4 Books on Violence – Camus, Arendt, Fanon & Zizek

4168NrZuyNL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_1.The Rebel – Albert Camus

Camus’s The Rebel (L’Homme Révolté) was famously panned by Sartre and his friends in the periodical Le Temps Moderne.  In the published exchanges that ensued Camus was, it is often said, defeated in the rhetorical joust.  Even Tony Judt, a great admirer of Camus, said: ‘In L’Homme Révolté (1951) Camus offered some important observations about the dangers of lyrical revolutionary illusions; but Raymond Aron said much the same thing to vastly more devastating effect in L’Opium des Intellectuels, while Camus’s naive, almost autodidactic philosophical speculations exposed him to a cruel and painful riposte from Sartre that severely damaged his credibility with the bien-pensant intellectual Left and permanently undermined his public self-confidence.’

Camus was, partly as a result of this and partly his stance on Algeria, to withdraw into a paralyzing silence.  But the book itself is not without its merits and unlike Judt I would say that it is in fact one of the great attempts to define the limits of violence.  At times its thinking comes close to that of Karl Popper’s, Isaiah Berlin’s and even H.L.A Hart’s where Camus discusses the limits of freedom, the pitfalls of Marxist Historicism and the perils of Natural Law that could lead to a ‘new form of absolutism’. But it above all concerns the implications of when the ‘rebel’ ‘rejects the condition of slavery’.  That is to say what it means to say ‘no’.

Camus suggests that on this pronouncement this is where ‘we’ begin to exist and where the ‘I’ renounces its difference to the other. Or as he puts it ‘I rebel—therefore we exist’.  As he argues there are two important implications that arise from this position. One is that the rebel, if they are to act violently, must remain aware of the ‘we’, of the human consequences of the universal value of saying ‘no’.  This he argues means violence should only be strictly targeted at a clearly defined aggressor – the notion of collateral damage or terror negates the rebel’s concept of the universal ‘we’.  What is more the rebel must as well be prepared to offer their own life in the process – the act of violence can only be accepted when the person who performs it is aware of the sanctity of life and the ‘we’.

But perhaps as importantly Camus argued against the trend of the intellectuals at the time by insisting that Man had no Marxist/Hegelian dialectical crystal ball. That is to say that those who consider the use of violence should only be motivated by the fact that ‘we are’ not the ‘we shall be’.  Here he dismisses the vast majority of revolutionary violence which is often indiscriminate and justifies itself famously on François de Charette’s expression that ‘to make an omelet one has to break eggs.’

41zeygFEzcL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_2. On Violence – Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt’s book is in fact three essays on the idea of violence written near the end of her life.  The essays are concerned not only with the questioning of the advocacy of violence in the theories of Sartre, Fanon and Sorel, but they also set out to define how violence can be distinguished from ideas like power and authority.

Much like Camus, Arendt, although she does acknowledge the ‘enormous role violence has played in human affairs’, denounces the idea that violence is, in the words of Sartre, ‘man recreating himself’.  This, which Fanon too was to claim, was a misreading of Hegel and Marx’s notion of the dialectical ‘power of negation.’  As she points out, in neither Hegel nor Marx was Man created through violence. In Hegel Man is shaped through thought, while in Marx Man is transformed via labour.

This of course was much the same argument that both Camus and Aron had offered some years earlier. However, her main contribution, to my mind, to the field was exploring the distinctions between power and violence.  Power, or at least a government’s power, she argued, is a manifestation of the people’s will, while violence is something that the government will use when it begins to lose that power. Power can’t, she cautioned, be gained through violence alone.  This has a rather important implication with regards to Law and its force.

Unlike Derrida and John Austin, who suggested that laws are simply sanctions backed by the threat of violence, Arendt set out an important distinction between Law and its force.  Laws, unlike the gun wielding criminal, will never receive unquestioning obedience. ‘All political institutions are the manifestations and materialization of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them.’ As she states later “‘power,’ ‘strength,’ ‘force,’ ‘authority’ and finally ‘violence’…all refer to distinct, different phenomenon”.

The totalitarian government, she surmised, uses violence when its power begins to fade and is contested by the individual challenges of the native ‘criminal’.  The impotent regime is, she claims, permitted to continue only because they are lucky enough not to have been challenged.  This theory certainly has a descriptive explanation when one considers the failure of US and USSR’s use of violence in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. While at the same time it seems to affirm just why certain corrupt governments remain in power and what action might lead to their downfall.

