Friday, June 3, 2016

On Eggs and Political Violence

The most commonly cited aspect of Weber’s definition of the state is that it possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The accent of the phrase falls on “legitimate.” Obviously, private individuals continue to use physical force in various ways; the point is that such force lacks legitimacy. To use force without the authorization of the state is criminal.

But Weber doesn’t talk about the legitimate use of force as something simply and once-and-for-all secured to the state. He writes, rather, of “The claim of the modern state to monopolize the use of force”—a phrasing that introjects a lot more uncertainty into the issue. A claim is just a claim; it is as good as one’s ability to enforce it. He elsewhere writes that the state “lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a certain territory.” Here, the tense of claims making is open, iterative; the state is only a state to the extent that it continuously lays claim to this monopoly. It lays claim to this monopolized violence by enacting its violence.

There’s an important flipside to all of this, though: the state’s claim to the monopoly of legitimate violence functions through an expropriation of violence from non-state actors. It is as a result of this expropriation that violence becomes riven by a binary—legitimate and illegitimate—that did not preexist this process. The idea that non-state actors might commit political violence becomes almost a contradiction in terms; only the polity, as the state, can legitimately commit such violence. Only the state can have its violence modified by the adjective “political.” Moreover, this process of expropriation is just as iterative and ongoing as the state’s constant claim to its monopoly. The hyper-violent state operates by depriving its subjects of their capacity for political violence. It works to render such a capacity for violence unthinkable.

The state’s ongoing expropriation of subjects’ capacity for political violence: this process is important to keep in mind when we consider the “violence” that occurred at the Trump rally in San Jose. The line taken by liberals has been predictable. Jamelle Bouie, for instance, tweeted, “Nothing good comes from political violence, period.” Obviously, the claim is falsifiable by many, many historical examples. Not so obviously, the violence complained of here is less the use of physical objects or fist fighting and more the plebian violation of the administered normal. It’s basically a deontological argument masked as a consequentialist one.

I’m more interested in a line I’ve heard from people on the left. It goes something like this: Violence like this is probably inefficacious. Yet, if you insist on the possibility of using some form of physical violence as necessary for antifascist political work, your level of violence is laughably inadequate to the threat you claim to be responding to. The implication of such a line is that a) the object we’re attacking isn’t actually fascism, or we would be attacking with greater vehemence, b) most of the political violence we’ve seen (regardless of whether it should be called violence) amounts to enactments of manarchist fantasies detached from concrete political realities and c) stop doing this shit.

It’s pretty interesting, really. I think we have broad swaths of the U.S. left that are not normatively anti-violence but who also would be reluctant to accept that any single instance of political violence—a smashed window, a thrown egg—has any positive effect. From this perspective, the proof of the pudding comes in the scalable effects of any single instance of political violence: a thrown egg didn’t defeat fascism, so throwing the egg was at best an ineffectual gesture. A smashed window didn’t end capitalism. The point always boils down to the obvious: we are not at a revolutionary conjuncture in which such acts might turn into anything. (The implication for many is that we never will be.)

This is why turning to Weber, and his narrative of the state’s ongoing expropriation of political violence from ordinary people, is important. Very simply, we’ve been made dumb about violence. Over the past century, the massive expansion of what counts as “violence”— in the liberal, Chris Hedges, finger-wagging sense—is staggering. The definition of violence is itself a very important political weapon: such definitions encode and reproduce the value-relations of our world. Liberals clutch pearls over smashed glass; the enforced displacement of humans called gentrification, not so much. More to my point, the expansion of the term’s ambit inversely correlates to its expropriation from the political repertoire of ordinary, non-state actors. A large part of this expropriation of violence has been bound up with the material recomposition of classes and the state through the twentieth century. The unions have been gutted that could (and did) more or less wage small wars against state-backed companies; meanwhile, police forces have been augmented in all the ways we know about. A significant part of this expropriation of violence also registers at the level of ideology and the formation of a collective corporeal habitus. We’ve been trained to feel like our bodies, and our modes of extending them, cannot have effects on the political and economic structures that require dismantling. Fascism, after all, didn’t vanish with that thrown egg.

Consequentialist approaches to small acts of political violence—if violence is even the proper term—are complicit with the state’s expropriation of violence to the extent that they induce a feeling that our bodies are always already incapacitated to impact the political, to violate its administered normal. The idea that political violence only makes sense in conditions of a full-blown revolutionary conjuncture obfuscates the fact that re-appropriating political violence from the state is a necessary condition for anything like a revolution to occur. This process of re-appropriation takes time, and is intimately bound up with the revolutionary process. These small acts are moments of collective self-pedagogy where subjects learn, slowly and haltingly but truly, what our bodies can do, and what they can do without the state-form. They are an organic part of the process of communizing the monopolized violence of the state and its racist-fascoid fanboys.

Fascism didn't vanish with that thrown egg, but it will never have vanished if it hadn't been thrown.