Simon Critchley: I want to start out from the thought that violence is not reducible to an act in the here and now which might or might not be justifiable in accordance with some or other conception of justice. On the contrary, violence is a phenomenon that has a history. There’s never a question of a single act, one act of violence, but of one’s insertion into a historical process saturated by a cycle of violence and counter-violence. So violence is never one, it’s always at least two. So violence is always a double-act. It’s always a question of violence and counter-violence. And there’s a remark by Robert Young where he talks about violence as a double-act
between human subjects, subjects whose experience of violence interpolates them in a repetition effect from which they cannot free themselves. So violence for me is this two-fold process of violence and counter-violence, where subjects are interpolated in a repetition effect from which they cannot free themselves. Violence has this feeling of repetition in relationship to an injury, in relationship to a basic trauma.
If we consider the evidence of colonialism as an example, then I think it’s a powerful example. Violence is not an abstract concept for the colonized. Historical amnesia, an incuriousness about the violence of the past, is the luxury of the oppressor. The colonized subject lives the historical violence of their expropriation viscerally, corporally, all the way to psychosis, mental disorders, and phenomena like possession, as Frantz Fanon shows in detail in his seminal text The Wretched of the Earth. In this book The Wretched of the Earth no adjective is more often used than the word “muscular.” Violence for Fanon is the muscular assertion of the colonized against the colonist in the context of a national struggle for liberation. Violence, Fanon says, is the absolute praxis, a cleansing force, he writes, driven by ravenous taste for the tangible.
And it’s through violence against the colonist that the colonized subject can get rid of their deformed inferiority and liberates or literally remake themselves. Fanon writes “Decolonization is truly the creation of new,” where the emphasis should be on the word “men.”
I’ve got deep suspicions about the idea of violence as a cleansing force. The heroic, virile, masculinist assertion the violence is that healing, bloody crucible through which men are redeemed and remade. Where the colonized thing becomes a free man through what Sartre calls in his preface to Fanon’s text “the patience of the knife.”
Nor am I persuaded by Sartre’s hyperbolic dialectic where he says killing a European is killing two birds with one stone. In one violent act, the opposition between the oppressor and the oppressed is sublated, it’s overcome, aufgehoben, and the formerly colonize subject feels for the first time a national soil under its feed, Sartre says.
There is a glorification of violence in Sartre, and in Fanon, that wildly exceeds the accounts of violence that we can find say in Marx, or in Sorel, or indeed in someone like Lenin. And Hannah Arendt, in her problematic critique the Fanon, makes the powerful point that maybe this wild excess of a discourse of violence is caused by what she calls the “severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world.” So in a sense there’s an interesting thought here that maybe excessive rhetorics of violence, discourses on violence, are caused by…the fact of impotence, the fact of the frustration of action in the modern world. And if we can if that’s true for say Fanon, we could say it’s even more true for more recent discourses on violence. I’m thinking of someone like Žižek, where we get this excessive discourse of violence which might be as it were linked to as it were the frustration of the faculty of action. So we should be suspicious of that, too.
However, what remains irrefutable in Fanon is the understanding of violence as lived, historical experience of expropriation whose effects constitute the daily humiliation of the wretched of the Earth. When violence is understood in this way, there is no doubt—and this is my point in these remarks, there’s no doubt that principled assertions of nonviolence miss the point, right. So my problem here is with principled defenses of the idea of nonviolence.
Worse still, nonviolence can be ideological tool introduced by those in power in order to ensure that their interests and adversely affected by a violent overthrow of power. Nonviolence here becomes a negotiating strategy. Frantz Fanon writes, with withering irony in The Wretched of the Earth, nonviolence he says
is an attempt to settle the colonial problem around the negotiating table before the irreparable is done, before any bloodshed or regrettable act is committed. And as ever in this dialectic between Sartre and Fanon, Sartre exaggerates the point in the most extraordinary way. It’s a wonderful sentence. He says,
Get this into your head: if violence were only a thing of the future, if exploitation and oppression never existed on earth, then perhaps displays of nonviolence might relieve the conflict. But if the entire regime, even your nonviolent thought is governed by a thousand-year-old oppression, your passiveness serves no other purpose but to put you on the side of the oppressor.
History is a seemingly unending cycle of violence and nonviolence. And to refuse its overwhelming evidence in the name of some a priori, or principled conception of nonviolence, is to disavow history in the name of an abstraction that in the final analysis is in the bad sense ideological.