But as Arendt warns violence ‘can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, it promotes neither History nor Revolution, but it can indeed serve to dramatize grievances and to bring them to public attention. As Conor Cruise O’Brien once remarked, “Violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard.” And indeed, violence, contrary to what its prophets try to tell us, is a much more effective weapon of reformers than of revolutionists.’

51dxO2rKGHL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_3.The Wretched of the Earth – Frantz Fanon

Fanon’s most famous work is in fact divided by two distinct sensibilities.  One is the continued adherence to the dialectical thinking he developed in Black Skin, White Masks – a book which was written under the heavy influence of those ‘fellow travelers’ Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre.  Fanon in fact wanted Sartre to write the preface to The Wretched of the Earth, which Sartre duly did.  But sadly it is this preface that has done Fanon and his memory few favours. And one cannot help but be astounded by the irony that it is Sartre’s critique of Fanon that he has largely been remembered for.

But Fanon, unlike Sartre (who Camus once rightly claimed had merely placed his ‘armchair in the direction of history’), was not only a thinker but was a man of action. And it is perhaps this fact that creates the bifurcation in his thinking where violence is the creator of a ‘new Man’ as well as the process that irretrievably scars the individual psyche.

The book is of course most famous for Fanon’s advocacy of violence.  As he states, in a point that Arendt would later contest, ‘the natives challenge to the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of points of view. It is not a treatise on the universal, but the untidy affirmation of an original idea propounded as an absolute. The colonial world is a Manichean world.’  And it is ultimately this dichotomy that sets up the violent dialectical process that will result not in a negotiated settlement but in the ‘new history of Man’.  As Fanon would argue: ‘violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction’. ‘For the native,’ he would continue, ‘life can only spring up out of the rotting corpse of the settler.’

But despite all of these bombastic statements and predictions there is another book within these pages.  A book that details the deep psychological scarring of the individual that violence has fostered in colonial and decolonizing societies, a scarring which both he as a soldier and a psychologist was witness to. As such The Wretched of the Earth is a book that far more than wanting to encourage violence wants to wish it away.  However, rather incongruously he wishes to do this because, under the influence of Sartre’s mistaken dialectical thinking, he seems to have believed, at times, that like Achilles’s spear violence ‘can heal the wound that it has inflicted.’  What is despairingly ironic is that Fanon himself intimates, in the last chapter of the book, that on a individual psychological basis this is demonstrably false.

51XoGXMBumL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_4. Violence – Slavoj Zizek

Zizek’s book has by far the least convincing argument.  Of course it is like much of his populist philosophy, amusing and anecdotally informative but its exegesis of violence not only offers little but is deeply flawed.  As usual Zizek plays to the anti-capitalist crowds by arguing that current global capitalism contains within it what he calls at times ‘objective violence’ at others ‘systemic violence’.  This form of violence, he claims, is as violent as the more obvious ‘subjective violence’ of murder and torture.  There are two questions that arise here. One is, just what is the distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ violence? And two, just how is ‘objective violence’ violent?

Here one can’t help but feel that Zizek not only confuses the reader but himself when he claims that the ‘systemic violence’ of capitalism is not only defined as Marxist exploitation but that this violence is defined by the fact that it is ‘no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their ‘evil’ intentions, but is purely ‘objective’, systemic, anonymous.’

This violence, as he goes on to argue, is perpetuated by what he calls the ‘Liberal Communists’ of which Bill Gates is the most notable example. As he claims, this systemic violence that Bill Gates is an active participant in is the very same that King Leopold II of Belgium perpetuated in the Congo Free State at the turn of last century. But his analogy, he claims, is made all the more apposite due to the fact that it is not only Gates’s exploitation but also his philanthropy that is much like Leopold’s. 

It is here where Zizek’s argument falls apart on several grounds. Firstly because having said that capitalist violence is ‘anonymous’ he proceeds to attribute it to concrete individuals. But what is more outrageous is that he suggests that the violence that Leopold inflicted upon the Congo had no active agent.

