Rereading Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’

1. In the second sentence of “Critique of Violence,” Benjamin asserts: “For a cause, however effective, becomes violent, in the precise sense of the word, only when it bears on moral issues.” (277) Ostensibly, Benjamin is pointing to the etymological inheritance carried by the word violent, perhaps a bit clearer in English than in the German Gewalt (though the particular ambiguity of Gewalt is a central concern of his essay): from the Latin violentus, from vis (force, power, strength) + –olentus (suffix meaning “full of” or “abounding in”). In other words, the radical (in the precise sense) power or fore of a cause or action, Benjamin seems to suggest, derives from its relation to a moral premise: It is only through this moral relation that an action can be understood as violence.

2. Rather than attempting to discern whether given forms of violence are “sanctioned” or unsanctioned and consequently positing criteria by which violence can be thus evaluated and classified, Benjamin’s concern—which should be ours as well—is with what the possibility of making such a distinction at all illuminates to us about the nature of violence itself. We should ask, alongside Benjamin, what it means to distinguish between kinds of violence: sanctioned or unsanctioned; legal or illegal; just or unjust; legitimate or illegitimate. What use are such distinctions, and to whom are they useful?

3. For present purposes, I’d wish to extend the questions further: What does the desire to differentiate between forms of legitimate and illegitimate violence actually desire? What does it suggest about the relationship of law and violence (i.e., law and its power to be enforced) and about how we relate to law? What does this desire suggest about a society that, when confronted with the ethical ambivalence of certain violent acts, turns its eyes to the state as an authority on both the legality and morality of violence?

But the more important question, which is also the most alarming (and intriguing): Why does the desire to determine whether a given act of violence (e.g., destruction of private property as political protest) is sanctioned or legitimate—which in America really just means good or bad—inevitably seem to eclipse the material conditions or the political or historical situations to which that violence is responding, of which it is a product? Why, in other words, does it always seem to be more important to debate whether it’s morally justifiable to riot, instead of whether the police should be able to kill and torture without legal consequence?

4. (Paraphrasing Benjamin, pp. 286–87: fuck the cops.)

5. We should also think about the disproportion of the state’s response to the protests, and the actual magnitude of violence caused by the protests themselves. The violence deployed indiscriminately by police against protesters is entirely incommensurate with even the most egregious acts of property destruction committed by protesters (e.g., torching the 3rd Police Precinct in Minneapolis). In these instances, there is an extralegal excess of violence in the enforcement of law, a display of force that at once exceeds the limits of what is permissible by law yet is also entirely within law’s purview—is, in fact, only authorized by law for itself, in the name of law.

6. Here we come upon an instance of law’s own nonidentity with itself: law grants itself recourse to violence that law itself prohibits, in order to enforce and preserve itself. In other words, when law pursues itself, it is authorized (if deemed necessary) to break the law. Consequently, in order to enforce its prohibition on violence—that is, in order to discipline those who violate this prohibition—law itself must make itself illegal.

7. In the space of the riot, there is no longer a meaningful ethical or jurisprudential distinction to be drawn between violence which is legitimate and violence which is illegitimate.

8. The aim of protest against (the) law is to exploit law’s on nonidentity with itself: to trigger the paradoxical illicit excess at the core of law—the exercise of violence which is the privilege solely of law and law alone—and, by forcing law to break itself, to do violence against the law. To do violence to the law, but in the name of Law—that is, to oppose law that has set itself in opposition against itself through its recourse to violence that is against the law.

9. Benjamin, again:

[T]he “law” of the police really marks the point at which the state, whether from impotence or because of the immanent contradictions within any legal system, can no longer guarantee through the legal system the empirical ends that it desires at any price to retain. (287)

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