And that’s my problem, if you like. That history, violence, is not one thing, it’s two. It’s a phenomenon that has a history. It’s a cycle of violence and counter-violence. And to reduce the question of violence to some principle as to whether there can be violence or not is to just disavow history and to assert a position that risks being conformist, ideological.
That said, there are contexts. There are contexts where tenacious politics of nonviolence can be effective. For example, Gandhi’s strategy of satyagraha, nonviolence, in the context of British colonial rule in India. There are contexts where an imitation of Gandhi’s tactics might also prove successful, as was the case for several years in the 60s with the Civil Rights Movement in the US and the words indeed of Martin Luther King.
There are contexts where techniques of direct action that my friend David Graeber calls “nonviolent warfare” may prove effective and timely. We can take nonviolence all the way to the limits of violence without actually becoming violent. There are contexts where a difficult pacifism that negotiates the limits of violence might be enough. And one hopes that in most cases it would be enough.
But. But, and this is a huge “but.” There are contexts, multiple contexts, too depressingly many to mention, where nonviolent resistance is simply crushed by the forces of the state, the police, and the military. In such contexts the border separating nonviolent warfare to violent action has to be crossed. Politics is always a question of local conditions, local struggles, local victories, and local defeats. And to judge the multiplicity of such struggles on the basis of an abstract conception of nonviolence is to risk a dogmatic blindness.
So does a commitment to nonviolence such as someone like me would have, an ethics and politics of nonviolence, exclude the possibility of violence? That’s the question. I don’t want to go down the root of Fanon with this heroic, masculinist, virile discourse of violence. But can a commitment to nonviolence exclude the possibility of violence? That’s the question.
And Walter Benjamin in his famous text Critique of Violence writes the following, which for me distills the problem. He says,
every conceivable solutions to human problems, not to speak of deliverance from the confines of the world-historical conditions of existence obtaining hitherto, remains impossible if violence is totally excluded in principle. So every conceivable solution to human problems remains impossible if violence is totally excluded, in principle. So we cannot expect a radical change in the state of human beings in the world if we exclude violence as a matter of principle. And Benjamin is making a crucial point here. In the political sphere, it makes little sense to assert and hold to some abstract, principled, a priori conception of nonviolence. As is well-known, the standard objection to say, anarchist uses of political violence always turns on this point. It will be said, “How can you justify your use of violence? Shouldn’t you be committed to nonviolence? if you resort to violence, don’t you begin to resemble the enemy that you’re fighting against?”
Now, of course nonviolence conceived of as the domain of cooperation, of mutual aid, the life of the social bond, is the presupposition and the aspiration of that politics that we can think of as anarchist. You can find that throughout the thought of people like Kropotkin, Gustav Landauer, Malatesta, and the rest. Or as what Benjamin calls the realm of courtesy, peaceableness, and trust.
But why should anarchists be the only political agents who have to decide beforehand that they will not be violent, when the specific circumstances of a political situation are still unknown? To this extent, the abstract question of violence versus nonviolence, the abstract question, risks reducing anarchism to what we might call the politics of the spectator position, where nonviolence becomes a transcendent value, an abstraction, a principal, or a categorical imperative. In specific political sequences, and it’s always and only a case of such specifics, a locality, a series of actions, an evental site as Badiou would say, the turn to violence is often entirely comprehensible. The violence of protestors, critics, and opponents of the regime is usually but not always a response to the provocations of the police and military violence.
And I guess the question that really interests me personally in this concern is at what point a commitment to nonviolence, ethically and politically, has to confront the necessity for violence. And what’s involved in that transition, one from the other. And again, if we begin from the idea that violence is not one thing, it’s always a double-act, it’s always a cycle of violence and counter-violence which is in a sort of reputation loop originating from a basic injury where two sides engage in a conflict that seems to be irresolvable and both sides blame each other, then how can we think about… To approach that question I think we have to think about historical examples of nonviolent movements which have recognized the necessity for violence at certain points in their history.
We begin from the idea of politics as local and contingent, right? Which means the things are going to happen and work in some contexts, and happen and…not work in other contexts. So, if it transpired that a student of Kropotkin, Mahatma Gandhi, was able for a long period of time to pursue the ethics and politics of nonviolence in the context of British rule in Imperial India with extraordinary success, right. Even though it resulted in civil war, Partition, and all the rest. But in that context that was possible.
