by a policeman is different from that  given by a gunman.” . . .”We have to decide whether  and in what sense ‘power’ can be distinguished from ‘force’, to ascertain how the fact of using force itself presents us with an entirely different picture of human relations,” since “force, by the very fact of being qualified, ceases to be force.” But even this distinction, by far the most sophisticated and thoughtful one in the literature, does not go to the root of the matter. (“On Violence” 136-7)

Suddenly, I am getting flashbacks to all those years of reading Foucault, all those circular discussions of power that never brought me closer to understanding it. Somehow, this makes more sense to me now. It’s couched in a notion of states as the nexus of power (violence, deployed by the state, becomes institutional force, better defined as power) Arendt’s argument is that violence justified in this manner destroys power rather than demonstrates it.

Short version: “Please don’t use the force.”

Who is it deploying the force? Just where is this force/power coming from? People, obviously, but organized as states. That’s a matter for another day.