Two Cheers for Democratic Violence
A public lecture by Steven Johnston
Wednesday 12 February 2014
1:30pm - 3:30pm
Research Hall 163
George Mason University
4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
At its best democracy stands for the rejection of violence in all forms, perhaps especially physical harm or injury against persons. Yet democratic societies are riddled with violence, manifested in and the product of founding moments, electoral outcomes, legislative agendas, and neoliberal capitalist imperatives. Democracy, it might be said, entails, even relies on violence(s) it formally disavows. This violence tends to go unseen insofar as it is institutionalized, practiced, sanctioned, and monopolized by the state. The presence of violence in democracy threatens the latter’s political credentials. If the people themselves, however, turn to violence it is roundly condemned and routinely crushed—with violence, of course. Ironically, democratic violence, violence on behalf of democracy, is a forgotten aspect of the American political experience, especially during the founding when citizens’ potential for violence played a productive role in establishing democratic institutions and relations. It is with this tradition in mind that I offer a reading of “The East,” a 2013 film about environmental militants who act in concert, in profoundly problematic but also public and productive ways, against corporate ecological terrorism, recently witnessed in West Virginia’s chemical leak by Freedom Industries. The film raises the troubling possibility that in democracy one may not be for violence, but one may not necessarily be against it either. Democracy may need and depend on, if intermittently, precisely that which it will not admit: democratic violence. It may then be time for democrats to become more thoughtful about it, to think through its tragic possibilities.
This event is co-sponosred by the Department of Public and International Affairs as well as the National Capital Area Political Science Association.