Some rambling reflections on truth and violence

I have never advocated political violence in any published writing or in any talk. You can read the talk I posted yesterday, for instance, and you will find no recommendation of left-wing political violence, indeed no mention of that possibility. Yet it inevitably happens, in Q&A sessions, that the topic comes up. The way it generally unfolds is that my listeners or readers observe that I make the following claims: the existing political system lacks democratic legitimacy; those in a position to wield institutional power are unresponsive to popular demands; and both major parties fully support police violence, with the Republicans growing ever more tolerant and even encouraging of vigilante violence. Hence, in order to reach the kind of goals I lay out, it seems like some form of political violence would be inevitable. So am I advocating political violence?

I personally do not intend to commit any political violence, nor would I encourage anyone else to do so. I’m at a loss, though, for why anyone considering such a thing would view me as an appropriate confidant or mentor. I am far from an activist. My praxis is objectively that of a middle-class liberal intellectual, and even on the level of individual choices and the various virtue-signals one tends to send, I am not particularly left-coded (e.g., I’m not a vegetarian or vegan).

In fact, I don’t want to be advocating anything at all — I want to undertake a purely analytic and diagnostic project. The problem is that contemporary academic culture will not allow me to do that. If I didn’t put down some kind of prescriptive agenda, people would simply hallucinate one on my behalf. So yes, I end Neoliberalism’s Demons by saying that we need to eliminate the market society in favor of a radically democratic planned economy. That’s the only way to make sure something like neoliberalism can never happen again. That’s the political goal that informs my analysis. It’s not “realistic,” but at least it’s explicitly stated, so I don’t have to bat away a bunch of phantom political agendas that people arbitrarily foist on me.

How do we get from here to there? I don’t know. I’m an idea guy. If we can get there by reading books and talking about them, then I should be among the leaders of the movement. If it takes something else, then maybe I can play more of a supporting role — ideally teaching classes, but maybe writing up some propaganda or even washing dishes or something.

My real agenda, my personal investment, for my intellectual project is that I want to figure out and share what I take to be the truth about our political situation, to the best of my ability. And as far as I can tell, the truth is that we are in a really, really bad position. The power of nonviolent resistance has been exhausted at this point. The media is too corrupt and the political class too brazen and arrogant to concede to popular demands, no matter how much we maintain the moral high ground. The electoral system continues to be a site of political blackmail rather than a venue for the public to influence the direction of public policy. No governing party in any major country seems to be at all serious about addressing the most urgent problems we face — and those problems are genuinely urgent.

In that situation, with all formally legitimate means of political change cut off, my question — which I repeated quite forcefully in the Q&A for my talk on Milton Friedman at Wabash College — is what the powers that be think is going to happen. We are told that the human race is facing environmental ruin that will kill millions, and yet no one with the power to do anything actually does it. Is it not inevitable that someone will take matters into their own hands?

It does seem inevitable — but it largely isn’t happening. And that in itself is an aspect of our situation that I struggle to understand. It seems like in a world where people open fire into random crowds because they can’t get laid or drive into protestors because they’re worried the Jews are going to replace them, someone would get it into their heads to physically threaten the people destroying the world. Why aren’t they?

Maybe the problems seem simply too big, or the system too unassailable. (I’m presumably contributing to the latter in some small way with my buzz-killing analysis.) Maybe the record of the times that the left gave itself permission to use unlimited ultra-violence have disillusioned people — maybe that means so poisons the end as to render it unattainable. Or maybe everyone has decided, collectively, that if we can’t get it done via the institutional structures that happen to exist at this moment of history, then that’s a sign we shouldn’t do it. It works if you work it! And center-left parties can eke out small, largely symbolic gains that the right completely swamps, until our cities flood and our crops fail and millions upon millions of people die in unescapable heat waves.

What can we do as individuals in the face of this mass apathy and willful ignorance? Not fucking much! Not much at all. As the man says, the wrong life cannot be lived rightly — yet there is a certain duty to truth, a certain obligation to acknowledge it as the wrong life. But despite everything, despite the inauguration of Donald Trump, despite the fall of Roe v. Wade and the resulting rise of almost unimaginable misogynistic state violence, despite the fact that the weather is obviously unfixably permanently broken and half the country burns down every year — despite all that, there are a lot of people out there who really don’t see that it’s the wrong life, who in fact are offended that I would criticize the team they’ve chosen to back in the game of politics, a team that is surely made up of good people who are doing their best.

And to that, all I can say is: no. That’s the one ethical duty that I fully and unhypocritically live by. I don’t know what they will do with it — probably nothing. It will probably even make them dig in their heels and become even more apathetic and willfully ignorant, more attached to whichever team of ghouls and empty suits they’ve pathetically identified as fans of. But they can’t say no one ever told them.

