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Violent Thoughts About Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek has been telling lies about me. He attacked a recent book of mine, Infinitely Demanding, in the London Review of Books.[1] Since then, things have gone from bad to worse, but I will spare the reader the grisly details. What I would like to do here is to use this debate as a lever for trying to think about the difficult question of the nature and plausibility of a politics of non-violence and try and explore what I see as the complex dialectic of violence and non-violence. Those with an eye for detail might notice that the following represents both a clarification and a shift in the position on violence and non-violence presented in Infinitely Demanding.

I would like to begin by discussing Zizek’s recently published book Violence and then expand and deepen my focus by way of a reading of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’. This will lead to a thinking through of the idea of divine violence and an interpretation of the Biblical commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, the injunction to non-violence.[2] In conclusion, I will turn to the specifics of the political disagreement between myself and Zizek, which turn on the question of the relation between authoritarianism and anarchism. 

Zizek enjoys a good joke. Here’s one of my favourites: two men, having had a drink or two, go to the theatre, where they become thoroughly bored with the play. One of them feels a pressing need to urinate, so he tells his friend to mind his seat while he goes to find a toilet. ‘I think I saw one down the corridor outside’, says his friend. The man wanders down the corridor, but finds no W.C. Wandering ever further into the recesses of the theatre, he walks through a door and sees a plant pot. After copiously urinating into it, he returns to his seat and his friend says to him, ‘What a pity! You missed the best part. Some fellow just came on the stage and pissed in that plant pot’.

This gag perfectly describes the argument of Zizek’s book on violence. Drunkenly watching the rather boring spectacle of the world stage, we might feel an overwhelming subjective need to follow the call of nature somewhere discreet. Yet, in our bladder-straining self-interest we lose sight of the objective reality of the play and our implication in its action. We are oblivious to the fact that we are pissing on stage for the whole world to see.

So it is with violence. Our subjective outrage at the facts of violence – a suicide bombing, a terrorist attack, the assassination of a seemingly innocent political figure – blinds us to the objective violence of the world, a violence where we are perpetrators and not just innocent bystanders. All we see are apparently inexplicable acts of violence that disturb the supposed peace and normal flow of everyday life.  We consistently overlook the objective or what Zizek calls ‘systemic’ violence that is endemic to our socio-economic order.

The main ambition of Zizek’s book is to refer subjective violence to the objective violence that is its underside and enabling precondition. ‘Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious “dark matter” of physics’(p.2), Zizek writes, which is invisible to naked eye. In the ‘Six Sideways Reflections’ into which Violence is divided, Zizek offers a rather cool and at times cruel analysis of the varieties of objective violence. He asks good, tolerant multicultural Western liberals like you, like us, like them (delete where appropriate) to suspend our outraged and impassioned responses to acts of violence (what he later calls, with Nietzsche, a reactive rather than active force) and turn instead to the real substance of the global situation. In order to understand violence, we need some good old-fashioned dispassionate Marxist materialist critique.

At the heart of Zizek’s book is an argument about ideology that has been a powerful constant feature of his work since The Sublime Object of Ideology, his first book in English from 1989.[3] Far from existing in some sort of post-ideological world at the end of history where all problems can be diagnosed with neo-liberal economics and self-serving assertions of human rights, ideology completely structures and falsely sutures our lived reality. This ideology might be subjectively invisible, but it is objectively real. Each of us is onstage pissing in that plant pot. Ideology structures or, better, sutures experience, masking what the early Zizek – at the time much, much closer to Laclau than now – saw as the basic antagonism, the political antagonism that structures social relations.

The great ideological illusion of the present is that there is no time to reflect and we have to act now. On the contrary, Zizek asks us to step back from the false reactive urgency of the present with its multiple injunctions to intervene like good humanitarians. In the face of this fake urgency, we should be more like Marx who, with a potential revolution at the gates in 1870, complained to Engels that the activists should wait a couple more years until he had finished Das Capital.

Zizek’s diagnosis of this ideology is, as ever, quite delightful, producing counter-intuitive inversions that overturn what passes for common sense. Zizek rages against the reduction of love to masturbatory self-interest, the multiple hypocrisies of the Israel/Palestine conflict and the supposed liberal philanthropy of Bill Gates and George Soros. There is a fascinating analysis of the scenes of torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which display, Zizek rightly contends, nothing more than the obscene underside of American culture, the culture of incarceration.

But whither all this dialectical brio? Ay, there’s the rub. Zizek concludes the book with an apology for what he calls, following Walter Benjamin, ‘divine violence’. I shall come back to this in some detail below. Divine violence is understood theoretically as, ‘the heroic assumption of the solitude of the sovereign decision’. Practically, Zizek illustrates this with the questionable examples of the radical Jacobin violence of Robespierre in France in the 1790s and the invasion of the dispossessed, a decade or so ago, descending from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro to disturb the peace of the bourgeois neighbourhoods which border them.

But, in a final twist, Zizek counsels us to do nothing in the face of the objective, systemic violence of the world. We should ‘just sit and wait’ and have the courage to do nothing. The book ends with the words, ‘Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do’. True enough, but what can this possibly mean?