In the context of say, French colonial rule in Algeria, that was not going to be possible. Because the French were just gonna start killing the colonized. So, we have to begin from this idea that the conceptual nature of politics means that it’s not a one-size-fits-all issue when it comes to violence and nonviolence. They are going to be context where—and you know, for example I’m speaking in… This is going to go live in many months’ time, by which time we might know what happened or not happened, but Aung San Suu Kyi was released over the weekend. And she’s been arguing for the possibility of a nonviolent revolution in Burma. Maybe it will happen. But maybe it won’t. But we cannot condemn violence, if it happens, on the basis of some abstract principle, right.
And the way it always works is that… Or the way it overwhelmingly works is that we have nonviolent protest movements which are collective and large-scale, which is usually antagonized by the police or infiltrated by the police, and provoked into a situation where violence becomes the reaction. And once there’s been a violent reaction, those people can then be condemned by the political authorities. And they say “Well these people are violent, they’re smashing things up.” And one sees that pattern over and over again historically.
So this is what I mean by if a defense of nonviolence becomes as it were principled, that can just be an ideological position. So we need a more nuanced understanding than that. I mean Fanon is in many many ways problematic, right. But what’s unproblematic for me is the idea that violence is not one but two. Violence is a— So again, if we go to 9/11— We can go to 9/11 directly in relationship to that, and just think about it. Because where does the violence begin? Who Initiates the violence?
Well. You know, from one standpoint 9/11 was an unprovoked attack on US civilians, right. And foreign civilians working in New York. That’s one discourse. And because the United States was attacked, that then justifies the counterattack in Afghanistan and a fortiori the invasion of Iraq and the rest of the bewildering farrago of fiasco and lies that has unfolded in the last years.
But if you read Osama bin Laden, as I tried to do in the years after 9/11 to try and find out more, you discover something else, right. That the violence of 9/11 is a counter-violence. The Al Qaeda narrative, or the bin Laden narrative, is the violence that we engage in is justified as a response to the violence that you engage in in our lands. If you occupy our lands, Saudi Arabia, if you systematically and routinely dishonor the Muslim world, this will be your reward. If you hadn’t committed violence against us, we’d do nothing against you. Bin Laden says that Al Qaeda has no beef with Sweden. Sweden’s done nothing in the Muslim world, therefore we will do nothing to Sweden.
So, the point being. There’s this wonderful bin Laden message called “The Towers of Lebanon,” where he talks about watching…on television, right, so the whole as it were spectacular, mediatized version— You’ve got bin Laden watching on television the Israeli navy bombarding Beirut. In 1982. And they’re bombarding Beirut, and what is there in Beirut? There are towers in Beirut. Towers on the front. This was the playground of the Arab world, right. And then bin Laden gets the idea of missiles going into towers. Missile, tower, missile, tower. Missile, tower, tower fall down. And 9/11 is just the consequence of that, right. The idea came from the Israelis, in bin Laden’s imagination.
So, the point being that it’s never one but at least two. The violence is always in this logic of violence and counter-violence. And that is the justificatory discourse on both sides. We’re right to respond because what you did to us, we’re right to respond because of what you did to us. And the mutual misunderstanding begins from that point.
The way this works… This is where you know, trauma… So violence is… Violence comes out of this… Violence has this repetitive effect, right. Violence, counts-violence. Think about Israel/Palestine, or British/Irish relations and…you know. Which…let’s say at the moment are in a reasonable condition, but are incredibly fragile and will always be fragile. Because the least act of provocation will activate that traumatic injury, which will then lead to another repetitive cycle of violence. So if you think about situations of conflict, we have a situation where both sides feel injured, both sides feel aggrieved, and both sides feel justified in their injury and aggrievements and whatever. And that then leads them to feel justified in what they do, right.
And this is where we have to understand—I guess it’s what I was saying in my remarks before, but violence is dialectical. To say the violence is not one is to say that violence is dialectical. It’s always a question of a collision between opposed yet equally justified claims to what is right. I think this is— If we don’t begin from this understanding, we simply won’t get anywhere. If we begin an attempt to understand 9/11 from the idea that there’s right on one side and wrong on the other side, we get nowhere. Both sides claim to be right. So what we have in 9/11, as an example, is a situation of a dialectical collision of violence between mutually-opposed and mutually-justify claims to what is right.
And that is a tragic situation. It’s the situation that Hegel describes as what’s going on in ancient tragedies like the Oresteia and in the Antigone and the rest. What’s required is that word, or that act, or that process by which that mutual opposition can become reconciled in some way. And that’s what eludes us in most political situations. I mean we— If you think about Israel, Palestine, November 2010, it simply eludes us how this thing could become become reconciled, resolved.
