There appears to be a revival of scholarly as well as activist interest in violence and nonviolence as concepts rather than descriptions of acts or situations. This has led to the emergence of new writing on Gandhi as a thinker of violence and the historical figurehead of nonviolence, as well as to more expansive books on the subject, ranging from Slavoj Žižek's Violence to Judith Butler's The Force of Nonviolence. Étienne Balibar's text is the latest of several he has dedicated to the question of violence and the possibilities of nonviolence in political thought and practice.1 If in past decades intellectual life was dominated by keywords like hegemony and transgression, power and resistance, or sovereignty and subalternity, might violence and nonviolence become their successors?
The moment this question is asked it appears preposterous. Is this because, however ubiquitous terms like violence and nonviolence have become in public life, they have no real intellectual roots in Western political thought? These terms have received both their conceptual and political status in the Afro-Asian world, which includes for this purpose African American struggles. Violence in particular has arguably achieved the status of a political idea after being magnetized by Gandhian nonviolence, both terms being among the very few in the lexicon of Euro-American politics that have been redefined there by way of translation from languages and traditions outside Europe. For before its elevation by nonviolence into the primary target of moral and political action, violence had been a secondary category, the supplement of power, sovereignty, or forms of statehood.
While I cannot say why Balibar's work has gravitated toward this subject recently, I do want to comment on its more general implications in my response to his essay. What does it mean to deploy a word like violence, or indeed nonviolence, as an abstract and universal concept? By abjuring its particularization in forms like domestic, police, or gun violence, to say nothing of criminal acts such as assault, rape, or murder, Balibar's use of violence as an abstract political concept, like that of all its modern thinkers, escapes the vocabulary of law and therefore perhaps of the state as well. Yet its modern form is also neutral enough to evade the moral rather than simply juridical opprobrium of terms like oppression, torture, or tyranny. Its abstract universality, then, makes violence available to thought primarily in conceptual or philosophical terms yet beyond the inherited categories of political thought.
As an abstract noun, violence refers to a condition rather than an act or event. Its deployment in this way is modern, not dating back earlier than the nineteenth century. This is true of the most influential European texts that include the word in their titles, from Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence and Walter Benjamin's “Critique of Violence” to Hannah Arendt's On Violence and René Girard's Violence and the Sacred. As was already clear in Sorel's book, violence conceived in this way is linked to capitalism as the instantiation of a naturalized and universal condition. For capitalism, too, is defined not by law, the state, or morality, but as a kind of second nature whose spell can be broken either with more violence (according to Sorel and Fanon) or with nonviolence (according to Tolstoy and Gandhi).2
We can replace capitalism with colonialism, as Fanon does, or with modern civilization, as Gandhi did, where both of these names nevertheless imply it. But the focus on violence as a naturalized condition, rather than as a regime or political type like dictatorship, authoritarianism, or totalitarianism, remains constant in all of these usages. In order to point out the irreducibility of violence or make it visible as a condition, Balibar prefers the oppositional term anti-violence to the more familiar nonviolence. He also wants to signal with the former term's use a political and polemical dimension that he thinks is missing in nonviolence as what he calls a metaphysical category. What is lost in this shift, however, is the explicitly negative character of nonviolence as a phenomenon lacking ontology and so being.
For Gandhi, nonviolence was one of a number of negative ideas, which included noncooperation and nonpossession, all of which were marked by their derivation from the positive categories after which they were named. Nonviolence, in other words, claims an intimate relationship with violence while refusing the ontological status of its opposite in a form like anti-violence, which the Mahatma feared would only mirror it. Nonviolence, moreover, was not only groundless because, as he often said, it literally did not exist in its own right but only with regard to violence; it deprived violence, too, of being by casting it into an abyss.3 This it did by showing in its practices of withdrawal, renunciation, and sacrifice that the apparent positivity of violence was itself founded upon the negative reality of nonviolence, whose invisible work of sustaining social life was turned into the basis and target of violence.
Neither law nor custom and self-interest allow people to live together without slitting one another's throats, and for Gandhi nonviolence made such a life possible without being reduced to a positive cause. He even thought that nonviolence had no history because it was not “for” anything and could not be understood in conventionally political terms as being dedicated to making or protecting a future. Without attributing its ubiquity to human nature, the Mahatma insisted that it was what in a quite different context Emmanuel Lévinas might call an “an-archic” figure of thought, something so intimate as to refuse perspective and so categorization.4 And by thematizing it in negative terms, Gandhi did nothing more than reveal nonviolence to be a practice that remained groundless or without reason.
