How can we think about the violence of politics without first reminding ourselves that we are and will remain surrounded by the multiple faces of violence? The air we breathe, one might say, is political not only because it has been transformed by nearly two centuries of carbon dioxide emissions, but because politics—that is, violence—shapes our lives. To the extent that politics surrounds us and remains unavoidable, as most attempts to avoid it attest, our very capacity to live by resisting the surrounding threat of death implies that we stand somewhere within the space of violence. The recent globalization of the Black Lives Matter movement in the middle of a pandemic thus serves as a reminder. The struggle against racism defined as a necro-political system of organized violence places us at the heart of the problem while pointing to the existence of this unescapable space called violence or politics.1 It is therefore not true that politics is violence by other means, because the means of politics are not different from violence but aspects of violence itself—hence the immanence of ends to means that Étienne Balibar opposes to the Foucauldian reversal of Clausewitz's formula. Violence, in other words, is quasi-transcendental because it determines the possibility of politics while remaining, unlike the Kantian a priori, historical.
I want to begin by suggesting that, far from encouraging any cynical celebration of totalizing violence, Balibar invites us to think about what a political refusal of violence might mean when politics is defined as a space of violence. Refusing violence certainly cannot be posited as a general principle, as Judith Butler has recently argued, urging us to think about an aggressive form of nonviolence.2 An ethical-political refusal of violence stems from the experience of its inescapability and therefore renders any principled withdrawal from violence an impossibility. If violence is inescapable, this is not because recourse to it would be the only possible strategy against state violence, systemic racism, or colonialism—an argument that only those who read Frantz Fanon too hastily would actually make. Fanon asserted that decolonization was always a violent phenomenon, thus arguing that violence constitutes the very essence of decolonization and its mode of being, even when it seems to take the form of self-proclaimed “nonviolent” strategies. The inescapability of violence is existential, but this assertion should be distinguished from the characterization of violence as an ontological totality. A dialectical theme stems from the impossibility of anti-violence, as follows: nonviolence can only emerge from within the space of violence, by refusing its own temptation to proclaim a principled refusal of violence and politics in the name of an ethical purity reserved for what Hegel might have called the “beautiful souls.” Despite its political impossibility, anti-violence remains necessary to the extent that no revolutionary use of violence—however legitimate it might be—can be a priori certain that it will never degenerate into a circle of extreme violence. Hence, Fanon's thesis could be reversed:3 even the most violent forms of decolonization must always presuppose the horizon of ending violence. They thus embody a productive contradiction by deploying violence only to the extent that it aims at dissolving the circle of violence itself. The necessity of violence should not be understood as the necessity of its use. Hence the necessity of using violence against violence is logical and cannot be reduced to the negation of the negation. The dilemma engendered by the fundamental inevitability of violence is not resolvable by reducing its use to a strategy, a reduction that would presuppose the metaphysical existence of a subject falsely held to be exterior to violence itself.
What might an ethical politics of anti-violence, a set of actions oriented toward a permanent refusal of its degeneration into a refusal of politics, look like? The impossibility of what is to be thought—civility—structures Balibar's entire essay in a radically aporetical manner, as the practice of a negative dialectics originating from the infinity of the différend. This impossibility is as follows: if politics is violence and nonviolence apolitical, then how can anti-violence remain political? And to what extent is counterviolence a form of violence that enacts a break within the space of violence itself by being oriented toward its dissolution?4 Defining anti-violence as politics thus raises a dialectical problem as soon as one defines politics as the realm of violence. Hence the impossibility of civility. Anti-violence has no beginning outside violence; it starts at a certain point, in a certain place within violence itself. Hence, anti-violence is not reducible to nonviolence. It is certainly not true that resistance is always possible. Through the notion of extreme violence, Balibar argues that capitalism and state violence produce situations of extreme violence in which resistance is made impossible and reification is intensified to the point of pure dehumanization, when victims become comparable to things under the power of extreme violence. But the impossibility of resistance is never absolute even in cases of extreme violence because subverting extreme violence, reversing it into a potential for revolution, remains possible. This act of subversion or reversal is not an outcome that would be internal to the danger of extreme violence itself, because it depends on the collective organization of a shared capacity that we could call a virtue. Because virtue means capacity—and thus power if we remember that pouvoir also means possibility—its cultivation is an inescapable part of political insurgency and resistance.