Surely one only needs to read the Casement Report to realise the falsity of this baffling abstraction? As Roger Casement would famously testify in 1904, in the Congo Free State, (which was privately owned by Leopold) mutilations, kidnappings, torture, beatings and killings were the daily regimen meted out on the native population by the King’s soldiers. Simply type ‘Congo Free State’ into a google search and you will discover the grim ‘subjective violence’ to which Leopold’s regime subjected the native population of Congo. But Zizek claims: ‘all of this seems to have happened as the result of an ‘objective’ process which nobody planned or executed’. These genocidal killings, mutilations and beatings were, Zizek suggests, the simple outcome of capitalism’s violence.

This can’t be more vociferously denied.  For if Gates is much the same as Leopold then he is not merely the philanthropic hypocrite that Zizek makes him out to be – a man who tries to bring about equality with one hand and takes it away with the other – but is instead a criminal perpetuating gross human rights violations of a genocidal nature.  It seems at least reasonable to point out that Gates does not delegate men to torture and kill. But furthermore if he did, this would not be ‘objective violence’ or ‘systemic violence’ but rather ‘subjective violence’ of a most pernicious kind.

Of course it is partly Zizek’s point that violence takes place in the name of capitalism.  As he argues, too many people in the West simply turn a blind eye to the violence their governments dish out on a daily basis in ‘faraway countries’ and ‘of whom we know little’. As he claims, most people would far rather push a button and kill thousands than have to personally shoot somebody. In the West, he continues, people are in reality caught in an ‘ethical illusion’ where they are complicit in great acts of violence and where violence is committed by proxy in order to sustain dominance.

This is surely true but just how this is ‘objective’ or ‘systemic’ violence that is anonymous is what needs questioning.  For this violence is not an inherent part of capitalism.  Unlike Lenin and Stalin’s ‘egg breaking’ or the Fascist’s ‘will to power’, the theory of capitalism does not necessarily by definition need violence to achieve its goals.  That it occurs in our current world is no doubt true, but then this is a perversion of capitalism rather than being a fundamental aspect of it. But most importantly if this kind of violence does take place it is not ‘objective’ in any sense of the word, but rather it is painfully and punitively subjective.

Here Zizek seems to wish to conflate this ‘subjective violence’ that occurs in supposedly ‘capitalist’ systems with the ‘violence’ of economic exploitation.  But economic exploitation it should be noted is only ‘objective violence’ in Marxist terms, not any other.  Certainly if one is a Marxist and one believes Man to be defined by a relationship to labour then this might be true. But let us not forget that on these terms even the highest paid banker is being exploited, because to hire anybody and to pay them wages in order to make a prophet is an act of ‘violent’ Marxist exploitation.  What Zizek seems to want to say, however, is that to use economic power to underpay and keep people in ignorant poverty is an act of ‘objective violence’ and that this is the same as the violence of torture and murder that the West overlooks in their ‘ethical illusion’.

But here I think there is a distinction to be made.  For there is something quite different in committing the acts of torture and murder and the act of exploiting somebody economically.  Economic exploitation may be unfair, it might be an act that is unsympathetic to others, it might be unjust, it may not be egalitarian in nature, it may be one of the acts of the oppressor but it is not like the violence of torture or murder.  No doubt exploitation of an economic kind might be sustained through acts of ‘subjective violence’, no doubt we may be in an ‘ethical illusion’ in this regard but to suggest that underpaying somebody and exploiting their lowly position is the same as cutting their arm off, waterboarding them and shooting them is simply not in any sense of the word an equivalent.

If Zizek’s point is that capitalism is sustained through acts of violence equivalent to King Leopold’s, then he is in actual fact saying something quite different to the one that he claims to be.  That is, he is saying that our capitalist world is sustained through ‘subjective violence’ and not ‘objective’ or ‘systemic’ violence. This might be right and he might do well to highlight this but then Zizek’s argument in Violence is simply wrong. Furthermore, going on to say that acts of Islamic terrorism are one side of the same coin to Bill Gates is simply spurious.  These are, more often than not, the result of American foreign policy dating back to 1945. The fact that Gates runs the closest thing to a monopoly that one can imagine, and that this impacts the lowliest of the worlds poor is again true.  But that this is capitalism at work is incorrect and that its direct result is Islamic terrorism is simply unverifiable.

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