Étienne Balibar, Violence and Civility

Balibar’s essay “Violence and Civility. On the Limits of Political Anthropology” is devoted to the theme of the relationships between violence and politics, understood as “civility.” (as opposed to „citizenship“). He articulates his propositions around three points:

 „1) A phenomenology of extreme violence; 2) the need to criticize or even deconstruct the negative categories: evil, violence, death and 3) the dilemmas … that we are exposed to by the need to politically transform the existing state of things—characterized by structural and circumstantial violence—though we can renounce neither the struggle for emancipation nor resistance (interior or exterior) to the nihilism of violence, or what could be called, in a manner of speaking, the necessity of civility.“

 So the main question is: assuming that giving up hope is not an option and that political action is a necessity in order to change the world around us (with its structural violence being one of the biggest problems) how are we to act without turning ourselves into what we want to change.

 This is a topic that is of great interest to me (and should be to any empathic thinking human in our world IMHO) and I have dedicated a lot of thinking to it and am writing a paper summing up the main points of my conclusions. As could be expected – similar to the paper from Didier Bigo I presented here some weeks ago – I agree with a lot of Balibar’s analysis of the state of things but disagree with him when he concludes that: „A politics of civility (…) can no more identify itself with nonviolence than with the counterviolence that “prevents” violence or resists it. This also means that a politics of civility cannot coincide (in any case uniquely, or completely) with the imperative of peace.“ I strongly believe that non-violent resistance is the only way we can really change our society and that this is the main reason why the peaceful Occupy protests scares the establishment so much.

 Again I have extracted the main and side thesis from this very dense essay in order to make the reception easier for you.


1. Hauptthese:

 We might thus consider thresholds of the intolerable as manifestations of the element of

inhumanity without which even the idea of humanity is meaningless.


Quote from Simone Weil:

 „Force is that which makes a thing of whoever submits to it. Exercised to the extreme, it makes the human being a thing quite literally, that is, a dead body (…) How much more varied in operation, how much more stunning in effect is that other sort of force, that which does not kill, or rather does not kill just yet. (…) making a still living being into a thing“


2. Hauptthese:

 Violence appears, in part at least, as exceeding the finalities that assure it a permanent place in the economy of power and production. (…) Arendt devoted herself to proving that (…) they [the concentration camps] fulfilled no economic function (even in the context of the war economy), but comprised on the contrary a way of wasting resources in both the Nazi and Soviet cases. (…) the camps and more generally terror have no other function than to reproduce, attest to, and justify the omnipotence of those who instituted them.


3. Hauptthese:

 Mutual helplessness finds its highest pitch at the moment when, using the threat of death or torture, the executioners and more generally the “masters” make the victims, or certain of the victims, the (eventually zealous) instruments of the annihilation, subjection, and abjection of their intimates.


4. Hauptthese:

 In a world and a history irreparably marked by the existence of relationships of domination and violence, the possibility of politics is essentially bound up with practices of resistance, not only negatively, as the contestation of the established order, the demand for justice, and so on, but also positively, as a place where active subjectivities and collective solidarities are formed. What is proper to extreme violence, however, is its tendency to obliterate that possibility, as it reduces individuals and groups to helplessness.


5. Hauptthese:

 The phenomenology of violence that Spinoza proposes to us (and on which Deleuze has particularly insisted) involves the idea that individuality consists (for so long as it survives) of an incompressible minimum that extreme violence cannot annihilate or turn back against the effort to live and to think as individuals.


1. Nebenthese:

 This idea rests on the thesis of the transindividual character of individuality itself, that is

to say, on the idea that what creates the capacity for resistance to violence in individuals, and simply constitutes their “being,” is the set of relations that they always maintain with other individuals, who are a part of them as they themselves are a part of the being of others.


6. Hauptthese:

 Accounting for extreme violence and its specific effect of destroying the conditions of political possibility (to begin by the same possibility of battle or of the agon) raises the most difficult anthropological questions. (…) Because what is at stake is the coexistence—at the limit, the indiscernability—of the production of man by man (that is to say, by society and culture) and the destruction of man by man in the very forms and institutions of humanization.


7. Hauptthese:

 [By invoking categories of politics that cannot be confined to a single political category but are situated in a necessary proximity, a proximity which implies tension, we can attempt to reformulate the objectives of politics by taking into account their constitutive limit] I have in mind the tension that exists between the notions—very close etymologically—of citizenship and civility, which I have examined elsewhere. I would go so far as to say that these notions are contraries.


2. Nebenthese:

I hypothesize that, in addition to citizenship, there must be a proper moment of civility in politics in order to introduce the demand for antiviolence, or resistance to violence, particularly resistance to that reactive violence that produces violence and allows it to become generalized.


3. Nebenthese:

 The “negative” universality of the community of citizens (…) is the result of the institution of public order in always only provisional conditions and within very narrow social limits.


8. Hauptthese:

 Two subjective movements [need to be assimilated]: (…) One of these leads us to demand justice, even reparations for the wrongs inflicted by domination and exploitation (…) The other makes possible a distancing from the interests and fundamental images of a community (…) Therein lies the enigma, or practical aporia of politics.


4. Nebenthese:

 The right to have rights that conditions all others (…) constitutes itself at the juncture of individual resistance and the collective affirmation of a “public” dimension of human existence, that is, at the point of the birth of the institution.


9. Hauptthese:

 The only way of avoiding the democratic foundation of politics—what classical declarations called “natural” liberty and equality (…) is to abolish the foundation itself and conceive politics (and the proposition of equaliberty) as an absolute fiction or an institution without foundation, necessarily and irremediably contingent. The only foundation is a negative foundation, a terror, a form of extreme violence.


5. Nebenthese:

 A politics of civility (…) can no more identify itself with nonviolence than with the counterviolence that “prevents” violence or resists it. This also means that a politics of civility cannot coincide (in any case uniquely, or completely) with the imperative of peace.


6. Nebenthese:

 A politics of civility (…) must give way not only to justice but also to the political confrontation (agon) or conflict without which it does not have the value of emancipation.


10. Hauptthese:

 The essence of extreme violence lies (…) in annihilating the conflict itself.


11. Hauptthese:

 The tragedy of politics is (…) the risk of perversion of the resistance, revolt, and revolution that oppression or terror inspires, which transforms resistance, revolt, and revolution into destructive or self-destructive counterviolence.


7. Nebenthese:

 What is most diabolical in power is its powerlessness, or the illusion of omnipotence that is inherent to it.

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