Review of “Violence and Political Theory”

Elizabeth Frazer and Kimberly Hutchings. Violence and political theory. Cambridge: Politics, 2020. ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-3671-9

How do political theorists justify violence? And what are the shortcomings of these justifications? These questions have been the main driver in the research careers of the two authors of the book. In fifteen years, Elizabeth Frazer and Kimberly Hutchings have published, together and separately, a total of twenty-two articles and book chapters and one prior book[i] on theoretical complexities overlooked in generalized positions on violence. Violence and political theory brings together and develops this seminal work and draws inspiration from it to elucidate the question of Why thinkers come to a different conclusion about violence.

The book assumes that human action and knowledge are inherently limited; and that taking these limits into account makes any final decision on violence problematic. In mainstream political theory, the emphasis on the impossibility of knowing where the act of violence ends is attributed to Hannah Arendt and other advocates of nonviolent politics. However, Violence and political theory argue that even thinkers who were more inclined to justify political violence than resist it, such as Machiavelli, Hobbes and Clausewitz, have all pointed out that any use of violence has an inherent “friction”: “a gap between the ideal and the real, between the dynamics of a pure system and the complication of a real conflict situation ”(p.53). Interestingly, Hutchings and Frazer indicate that this “friction” also makes the decision to avoid violence problematic; because the real situation of the conflict sometimes makes such avoidance authorizing more serious violence. The complexity of human action and its consequent relationship with its environment generally make all normative conclusions about violence ambiguous.

Why, then, do thinkers come to different positions on violence when they encounter the same complexity? Why, for example, is Gandhi’s position on violence very different from Fanon’s? Through comparative reflections on a wide range of (over thirty) modern political thinkers, including Machiavelli, Hobbes, Arendt, Derrida, Ruddick, Fanon, Goldman, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Adams and Scarry, the book poses three main explanations; which I describe briefly below.

First, the variance is related to the difference in their framing of the violent assertion. Building on the argument from their previous book that violence could never be justifiable in the abstract; Frazer and Hutchings argue that violence is only socially justified when it is subsumed into “innocent” categories that distract our attention from the violence itself. Revolutionary thinkers, for example, justify violence by framing it in terms of resistance, revolution, emancipation or justice. Statist thinkers, on the other hand, define state violence as order, discipline, or power. In all of these cases, violence is rooted in institutional, symbolic and often aesthetic frameworks that “distance us (readers, viewers, audiences, thinkers) from violence” as a real encounter that inflicts damage on real people (p .67). The justification of violence then becomes the reflection of the normative position on the “metaphysical” objects that violence is supposed to secure.

Second, the audacity to use violence is associated with the acceptance of the possibility of stopping it once its mission has been accomplished. Here, the tension on the conceptualization of violence is decisive: is it a instrument, a means to an end, or is it a act whose repercussions cannot be controlled? “The totality [problematic] The point about the action is that it is not predictable in its results. When we act, unlike when we manufacture, we cannot have a finished product in view. […] [T]This goal towards which violence is directed always risks being exceeded by the means it justifies ”(p.77-78). While violence engenders in its process the conditions for its own reproduction, including armed forces, militant units and tribal loyalties, but also social traits such as gender divisions, obedience and polarization, it pursues a life of its own that cannot simply be ended with a decision. The debate on the justification of violence is therefore essentially a debate on its controllability.

Third, the rejection of violence is a function of the imagination of a world without it. While the modern world presents itself as peaceful in its concept, “this so-called pacifism”, recall Hutchings and Frazer, “is only possible through the violence of discipline, treatment, classification and administration” which makes companies controllable and hierarchies for direct and conflictual violence (p.90). But this control and hierarchy, as they are in our modern world, are themselves violent: in the brain, the blood and the ‘of the oppressed and oppressors (p. 142). Refraining from violence, in such a case, is simply an endorsement of its existing structure and direction; whether it is because the person who accepts is on the privileged side or because he has internalized his own victimization. But if a political life without violence is imaginable, that is, if there is a possibility that the structures and systems that govern our lives can function without control or hierarchy, then a comprehensive project of nonviolent politics could. worth it. Between outright rejection and outright acceptance of this possibility, thinkers clash over the justification of violence / non-violence.

At the end of the book, the reader comes to three main conclusions. The first and second are explained by the authors. First, the literature on political violence is not as controversial as it seems. The wide range of thinkers studied in the book, including conservatives, radicals, liberals, pacifists, anarchists, decolonialists, and feminists, seem to vary more in their framing, valued objects, understandings of means-ends. and their conceptions of possibility. of a world without violence only in their acceptance or rejection of violence in crude terms. The second conclusion is that there are normative implications of approaching these aspects differently.

The third, more implicit contribution of the book highlights the value of theory in establishing the conditions for the possibility of non-violence. Because if justifying and enacting “violence is based on a multitude of preconceived ideas and reproduces them” (p.189), then resisting this cycle starts from theoretical conceptions which point to the possibility of doing politics differently. The book therefore also contributes to contemporary debates on the theoretical articulations of political non-violence.[i]. The lack of explicit engagement in this debate is one of the very few shortcomings of the book.

Violence and political theory is more than what its title suggests: an analytical exposition of political theory on violence. It is also a deconstructive criticism that goes to the roots on which this field of theory was laid down. It reframes the field in a way that underlines both its ambiguity and its incomprehension and indicates the possibility of reframing it in a way that broadens its theoretical as well as political potential. Approached as such, the book is an invaluable resource not only for students of political theory and political violence, but also for advocates of nonviolent politics.

The references

Butler, Judith. The power of non-violence: ethics in politics. Books Verso, 2020.

Frazer, Elizabeth and Kimberly Hutchings, Can political violence ever be justified? Politics, 2019.

Vahabzadeh, Peyman. Violence and non-violence: conceptual excursions into phantom opposites. University of Toronto Press, 2019.

About Wesley V. Finley

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