Violence : Richard Bernstein

Now, just after Benjamin introduces this antithetical distinction of divine and mythic violence, he raises the question of whether this understanding of “divine power”—carried to its logical conclusion—“confers on men the lethal power against one another.” Benjamin insists that this “logical conclusion” cannot be conceded. “For the question ‘May I kill?’ meets its irreducible answer in the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” And Benjamin goes on to declare:

Those who base a condemnation of all violent killing of one person by another on the commandment are therefore mistaken. It exists not as criterion of judgment, but as a guideline for the actions of persons or communities who have to wrestle with it in solitude and, in exceptional cases, to take on themselves the responsibility of ignoring it. Thus it was understood by Judaism, which expressly rejects condemnation of killing in self-defense.6

Recently Judith Butler and Simon Critchley have offered a fascinating interpretation of this passage—one which tells us as much about their own understanding of the relation between nonviolence and violence as it does about Benjamin ’s. I cannot do justice here to the subtlety of their interpretation, but I can give a rough outline.7 Both are invested in a supreme ethical commitment to nonviolence. But they want to argue such a commitment does not rule out the justification of violence in exceptional cases.

The commandment “Thou Shalt not Kill” is not to be understood as a universal categorical imperative in the Kantian sense—a universal command that allows of no exceptions. On the contrary, it is a guideline (Richtschnur) that can guide us but not determine what we are to do. This means that there may be “exceptional” circumstances when violent killing is not only permissible but justified. This is the significance of Benjamin’s reference to the rejection of “the condemnation of killing in self-defense.” Presumably there are no fixed criteria that can define what constitutes such an exception. But if one is to violate the ethical commandment not to kill then one must wrestle with it in solitude, and in exceptional cases, take on the personal responsibility of ignoring it. This is where one exercises one’s freedom. Critchley succinctly summarizes this view when he writes:

What is in question here is the complex relationship between violence and nonviolence, in which a commitment to the latter might still require the performance of the former . . . Following Benjamin, the guideline for a true politics is nonviolence and its aim is anarchism, but this thumb-line cannot be a new categorical imperative of the Kantian kind. In the solitude of exceptional circumstances, the guideline of nonviolence might call for violence, for subjective violence against the objective violence of law, the police and the state.8

Hannah Arendt addresses a similar issue from a very different perspective. She is perhaps best known for the antithesis that she draws between violence and power. Violence for her is always destructive. It can never by itself create power. She challenges a traditional, deeply-rooted conception of power where power is understood as power over—power over an individual, a group, or even a state. We might call this a vertical conception of power where those who possess power are able to control the actions of those that they rule or dominate. It is a “command-obedience” conception of power.

Indeed if we think of power in this way then C. Wright Mills is correct when he declares: “All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.”9 But power for Arendt is a horizontal concept whereby empowerment comes into existence. It can grow when individuals collectively act and deliberate together: “Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert.”10 Power involves speech, action, and persuasion. It is essentially nonviolent. Violence for her is always instrumental—always used to achieve some end. When Arendt wrote her famous essay “On Violence” she was strongly reacting against the rhetoric of violence that was popularized by the more militant wings of the Black Power movement.

6. Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 250.

7. For a fuller discussion of Divine Violence and the interpretations of Butler and Critchley, see Richard J. Bernstein, Violence: Thinking Without Banisters (London: Polity Press, 2013), Chapter 2. See also Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless (New York: Verso, 2012) and Judith Butler, “Critique, Coercion, and Sacred Life in Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence'” in Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Structural World, ed. Hent de Vries (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

8. Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless, 219.

9. Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt Books, 1970), 35.

10. Hannah Arendt, On Violence, 52.

« Previous // Next »