Violence reconsidered

I got some pushback from respected activist friends on my last post, which concluded that radical politics needs theory now more than ever. I think it’s incumbent upon me to show I’m not bullshitting.

I also got some positive reactions, particularly from those of you who wanted to see more of Slavoj Žižek’s ideas put in more concise, less jargony terms. Here, as well, I’m happy to oblige.

In that post, I wrote that if our goal is the sort of mass mobilization and practical creativity needed to build a new economic system and stave off environmental disaster, it’s not enough to endlessly repeat facts. As hard as it is for some on the left to swallow, not everything is the mainstream media’s fault. After all, the most damning facts about the status quo are

discussed openly in even the most mainstream filmsTV, and print media. We have more agency than we know: We aren’t just automatons whose obedience depends on “the truth” being kept from us. If we were, then learning the truth about torturemass murdereconomic exploitation, and ecological catastrophe would radically change our attitude towards power. Empirically, it hasn’t.

Although it’s fashionable for academics to find some reason not to take Žižek seriously, I can’t think of a more relevant line of questioning than his “update” of the Marxist critique of ideology.

One of the most crucial – and most misunderstood – concepts in the critique of ideology is violence. Žižek has drawn fire – from John Gray, among others – over his use of the term, which is at odds with how it’s normally understood (i.e., physical violence, used by a person against someone else). In particular, critics have pounced on Žižek’s claim that “Gandhi was more violent than Hitler”, asserting, as the New Republic‘s Adam Kirsch does, that Žižek is really an apologist for totalitarianism “fatally attracted to violence.”

So does that provocative snippet betray Žižek’s Nazi sympathies? Here‘s the passage the quote in question is taken from:

Instead of directly attacking the colonial state, Gandhi organized movements of civil disobedience, of boycotting British products, of creating social space outside the scope of the colonial state. One should then say that, crazy as it may sound, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler. The characterization of Hitler which would have him as a bad guy, responsible for the death of millions, but nonetheless a man with balls who pursued his ends with an iron will is not only ethically repulsive, it is also simply wrong: no, Hitler did not “have the balls” really to change things.

Žižek’s point here isn’t that Hitler should have committed more mass killings, or that Gandhi committed any. The violence he attributes to Gandhi isn’t violence in the military sense: He means precisely the economic and social violence that’s usually celebrated as Gandhi’s “nonviolence”. The violence of the National Socialists was, Žižek writes, essentially “reactive”, a preventive measure against the threat of the violence most feared by those in power: The destruction of capitalist property relations promised by communism.

With Jews as their scapegoats, Nazis were able to exploit German suffering while sweeping its root causes under the rug. Žižek’s claim that the anti-colonial resistance led by Gandhi was actually more violent than Hitler’s preemptive counterrevolution is, no doubt, polemical, and no one should be surprised that it’s been taken out of context. His point, though, isn’t all that ambiguous: It takes more violence to disrupt the existing order than it does to preserve it.

But isn’t Žižek just redefining “violence” as its opposite, “nonviolence”, in an attempt to make an obvious point appear profound? I think the answer is an emphatic, “No!” As he himself explains, the ideological function of the ordinary definition of violence is to limit our perception of violence to cases of “subjective” violence (that is, violence with an “easily identifiable agent”). One of our tasks in the critique of ideology is to show how this way of thinking about violence actually obscures the “basic, structural violence in the functioning of capitalism itself. It is absolutely necessary to read explosions of subjective violence against this structural or objective violence.”

Žižek is hardly the first to insist on this expanded notion of violence as the literal truth of the term “class warfare”. Most famously, Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay “On the Critique of Violence” (usually butchered in translation as “Critique of Violence”) examines the question of whether violence can ever be moral as a means to a just end. Simply sketching the essay’s main arguments would demand (at least) an entire post of its own, but the key point for us now is that Benjamin locates violence at the founding moment of the state, which by definition holds a monopoly on violence and has to use violence in order to enforce its own authority (The German Gewalt can mean “violence”, “force”, or “authority”).