Let me briefly turn to the governing concept of Zizek’s recent work, the parallax, and what is purportedly his magnum opusThe Parallax View.[4] The concept of parallax is a way of giving expression to, at its deepest, the radical non-coincidence of thinking and being. Such is Zizek’s metaphysics. If Parmenides and the entire onto-theological tradition that follows him, famously recovered by Heidegger, claims that it is the same thing to think and to be, then Zizek disagrees. Between thinking and being, between, in his parlance, the ticklish subject and the tickling object, there exists a radical non-coincidence, a constitutive lack of identity. Such is, of course, nothing more than the teaching of Lacan and the parallax view is the expression of the pas-tout, the not-all that circles around the traumatic kernal of the Real.

In the conclusion to The Parallax View (pp.375-85)although it is suggested throughout the book, Zizek claims that the parallax view opens onto a politics, what he calls – echoing Badiou – a subtractive politics, expressed in the figure of Melville’s Bartleby, who reappears as the hero in the closing pages of Violence.(pp.180-83) What interests Zizek in Bartleby is his insistent ‘I would prefer not to’, where Zizek places the emphasis on the ‘not to’ or the ‘not to do’, on Bartleby’s impassive, inert and insistent being, which hovers uncertainly somewhere between passivity and the vague threat of violence. So, at the level of politics, it is ultimately the politics of Bartleby’s smile, of his ‘not’ that Zizek wants to oppose to other forms of thinking about politics. Which other forms? Well, mine for example, but we’ll come back to that.

At the core of Zizek’s relentless, indeed manic, production of books, articles and lectures is a fantasy, I think, what my psychoanalyst friends would call an obsessional fantasy, a very pure version of the obsessional fantasy. On the one hand, the only authentic stance to take in dark times is to do nothing, to refuse all commitment, to be paralyzed like Bartleby. On the other hand, Zizek dreams of a divine violence, a cataclysmic, purifying violence of the sovereign ethical deed, something like Sophocles’ Antigone.

But Shakespearean tragedy is a more illuminating guide here than its ancient Greek predecessor. For Zizek is, I think, a Slovenian Hamlet, utterly paralyzed but dreaming of an avenging violent act for which, finally, he lacks the courage. In short, behind its shimmering dialectical inversions, Zizek’s work leaves us in a fearful and fateful deadlock, both a transcendental-philosophical deadlock and a practical-political deadlock: the only thing to do is to do nothing. We should just sit and wait. Don’t act, never commit, and continue to dream of an absolute, cataclysmic revolutionary act of violence. Thus speaks the great obsessional.

As Hamlet says, ‘Readiness is all’. But the truth is that Zizek is never ready. His work lingers in endless postponement and over-production. He ridicules others’ attempts at thinking about commitment, resistance and action – people like me and many others – while doing nothing himself. What sustains his work is a dream of divine violence, cruelty and force. I hope that one day his dreams come true.

Let me begin to try and deepen and perhaps depolemicize matters by going back to the source of Zizek’s notion of divine violence in Benjamin’s dense, difficult and massively over-interpreted essay, ‘Critique of Violence’ (Derrida, Agamben and Judith Butler have all been over this essay with a fine tooth-comb). The first thing to keep in mind, and this will be my main point in what follows is that Benjamin’s essay is called ‘critique of violence’, and I want to think about what that might mean in relation to the topic of non-violence. The essay is a critique of the violence of the law, where Benjamin writes, ‘violence…is the origin of the law’(p.242). This is exemplified in the death penalty as the violence over life and death, and embodied in the activity of the key executive institution of the modern state, the police. In the act of violence, then, the essence of the law is manifested, as well as – to use Hamlet’s word – revealing something rotten, etwas Morsches, about the law.

As many of you will know, Benjamin advances some fascinating, but slightly obscure, conceptual distinctions: between law-making and law-preserving violence, between the political and the general strike, and between mythic and divine violence. Let’s take them in turn and use them to unravel the argument of Benjamin’s essay.

The first distinction between a violence that is rechtsetzend and rechtserhaltend is, for Benjamin, internal to the theory and practice of law. The claim is that all law is either law-making or law-preserving and that both these forms are violent. Benjamin makes a fascinating aside about the violent origin of every contract,(p.243) which recalls Shylock’s undermining of Antonio’s idealization of law as mercy by returning it to the brute materiality of the contract, of the bond, of the pound of flesh, cut from close to the heart. The same would also go for constitutional law, it requires a violent cut, a moment of decision and the assertion of power, say, for example, in a revolution or a period of dramatic social transformation.