But its status as a set of habits or practices that made social life possible meant that nonviolence was also capable of enabling the emergence of violence, which continued to depend upon its virtues of solidarity and sacrifice even as they were turned to evil ends—for he thought that evil depended upon goodness in this way. This was why Gandhi understood the duty of nonviolence as its refusal to cooperate with evil. Unlike in the dualistic relationship posited by anti-violence, then, nonviolence not only made violence possible but could also repudiate it. Such a vision accomplishes two things. One is to recognize the groundless power that nonviolence always exercises in social life. The other is to acknowledge it has no boundaries and can occur anywhere.
Unlike peace, which ends where war begins, nonviolence does not exist in a mutually exclusive relationship with violence but can emerge from it.5 Nonviolence possesses a universality that peace or anti-violence does not, because it is true everywhere and can be withdrawn from violence at any time to cause its collapse. Nonviolence, furthermore, is defined neither by a phenomenology nor by any measuring-out of hurt and pain. Instead it is represented by actions that seek to convert violence by inviting its force in a kind of wager. Such acts are marked by the purity of their means, which, as Balibar notes, must be scrupulously maintained so as to prevent their ends from being compromised by the violence that would otherwise be perpetuated.
If nonviolence possesses no phenomenological character, this is surely because violence as the condition from which it proceeds is also abstract and difficult to define. Balibar addresses the problem of differentiating structural from other forms of violence by turning to cruelty or excessive violence as the issue to be addressed by anti-violence. Among the criteria defining excessive violence, he mentions its victims' preference for death over life as well as its own anti-utilitarian form. For the first criterion, Balibar has the suicide bomber in mind, whose act he describes as occurring in a context of asymmetric power and therefore as being nihilistic. The second criterion may also refer to the Islamic militant alongside other actors whose actions go beyond instrumental rationality.
I want to suggest that these examples of excessive violence can be domesticated in the idea of nonviolence insofar as it is able to claim the virtue which nevertheless serves them as a foundation. Commenting on the suicidal assassins of the anticolonial struggle in his own day, Gandhi was clear that what Balibar considers nihilistic about their violence was in fact what recommended itself to him. He saw in the willingness to die the supreme form of nonviolent action, and he thought that it required the greatest struggle for violence to master it. It was in fact this imperfect struggle to master sacrifice that made their violence so excessive, because it had to forcibly join killing and dying into the same act. The task of nonviolence, then, was not to prefer “utilitarian” over “nonutilitarian” violence, but instead to reclaim the latter's sacrificial character from the uncertain grasp of violence.
Balibar recognizes that violence and nonviolence are linked, and that, as Gandhi held, it is this connection that allows one to transit into the other. He focuses on the “force” or “violence” shared by these categories. But the Mahatma thought that they were in fact linked by sacrifice and so nonviolence, whose withdrawal from violence would therefore cause the latter's collapse. For Balibar, force or violence might be a problematic category, but it is one that is nevertheless necessary for a politics dedicated to social justice. By contrast, for Gandhi, who was fully aware of the ineluctable character of violence as a structural as much as a historical fact, it was sacrificial nonviolence that could alone interrupt it through processes of renunciation and withdrawal leading to conversion.
Sacrifice in Gandhi's view represented the surest means of nonviolence. He saw collective life as being made possible by sacrifices of all kinds, whether among relatives, friends, coreligionists, fellow-citizens, or even strangers. He saw sacrifice, not contract, as the fundamental social relationship, and he was critical of the latter because it could only be achieved by interests founded in the idea of property. Gandhi claimed that property could only serve as the basis for violence and doubted that all social relations could be mediated by its possessive ideal. Interest had its place in law and politics but was unable to define social relations altogether, which still depended on the kind of sacrifice whose structure has received anthropological attention and has been discussed largely in terms of gift and potlatch.
These and other forms of sacrifice could be co-opted by the violence exercised in families, states, or religions but never fully owned by it, representing instead the privileged sites from which it could be converted into nonviolence. This was because such renunciations could not be defined by the utilitarian categories of self-interest or, indeed, of interest itself, whose logic of instrumentality Gandhi thought violent by definition. For to be workable, interests required a society whose relations were fully mediated by property. But this meant that self-interest could also manifest itself in the “voluntary servitude” that Gandhi thought made colonialism acceptable to its subjects through their desire for security or commodities. It is not death and life but interest and sacrifice that we can map onto the distinction between violence and nonviolence.