What makes the cultivation of this capacity increasingly difficult if not impossible? Beyond the forms of extreme violence that the internalization of capital produces, is not the language in which even revolutionary politics is formulated in opposition to ethics part of the problem? Ethical claims certainly become political when they confront the state as an agent of violence and potentially of extreme violence. And conversely, politics depends on ethics, defined not as a normative set of claims but as what authorizes one to describe and make sense of moral capacities and incapacities, thus inscribing power into the realm of potentiality. Why, one might then ask, do dominant political languages exclude their own constitutive dependency on ethics, thus remaining incapable of making sense of this dependency? Is the actual presence of this capacity visible only retrospectively, as Balibar suggests, or should we think about the necessity of cultivating shared capacities of resistance? To what extent is extreme violence rooted in the impossibility of cultivating the virtues that an anti-violent politics nevertheless requires? If the sovereign state acts through the conversion of violence into law, this means that the ethical language of insurrection is dissolved and neutralized by the imposition of a juridical language. Hence, as Balibar argues, “there is no legal conversion of violence without a violent conversion of law.”5 One urgent question therefore remains: to the extent that “the micro-powers and macro-powers of the state are continuously invading the rule of law and using it, in fact, to abolish it,” then where exactly is the rule of law that exists outside the state?6
Race and the Persistence of the State
The world in which we are now living, beset by COVID-19, contradicts the predictions that foresaw a progressive decline in the power of nation-states despite the progressive virtualization of many human activities that have so increased the power of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft (GAFAM) and of what Marx would probably have called fictitious capital. In other words, the situation we are now in is more uncertain than the idea of a decline in state power—or of the powerlessness of the all-powerful—assumes. While it is true that sovereign states are now in competition with quasi-sovereign big tech companies and that this situation seems to increase the militarization of politics and the use of violence by states, I doubt that the articulation of state violence and GAFAM will lead to the decline of the former's power, let alone to its powerlessness.
So how are we to read Balibar's suggestion “that the syndrome of the ‘impotence of the all-powerful’ is an essential determinant of the institutional racism that we can observe in our democratic states” in the light of our current situation?7 It would be facile to demonstrate, using a phenomenological approach to racial violence, that the institutional origin of violence is indifferent to the manifestations of violence as they are experienced by those whose lives are threatened and destroyed by police brutality and state racism. It makes no difference for Black and Brown bodies that the kind of violence that threatens their lives can be understood as a manifestation of the state's powerlessness. But there is more at stake here than an ahistorical opposition between phenomenology and genealogy, because the question of how sovereign power is intrinsically linked to powerlessness is at stake. In other words, is not systemic racism still made exceptional and external to the functioning of the state apparatus when it is defined as an effect of the state's powerlessness rather than its power? How does this analysis exempt liberalism and the state from critique rather than encourage us to question the entire system? If extreme violence is a manifestation of the state's existence as such, and thus internal to sovereignty, then why should racist violence be thought of as a phenomenon related to the state's fragility?