What Zizek misses, and I suspect he deliberately misses, is the fact that the operation of law-making and law-preserving violence raises a question. Benjamin writes, ‘…the question poses itself whether there are no other than violent means for regulating conflicting human interests’.(p.243) At the beginning of the next paragraph, he writes, ‘Is any non-violent resolution of conflict possible?’(p.243) His answer is that such a non-violent resolution of conflict is indeed possible in what he calls ‘relationships among private persons’, in courtesy, sympathy, peaceableness and trust. This leads Benjamin to conclude that ‘…there is a sphere of human agreement that is non-violent to the extent that it is wholly inaccessible to violence: the proper sphere of “understanding”, language, (‘die Sprache)’.(p.245) Without wanting to get into the complexities of what Benjamin means by language, particularly his idea of a pure language (reine Sprache) we can already see that he is not simply arguing, like Zizek, that all human life is utterly pervaded determined at every level by systemic or objective violence, but that a sphere of non-violence is available, at the private or what Benjamin calls the ‘subjective’ level. Against Zizek, I want to defend this sense of the subjective.

Benjamin continues by turning to Georges Sorel’s account of the general strike and makes a distinction between two forms of strike: the political strike and the proletarian general strike. Whereas the political strike is law-making, that is, it simply reinforces state power, the latter attempts to destroy state power and argue for ‘a wholly transformed work, no longer enforced by the state’. As such – and readers of Infinitely Demanding will perhaps see where I am heading with this line of thought – where the political strike is law-making, the proletarian general strike is, to use Benjamin’s word, ‘anarchistic’.(p.246) That is, it is revolutionary rather than reformist, committed to non-violence rather than the violence of law, moral rather than governed by law and the state, and subjective rather than objective. Such anarchism does not requires the violence of contracts or indeed constitutions, but aims at the extra-legal resolution of conflict, ‘Peacefully and without contracts’, as he writes, ‘On the analogy of agreement between private persons’.(p.247)

It is not difficult to imagine why Zizek chooses to avoid and suppress this crucial aspect of Benjamin’s essay. What he wants is Bartelbian inertia, on the one hand, and the sexy excitement of the prospect of a dose of ultra-violence, on the other. He wants to live his obsessional deadlock and not give up on his desire for postponement and lack of readiness, a desire that fuels his over-production. However, what I have just tried to explain about Benjamin’s essay is the conceptual background against which he introduces his key concept of divine violence. Let’s now turn to that idea.

Benjamin makes two key assumptions. Firstly, he writes,

‘Since, however, every conceivable solution to human problems, not to speak of deliverance from the confines of all the world-historical conditions of existence, obtaining hitherto, remains impossible if violence is totally excluded in principle, the question necessarily arises as to what kinds of violence exist other than those envisaged by legal theory.’(p.247)

So, we cannot expect a radical change in the state of human beings in the world if we exclude violence as a matter of principle. I think this is a crucial point and it has also led to misunderstandings of my defence of non-violence and neo-anarchism in Infinitely Demanding. To be clear,I do not think that in the sphere of politics it makes sense to assert and hold to some principled and a priori conception of non-violence. The standard objection to anarchism always turns on this point: how can you justify your use of violence? Shouldn’t you be committed to non-violence? If you resort to violence, don’t you begin to resemble the enemy you are fighting against?

Of course, non-violence is the aim of anarchist politics, but why should anarchists be the only political agents who have to decide beforehand that they will not be violent, when the specific circumstances of a political situation are still unknown? To this extent, the abstract question of violence versus non-violence risks reducing anarchism to what Jacob Blumenfeld has called the politics of the spectator position where non-violence becomes an abstract value, principle or categorical imperative.[5] In specific political sequences, and it is always and only a case of such specifics – an evental site, as Badiou might say – the move to violence is often entirely understandable. The turn to violence by protestors, critics and opponents of a regime is most often simply a response to the provocations of the police and legal violence. Also, it is crucial here to distinguish violence against property from violence against persons. I have no moral problem with the former, but a lot of problems with the latter. As a character in Godard’s Notre Musique writes, ‘To kill a human being in order to defend an idea is not to defend an idea, it is to kill a human being’. My problem, then, is not so much with violence as with armchair or writing chair romantic heroicizations of revolutionary violence of the kind that one finds in Zizek’s mannerist Leninism. So, to go back to Benjamin’s words, if violence cannot be excluded in principle from any social transformation, then what forms of violence exist other than those in legal theory, namely law-making and law-preserving violence? Can we perhaps even speak of what Judith Butler has called, in her highly compelling reading of Benjamin’s essay, a ‘non-violent violence’?[6] We will come back to that.

The second assumption Benjamin makes takes us to the topic of reason and introduces the key distinction of ‘Critique of Violence’. He writes,

‘For it is never reason (Vernunft) that decides on the justification of means and the justness of ends: fateful violence (schicksalhafte Gewalt) decides on the former, and God on the latter.’(p.247)

Although, in the context of the essay, this a peculiar and indeed throwaway remark on a huge topic – and the sudden introduction of the word God might appear slightly confusing – Benjamin would appear to be saying that despite the good intentions of someone like Kant, or indeed Rawls and Habermas, reason can never decide on the justification of means or the justness of the ends. The justification of means is the realm of fateful violence, or what Benjamin will call mythic violence, and the justness of ends is the realm of God or divine violence. Let’s try and clarify this distinction.

Mythic violence is illustrated with reference to the Greek myth of Niobe’s arrogance in mocking Leto for only having two children, Apollo and Artemis, as opposed to the fourteen she had herself. For such a seemingly mild indiscretion, Apollo slaughtered the seven sons and Artemis the seven daughters and Niobe was turned to a stone statue that wept endless tears. The concept of mythic violence establishes, for Benjamin, the violence that is essentially alloyed to the making of law. Law-making is power-making and to that extent necessarily a manifestation of violence. A better example of such mythic violence is perhaps Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where the condition of possibility for Athena’s institution of justice in Athenian democracy is the violent act that decides against the Furies and in favour of Orestes for the simple reason that Athena honours the male principle in all things, having sprung directly from the head of Zeus without the mediation of the womb. The lesson of the Oresteia and Greek tragedy more generally is that the traumatic cycle of revenge and family violence in the house of Atreus and elsewhere can only be suspended by Athena’s violent institution of justice. Tragedy is mythic violence that attempts to break the repetitive cycle of family slaughter.

The only thing that can put a halt to the logic of mythic violence, Benjamin thinks, is divine violence, which is not law-making, but law-destroying, rechtsvernichtend. This is lethal and Benjamin gives the Biblical example of God’s judgement of Korah for rebelling against him. If mythic violence is extremely bloody, then divine violence is bloodless. Korah was not slaughtered by God, rather the earth opened up to swallow him with all his belongings, even the linen was at the launderers and the needles borrowed by people living at some distance from him. Yawveh is nothing if not thorough. This is the function of revolutionary violence for Benjamin, whose origin, he insists, lies in the doctrine of the sanctity of life. If mythic violence is bloody power over human affairs for the sake of state power, then divine violence is the bloodless power over life for the sake of the living, for the sake of life’s sacredness, what Butler calls its ‘sacred transience’, a non-violent violence.

Benjamin’s argument in the closing paragraphs of ‘Critique of Violence’ is extremely compact and oracular, but the claim is fascinating. What he is trying to do, in my view, and I am helped here by the closing words of Agamben’s State of Exception, is ‘to show law in its non-relation to life and life in its non-relation to law’.[7] That is, to open a space between law and life. The name of this space is politics. Namely, that if the problem of politics is its eclipse and determination by law, where the political field is determined and regulated by law-making mythic violence for the sake of state power – the experience of the Oresteia – then the alternative is an act that, in Agamben’s words, ‘severs the nexus between violence and law’.(p.88) Such is the potentiality – but only the potentiality – of a transformation of the condition of mere or bare life in contemporary bio-politics into a praxis of life’s sanctity, its sacredness indeed.

The question, of course, is how to do this. This brings us to a central issue that I would like to explore. Towards the end of ‘Critique of Violence, Benjamin gives a fascinating analysis of the Biblical commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. This divine word is the expression of life’s sanctity. But does it necessarily entail that in each and every instance I should not kill, that violence is absolutely prohibited? Matters turn here on how we understand the Biblical injunction and indeed injunctions in general. Is the commandment a criterion of judgement? Is it some sort of categorical imperative that must be followed in all cases? No, Benjamin insists, ‘Those who base a condemnation of all violent killing of one person by another on the commandment are therefore mistaken’.(p.250) The divine commandment is not a principle, axiom or categorical imperative, but what Benjamin calls a Richtschnur des Handelns, a plumb-line, thumb-line or guideline for the action of people and communities, ‘who have to wrestle with it in solitude, and, in exceptional cases, to take on themselves the responsibility for ignoring it’.(p.250)

So, the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, the first and last word of peace and life’s sanctity, does not exclude the possibility and the actuality of killing in exceptional circumstances. Nor does it condone such killing. When we wrestle with it in solitude and decide not to follow the commandment, then the responsibility falls on us. The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is, in Agamben’s words, a word that ‘does not bind, that neither commands nor prohibits anything, but says only itself’.(p.88) That is to say, it might guide an act, a true act, a political act, a praxis outside and beyond the mythic violence of the law. As should be clear, it is this dimension of the act that is missing from Zizek. 

Where am I heading with this seemingly baroque series of conceptual distinctions? What is in question here is the tricky and delicate dialectic of violence and non-violence, where the achievement of the latter might require the performance of the former. That is, non-violence paradoxically requires acts of violence. If we are to break the cycle of bloody, mythic violence, if we are to aspire to what Benjamin anarchistically calls in the final paragraph of the essay ‘the abolition of state power’ (in my parlance, creating interstitial distance within the state), if something like politics is to be conceivable outside of law and in relation to life, then this requires the deployment of an economy of violence. That is, the plumb-line to follow in true politics is non-violence, its aim is anarchism, but this cannot be a new categorical imperative of the Kantian kind. In the solitude of exceptional circumstances – they are not always exceptional, but they often are – the plumb-line of non-violence might call for violence, for subjective violence against the objective violence of law, the police and the state. In the final lines of the essays, Benjamin writes, ‘Divine violence may manifest itself in a true war…’.(p.252)

The point is that we are doubly bound, both to follow the plumb-line of the divine commandment and to accept responsibility for choosing not to follow it. We are bound both ways and doubly responsible. The commandment is not a decree that is to be followed once and for all the moment it is made. On the contrary, the commandment is something we struggle with, that we wrestle with. The moral commandment is not an a priori moral law from which we derive the a posteriori consequences. In many ways, the situation is always the reverse: we always find ourselves in a concrete socio-political-legal situation of violence and we have with a plumb-line of non-violence, of life’s sanctity. There are no transcendental guarantees and no clean hands. We act, we invent.

What goes for the command also goes for the ethical demand, particularly the infinite ethical demand that I have tried to describe and defend in my recent work. It is a plumb-line for action that we struggle with in our finitude and the concrete, finite demands which overwhelm us.

On this account, what is divine about divine violence? The name ‘God’ is not the super-juridical source of the moral law. On the contrary, ‘God’ is the first anarchist, calling us into a struggle with the mythic violence of law, the state and politics by allowing us to glimpse the possibility of something that stands apart, an infinite demand that cannot be fulfilled, that divides the subjectivity that tries to follow it. For example, Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, says

‘Love your enemies, bless then that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’.

When he says this, when he is making this infinite and unfulfillable ethical demand, he is not stating something that might be simply followed or carried out. Whether he was the incarnation of God or just a troublesome rabbi in occupied Palestine, Christ was not stupid and must have therefore been aware that this is a ridiculous demand. It puts the ethical subject into a situation of sheer ethical overload, as Habermas might say. But, in my view, ethics is all about overload. When Christ in the same sermon says, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’, he does not imagine for a moment that such perfection is attainable, at least not in this life, as it would require the equality of the human and the divine. What such a demand does is to expose our imperfection and failure and we wrestle with the demand and the facts of the situation. Otherwise said, ethics is all about the experience of failure, but in failing we learn something. As Beckett writes, ‘Fail again, fail better’.

As I think about Benjamin’s essay – and you might be able to have heard this already in some of my formulations – I have Emmanuel Levinas in mind, in particular some of his early thoughts in Totality and Infinity.[8] Indeed, the two categories in the title of that book seem directly to echo those of Benjamin: mythic violence, for Levinas, would be the experience of totality which is revealed in the experience of violence, war or the generalized state of exception. Totality and Infinity begins with the declaration of a state of war, ‘The visage of being that shows itself in war is fixed in the concept of totality, which dominates Western philosophy’.(p.21) Divine violence, by contrast, would be the surplus to totality, the pacific surplus of being that he seeks to express with the category of infinity, what he also calls ‘messianic peace’. He writes, ‘Morality will oppose politics in history…when the eschatology of messianic peace will have come to superimpose itself upon the ontology of war’.(p.22)

These are handsome words. The problem that Levinas faces is how might categories like eschatology and messianic peace be expressed conceptually or philosophically without simply being explained away as dogma, blind faith or opinion. Levinas’s major claim in Totality and Infinity is that, without substituting messianic eschatology for philosophy, it is possible to proceed from the experience of totality, violence and war back to a situation where totality breaks up, a situation that is the very condition for that totality. Such is Levinas’s fragile and provisional transcendental method. He writes, and this is the first time he uses the key concept of the other in Totality and Infinity, ‘Such a situation is the gleam of exteriority or of transcendence in the face of the other (autrui)’.(p.24)

The problem here is that just as the mythic violence of law, the state and power always seems to nullify or annihilate that which opposes it, so too the experience of war and totality refutes and crushes all talk of peace understood as the sanctity of life or the infinity of the relation to the other. In a time of war, in dark times, Carl Schmitt will always appear to be right. This is why Levinas must acknowledge violence in his attempt to give expression to the non-violent relation to the other. Levinasian ethics is not pacifist. Rather, it walks a Benjaminian tightrope of non-violent violence.

Levinas affirms that the very experience of welcoming the other is a violence for a mind committed to the ideal of autonomy.(p.25) With the infinity of the ethical relation to the other, Levinas is suggesting that we are not and indeed should not be masters in our own house. To welcome the other is to unseat the archic assurance of our place in the world, our sovereignty. Thus, to open oneself to the experience of transcendence, to the pacific itself, is violence. It is what Levinas calls – and it is the word at the centre of my critique of Zizek – an act.(p.27) Such an act is described by Levinas as a shattering of my capacities, as what he calls ‘a descent into the real’ beyond the realm of thought and knowledge. He writes, ‘The notion of act involves a violence essentially’. Levinas continues, ‘What, in action, breaks forth as essential violence (my emphasis) is the surplus of being over the thought that claims to contain it, the marvel of the idea of infinity’.(p.27) Essential violence has the same structure as divine violence. It is a question of a critique of the mythic violence of totality with the difficult aim of non-violence in view.

For both Benjamin and Levinas, there is something beyond the spheres of mythic violence, totality, the state, law, land and war. Both of them identify it with an experience of non-violence, with the placelessness of a commandment, an infinite ethical demand. Both of them describe it as messianic, thinking of the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, where messianic eschatology is not understood as the end time, but as the possibility at each moment that the homogeneous order of objective time might be interrupted by something else. This is why, during the July Revolution of 1830, insurgents turned their rifles on the clock towers: to stop time and inaugurate another temporal order.[9] Both Levinas and Benjamin understand such a possibility as bound up with the experience of language and the realm of the subjective. Both of them see that which would break with mythic violence as anarchistic, where Levinas sees the ethical relation to the neighbour as anarchical in the sense that it places the autarchy and autonomy of the subject in question, unbinding the subject by binding me to the other. Anarchy is a radical disturbance of the state, a disruption of the state’s attempt, as Levinas puts it, to set itself up as a Whole.[10]

An anarchistic, subjective messianism of non-violence as the only way of giving back a sense to politics beyond law and in the name of life. In this way, as I have tried to argue in a debate with Desmond Manderson, we might even speak of an anarchic law, a law against law.[11] Of course, this is a foolish enterprise, but I would like to praise such folly. Yet, what must be emphasized are both the folly and the fragility of what Levinas is describing in his work. Too often Levinas is seen as the thinker of ethics as first philosophy as if he had some sort of a priori, axiomatic-deductive system that explained away all possible objections. Nothing could be further from the truth. Levinas’s work is marked by utter fragility, and it is marked by it most profoundly in the experience of the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ or ‘You shall not commit murder’, which stands at the centre of Totality and Infinity.

For Levinas, the commandment is expressed in the face of the other, indeed as the face of the other. It is not expressed in a situation of peace, but in a life and death struggle where I am about to put the other to death, when ‘the bullet has touched the ventricles or auricles of his heart’, as Levinas writes.(p.199) For Levinas, crucially, ‘the other is the sole being I can wish to kill’,(p.198) because he or she refuses my sovereign will in an act of defiance or resistance. At the point of killing the other, they can still resist me, still defy me, even when they die, perhaps especially when they die. Or again, as Levinas succinctly puts it in the 1984 essay, ‘Peace and Proximity’,

‘The face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness, is for me at once the temptation to kill and the call to peace, the “You shall not kill”’.[12]

This is why Levinas writes in Totality and Infinity that ethical resistance is, ‘the resistance of what has no resistance’.(p.199) This is an extraordinary thought: true resistance is the resistance of that which has no resistance: the powerless, the impoverished, the destitute, the hungry. My point here is that what Levinas is offering, again like Benjamin, is a plumb-line, a guideline, a rule of thumb for action, nothing more. ‘For the little humanity that adorns the earth’, as he puts it in Otherwise than Being….(p.185) The non-violent relation to the other is what Benjamin famously calls a weak messianic power, nothing more. Messianic power is always weak; it is the power of powerlessness.

It’s for this reason that the most pacific ethics has to negotiate with violence and war. Levinas’s is an ethics with dirty hands, not some angelic abstraction from the political realm. For Levinas, there is no pure realm of ethics or pure ethical Saying, to use the language of Otherwise than Being…. It is always a question of its articulation within the Said of politics and law. Just as when Benjamin speaks of divine violence showing itself in a true war, so too Levinas, in the closing words of Otherwise than Being…, writes of ‘the just war waged against war’.(p.185) War against war, then.  Perhaps this is what is meant by a non-violent violence or violent non-violence? Slightly earlier in the same text Levinas writes, in an amazing passage,

‘The true problem for us other Westerners is not so much to refuse violence as to question ourselves about a struggle against violence which – without blanching in non-resistance to Evil – could avoid the institution of violence out of this very struggle.’(OB 184)

The question is, can a struggle against violence avoid the institution of violence out of this very struggle? The only honest answer is to acknowledge that we do not know, we cannot be certain. Violence is in the very air we breathe and its unforgiving and bloody political and legal logic is irrefutable. In such a world, Schmittians and political realists will always appear reasonable. All that we have is the folly of a plumb-line of non-violence, a set of exceptional circumstances and a moral and political struggle, wrestling with the infinite ethical demand. The rest is a matter of tact, of prudence, of understanding the situation and bringing about the conditions under which something like a local victory might be possible. As Wallace Stevens writes, ‘It is possible, possible, possible. It must/Be possible’.

With these thoughts on the table or rather up in the air, I’d like to turn back to Zizek and to the criticisms he makes of my position in his essay in the London Review of Books, entitled ‘Resistance is Surrender’. Really, the title says it all: all forms of political resistance are simply surrender unless they seize hold of the state. Now, oddly enough, and for quite unrelated reasons, when a friend of mine sent me the link to Zizek’s critique of Infinitely Demanding, a copy of Lenin’s State and Revolution was sitting on my desk at home in Brooklyn.[13] One of the striking features of Lenin’s text is the fact that his critique of liberals, social democrats and the bourgeoisie pails in comparison to the venom reserved for the true enemy: the anarchists. Everything turns here on the interpretation of the Paris Commune in 1871. The question is: to whom does the memory and legacy of the Commune belong? Does it belong to the anarchists, and the commune might very easily be understood in Bakunin’s terms, or is it a foreshadowing of Lenin’s Bolshevism? The key to State and Revolution is Marx and Engels’ phrase, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ and the issue is whether the legacy of the Commune and the possibility of communism requires a centralist, statist dictatorship of the kind that Lenin envisages, or the decentralized non-state federalism of the anarchists.

As Carl Schmitt reminds us – and we should not forget that the fascist jurist was a great admirer of Lenin, which is only exceeded by the praise lavished on Mao – there are two main traditions on the non-parliamentary, non-liberal left: authoritarianism and anarchism.[14] If Zizek attacks my position with characteristic Leninist violence for belonging to the latter, then it is crystal clear which party he supports. Zizek begins his piece by listing various alternatives on the left for dealing with the seeming indestructibility of capitalism. This listing seems initially plausible – indeed some of it seems to be lifted unacknowledged from the conclusion to Infinitely Demanding – until one realizes what it is that Zizek is defending, namely dictatorship and a centralized state defended with military power.

This should come as no surprise, of course. The central issue of Lenin’s State and Revolution is the question of the state. Against the anarchist critique of the state, its abolition and replacement with a form of federalism, Lenin defends the state with an admirable sleight of hand. He appears to agree with the anarchists in saying that we should abolish the bourgeois state, but then asserts that a centralist workers state should be implemented. The goal of such a state, and here’s the trick, is purportedly faithful to Marx and Engels idea of the withering away of the state in communism, but that can only be achieved through a transitional state. This is somewhat laughably called ‘fuller democracy’ by Lenin and in one passage ‘truly complete democracy’.(p.80) Against what Lenin sees as the bourgeois complicity of the anarchists, an authoritarian interlude is necessary in order to realize the possibility of communism. As history has shown, this was a somewhat long interlude which gave no indication of coming to an end until state socialism began to collapse from within in the late 1980s.

For authoritarians or what Bakunin calls ‘crypto-Bismarckians’, like Lenin and Zizek, the only choice in politics is between state power or no power. I simply refuse this alternative. For me, politics is all about the movement between no power and state power and it takes place through the creation of what I call ‘interstitial distance’ within the state. Although Zizek completely misunderstands this point, these interstices are not given or existent, indeed at the present the state threatens to saturate totally the space of the social, but they are created through political articulation, the activity of what Laclau calls hegemony. Politics is the invention of interstitial distance. In Infinitely Demanding I discuss various examples of such political processes: from indigenous rights movements in Mexico and Australia (but I would now also mention Bolivia’s Evo Morales who is directly answerable to genuine social movements, and Brazil’s movimento sem terra), to the movement in favour of the sans papiers and the sans abri in France, to the movement for an alternative globalization and anti-war movement despised by Zizek for its complicity with power and complacency, but which I see as articulating the possibility of a new language of civil disobedience, through to various forms of direct action, civil society groups and NGOs. To this list I would add the current struggle about the question of immigration in North America and Europe, which I see as the key political issue in these areas in the coming decades with unstoppable and massive population transfers from the impoverished south to the rich north, and where I see the political task as the creative articulation of immigrant rights and the exerting of pressure on the state such that extensive immigration reform becomes a reality. I am far from being an expert in the history and ethnography of such movements, but I have tried to listen and learn a little over the years.

But all of this is to no avail to Zizek. He simply does not want to listen and maybe learn something new, something that would challenge his crypto-Bismarckian Leninist authoritarianism. All these forms of resistance are, for him, simply surrender and complicity with established power. Thus, we face an all or nothing choice: state power or no power. For me, the activity of politics is working within the state against the state in an articulation, an inventive movement, the forging of a common front that opens a space of resistance and opposition to government and the possibility of significant political change.

Zizek betrays a nostalgia, which is macho and finally manneristic, for dictatorship, political violence and ruthlessness. Once again, he is true to Lenin here, as when the latter calls for the bourgeoisie to be ‘definitively crushed’ by the armed forces of the proletariat and alludes to ‘seas of blood’, as if he were unwittingly attempting a definition of mythic violence and its cycle of bloody retribution.(p.80) In this connection, listen to Zizek’s extraordinary defense of Chavez’s limitation of democracy, which must be ‘fully endorsed’,

‘Far from resisting state power, he grabbed it (first by an attempted coup, then democratically), ruthlessly using the Venezualan state apparatuses to promote his goals. Furthermore, he is militarizing the barrios, and organizing the training of armed units there. And, the ultimate scare: now that he is feeling the economic effects of capital’s “resistance” to his rule (temporary shortages of some goods in the state-subsidized supermarkets), he has announced plans to consolidate the 24 parties that support him into a single party.’

We are here again at the basic obsessional fantasy of Zizek’s position: do nothing, sit still, prefer not to, be Bartleby, and silently dream of a ruthless violence, a grabbing of power, a consolidation of state power into one mans’s hands, a sheer act of brutal physical force of which you are the object or the subject or both at once. I guess this is why people play violent video games or go to the cinema and watch movies about psychopaths. As Deleuze and Guattari noted, ‘philosophy is one long ass-fuck’.[15] What Zizek wishes for, which is very odd for a Lacanian, is for someone to occupy the position of master. When Lacan was being heckled by Leninist students at Vincennes in December 1969, he concluded by saying that, ‘What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one.’[16]

However, Zizek does raise a question to which I would like to respond. It’s a musunderstanding of my position, but an understandable one. He quotes me as saying that, ‘Anarchic political resistance should not seek to mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty it opposes’. Zizek goes on from this to object to me in the following terms,

‘So what should, say, the US Democrats do? Stop campaigning for state power and withdraw to the interstices of the state, leaving state power to the Republicans and start a campaign of anarchic resistance to it?’

Obviously not. On the contrary, I think that the Democrats need to rethink their strategy for obtaining political power. Having been continually out-thought for the past 30 years by a mobile and imaginative conservative right, the Democrats need a wider and more inclusive vision that replaces a right-wing populism with a much more liberal version, perhaps even a left populism. It seems to me that since the defeat of Carter by Reagan in 1980, it is the right that have understood what we might call the motivational or depth dimension to politics, in particular as it is expressed in social issues like religion, identity, sexuality and moral issues like opposition to gay marriage and abortion. The Democratic Party has been driven further and further into the abstract institutional procedures and niceties of governance. John Kerry was the worst exponent of this ineptitude and frankly deserved to lose in 2004. The Democratic Party needs to learn the lesson from the various forms of interstitial resistance that have arisen (disaffection with the divisiveness of established political parties and a fatigue and anger against the militaristic neo-liberal exceptionalism of Bush II) and learn to incorporate them into a wider political vision. Are the Democrats capable of this? We will see.

However, Zizek then pulls out the most hackneyed and obvious trump card in all political games in the following terms,

‘And what would Critchley do if he were facing an adversary like Hitler? Surely in such a case one should “mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty” one opposes?’

Not at all. National Socialism is a powerful example, perhaps the most powerful example, of Benjamin’s mythic violence. But should one confront mythic violence with a mythic counter-violence? No. Surely the lesson of Benjamin’s essay is the need for a distinction between the mythic violence of archic sovereignty and the anarchism of divine violence, a non-violent violence. What might this have meant concretely in the situation of Nazi Germany? Firstly, it would have meant not treating fascism as some version of normal politics and seeking to appease it as the British and French did. Secondly, it would have meant that what fascism reveals is the state of exception which is precisely not the exception but the rule. Thirdly, it would have entailed prosecuting ‘the just war against war’, that is, the adoption of strategies of violence and violent resistance. But – and here the difference with fascism is most clear – this would not lead to the sort of celebration of violence endemic to fascism, but a responsibility for violence that, in exceptional circumstances, might lead us to break the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Would such a strategy have been successful? I don’t know. But the point here is that I am not preaching non-violence in all political cases, and no more am I arguing for a retreat from the state. On the contrary, in fact.

There is a serious debate to be had about the question of violence versus non-violence, the necessity of the state form, and the nature of radical politics given the seeming permanence of capitalism. This is a debate in which I’d like to engage as my own position on these matters is shifting as I give it more thought. Perhaps when we get beyond the windy rhetorical posturing of Zizek’s critique and his description of my position as ‘post-modern leftism’ (I defy anyone to find a word in favour of postmodernism in anything I have written), we can begin to have that debate.

[1] Infinitely Demanding. Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (Verso, London and New York, 20077). Zizek’s piece, ‘Resistance is Surrender’ (London Review of Books, 15th November 2007), occasioned some interesting responses, notably from T.J. Clark and David Graeber, to which Zizek replied by accusing Graeber and myself of ‘the highest form of corruption’ (LRB, 24th January, 2008). Praise indeed! Zizek’s critique was then republished in Harper’s Magazine (February 2008), to which I replied in a later issue (May 2008). Zizek published a greatly extended version of his critique of my position in In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London and New York, 2008), pp.337-350. I hope to respond to Zizek’s criticisms of my ethical position and interpretation of Lacan on a separate occasion.

[2] Slavoj Zizek, Violence (Profile Books, London, 2008). All subsequent page references given in the text. Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’, Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings, eds. M. Bullock & M. Jennings (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., 1996). All subsequent page references given in the text.

[3] Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, London and New York, 1989).

[4] Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View (MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 2006). All subsequent page references given in the text.

[5] I’d like to thank Jacob Blumenfeld for clarifying my thoughts on this and other issues.

[6] Judith Butler, ‘Critique, Coercion, and Sacred Life in Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”’, Political Theologies. Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, eds. Hent de Vries and Lawrence Sullivan (Fordham University Press, Bronx NY, 2006), pp.201-19. I’d also like to thank Judith Butler for sending me some of her unpublished writing on the question of violence and non-violence.

[7] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. K. Attell (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2005), p.88. All subsequent page references given in the text.

[8] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. A. Lingis (Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, 1969). All subsequent page references given in the text.

[9] ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Illuminations, trans. H. Zohn (Fontana, London, 1973), p.263-64.

[10] Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A. Lingis (Nijhoff, The Hague, 1974), p.194. All subsequent page references given in the text.

[11] ‘Anarchic Law’, Law and Humanities, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter 2007), pp.248-255.

[12] Emmanuel Levinas, Basic Philosophical Writings, eds. Peperzak, Critchley & Bernasconi (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1996), p.167.

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