Elizabeth Frazer and Kimberly Hutchings. Violence and Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity, 2020. ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-3671-9
How do political theorists justify violence? And what are the gaps in these justifications? These questions have been the main driving force in the research careers of the book’s two authors. Over the course of fifteen years, Elizabeth Frazer and Kimberly Hutchings have published, both together and separately, a total of twenty-two articles and book chapters and an earlier book[i] on the theoretical complexities overlooked in generalized positions on violence. Violence and Political Theory brings together and expands on this seminal oeuvre and builds on it to tease out the question of why thinkers reach a different conclusion on violence.
The book starts from the premise that human agency and knowledge are inherently limited; and that the consideration of these limits makes any conclusive decision on violence problematic. In mainstream political theory, the emphasis on the impossibility of knowing where the action of violence ends is credited to Hannah Arendt and other advocates of nonviolent politics. Nonetheless, Violence and Political Theory contend that even thinkers who were more inclined to justify political violence than to resist it, like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Clausewitz, all stressed that any use of violence comprises an inherent “friction”: “a gap between the ideal and the real, between the dynamics of a pure system and the complication of an actual conflictual situation” (p.53). Interestingly, Hutchings and Frazer indicate that this ‘friction’ makes the decision of avoiding violence altogether equally problematic as well; for the actual conflict situation sometimes renders such an avoidance permitting of more serious violence. The complexity of human action and its consequential relationship with her environment renders all normative conclusions on violence generally ambiguous.
Why, then, do thinkers arrive at different positions on violence despite encountering the same complexity? Why, for instance, is Gandhi’s position on violence very different from Fanon’s? Through comparative reflections on a wide range of (more than thirty) modern political thinkers, including Machiavelli, Hobbes, Arendt, Derrida, Ruddick, Fanon, Goldman, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Adams, and Scarry, the book posits three main explanations; which I briefly outline below.
First, the variance relates to the difference in their framing of the violent contention. Building on their earlier book’s argument that violence could never be abstractly justifiable; Frazer and Hutchings contend that violence is socially justified only when it is subsumed into “innocent” categories which drift our attention away from the violence itself. Revolutionary thinkers, for instance, justify violence by framing it in terms of resistance, revolution, emancipation, or justice. Statist thinkers, on the other hand, frame state violence as order, discipline, or power. In all such cases, violence is embedded in institutional, symbolic, and often aesthetic frames that “distance us (readers, viewers, audiences, thinkers) from the violence” as an actual encounter that inflicts harm on actual people (p.67). The justification of violence hence becomes a reflection of the normative position on the “metaphysical” objects which the violence is meant to secure.
Second, the audacity of using violence is associated with the acceptance of the possibility of stopping it once its mission is achieved. Here, the tension over the conceptualisation of violence is decisive: is it an instrument, a means to an end, or is it an act whose repercussions are not controllable? “The whole [problematic] point about action is that it is not predictable in its outcomes. When we act, unlike when we make, we cannot have a finished product in view […] [T]hat end to which violence is directed is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the means it justifies” (p.77-78). As violence breeds in its process the conditions of its own reproduction, including armed forces, militant units, and tribal loyalties, but also social traits like gender divisions, obedience, and polarization, it pursues a life of its own that cannot simply be ended with a decision. The debate over the justifiability 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 pacific in concept, “this alleged pacifism”, Hutchings and Frazer remind us, “is possible only because of the violence of discipline, treatment, classification and administration” that makes societies controllable and hierarchies forcible without the need for direct, confrontational violence (p.90). But this control and this hierarchy, the way they are in our modern world, are themselves violent: “Violence has constituted the world and embedded itself not only in social structures, economies, and institutions, but also in the brains, blood, and bone” of both the oppressed and the oppressive (p. 142). Refraining from violence, in such case, is merely an endorsement of its existing structure and direction; whether because the accepting person is on the privileged side or because she internalized her 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 could function without control and hierarchy, then a comprehensive project of nonviolent politics could be worthwhile. Between outright rejection and outright acceptance of this possibility, thinkers contend over the justifiability of violence/nonviolence.
By the end of the book, the reader reaches three main conclusions. The first and second are made explicit by the authors. First, literature on political violence is not as polemical as it seems. The broad range of thinkers studied in the book, including conservatives, radicals, liberals, pacifists, anarchists, de-colonialists, and feminists, seem to vary more in their framings, valorised objects, understandings of means-ends, and conceptions of the possibility of a world without violence than in their acceptance or rejection of violence in crude terms. The second conclusion is that there are normative repercussions to approaching these aspects differently.
The third, more implicit, contribution of the book is highlighting the value of theory in enacting the conditions of possibility of nonviolence. For if justifying and enacting “violence relies on a wealth of preconceptions and reproduces them” (p.189), then resisting this cycle starts from theoretical conceptions which point at the possibility of doing politics otherwise. The book, therefore, also contributes to contemporary debates on theoretical articulations of political nonviolence[i]. The lack of explicit engagement with this debate is one of the book’s very few shortcomings.
Violence and Political Theory is more than what its title suggests: an analytical account of political theory on violence. It is also a deconstructive critique that reaches down to the roots upon which this field of theory was enacted. It reframes the field in a way that simultaneously underlines its ambiguity and incomprehensiveness and points at the possibility of reframing it in ways that expand its theoretical but also political potential. Approached as such, the book is an invaluable resource not only for students of political theory and political violence, but also to advocates of nonviolent politics.
Butler, Judith. The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political. Verso Books, 2020.
Frazer, Elizabeth and Kimberly Hutchings, Can Political Violence Ever Be Justified? Polity, 2019.
Vahabzadeh, Peyman. Violence and Nonviolence: Conceptual Excursions into Phantom Opposites. University of Toronto Press, 2019.