Balibar's idea that violence and racism stem from the powerlessness of the state is certainly compelling. I would suggest that it is inseparable from the propensity to analyze the forms of violence that Western liberal democracies deploy as mere compensatory manifestations of their powerlessness. To what extent is this hypothesis, one might ask, a way of redeeming the West by assuming that racism is a betrayal of the principles of equaliberty rather than a constitutive part of liberal democracy? Is it a way of maintaining the state as the only horizon for a possible solution to structural or systemic racism, assuming that only “powerful” states can actively deploy antiracist agendas? The idea of the powerlessness of the state is inseparable, in my view, from the prophecies that have been announcing the inevitable decline of the state due to the power of finance capital and the digital revolution. Arguably, this prophecy is a crucial part of the ideology to which many left-wing advocates of the European Union have been indebted, an ideology that has become all the more dubious during COVID-19. Does this mean that the absence of racism is only a consequence of the exercise of soft power? The violence deployed by forms of racism, Islamophobia, and police brutality is certainly part of the way in which most nation-states have been militarized since 9/11. But is the increasing and seemingly inexorable brutality, and hence the cruelty, of the state understandable as a mere decline in power and social care that engenders a desire for the state, or is it simply a reorganization of the state's activity around security? Why refer to powerlessness when one faces a form of power that is exacerbated by the anxiety of failure? In other words, is it persuasive to argue that the causes of “the cruelty of the state . . . do not lie in its power, but rather in its impotency” if one also argues that its power is its impotence?8 If sovereign power is inseparable from its failure, then how can we say that the cause of racism and cruelty is not the state itself?
Balibar's attempt to bring together a critique of the state's propensity to extreme violence, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a desire to rehabilitate the state as a democratic actor within the logic of a transnational civility leads to indecision. It would be problematic to assume that this paradox could be resolved theoretically. Anarchism runs the risk of abandoning politics as soon as one takes into account that states will not disappear in the foreseeable future. In other words, the political consequences of the critique of the state are so multiple and unpredictable that they cannot be reduced to what European activism defines as anarchism. I therefore share Balibar's double refusal of both the communist idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat and the anarchist mythology of a world without states. But a politics premised on a critique of the state could imply a permanent refusal of its degeneration into powerless and illusionary forms of anarchism. Is a politics of civility condemned to remain anarchic and to be formulated in opposition to the state? In order to appreciate the extent to which the call to abolish modern states—and thus the police—remains a utopian demand, we might note that a contemporary politics of civility can be found in the way in which Arab revolutions and the ongoing Hirak have declared a civil state, dawla madaniyya, as their horizon. In the declaration of the Soummam Congress—the Constitution and foundational act of an Algerian revolutionary state—the idea of civility has nothing to do with any attempt to civilize violence; it is rather a matter of a limitation of violence deployed against the monopoly on violence in the form of military rule. This self-dissolution of violence does not remain a purely conceptual possibility or a mere thought experiment. Neither is it a “civilization” of violence because civility, in this case, functions in opposition to a military-colonial complex and not in contrast to any notion of what is “barbaric.” In other words, the actual politics of civility deployed by the Hirak does not stem from any project of “civilizing violence” but rather from a strategic approach to power in which anti-violence is deployed in a bypassing of the tactics of counterinsurgency. Civility thus becomes a way of conjuring the possibility of extreme violence inscribed in the heart of the modern state, a violence that is by no means specific to the postcolonial military states of the Arab world, as traditionally racist or neoorientalist media coverage has it. Conjuring extreme violence, an internal possibility derived from the intertwinements of capital and state, means calling to mind what happened in Egypt, where an uprising paved the way for a coup that reasserted military power, potentially making resistance impossible.
The violence deployed against migrants, Black and Brown people, or Muslims is premised upon the racist attribution of violence to their bodies. Hence, as we know, it becomes possible to legitimize police brutality and the use of lethal weapons as necessary forms of violence. But beyond that general claim, one question still remains: how exactly does racism attribute violence to bodies? When Muslims are murdered by white supremacists or Hindu nationalists, they are seen as representing the threat of terror and fanaticism. Are racial figures of Muslims, seen as embodying violence, always remnants of the primacy of the One, embodiments of Muslims' supposed propensity to deploy violence? As contemporary manifestations of Islamophobia in India show, this form of exclusion of one community by another produces an even greater potential for ethnic cleansing and thus for extreme violence. The powerlessness of the state is theologico-political because the kind of absolute power that the state necessarily claims is immediately linked to the question of the divine, regardless of its reality or unreality. Whether one defines the divine or God as real or unreal, the sovereign state remains indebted to theological specters of sovereignty. If race is the manifestation of a structural failure, then it manifests the constitutive impossibility inscribed at the very heart of earthly sovereignty defined as quasi-divine despite the ongoing efforts of the imperial-Christian West to secure it.
