On the violence of politics

by Sam Kriss


This won’t be the last time, and things can only get worse. It’s not so much that Donald Trump has awakened something ugly in the American psyche, more that he’s found new uses for bodies. Spectacularised violence is becoming an increasing staple of his rallies: these political events, already strange and contrived rituals, are becoming outright dangerous. Protesters, often aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement or other racial justice organisations, are harassed or beaten, some are threatened with murder; occasionally anyone showing up without a white face is subjected to immediate intimidation. And up on his stage, the controller-demigod smiles and goads. People are learning that TV violence doesn’t have to stay on the TV; politicians are learning that electoral aims can be achieved with fists and cudgels. And in the atmosphere of increasing violence, his opponents are also beginning to resort to illegitimate means. Most concerningly, a Trump rally in Chicago was disrupted by thousands of protesters, who broke into scuffles with Trump supporters, chanted pro-Bernie Sanders slogans, and eventually forced the event’s cancellation. Whatever you think of Trump, his right to free speech must not be infringed by violent means. And besides, this intervention risks playing into his hands: the more disruption, the more fighting, the more chaos, the more Trump wins. It’s a death-spiral, the beginning of something ugly and frightening that we thought might have been done away with forever. Once violence gets into politics, it’s hard to get out; if you know your history, you know where this might end. Gangs of politically engaged supporters throwing shouts and fists will, sooner or later, pick up weapons: a debate over land ownership is concluded with three hundred Gracchus supporters floating dead in the Tiber; a noisy beer-hall brawl is won with the cities of Europe in ruins.

This is in some ways the received liberal wisdom on these events; you can see it being churned out by a broad swathe of bien-pensant media moderates, along with virtually every political candidate other than Donald Trump himself. ‘Violence has no place in politics.’ People might have legitimate grievances, but they can only be resolved by legitimate means. It is never acceptable to start attacking other people. I want to suggest something different: that in the end, it’s precisely this impulse, the horrified rejection of any violence within politics, the keening appeal to legitimacy in all things, which is ultimately capable of bringing about the most horrific forms of repression.

It should be pointed out that for all the furore, the action in Chicago was hardly a pitched battle. The Chicago police department, not usually the most restrained or liberal body, issued a statement confirming that the majority of demonstrators were peacefully exercising their right to protest, and that contrary to Trump’s claim, they had not in fact advised him to cancel the event. But even so, it’s possible to carry out a kind of Brechtian defence of extralegal violence: what crime is a few thrown fists, when Trump is advocating closing America’s borders to all Muslims and ordering the military to knowingly murder innocent people? There’s a strong case here, but it doesn’t do much to really interrogate that central formula, the idea that ‘violence has no place in politics.’ It’s something that might seem self-evidently true to any reasonable and right-thinking individual, but what does it actually mean? What is violence, and what is politics? Do these things really function as opposite poles, and what would it mean to introduce one into the other?

Two senses of the word ‘politics’ could be distinguished here. On the one hand, politics is the arena of human possibility, the sphere of contest between differing models of organising the structures of social life, the means by which people can come together to transform the world. But on the other, politics is also politicking, the dry scrambling for advantage that goes on within any of these modes of social organisation, the grim business of government that’s usually taught in politics classes: by-election procedure, parliamentary protocol, the division of powers, and all the rest of that boring wonkery. This is the kind of politics that people are generally referring to when they say that violence has no place in politics. And it’s true – the successful functioning of this kind of procedure, which is often agonistic and which often involves the direct competition of various individuals or social sectors for resources, tends to require the exclusion of violent means. This is why, for instance, the government and opposition benches in Westminster are famously just over two sword’s-lengths apart. But if you actually look at what these procedures actually create, the answer is generally violence. Political bodies are legislative: they create the law, which is a set of rules enforced and structured by the threat of violence. Representatives vote on a law; thereafter, if you don’t do what they tell you, eventually you will find yourself being confronted by armed men in the service of the state. The role of politics within society is to distribute and legitimise the application of violence: to say that violence has no place in politics is like saying that money has no place in the economy, or that words have no place in literature.

The example of Hillary Clinton is useful here: in a statement released after the events in Chicago, she repeated the ‘violence has no place in politics’ line, and suggested that the best way for people to effect change in the world is to behave like the families of the Charleston massacre victims, who ‘came together and melted hearts in the statehouse.’ This is, of course, from someone who as First Lady declared that black ‘superpredators’ in American cities must be ‘brought to heel’ as part of a war on crime, who as a Senator voted for the 2003 war in Iraq, and who as Secretary of State took America to war in Libya. Clinton might not have physically attacked people on the Senate floor, but isn’t this violence taking its place within politics? The recurrence of war here is significant: war isn’t just the most destructive expression of state violence, it is, as Foucault argues in Society Must be Defended, politics itself. Foucault inverts the usual Clausewitzian formula: politics is, he says, the continuation of war by other means. As something that encompasses the exercise of power and the struggle of competing groups, politics is war within civil society, the repression and violence of outright warfare in a coded form, and it’s only through the matrix of warfare that politics becomes intelligible.

Still, there’s a difference between the violence of the police and the military and the violence of citizens at political rallies: one is legitimate, the other is not. (You could rephrase Clinton’s statement to take this into account: ‘Illegitimate violence has no place in politics.’ At this point it immediately becomes nonsensical: surely the thing about illegitimate violence is that it should have no place anywhere.) Legitimate violence is that exercised by the state, which is after all defined by its monopoly on force within its territory. But as Walter Benjamin, among others, have pointed out, any legitimate political order is first premised on illegitimate violence. No political system is eternal, and wherever any structure of law exists it will have had to legitimise its founding violence after the fact. The monarchies were first imposed by death and conquest; the American Revolution was first an insurrection, the introduction of violence into politics – in other words, something illegal, before it became the source of the law itself.

The insistence that people trying to counter Donald Trump’s ascending brand of contemporary fascism should not resort to illegitimate means is being read by some people on the left as a call to do nothing, to just let it happen. Actually, it’s nothing of the sort. Liberals aren’t horrified by violence, they’re horrified by illegitimate violence: what scares them isn’t violence entering into the domain of politics but violence that exists outside of it. They want to stop Trump as much as the rest of us, but it must be done through the proper channels, through the political process, through the state. But the political process is warfare. At present, the ‘moderate’ wing of the Republican party is hoping to prevent Trump from gaining its nomination through a brokered convention, the overturning of a democratic mandate through bureaucratic means. But other means are available. They’re not saying it openly, not yet, but if it looks like Trump might win the Presidency, the liberals want a military coup. The powers that be are sensible; they won’t let the worst happen. If nothing else, the overthrow of the civilian government is a certain defence against violence finding its way into politics. And what’s more legitimate than the United States Armed Forces?