Contemporary Issues in Politics – What is Violence?

Violence is everywhere.   It irrupts and disrupts and corrupts our society. Several thinkers have given critical thought to violence. Here we shall try to understand the views of  Franz Fanon, Walter Benjamin, and Georges Sorel and Slavoj Zizek. 

 Franz Fanon is a key theorist of revolution.  His book, the Wrenched of the Earth (1961) manifests the violence of the colonial regime and shows how the people struggle leads to the revolution that causes another form of violence. He draws his insight based on the dialectic logic of Hegel.  This means the colonised is engaged in the violence of resistance to a violence of the coloniser forced on them.  The coloniser only understands the language of force.  This is why liberation is sought by the colonised through the expression of force or violence.  Violence is emancipative.  It is a way of transforming oneself. This understanding is close to the understanding of Walter Benjamin of divine violence.    Violence, therefore, becomes a cleansing force and it restores self-respect.  Because colonial society was founded on violence, Fanon thinks that it can be only emancipated through violence.  There is no peaceful revolution. There is no such thing as a non-violent revolution for Fanon.  He thinks that there is no point of no return and violence is the only remedy. 

Fanon says that the violence of the colonial regime and the counter-violence of the colonized balance each other. The more violence the colonial regime indulges in more would be the anti-colonial resistance.  People think that liberation is a higher value and violence is enacted in the pursuit of emancipation. The founding violence of the colonizer can only be halted only through the destruction of colonial violence.   He teaches that at the collective level violence unifies people and at the individual level it cleanses and builds confidence and bestows dignity.  It means that the lumpenproletariat becomes class conscious. It is through a militant action that they redeem themselves in their own eyes.  In the context of post-colonial freedom, Fanon talk of a dual consciousness that stays aware that it is the due of the colonial people to receive compensation for the resources extracted from their land by their coloniser.  This is why Fanon thinks that it through violence that humans recreate it-self.  ‘Violence is man re-creating himself’ Fanon.  Indeed, Fanon successfully interrogates colonialism, power and colonial violence.  To him, decolonization is always a violent event. 

Walter Benjamin’s (1892-1940) view of violence is enshrined in the essay ‘critique of violence’ of 1921.  He thinks that violence is a product of history. He does not separate the means of violence from the ends.  He does a moral analysis of violence.  He starts off with the natural law tradition.  Violence means are just if violent ends are just. Positive law justifies the means in order to guarantee the justice of the ends.  Positive law is constructed to make it a justification for the ends. Positive law monopolizes violence and covers the violence of the State.  He thinks that there are two kinds of violence.  The first he calls the founding violence. It is the violence that founds a regime.  It is lawmaking violence. It is the law that sets up the regime.  The second type is law-preserving violence.  It is the violence of the State that maintains itself through police and military.   It is this violence that keeps the regime intact. Thus for him, there is lawmaking and law executing violence.  This means legislative and executive are violent.  In a democracy, we witness the greatest generation of violence.  He further says that all revolutionary discourse is nothing but justified violence.  The founding violence is based on a myth. The violence of the regime is founded on a myth that holds the regime together. Violence is the exercise of the right and right is the exercise of violence. We cannot separate violence from the law.  All violence as means to an end is implicated in the law. It is either lawmaking or law-preserving. Lawmaking is power making. This is why violence does not go away. Power is the principle of mythical violence.  

 Benjamin posits another kind of violence that he calls annihilating violence. It is divine violence. The divine is outside the law. It is not planned and it is spontaneous and explodes instantaneously. There is a moment of divine violence. It is an explosion of the population that cannot take injustice anymore.  This view is in tune with his general position that violence is a product of history. To contain divine violence the state offers the right to strike. This means the state tries to avoid direct violence like burning of the factory and other infrastructure.  Divine violence completely stands outside the means-end scheme of violence generated by law-making and law-preserving. It is pure violence through which human beings stand naked before God both in body and responsibility.  It implements God’s will.  This is why he calls the violence of the law that stays within the means and end schemes of human beings mythic violence and distances it from divine violence. Mythic violence is lawmaking divine violence is law destroying.  The mythic violence sets boundaries; divine violence boundlessly destroys them all. Divine violence is bloodless.  Divine violence is the antithesis of mythical violence. Benjamin says that divine is the historical dialectic to the violence of lawmaking and law-preserving. It is divine violence that drives history. It is divine violence that overthrows the lawmaking and we now set up the process of putting up a new lawmaking regime which will eventually be replaced by another regime. It is the divine violence that breaks this chain only to set it up again. All mythical violence is destructive. Human justice is mythic violence that finds law. Divine violence destroys law.  He also calls divine violence sovereign violence.  Divine violence asserts the sovereignty of the self against the sovereignty of law. Sovereign seems to relate to Bataille notion of sovereignty. It means that which is not co-opted by the system.  