At this point I’m sort of…immersed back in Hegel, which was a home in my head a long time ago and I go back to it and there’s something just utterly compelling about dialectical thinking in the sense in which you know, it gives that— Without wanting to repeat myself, just the basis for a rich, historical understanding of a process which is conflictual, right. A conflictual historical process. What is required is that that word, that deed, that thing which is going to halt that cycle.
Now, where is that going to be found? Well, that’s a stupid question, right. You know, because it’s a question about the future, and all questions about the future are stupid in my opinion, in the sense that the discipline that we have to exert intellectually is to learn from history, right. And to look at contexts where there was something that reconciled things.
Or where there wasn’t. So, when I was a kid, until I was in my twenties and thirties, it would have been simply unimaginable for Northern Ireland to have reached the situation that it is now. As compromised and as fucked up as it is in Northern Ireland. It would have been unimaginable. Yet it happened. How did that happen? It’s a complicated story. And it’s not a clean story. And it’s a compromised story. And then we could put together a ten, twelve, fifteen other stories like that. And then we could think about well, what would it take to bring such a situation about.
The fact is that there’s no will on either side to achieve any reconciliation. Now will, at all. I mean, peace is not— I mean like, if violence is not one, violence is two, it’s a process, peace is a process. Peace is not a state. It’s not the end of history or some sort of cessation. Peace is a conflictual process which is difficult. And one has to be absolutely committed to bringing it about. And at the moment— This is, you know, sometime before the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, I see nothing. I see no will to bring that about. I see the same retributive, stupid language of justification and violence and counter-violence as we— So the most depressing thing about Barack Obama, of the many depressing things about his presidency, is the continuation of the foreign policy objectives of the Bush administration. There’s been no significant shift of focus. Or no significant shift of language. And there was the will in the population for another discourse, and the moment when it could have been articulated. I think a couple of years ago, if Obama had changed the discourse, he might have been able to take a significant number of people with him. Or at least it would’ve been a fight worth having. And that moment is gone
Then you into a deeper question, which is I guess the question that students of Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt will pose which is well, perhaps it serves the interests of the United States and the West to have an enemy like Al Qaeda. There’s this wonderful— I’m a student of ancient tragedy, which I’m working on at the moment. And there’s this line that Athena— I mean, here’s an example. This is good.
In the Oresteia, we get two repetitive loop cycles of violence. The Oresteia begins with Clytemnestra murdering her husband Agamemnon because Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia in order to have good winds so the fleet could sail over Troy and they could have a little war. So she’s pissed off with him about that, obviously.
So when he comes back from the war, she kills him. And then Orestes, the son, kills the mother for killing the father. So we have a classic familial violence counter-violence scenario in ancient tragedy. And then the third play, The Eumenides, in the Oresteia trilogy, Athena reconciles the two opposing forces. Orestes, Apollo, and the Furies, and turns the Furies into the Kindly Ones that become the protectors of the city. But she says you know, Athena, the goddess… You know the Greeks had a…the Greeks had a way with words. And for them it required a goddess to do this work. So maybe we need a goddess or god to reconcile these differences.
But she says “Worship the mean in all things,” right, worship the mean in all things. Avoid extremes, in any matter. Worship the mean, and then you will be just. And never done banish terror from the gates. Never banished terror from the gates. The citizen that knows no fear will have no reverence for the just. And what Athena was articulating, two and a half millennia ago, is the politics of fear. Which students of this like Thomas Hobbes understood perfectly. There has to be an equation or a balance between justice and terror, right. So to that extent, not only do I see no possible reconciliation between…I don’t know, what do we want to call it, the Muslim world…the West—I don’t know, whatever. I see the deepening of that problem ten years— So ten years on, or nine and a half years on, I see the deepening of that problem.
And I see the deepening of that problem in particular in Western Europe. In the growth of a really nasty racism that is finding its ideological friction around anti-Muslim sentiment in the Netherlands, in Germany, in Denmark, even in Sweden. And in France, obviously. And the whole scandal of the ninth anniversary of 9/11, which was tainted by this stupid debate about the Islamic Cultural Center and the proximity of that center to Ground Zero. All that nonsense. I see nothing that’s gonna allow for reconciliation, and furthermore on both sides I think the fact of terror shores up the claims to justice that they want to make. So, it serves the interests of both parties for there to be violence on both sides. Because it’s fear that keeps us safe.
