Divine Violence and Liberated Territories

ST: Let’s start with the question of violence. What, today, is the relation between violence and politics?

This question is particularly confused on the Left. Let’s take the use made of two authors, Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin, for example. I don’t have any problem with Schmitt. But Schmitt’s concepts of “decision” and “exception” function precisely to erase the crucial distinction governing Benjamin’s [amazon asin=080520802X&text=”Critique of Violence,”] namely the distinction between “mythical” and “divine” violence. For Schmitt, to put it quite simply, there is no divine violence. For him there is an illegal violence that is a foundation, a violence of the exception that gives rise to the law. Many Leftists who flirt with Benjamin want to speak of some “spectral” violence that never really happens, or they adopt an attitude like Agamben’s and simply wait for some magical intervention. I’m sorry, but Benjamin is pretty precise. An example he gives of divine violence is a mob lynching a corrupt ruler! That’s pretty concrete. In a new book I’m writing on violence, I’m going to address this issue. Franz Fanon has suffered a similar fate. He was very clear about the role of violence, and he certainly wasn’t speaking of some “transcendental” violence. He meant killing, he meant terror. But this dimension of their work is not present in contemporary commentators. We have a softened, “decaffeinated” Fanon and Benjamin.

ST: It is not for nothing that Sorel is the fundamental reference for Benjamin! This is completely effaced in Agamben’s discussion of the text. When discussing divine violence in recent texts, you tend to refer to events like the uprisings of the Brazilian favelas and the slums of Caracas rather than the antiglobalization movement and its theorists. The example you yourself provide for “divine” violence, in a recent text on Robespierre, are the “food riots” in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the 1990s . . . Do these upheavals bear witness to the emergence of a new “subject” of struggles to come? In making this identification, doesn’t one risk the “populist” temptation you elsewhere denounce?

I was in Brazil during the food riots. People from the favelas simply descended into the city and began to loot, to terrorize the middle classes a little bit. I was shocked at how these events were treated. At first, people were horrified, as if it came from nowhere, a divine catastrophe. But once the police took care of the situation, the burnt stores and so on were treated like one more tourist attraction! But violence is a complex phenomenon, and several things have to be taken into account. First of all, we have to emphasize that violence is always a structural problem, an “objective” feature of contemporary capitalist societies. Today, we are fascinated by what I, following Badiou, call “subjective” violence, with an easily identifiable agent. Balibar has developed the idea, itself found in the Marxist tradition more generally, of a basic, structural violence in the functioning of capitalism itself. It is absolutely necessary to read explosions of subjective violence against this structural or objective violence. We shouldn’t focus exclusively on the subjective dimension. And we should also remember that violence is not necessarily activity, action. It is not always the case that social functions run by themselves and that it takes a lot of energy, a lot of violence to transform them. To the contrary, it often takes a lot of violence to make sure things stay the way they are. Sometimes, then, the truly violent act is doing nothing, a refusal to act.

ST: The general strike?

Yes, you can say that. But the problem is how to actualize it today. In any case, there are moments when the radical gesture is to do nothing. The question is, as always, that of temporality, of timing. But, look: the real problem is that it is very difficult to be truly violent. The violence of real transformation. The task of the revolutionary is indeed to be violent, but also to avoid the type of violence that is, in fact, merely an impotent passage à l’acte. Often, the most brutal explosions of violence are admissions of impotence—even of a fear before the real act. Stalin, in a way, was much more violent than Hitler, for example. I’m speaking of the collectivization—this was madness. This was the true revolution. I don’t necessarily support it, but it’s true. I don’t buy the old Trotskyist equation, Lenin=revolution, Stalin=Thermidor. Maybe in 1933 or 1934. In 1928 or 1929, we saw the most radical change imaginable. Think about it: the peasantry made up 80 percent of the Russian population at the time. He truly wanted to break the peasants. It failed. But that was true violence. If by violence you mean, then, changing the basic social infrastructure, the fundamental relations of society, it’s very difficult. All the explosions of 20th century violence, whatever their differences, represent failures on this level. As for Sorel and the general strike, I am sympathetic on some level, but the major problem is that it is a little too close to what might be called an “aestheticist” explosion of freedom. For me, the true problem of revolution is not taking power; it’s what you do the day after. How you rearticulate everyday life. Here Stalin failed. By 1933 or 1934, no one talked about the creation of a “New Man” and so on.

ST: How do you understand, within this framework, the violence of the French banlieues? You mentioned, for example, the favelas and the food riots…

It obviously has nothing to do with what people like Alain Finkelkraut propose, that it’s an Islamist attack on the French republic and so on. The first thing they burned was the mosques. That’s why the fundamentalists were the first to raise their voices against the revolts. The young people of the banlieue simply wanted to say (to adopt a slogan from Badiou): we are here, and we are from here. It was a question of asserting their sheer existence. It was a pure demand for visibility. This is the best example of the limitations of our much-vaunted democracy. There are enormous numbers of people who find themselves in a situation where their most essential demands cannot be formulated in the language of a political problem. It’s what Roman Jakobson called “phatic” communication—not, “I want this” but simply, “here I am.”