Violence is politicized, and politics becomes violence

Violence and Political Theory
Forfatter: Elizabeth Frazer og Kimberly Hutchings
Forlag: Polity (Storbritannia)
VIOLENCE IN THEORY AND PRACTICE / The world is violent. Do we get bogged down by the rhetoric of violence?


President Donald Trump threatened in June 2020 US citizens with military force and wanted 10 heavily armed soldiers in the streets of Washington. He asked the governors not to be "tame idiots", but rather to hit the protesters physically hard. At the same time, the federal police attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets against a group of protesters near the White House, including the press. Trump later walked across the same square with a Bible in his hand. First some violence, then some peace on earth.

President Trump is accused of committing violence. He is aggressive in his talk of the press, and long before the now world famous black American George floyd was killed by police, Trump talked about the police having to start getting a little tougher in their dealings with detainees. This way of talking is clearly contagious. While Trump threatened his own people with military force, Republican and Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida stated that the authorities had to seek out and kill Americans, «Like we do in the Middle East». Other members of Congress have spoken in similar terms. Violence becomes politicized, and politics becomes violence. But what do theories about violence and politics really say?

An academic discourse

Elizabeth Frazer (Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Oxford) and Kimberly Hutchings (Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London) have written several academic publications on politics and violence. Now they are out with a completely fresh analysis of violence and political theory. The book was published before the riots that shook USA and the world, but is all the more relevant.

First a warning: This is not an easily accessible book. For that it is too philosophical and academic, wordy and theoretical. But for anyone who is interested in (idea) history and social development, there are many good reflections to be found. Not least, we get to know thoughts about violence and politics from famous names such as Augustin, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Weber, Marx, Engels, Gandhi, Fanon, Arendt, Galtung, Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir and many more. It is instructive to gain an insight into these thinkers' different points of view, their explanations of and openness to political violence. They are all children of their time, and the attitudes are usually understandable in the light of a historical context. Or as Chairman Mao (freely rendered) should have said it: Power is best understood from the position of the muzzle.

Lafayette Park, From Twitter
Lafayette Park, From Twitter

Can violence be justified?

Through seven chapters, violence in different situations and from different positions is analyzed. The authors try to conclude in a final eighth chapter. Doesn't politics necessarily include violence as well? Does the justification for violence depend on whether it is carried out to defend or repeal the existing order? Or does such a justification depend on way the violence is perpetrated on? Is violence simply direct physical harm, or can the violence also be structural or symbolic?

I note how political theorists have tended to avoid problematic aspects of violence. They do this by either reducing violence to a neutral tool or identifying violence with a higher ideal, such as justice or virtue.

Rights and justice

The authors conclude that the significance of political violence cannot be limited to, but will always be associated with, direct physical violence. However, it is not primarily it physical disorder this leads to, which is the key to understanding political violence, but rather the relationship and relationship between perpetrator and victim, between conqueror and the conquered.

The authors also share the feminists' argument that different forms of political violence belong to a continuum and condition one another. To try to put it a little clearer: Sexist and racist abuse and degradation are behind and legitimize physical attacks – and can easily be transformed into just that. This reinforces symbolic and structural value and power hierarchies.

The justification for violence depends on whether it is carried out to defend or annul it
existing order?

That is when we come to the question of all questions: justifying political violence. The authors distinguish between two main categories: The first is so-called instrumental justification, where violence serves a good political cause, such as bringing peace and order, restoring rights, or achieving justice. The other is explained in virtue and is about good or proper morals. But neither of these two explanations works well enough, the authors argue.

A violent world

The world is violent. Don't we need violence to fight violence? And then it is okay to have some rules that explain how, and that tell you when enough is enough? A little bit of international law? The authors are unconvinced, and believe it is difficult to separate violence for the good cause and violence to the contrary. They argue that violence is not a medium or an instrument – it is a relationship, characterized by political asymmetry and conditioned by a number of structural and discursive hierarchies. The result of violence is therefore always uncertain, they claim. Maybe we should listen to what philosopher Hannah Arendt says: The most likely result of violence is even more violence.

If you fight violence with violence, you embrace the nature of violence. But also nonviolence can lead to terrible results. Yet, a world willing to use violence as an instrument and morality and virtue in the service of violence is even worse. And then maybe we are back to Donald Trump?

The gospel of violence has given us weapons of mass destruction and perhaps made us more unsafe than ever. We also see that in several countries the border between police work and war is less clear than before, and that the police have equipment similar to that of the military.

In addition, the increasing use of drones in warfare, more weapons in circulation among civilians and the use of tougher investigative methods bordering on torture have made our societies more violent. We are fooled by the myth of violence as something effective. Otherwise, we risk, as US governors, being referred to as "jerks" and weaklings.

Normalizing violence in response to violence is dangerous. In the long run, we risk perceiving violence politics as politics by definition. Then we have been duped by the rhetoric of violence.

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