Hannah Arendt, Neoconservatism and Power-addiction

In her work The Burden of Our Time, Hannah Arendt studies the nature of the imperialist movements in the nineteenth century. She comes to analyze the nature of power within the imperialist state, and how it fundamentally depends upon expansion without limits in order to sustain itself. To obtain this expansion it pursues ideological and military dominance to perpetuate its economic growth. This pursuit, however, must not only be sought for the well being of the empire, but is its full embodiment, and thus expansion is both an end and a means for the survival of this political system. The imperialistic desire for continual expansion, or to “exploit the revolution in military affairs” as it has been expressed by the neoconservative think tank the Project for the New American Century, is a continuing goal of the neoconservative movement of the twenty-first century.

Hannah Arendt categorizes the time between 1884 and 1914 as the period of imperialism, claiming that: “The central inner-European event of the imperialist period was the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie, which up to then had been the first class in history to achieve economic pre-eminence without aspiring to political rule” (though other, much earlier dates have been proposed, with many thinking that this period is not yet over). The progress of capitalist society in Europe, which relied upon continuing growth in both production and investment to perpetuate itself, eventually came upon a necessary barrier. The birth of imperialism occurred when the ruling class within the capitalist system was forced to face the physical realities of continual growth in a finite nation. There were national limits to economic expansion that could not be addressed without both economic and political power. Arendt describes how “[t]he bourgeoisie turned to politics out of economic necessity; for if it did not want to give up the capitalist system whose inherent law is constant economic growth, it had to impose this law upon its home governments and to proclaim expansion to be an ultimate political goal of foreign policy”.

This need to expand or perish led to the subsequent imperialist movements that Arendt discusses. The principle of endless expansion was a self-perpetuating necessity for these movements: “Since power is essentially only a means to an end a community based solely on power must decay in the calm of order and stability; its complete security reveals that it is built upon sand”. The stability of this system of governance depended upon ever increasing expenditures of resources and manpower simply to maintain itself. In discussing the imperialist mentality she cites the case of Cecil Rhodes, an English businessman and imperialist who worked to expand Britain’s empire in Africa. Arendt comments on how this one imperialist recognized the problem of the system in which he was involved, but experienced it as a kind of longing:

‘EXPANSION IS everything,’ said Cecil Rhodes, and fell into despair, for every night he saw overhead ‘these stars… these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could.’ He had discovered the moving principle of the new imperialist era […] and yet in a flash of wisdom Rhodes recognized at the same moment its inherent insanity and its contradiction to the human condition.

Continual growth of the kind that imperialism needs to sustain itself cannot be maintained upon a single planet.

Some of the key elements of neoconservatism as it has emerged in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries can be defined by the writings of one of its most representative think tanks: the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). The think tank describes itself as being fundamentally dedicated to the principles that “American leadership is good both for America and for the world; [and] that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle” (Project for the New American Century). To obtain these goals the PNAC works to affect public opinion by publishing books and articles in support of its mission statement.

One of these articles, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century, pursues the PNAC’s goals by urging for the perpetuation of a Pax Americana. The choice of the term “Pax” harkens back to the days of the Pax Romana and Pax Britannica, periods of relative stability brought about by the military dominance of the old empires. As expressed in the document: “The American peace has proven itself peaceful, stable and durable. It has, over the past decade, provided the geopolitical framework for widespread economic growth and the spread of American principles of liberty and democracy”. It is interesting in this text to note the close relationship between stability and “widespread economic growth,” a notion that almost mirrors Arendt’s comment on the instability of an empire.

There are other comparisons that could be drawn between the two, neoconservatism on the one hand and imperialism on the other. In their book America Alone Stephan Halper and Jonathan Clarke express a concern that as a people: “Today we have convinced ourselves […] that, as Americans, our natural state is war – war that has no dimensions, with elusive enemies […] and with no definition of what constitutes victory and thus with no end in sight”. This sentiment of endless war echoes the sort of stability Arendt mentions in relation to the British Empire, how “this ever-present possibility of war guarantees the Commonwealth a prospect of permanence because it makes it possible for the state to increase its power at the expense of other states”.