9 thoughts on “Some rambling reflections on truth and violence

  1. Thank you. I feel guilty for hiding out, knowing I will be long gone when the worst hits. My intellectual hero, Jean-Luc Nancy, is loudly criticized for not offering a political agenda. Simon Critchley complains he cannot write a political philosophy. At least we are in good company.

  2. You may not advocate violence, but, presumably judging by your writings, you do support a change in society that would, according to you, be resisted by violence. So, either there is either a non-violent way of overcoming the violent resistance, or it would need to be met by a countervailing violence to overcome that resistance. Do you have a view on that?

  3. And, of course, your praxis includes teaching. Which may or may not be the best thing you ever do, but it may very well turn out to be the longest lived.

  4. You can’t defeat violent right-wing vigilantes through non-violent resistence, so yes, some form of countervailing violence would be necessary. But it wouldn’t have to be extra-legal. Controlling state power by formally legitimate means would also entail control over and use of violence. I believe state power could and should have been deployed much more forcibly against the Capitol rioters, for instance — the idea that they were tracking them down weeks and months later was absolutely absurd.

  5. I would also add that maintaining the status quo requires massive application of violence. It’s not as though there’s some peaceful situation that the left would come in and disturb if it chose to use violent means.

  6. ‘ So yes, I end Neoliberalism’s Demons by saying that we need to eliminate the market society in favor of a radically democratic planned economy. That’s the only way to make sure something like neoliberalism can never happen again. That’s the political goal that informs my analysis. It’s not “realistic,” but at least it’s explicitly stated ‘

    It’s not only not “realistic”, it’s simply not true. First of all, there is no such thing as “a radically democratic planned economy”, because the very idea of central planning is as undemocratic a project as one could possibly conceive. Second of all, it’s not the only solution, and it’s not a “solution”, at all, to neoliberalism.

    The only way to reverse neoliberalism is to make land, the root of all wealth, effectively common property, by taxing away the economic monopoly privilege values associated with location, which rightfully belong to the community at large, not to the individual tenant or occupant, and redistribute those values equally to the community at large.

    Socialism is not a project of the left, and there is no way to make it “democratic”, because the operable mechanism of socialism is *theft of labor*. It is thoroughly authoritarian and right-wing in nature. The only difference between socialism and feudalism is the name we give to the ruling class (the putatively meritocratic “vanguard class” on one hand, and the hereditary aristocratic class on the other) and the excuse they give when they appropriate your labor product at gunpoint. Socialism (or communism, if you prefer), like fascism, leads directly and inevitably to totalitarianism.

  7. ‘ It seems like in a world where people open fire into random crowds because they can’t get laid or drive into protestors because they’re worried the Jews are going to replace them, someone would get it into their heads to physically threaten the people destroying the world. Why aren’t they? ‘

    Cowardice, pure and simple. Who is going to threaten them, anyway? The “left” in this country, intent as they are on not only unilaterally disarming themselves, but forcibly disarming those of us courageous enough to defend ourselves against predation? Don’t make me laugh, please. You can’t even get these people to admit that self-defense is not “violence”, and they won’t even defend themselves, let alone anyone else.

    But more the to point, as I wrote recently, the reason why people never understand how quickly fascism can spread, and why they never recognize it actually happening is because the roots of fascism are universally accepted by people and sound completely reasonable to everyone: “this is our land”/”this is my land”.

    The treatment of Nature as ownable is one of the foundational pillars that undergirds the universal acceptance of neoliberalism as the dominant socio-cultural-economic ideology of the current era.

    Fascism, at its core, is the ideology of blood and soil. It posits that some particular location, some patch of dirt, can only rightfully belong to some particular group of people, defined by their genetic heritage, and that the rest of us are only permitted to be here by their sufferance. This is the most dangerous belief humanity ever developed, because once you accept its premise, you can derivatively justify any behavior at all toward anyone you can define as “other”.

    Fascism cannot be countered by popular votes. Fascism can only be effectively opposed with force, because fascists believe that the use of force is obviously justified to defend “their land”, “their home”, “their blood”, “their heritage”. No fascist movement has ever been deterred, much less destroyed, via so-called “peaceful” means.

    It has become increasingly obvious over the years that the United States did not enter World War II to defend the world against fascism, but only because the particular version of fascism being peddled by the rulers of Germany, Italy, and Japan collided with the version of fascism held dear by the “allies”.

    We will never defeat fascism until we make land common property. To defeat fascism once and for all time, we must make land common property. No other remedy will suffice, because no other remedy gets to the root of the problem.

  8. My stab at this answer is that it’s a mixture of (understandable) cowardice, unfamiliarity with the use of violence (if you have a stable middle-class life where you gain success through ascending the usual institutions of grade school, college, and work, you’ve never had to use violence to solve a social problem so why would you start now?), and a deeply inculcated belief that only the state is the legitimate wielder of violence.

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