As for the nonutilitarian character that gives excessive violence its name, it bears comparison to the noninstrumental action that is meant to define nonviolence as a practice that refuses to sacrifice means for ends. The contrary sacrifice of ends for means, therefore, permits cruelty to be converted into nonviolence because the two share a nonutilitarian logic. Both Balibar and Arjun Appadurai see in such “useless” violence not the prior causality of social, political, or other kinds of difference, but rather the opposite. In an essay on religious violence in India focusing on the apparently pointless, lengthy, and exhausting practice of disembowelment, Appadurai argues that at stake in this practice is an “epistemological” anxiety about finding the enemy's alien essence in a familiar body.6
The violence that Appadurai describes is driven by identification. Its Muslim victims are mimicked by their Hindu attackers, who rehearse the history of Islamic conquest through “medieval” practices like ripping out fetuses from the bodies of pregnant women and spearing them on swords. Children are made to swallow petrol, after which lit matches are placed in their mouths, so that they explode like miniature suicide bombers. Muslim violence against Hindus, when not characterized by stone-pelting and hand-to-hand fighting for control over neighborhoods, is modeled on the high-tech practices of global jihad movements in its reliance on bombs. This is also due to the demographic and political differences that prevent Muslims from enacting the Dionysian spectacles favored by their enemies.
It is important to note the novelty of these practices. Such violence once occurred and was understood as part of a logic of retaliatory equivalence. Today this informal contract survives only in the efforts of each group to match or exceed its rival's death toll. Their violent practices have otherwise diverged substantially from one another and taken on an increasingly global rather than national character. Yet instead of implying the increasing distinctiveness of both parties, this process does the opposite, turning cruelty into an act of mourning for a vanished foe. Appadurai's depiction of such violence as an epistemological inquiry leads us to recognize how the enemy lost to the past in Pakistan or to the future in global Islam comes to be embodied in the mimetics of Hindu nationalism.
Animated by the search for and impersonation of difference, excessive violence emerges from a perverse recognition of what Balibar calls the common. Gandhi had feared that making what is held in common into a collective identity would end up provoking violence through its demand for similarity. He thought such identifications not only produced differences in order to eliminate them, but also made for the lawless cruelty of a violence produced by their very loss. The Mahatma even rejected a politics based on the idea of biological or human commonality as being nothing more than the expansion of a racist logic of similarity and similitude, something I am reminded of in one of Balibar's earlier essays.7 But my reason for dwelling on the anxiety produced by the loss or absence of difference and otherness lies not in Gandhi's time but our own.
My argument so far has been that any effort to replace nonviolence as a negative form with some more positive antagonist of violence falls into a dualistic logic. For violence depends on the creation of some object or other, even if not an enemy, against which force can be mobilized. This happens even and especially when such objects or others are not immediately available, as Appadurai's essay shows so nicely and as I will claim is generally the case today. By refusing this dualistic structure, nonviolence lodges itself at the heart of violence, in the form of a potential that also robs it of positivity. What nonviolence sacrifices is therefore the very possibility of otherness, which under capitalist conditions is apprehended as an interest to be included in contracts if not eliminated.
The loss of difference in the global arena is also compensated by the impersonation of difference to avoid the terror of a common violence. Carl Schmitt, for instance, thought that any politics conducted in the name of humanity would define and eliminate its enemies as inhuman. He was nostalgic for the regulated wars between European states that had in the past minimized violence by expelling it to the colonies and guaranteed freedom through the pluralism of war-making within the international order. Civil war represented a breakdown of this pluralistic order in the unregulated violence of the common. And Schmitt was particularly concerned with what he called the global civil war made possible by the Soviet Union's attempts to universalize class conflict.8
At issue is not how realistic this idea was, but how a global civil war in which legal and political boundaries count for nothing has become thinkable. And I would like to suggest that it is this possibility that has brought nonviolence to the fore in contemporary debates, since the term refuses to lend itself to a politics of oppositional equivalence. This is surely why Balibar needs to reinforce and redefine it by turning to anti-violence, while at the same time being unable to reject nonviolence altogether. The idea of civil war, in other words, provides another crucial point at which violence and nonviolence overlap, or at least a moment in which the latter can be revealed as a nonoppositional and even nonontological figure. For conceptualized as an internal struggle in which all sides share a common identity, civil war undoes ontologically thick distinctions between friend and enemy, insider and outsider, similarity and difference, to say nothing about the rivalry of liberal interests. And in doing so it recognizes violence and nonviolence as intimates.