Halper and Clarke in their study of neoconservatism go on to describe a world view where: “The here-and-now world in which neo-conservatives see themselves is a world of Hobbesian state-of-nature primitivism and conspiracy where perpetual militarized competition for ascendancy is the norm”. This statement is eerily close to Arendt’s relationship between a Hobbesian world view and empire, as she describes: “Hobbes was the true […] philosopher of the bourgeoisie because he realized that acquisition of wealth conceived as a never-ending process can be guaranteed only by the seizure of political power, for the accumulating process must sooner or later force open all existing territorial limits”.

Dr. Stephen Rosen, a representative for the PNAC, published an article in Harvard Magazine entitled “The Future of War and the American Military: Demography, Technology, and the Politics of Modern Empire”, in which he defined an empire as: “A political unit that has overwhelming superiority in military power, and uses that power to influence the internal behavior of other states”. By this definition Rosen can claim that: “The United States has no rival. We are militarily dominant around the world. Our military spending exceeds that of the next six or seven powers combined, and we have a monopoly on many advanced and not so advanced military technologies”.

This militaristic requirement of empire has several consequences for those outside of the imperial order. Rosen states that the goal of the American Empire is not to combat a rival, but to maintain its imperial position, and imperial order. To this end he describes that “[i]mperial wars to restore order are not so constrained. The maximum amount of force can and should be used as quickly as possible for psychological impact—to demonstrate that the empire cannot be challenged with impunity”. This view of war as a means to subjugate threats to the imperial order, an order that needs expansion to maintain its order, has also been described by Arendt when she talks about exporting power. She describes how:

The first consequence of power export was that the state’s instruments of violence, the police and the army, which in the framework of the nation existed beside, and were controlled by, other national institutions, were separated from this body and promoted to the position of national representatives in uncivilized or weak countries. Here, in backward regions without industries and political organizations, where violence was given more latitude than in any Western country, the so-called laws of capitalism were actually allowed to create realities.

This tendency has also been noted in the neoconservative movement by a number of contemporary observers. In his book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, Noam Chomsky examines America’s aggressive foreign policy. In the text he observes how, when dealing with nations outside of the established order, “the West must ‘revert to the tougher methods of an earlier era – force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary, when it comes to dealing with those who still live in the nineteenth-century world of every state for itself’”.

This militaristic trend of empire, both abroad and at home, must also be sustained by an ideology that serves to rationalize the need for endless war and expansion. In the British Empire this ideological necessity of empire found its outlet in the concept of the “white man’s burden”. The idea that served to rationalize Britain’s activities in subjugating foreign peoples combined contempt for the self-determination of “backwards” populations with the paternal insistence that the empire knew best. As Arendt describes: “Racism as a ruling device was used in this society of whites and blacks before imperialism exploited it as a major political idea. Its basis, and its excuse, were still experience itself, a horrifying experience of something alien beyond imagination or comprehension”. The alien nature of strange peoples made it possible to justify how, since those of African decent did show unmistakable signs of being human, “the ‘white men’ could not but reconsider their own humanity and decide that they themselves were more than human and obviously chosen by God to be the gods of black men”.

As described by Chomsky, the ideological descendant of this mentality is still a force behind the western powers new appeal to colonization. He demonstrates the life in what was thought to be an old appeal to paternal infallibility when he quotes Robert Cooper, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief foreign policy advisor, about the need for colonization: “Another currently fashionable formulation of the mission of the enlightened states holds that ‘the need… for colonization is as great as it ever was in the nineteenth century’ to bring to the rest of the world the principles of order, freedom, and justice”.

