ralph lauren polo watches for men Welcome to the University of Exeter Political Theory reading group blog
The text for this session is Walter Benjamin Critique of Violence and is presented by John Erik Hansson.
You can see the text here: Benjamin Critique of Violence
Writing in the context of the early years of the Weimar republic, Benjamin constructs here a moral critique of the idea of violence, and more specifically of political violence. In this text, he pays particular attention to the existing relationships between violence and the law. Political violence has therefore a law making character, as well as a law preserving character. These are embodied in various state institutions (the police, the army, parliament), but also in non state actors: striking workers can be thought, in some circumstances, to be engaging in law making violence. Benjamin closes his critique by distinguishing between mythical violence and its law making character and divine violence, which is merely law destroying and therefore operates at another, level.
Lucy Foreman summary of John Erik presentation is as follows:
John Erik outlined the context of the politically innovative, modern and progressive early Weimar Republic, instituted through the aftermath of war and challenged from its very outset by numerous acts of street violence and several crises of major insurrections. The state employed the army and a volunteer militia to violently crush the communist Spartacus revolt with summary executions including those of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht. Subsequent challenges arising from workers action were defeated by the state in the same way resulting in the deaths of thousands. The right wing Wolfgang Kapp’s attempted Putsch of 1920 had some army backing and posed the problem of much greater public support. The state succeeded in putting it down with the help of a general strike.
Benjamin is concerned, in this text from 1921, to critique violence in the context of the relationship between law and justice. John Erik noted the linguistic linkage of Recht and Gerechtighkeit in German as absent in English and he pointed out the difficulty of translating Gewalt as violence because in German it can also carry a connotation of power. Much discussion ensued about force rather than violence being implied by the word Gewalt.
Benjamin starts by opposing positive law and natural law. The former entrenches Gewalt historically and sanctions Gewalt according to legal constructs that are themselves historically determined. Natural law on the other hand justifies Gewalt in terms of the justice of ends. Benjamin points out that the state fears the unlimited use of natural law by individuals and opposes it (though has to concede to some, for pragmatic reasons). We get a distinction between sanctioned and unsanctioned Gewalt . Yet the state itself uses natural law as a justification for its own acts of Gewalt. Both positive law and natural law frame Gewalt within means end thinking. Benjamin describes the self defeating aspect of state Gestalt, its legalising of Gestalt, because the law preserving aspect of it in the end undermines its law making power. Benjamin wants to set means end thinking aside in order to investigate how we understand Gestalt in relation to the transformation of politics through the ending of the vicious circles of violence.
Drawing from Sorel, Benjamin describes the political general strike which is concerned with changes in working conditions and the use of Gewalt to institute a new positive legal order within the existing framework of the state. It is law making, its basis is means end thinking and it perpetuates the problem of the self defeating aspect of legal violence within the existing state. Antithetical to this is the proletarian general strike which is anarchistic, has no programme, its outcome of overthrowing the state is embodied in the event itself of the severance of the relationship between the employees and the employed and though would involve violence in its implementation (not least in the state’s opposition to it) is essentially non violent in that it makes no demands. Benjamin describes concepts of “mythical Gestalt” and “divine Gestalt” in terms which almost map on to the political general strike and the proletarian general strike respectively.
John Erik argued that Benjamin’s thinking here is that the proletarian general strike, as with the law destroying concept of “divine Gewalt” (not aiming at retribution or punishment but expiation) implies no positive concept of what is to follow the transformation except a messianic future.
It was also suggested in discussion that Benjamin’s critique of sovereign violence is substantively a critique of sovereignty and a certain way of thinking of the revolutionary subject which Benjamin sees as a problem in Marxist revolutionary violence. So Benjamin’s positing of a more anarchistic concept of revolution which doesn’t have law creating and law preserving functions actually introduces the concept of a non sovereign violence.
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