Schmitt thought the emergence of a global arena for political action was most clearly conceptualized in communism, which put the freedom and plurality of Euro-American politics as it had hitherto been understood into question. Such a politics had been guaranteed by the possibility of war waged within territorial bounds and juridical limits, at least in the West if not elsewhere. Without these limits, one would end up either with a world-state lacking politics or in a global civil war amounting to much the same thing. This would be a world defined by what is held in common, a set of conflicts that can no longer differentiate themselves either juridically or territorially by drawing boundaries so as to create a “Nomos of the Earth.”9
The global civil war threatened by communism never materialized, because it was thwarted by a capitalist ordering of the world. And the emergence of civil war as a global form in the post-colonial world was also forestalled. Gandhi was not alone in claiming that the struggle between Hindus and Muslims in the run-up to India's and Pakistan's independence had taken on the character of a civil war.10 He typically also preferred it to the negotiated contract of partition, which has resulted in the repeated staging of this frustrated civil war in genocidal forms of religious violence. Other parts of the world also saw the occurrence of civil wars that were folded into the narrative of anticolonial struggles, producing new states in places like Vietnam, Korea, and Algeria.
The postcolonial moment, which began in 1947 with the independence of India and Pakistan, ended in 1971 when their conflict led to the independence of Bangladesh, created out of another partition. Emerging from a civil war still not called by that name, Bangladesh signaled the end of the postcolonial moment because its nationality was defined not against European imperialism but instead against the postcolonial state itself. Since its independence, most geopolitical conflicts and the new states they occasionally give rise to have resulted from civil wars of this kind, helped of course by external forces. And these have only proliferated after the Cold War, beginning in Yugoslavia and including Afghanistan, Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
The post–Cold War period has seen the generalization of civil war with the collapse of a “nomos of the earth,” making for a political reality that influences even countries not riven by such wars, of which the violence Appadurai describes in India provides the miniaturized illustration. If such violence is no longer confined to the nation-state either in its practice or in its imagination, this is because there is no escape from the novel conflicts that mark the post–Cold War world, which Balibar defines as being fully subsumed by capital. From the globalization of Islamic protest and militancy to the global war on terror and the anti-war protests it gave rise to, these new movements take the globe as their arena and find it difficult to draw lines between us and them.
In a global arena no longer ordered by rival superpowers and their respective allies, conflict takes on the character of a civil war. This has led to the apparent resurgence of racist, religious, and nationalist violence. These identities have not sprung to life from some hibernation but represent a phantasmatic recycling of past differences in a situation where they can no longer be naturalized. The mimetic relationships these movements create with their enemies are instructive in this regard, as when anti-Islam activists take on the fears of conquest and conversion that have since colonial times bedeviled Muslim revolutionaries. Similarly, the right takes on leftist arguments about inclusion, discrimination, and rights, now claimed for white majorities facing demographic dilution.
Following the Me Too movement for gender justice, anti-racist protest is the latest example of Schmitt's civil war as a struggle of, by, and for what is common, though it can also be described by Derrida's characterization of violence in the global arena as an autoimmune response. Today's conflicts invoke issues that range from the environment to gender, race, religion, nationality, and occasionally class. This violence of the common is defined not by difference so much as by its absence, and with it that of the interests and contractual relations that once held liberal politics in place with their logic of ownership. The suicide bomber provides a crucial example of this by sharing the death of his victim, having first shared his ideas and identity as well. It is in this world without duality that the negative vision of nonviolence may be making a comeback.
The violence that characterizes a global civil war as the inability to confine politics to capitalism's world of interest and contract is defined by the manufacture and sacrifice of others to make old selves possible, well expressed by the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The generalization of civil war, then, provides the matrix within which violence can pass over into nonviolence, because it has undermined capitalism's logic of difference to bring together two kinds of sacrifice. The violent attempt to sacrifice rather than include or contractually engage the other has, in the process, come into close proximity with the nonviolent sacrifice of otherness itself along with its capitalist mediation in interest and contract. And it is in this proximity that a conversion can occur.
See, for instance, Gandhi, Bhagvadgita, 11.
See, for instance, his discussion of the “face of the other” as being too intimate to permit its being known as part of a general structure of understanding, in Lévinas, Totality and Infinity.
For the conceptualization of war and peace as alternatives, see Idris, War for Peace.
Appadurai, “Dead Certainty.” I am also grateful to Appadurai for his insightful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
I have written about Gandhi's thoughts about civil war in the sixth chapter of my book The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence . For a discussion of civil war as a theme in modern Indian political thought, see Kapila, Violent Fraternity in the Indian Age.