My intention is certainly not to praise a theological return of the One against the philosophies of the multiple, the Other, or difference. I simply want to suggest that what Balibar criticizes as the “primacy of the One”9—a primacy that determines modern forms of “communitarian” violence through homogenization—is the phenomenon of an impossibility: the impossible desire to be one or unique on earth among nations and states, a desire that structures their “powerlessness,” manifest in their propensity to racialize bodies and minds, to oppress and kill. Balibar asserts that forms of violence are manifestations not only of sovereignty, but also of quasi-sovereignty, a form of power that functions as if it were sovereign but nonetheless remains irreducible to sovereign power. Is quasi-sovereignty another name for governmentality, the proliferation and intensification of pastoral power exceeding the realm of the One and thus functioning beyond any reproduction of its alleged “primacy”? If quasi-sovereignty is part of what Foucault has described as the death of empire and the birth of governmentality, then shouldn't we start questioning the very traditionally Eurocentric idea according to which the primacy of the One is “our” common enemy? Indeed, what kind of antiracism does this imply, and whose experience is marginalized if not excluded from this language of liberation?
Final Remarks on Racial Justice
While violence encompasses and determines the space of politics, different forms of violence are nevertheless qualitatively distinguishable as the case of extreme violence testifies, as Balibar argues. But what about counterviolence? Is it, one might ask, the same kind of violence that murders Black and Brown bodies and that resists this brutality? Is violence against brutality as brutal as the brutality it must dismantle, as the Hegelian scheme of the negation of the negation would suggest? If so, this would not only mean that it is impossible to think about violence and nonviolence as opposites or even as clearly distinguishable figures or strategies; it would mean that the kind of violence that decolonization and acts of resistance to systemic racism and state violence deploy is not reducible to a replica of the violence of the institutions that it resists. When we fight against violence, we are not simply reproducing the violence that we are refusing, and hence there can be no such thing as an “antiracist racism.” But the legitimacy of counterviolence cannot stem from the fact that it is less or even differently violent because it always presupposes the haunting presence of an ineradicable justice.
Justice might be ineliminable as something that orients, by its very absence, the direction of violence and therefore the way in which it must be collectively organized. The slogan “no justice, no peace” expresses the fact that justice is a condition for peace and thus that disorder and potential violence will continue to be exercised until there is—regardless of the probability that there might never be—justice. Politics does not necessarily announce justice and peace, as Balibar suggests; rather it declares, I would suggest, the demand for justice against a mode of peace that means nothing other than the conservation of public order by any means possible. In this demand, justice therefore seems to be a condition for peace, which is in the meantime acknowledged as impossible. After all, ethical cultivations of peace require the possibility of actively struggling against evil—one of the theological names of the very fact that politics is violence, as Balibar reminds us. And this struggle against violence within a world of violence can precisely be articulated as the realization of faith itself. In other words, while the emergence of justice depends on violence and politics, the very possibility of counterviolence might presuppose that justice exists beyond law and against the potentially counterinsurrectional, authoritarian, and thus racist demands for unconditional peace. Anti-violence is therefore not itself peaceful but oriented toward the self-dissolution of violence as an inescapable space structured by a permanent conflict. But turning violence against itself might mean that demands for justice orient this process as something immanent to this world, shaping the kinds of bodies and virtues that ethical politics requires.
“If a point of arrest, or reversal, or bifurcation” against the evil of the surrounding violence, Balibar writes, “is to exist, it must therefore be conceived . . . as an institution or an artificial invention that turns violence against itself, in the form of counter-violence” (“From Violence as Anti-Politics,” 385).