The law sanctions some violence (though it doesn’t go by that name), allowing, for example, workers the right to strike in order to win concessions from an employer. For Benjamin, however, the failed German revolution of 1919 made it clear that the bourgeois state viewed the revolutionary general strike as an abuse of the right to strike, an act of unsanctioned violence against the state that justified its brutal repression.

So what do we stand to gain by rethinking violence? A paradigm shift that leftists have too often taken for granted.

As we wring our hands at the latest round of the “peace process” charade, it’s crucial to see how it’s precisely the restricted notion of violence as military violence that lets the state of Israel act as if it’s made even the slightest gesture of good faith. The violence of Israeli apartheid goes on whether or not the IDF or settlers slaughtered Palestinians on a given day: the violence of a blockade that the UN projects will make Gaza “unlivable” by 2020; Israel’s strangling of the rest of the Palestinian economy; policies of ethnic cleansing that are set to displace 40,000 Bedouin in the Negev, and are now robbing Palestinian citizens of Israel in East Jerusalem of even their second-class status. The list is long.

Refusing to see these forms of oppression as violence not only ignores what apartheid really means for Palestinians, it also enables Israel to cast the military violence they do commit as acts of self-defense. Any position that doesn’t play into the Israeli government’s hands has to hold that it doesn’t really matter if rockets from Gaza “broke the ceasefire”: Palestinian resistance – whether moral or immoral, military or peaceful – is always a response to the violence of their oppressors.

Maybe the most startling example of how ideology obscures systemic violence is the violence humans commit against other animals. As I’ve discussed before, the normal functioning of our food economy entails the torture and killing of animals on an astronomical scale. Whether we buy our meat, dairy, and eggs from local farms or sprawling factories, we know that unfathomable cruelty and suffering is built into the system. No one seriously doubts that – not store owners, not consumers, and certainly not farm workers. We participate in the violence of slavery and genocide not in the absence of knowledge, but in spite of it. That’s not ignorance; it’s ideology.

Changing the way we think and talk about violence has consequences beyond critique – it can even contribute to a positive political program. It’s tempting to conclude from the history of the 20th century that state socialist collectivization was doomed by its use of violence against the structures of the state. But what if the horror of Stalinism was only one possible way to envision violence towards the state?

I don’t fault anyone for withdrawing into the vague, illusory comfort of anti-state localism. But can “grassroots democracy” and mass movements begin to take shape if some state power doesn’t ensure our right to assemble, to free speech, to not be massacred by the private armies of multinational corporations? Those rights and liberties have to be guaranteed by violence, too.

Today, capital is cementing its global tyranny, and the US is witnessing the rise of record numbers of neo-fascist militias. Is it so unthinkable to invest our creative energy in finding and realizing new ways to make state power work for us? Put another way: Can we afford not to?

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3 thoughts on “Violence reconsidered

  1. There’s no doubt the type of criticism leveled at Žižek’s statements is ideologically-based and it’s meant to keep Marxism, which, to the horror of the ideological establishment, has made a comeback as an analytical tool, a taboo subject. Adam Kirsch’s attacks are ridiculous at best. Yet, it seems to me that what Žižek means by the concept of “violence” is in fact “the violation of rules” set by a dominant group (the colonizers or the employers) against a weaker group (the colonized or the workers) by the latter. It’s precisely because the weaker group is unable or unwilling to commit physical violence against the dominant group, which is both willing and able to use violence against the former, that the aggrieved weaker group defies the latter’s rules in order to reach its goals. When Žižek says Gandhi used more violence than Hitler did, I think he means Gandhi systematically violated the rules through which Britain maintained its violent colonial rule over India. So did Civil Rights leaders in the U.S.
    We need a new, unambiguous word to define Žižek’s concept of violence.

  2. Pingback: Richmond, CA’s Green Mayor shows economic justice is possible – but it takes guts | The Red Fury

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