While overt race-based thinking has been officially discredited in the 21st century, there can be seen within the neoconservative movement many of the same ideologies in what could be called the “democratic man’s burden”. Halper and Clarke express this when they comment that the current neoconservative government in America claims to be providing order, freedom, and justice to all nations on the planet, but “has left much of the world with the impression that it nurses global ambition for dominance and seeks to impose a ‘made in America’ version of democratic governance, often overlooking history and local cultural and political preferences”. This ideology associates democracy, freedom, and American interests as unmistakable synonyms. The belief that American interests are always one and the same with freedom and democracy serves to play the same role that the paternal insistence of racial superiority did to the British Empire. Halper and Clarke describe that after America’s rise to power in 1945, “[t]he new global order was to be subordinated to the needs of the US economy and subject to US political control as much as possible. Washington extended its own regional systems […] on the principle […] that ‘what was good for us was good for the world’”.

This system which treats American interests as the interests of all is expressed in the PNAC document Rebuilding America’s Defenses, in which American led global security is continually lauded as the only way to maintain peace: “At no time in history has the international security order been as conducive to American interests and ideals”. The challenge for the coming century is to preserve and enhance this “American peace”. In this way any nation or ideology that threatens America’s interests must necessarily be a threat to the complete fabric of human society, and thus justly subjugated. As plainly expressed by Rosen: “we are in the business of bringing down hostile governments and creating governments favorable to us […] imperial strategy focuses on preventing the emergence of powerful, hostile challengers to the empire: by war if necessary, but by imperial assimilation if possible”.

In Rosen’s neoconservative interpretation of warfare he makes it clear that “[i]mperial wars end, but imperial garrisons must be left in place for decades to ensure order and stability”. In many ways this process of “bringing down” governments and leaving military personnel in the name of American, and thus world, interests is similar to the situation under the British mandate system as described by Arendt. The English set themselves up as the “guardians of the self-determination of peoples. And this despite the fact that they started at once to misuse the mandate system by ‘indirect rule,’ a method which permits the administrator to govern a people ‘not directly but through the medium of their own tribal and local authorities’”.

This mentality is inextricably tied with the treatment of power as both a means and an end in itself. Ever increasing power, despite the ideological claims used to pursue it, cannot continue forever. As Arendt says, it is contrary to the human condition. In America Alone, Halper and Clarke propose an ultimatum for the survival of the then present neoconservative government in the United States: “either there must be a compelling rationale for this administration’s policy […] that links means to ends identifying realizable objectives or today’s neo-conservative policies must be subject to radical surgery and replaced with new productive and achievable objectives”.

With its pursuit of imperial power and its dependency on never-ending economic growth, the neoconservative movement of today shares many things in common with the mentalities analyzed in Hannah Arendt’s study of older imperial movements. As such it is subject to the same driving passion that plagued the imperialism of Cecil Rhodes. It must expand, but the earth is finite. The PNAC’s call for military dominance of space and cyber-space may be an effort to “annex the planets” and thus find a means for further growth, but this has yet to be seen. It’s also quite conceivable that even the endless progress envisioned by many futurists and “singularitarians” could not have developed into its present form without the girding epistemic and financial support of modern neoconservative imperialism. It evinces a powerful, overwhelming force poorly understood and regulated by those within its grasp. Indeed, by definition, dependent on this state of ignorance for its fullest manifestation. The drive for the endless expansion that the neoconservative mentality needs to sustain itself, as opposed to its human cost in perpetuating an unending, almost vampiric, relation to power, can be summarized in the words of Dr. Stephen Rosen: “as Pericles pointed out to his fellow Athenians, they might think it a fine thing to give up their empire, but they would find that empires are like tyrannies: they may have been wrong to take, but they are dangerous to let go”.

For More Information:




Arendt, Hannah. The Burden of Our Time. London: Secker & Warburg, 1951.

Chomsky, Noam. Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003.

Halper, Stephen and Jonathan Clarke. America Alone. Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2004.

Project for the New American Century. William Kristol. 13 April 2005.

Project for the New American century. 15 April 2005. <http://www.newamericancentury.org/index.html&gt;

Project for the New American Century. Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century. Washington: Project for the New American Century, 2000.

Rosen, Stephen. “The Future of War and the American Military: Demography, Technology, and the Politics of Modern Empire.” Harvard Magazine May- June 2002: 30-32.

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