Georges Sorel (1847-1922) was a journalist who gives us a different understanding of violence. He makes a distinction between revolution violence/violence of resistance who are fighting against the regime and the violence of force/ violence of the state.   He also suggests that force is violence indulged by the politicians and the intellectuals.  To him, the violence of resistance is a simple manifestation of class struggle.  Although this violence is seen as barbarism may save the world from barbarism. This is a controversial claim that violence can save the world from barbarism.   All revolutionary violence needs myth.  Sorel sees fascist violence as the violence of force instigated by politicians. He makes this distinction because fascism also uses myth to mobilise the masses.  To him, myth is an expression of the will to act.  Myth served for an internal emphatic understanding 

 He thinks about the value of Marxist theory. Sorel thinks that the idea of revolution is of great value to Marxist theory. He speaks of two kinds of the strike. One is the proletariat general strike it leaves nothing for the state (syndicalist:  advocates direct action of the working class) and the other he calls political general strike (socialism that deals better wages, right to strike).  Syndicats were trade unions.  If nothing is left of the state after the proletariat general strike, he says that it will have to be built up again.  His belief in the transformative power of violence has led him to the thought of a fascist. He always incited insurrection and accuses the socialist that they have converted socialism as a means to get into power. He thinks that we must profit from the Bourgeoisie cowardice and attack the corrupt capitalist system.  Sorel along with the syndicates think that state socialism should not be set up after the end of capitalist-driven democracy but be replaced by the society of the producers.  It will require new ethics.  He thinks that the reigning morality that degrades work and celebrates pleasure (ethics adapted to consumerism) has to be replaced by a morality that will turn humans into free producers of tomorrow working in workshops where there are no masters.  To bring about this condition, he thinks that there has to be total elimination of the Bourgeoisie.

Zizek takes up violence in his 2008 book, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. We can enter into his discourse of violence if we can consider what he means when he speaks of post-political bio-politics.  In the name of protecting the bodies of the citizens, politics is practised on the bodies of the migrants. He thinks that the world has entered the post-political stage which has efficient administration of life as its goal.   Zizek thinks that this has led to more violence in the world. What is not so obvious is normal violence. Normal violence is the objective violence of the regime. It cannot be seen by us. It is founding, maintaining and mythical violence. The objective violence sustains the system. It is a normal peaceful state of things.  It makes things run smoothly.  Subjective violence is that what we can see. It is obvious. It ruptures objective violence.  As objective violence manifests to us, it becomes subjective. It can be post-political administrative violence.  It is objective violence that motivates subjective violence.  The third type of violence is symbolic violence that is embedded in language.  Also because of this objective violence becomes manifested as subjective violence. Without symbolic language, we will not be able to see the manifestation of objective violence.  We are not aware of the system is controlling us. It is because the system is embedded in symbolic violence but we can also see how we become aware of the same violence because of symbolic violence.  Zizek draws Heidegger who teaches that language is the house of being and we dwell in language.  He thinks that language and meaning is a violent world.  This clear if we consider how reading or listening to someone can produce a range in us.  This means objective violence actually has two aspects: symbolic violence and systemic violence.  Objective violence is the zero level against which we can perceive subjective violence. The truth is that there is not such zero levels. It only has an instrumentalist value.  

The post-industrial in a false sense of urgency where is no time to reflect and hence objective violence, as well as symbolic violence, remains more and more hidden.  It remains the dark matter of physics to us.   This is why the rich cannot see their exploitation and corruption.  The global elite is blind to his/ her violence of domination.  By entering the symbolic order we increase the symbolic violence but we also manifest objective violence.  To do this he suggests one must follow anti-globalization movements. Following the counter-elite is the way to enter the symbolic order to decode the objective as well as symbolic violence that is afflicting us today.  This effort can open the path for divine violence that Zizek sees as the work of love of a subject.  It is a domain of love. it is outside the lawmaking and law-sustaining violence.  It seems that Zizek thinks that true love is divine violence. 


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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao