The violence of refusal

I’m currently working through some (hopefully final) edits on my book about Dionysius and Žižek, and have found myself back trying to figure out the relationship between Žižek’s account of violence (primarily in his book Violence) and the account of violence in Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. I’ve pointed out before the way that Žižek ignores the fact that Benjamin’s discussion is dealing in part with the question of violence in relation to the general strike. But what I hadn’t quite grasped is that where, for Žižek, it is acts of passive refusal such as Bartleby the Scrivener’s ‘I would prefer not to’ or Saramago’s fictional country where all the citizens spontaneously refuse to fill our election ballots which best exemplify ‘divine violence’, for Benjamin the general strike is specifically not violent. That seems like an important distinction between the two accounts of violence, but I can’t quite get straight what that distinction is, so I’m hoping some of you might be able to help me figure it out. Here’s where I’ve got to:

For Žižek there are four types of violence. There is law-founding or mythical violence, which consists of the unjustifiable decision to create a social or symbolic order in the first place. The violence (that is, the excessive nature of this act – its lack of grounding in any reason or cause) of this moment is often covered up by reference to a God or gods: we do things this way and not that way because God has so ordained it. There is law-maintaining violence, the various forms of coercion directed at anything which threatens the ongoing existence of the social and symbolic order – whether that’s calling the police on strikers or gossiping about the person who made a social faux pas. There is simple criminal violence, which transgresses the law but doesn’t pose a threat to it. And there is divine violence, which for Žižek is anything which poses an existential threat to the existing social order, forcing a radical transformation.

Benjamin is trickier. Again, violence is always entangled with the social and symbolic order – Critique of Violence says that the question of violence arises in relation to law and justice. For law, violence can be justified only if it is deployed in order to achieve ends which are sanctioned by the law. The law wants a monopoly on violence – it wants to be the sole arbiter of whether or not violence is justified. Even when violence is legal, if it is not wielded directly by the state, then it poses a threat to the law: and this is where we get to the question of the strike. Benjamin argues that organised labour is ‘apart from the state probably the only legal subject entitled to exercise violence.’ And here’s where it gets tricky. A strike is not an action so much as a refusal to act. It is a withdrawal from the violent coercion of the employer. But a strike can aim either at an end that is sanctioned by the law – higher wages, say – or at an end that threatens the existence of the law as such – revolution, the end of the law. In the second case, although striking as such is legal, the law cries violence because the aim of the strike is one that threatens its existence.

Later, though, Benjamin makes a distinction between  the political general strike and the proletarian general strike. The political general strike doesn’t want to overthrow the law and the state, it just wants a reorganisation of the state or law: different bosses, different conditions for waged labour. But the proletarian general strike wants to end the state and the law. If the law is defined as a set of agreements about when violence is and is not legitimate (so a legal contract, Benjamin says, confers on each party the right to resort to some kind of violence against the other if they break the terms of the contract), then the general strike is properly anarchic: the strikers refuse to work until there is no more state, no more law, no more society in which the decision to work or to not work is enforced by the threat of violence. In the political general strike, the strikers want more control of the power of violent coercion held by the state; in the proletarian general strike, the strikers refuse any kind of social order built on violent coercion.

And then we get to divine violence. If mythic violence is lawmaking, Benjamin says, divine violence is law-destroying. It is not about enforcing the law, and so it is not about retribution or payback. It kills not to enforce the law of talion, but for the sake of humanity, whose value cannot be reduced to the law. On Žižek’s reading of Benjamin, this would mean that the proletarian general strike is the ideal exemplar of divine violence, and Benjamin has earlier indicated that the law might indeed perceive the general strike as violent. But he has also argued that the proletarian general strike is not violent.

I can’t work out how to square this circle. In part, I am not quite sure what Benjamin means by violence. Sometimes it seems that coercion is at play; but this again would seem to make the proletarian general strike violent, though Benjamin insists  that it is not. We could see it as having to do with the law, and specifically the way in which the law is founded on the state’s monopoly of violence and the law of talion. But then divine violence, which takes place in utter indifference to the state’s authority or the law of talion, would not count as violence. Either way, I’m stumped, and if anyone with a better grasp of Benjamin can help me out I’d be extremely grateful.

5 thoughts on “The violence of refusal

  1. This is not some ready-made answer I already knew, but some thoughts prompted by your post. Maybe the primary definition of violence implicit in Benjamin is that which goes against or violates “nature,” however we define it. You talk about this with Z’s law-founding violence — the very act of founding a symbolic order is “violent” insofar as it disrupts (what we imagine to have been) the natural course of things previously. The law aims to be a second nature (see, for instance, the passage about how being punished for violating an unknown law approximates fate), and so anything that falls outside its goals is defined as violent. The strike is ambivalent in this context. The political strike is not violent because the law has allowed workers to use these certain means to achieve legitimate ends — but I would say that the general strike is violent because it aims to overthrow the “second nature” of law (albeit using legal, hence technically non-violent means).

    Where the confusion comes in is that you still need a perspective from which you can see legal violence as violence — hence I think Benjamin relies on some kind of incohate moral intuition as the “nature” that is violated by the police beating someone up or something like that. To get leverage over against legal violence, you need to posit some kind of moral law (perhaps as part of human nature) that has been violated.

    Not sure if this makes sense and/or helps.

  2. Reproducing a related email conversation for posterity and in case anyone else wants to chip in:

    MARIKA: I’m wondering if I’m just a bit too hung up on that one sentence that says that the general strike is non-violent

    ADAM: No, I think that’s important. It’s something that law’s categories don’t “work” for. Yes, it’s technically not violent (using legal means), yet the law has to reject it.

    MARIKA: but then isn’t the general strike also divine violence, or at least somehow intimately related to divine violence?

    ADAM: Right. It seems like it’s the only possible thing in the essay that could be divine violence.

    MARIKA: except the story of Korah and who the fuck knows what that’s about

    ADAM: I’m starting to dare think I know what it’s about. Theory: Korah represents the state apparatus. The divine violence of the general strike doesn’t want to punish the state or replace the state — it wants the state to simply not exist, to be swallowed up in the earth.

    MARIKA: But isn’t Moses the lawgiver and therefore the figure of the state in this scenario?

    ADAM: Korah is a lawgiver over against a previous law (Moses), just as the state usurps the place of nature.

    (May not be right — literally just thought of it as we’ve been discussing.)

    MARIKA: but isn’t the law that Moses has just handed down pretty much precisely mythical violence in Benjamin’s sense?

    ADAM: I think it’s potentially different because it’s the Jewish law from the “real” God.

    MARIKA: yeah, so YHWH does divine violence and the Greek pantheon do mythical violence. and when he says that divine violence is found in present day life in at least one sanctioned manifestation that does sound like a loop back to the general strike

    ADAM: Right. Or at least it seems plausible to me

  3. I think divine violence properly speaking is nonviolent. Here the “non” should be seen not as a negation, as in “not violent”, but as a suspension of violence’s relation to the law. Divine violence is violence that does not reaffirm the law (and hence isn’t violence, or is “sovereign violence”, i.e. not subject to external criteria). It demands nothing (of the law) because it is what it demands – the cessation of wage labour, the refusal of the (legal) distinction between violence and nonviolence. A pure violence, “pure means” without end.

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