And then we’re into a deeper set of reflections, a more sober and somber set of reflections, which is to say that the state, the modern nation-state like Britain, its essential function is securitization. It’s a security apparatus—that’s what it is. So when you go on a plane and you say well you know, thank you for flying British Airways or Delta Airlines, and our first concern is for passenger safety, right. This is the articulation of securitization. Doesn’t mat— You gonna get bad food; you’re not going to be able to sleep; we’re not gonna give you free drinks; going to be treated like shit. But you know, your safety matters to us. It’s as if that discourse has become the overwhelming discourse of the state: securitization.
And securitization only works as a discourse when there is an enemy. And when there is the threat of terror. So you could say ten years after 9/11 what has happened has been the massive ramping up of the security framework of the nation-state, or the meta-state in the case of the EU. And within those structures an increasing identification of the enemy as the enemy without—whether it’s Saudi, Yemeni, Afghani or whatever—and the enemy within—the immigrant.
Let’s call it by its proper name, and its proper name is imperialism, right. 9/11 is a chapter in an imperialist story and an imperialist struggle. And it’s about the… So, 9/11, the hijacking of US planes to use them as weapons against US civilians in order to make a point about the imperial presence of the United States and what the United States represents in the Muslim world. That’s what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with a moment in that history. And now it’s ten years later and it’s now a different moment.
So, the first thing to say is that 9/11 wasn’t the day when everything changed, right. I mean again, that’s a position which is simply ideological, in my view. 9/11 is not one thing, it’s part of a sequence. And we have to understand it historically as part of a sequence. Otherwise we understand nothing. And you know, the ideological response to 9/11 is completely paradoxical. On the one hand, it’s the day when everything changed. On the other hand, we can’t mourn it, we have to go out and kick some ass. Whereas if it was the day when everything changed, then surely we should spend a few years thinking about it. But no. We had a few days to think about it and then it was you know, we have to send our boys out to do their heroic duty.
So, it was an important chapter in a sequence, not a cataclysmic, world-historical event for me. And the other thing that I want to say, which is a delicate thing to say and I couldn’t say in New York because…you know, you’d get shouted at is the way in which the whole discourse on 9/11 exhibits the tyranny of the victim. The victim and those people that…are victims or who take on the role for themselves being victims, by association, can simply squash any thought about the meaning of this event through the assertion of who they are. Well this happened, and it’s outrageous, and we have to do something.
And I think that there is a problem with political discourses based on the idea of the victim. We’ve seen the way in which that can unfold, say for example the tyranny of victimhood as the basis for legitimating ideology say in Zionism. Which means that everything is justified because everything comes back to the fact that I’m a victim of a prior historical injury, right, the memory of the Holocaust, the Shoah. Or again think about Serbian nationalism, premised upon the defeat at the Battle of Kosovo, which means that what it means to be Serbian is to be a victim of history. And every historical event simply serves to legitimate that.
So, we have to get out of the logic of victimhood it seems to me, in order to just think about this, right. And so at this point we need sober, historical, rational reflection about the event 9/11, whether it was an event at all, and the sequence of which it’s a part. We need that. We don’t need sentimentalized distortions of history that simply serve to block any thought about the meaning of this thing. And…we’re not there yet. We’re a long way from that, it seems to me.
So in a sense the…if the world shifted after 9/11, it’s allow that securitization discourse, securitization ideology to get a deeper and deeper grip on human life. So, to that extent I agree with Agamben, you know, the biopolitical aspects of this are evident, right? You know, you walk in an airport, in this no-man’s land between… You know, if you go to Terminal 5 at Heathrow, you walk through this legal no-man’s land from the plane to something, and you see “UK Border,” right. This is new. “UK Border.”
And you gotta get in over that border and into the promised land. And at that point you realize, you know, you have no rights. You are completely legally stateless. So, ten years on I think there’s a real sense of a…that the…a number of phenomena. We have the function of the state is security. Security is functionalized, operationalized, through the police and the military at the service of the political class. The political class are increasingly out of contact with the citizenry. So the only way in which they can— I mean, political party membership in countries like the UK has dropped dramatically over the last generation. So the only way the that there can be a grip of the political class onto the citizenry is through the language of fear. “We’re keeping you safe,” right. And that safety has to turn around, as it were, the logic of the enemy in two dimensions: the external enemy—you know, the guy from Pakistan that’s going to come over and kill you and your children; and the internal enemy—the second-generation Pakistani resident who might be a teacher in your local school who might be this but you know…he’s gonna become radicalized and he could be out to get you. So you know, here we have… I remember it was Leslie Nielsen, of Police Squad, said “I’m interested in justice, and that means bullets.” That’s the point. There’s no justice without terror. That’s been the lesson of the last ten years.