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In the Nebulous Zone between Class Antagonism and Violence


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Brexit, US elections, Russian elections, Georgian elections: after so many political disasters, the limits and goals of emancipation seem to be blurred. Yet they have to be reinstituted again in the midst of a most dispiriting situation—when the Left has fallen into the trap of populism, when liberals resort to conservative moralism, when neoliberals claim avant-garde subjectivity, and when a reversion to tribalism is mistaken for anticapitalism. Reactions to the Brexit vote from the cultural and enlightened Left have demonstrated a paradox: not only have many grassroots emancipatory movements collapsed into reactionary beliefs, but the agents of politically progressive thought—the cognitive Left—have in their turn also demonstrated an amazing lack of concrete knowledge, support, or understanding of the living conditions and social motivations of underprivileged social groups. The poor find more recognition of and affinities for their hardships and habitus among nationalist and conservative elites than among the transnational cognitive Left. It is in light of this situation that new forms of inequality, class antagonism, and violence are at stake.

In many works dedicated to the politics of equality, “violence” has been a legitimate term for emancipatory struggle, although some social thinkers (e.g., Arendt) have not always acknowledged its efficacy as a political force. As the history of the October Revolution and the demise of historical socialism show, freedom and coercion mean different things to different social groups; what might be liberating for one layer of society might impose limitations on another. At the same time, what seems to be a priori progressive in the critical discourse of our own day—the commons, equality, the general—might in practice be undesirable and vicious for the agents of that very anticapitalist critique.

All theoretical works that claim violence as an indispensible component of emancipatory struggle (Sorel, Benjamin, Lukács, Fanon, Žižek) insistently place this term in the foreground, although violence is far from being the only component of insurrectionary agency or the struggle for justice. Meanwhile, no state system or penal institution would use the term “violence” in its rhetoric or its judicial documentation when carrying out legal acts of coercion. Within the language of authority, violent acts can only be committed by “perpetrators,” never by the State or the Law. So the Law, which tacitly applies violence in order to realize certain goals, conceals this application behind legislative rhetoric; whereas the aforementioned theoretical works, which posit violence as a component of emancipatory struggle, lay it bare. In these works, violence as a term is meant as a kind of metaphor for the urgency of bringing about the end of the present state of affairs, when the existing system does not permit transition, progress, or transformation. The urgency in this case can be thought of as the need to block the present regime and to reject the present state of injustice, oppression, and inequality—that which cannot be transformed “now” or even in the near future.

In Reflections on Violence (1906), George Sorel differentiates the protective and establishing force of the state from the destructive violence of strikes and revolution. For him, the reason why violence becomes an important term is the impossibility of changing the modes of production under conditions of the capitalist state and its economy. Revolution cannot be developmental and evolutionary; it can only be eschatological and destructive. Destruction is inevitable in the struggle for a new world of noncapitalist equality. Therefore, for Sorel destruction supersedes utopia. Utopia, according to Sorel, relies on a rationalist illusion of a better world and doesn’t take into account the needs of exploited social groups in concrete historical situations. It delegates the solving of problems to evolutionary reformism, which treats a better future as an imaginary horizon; whereas direct struggle by syndicalist groups and trade unions carries out concrete decisions and mobilizes for real struggle. However, the theoretical stance of revolution as destruction ignores an important part of Marxist thought concerning the historical and transformative role of the dynamic between the forces of production and relations of production. Sorel’s focus on eschatology is all the more problematic in that it is unclear what would follow after destructive and eschatological rupture: Sorel’s theory stops at the moment when syndicalist groups appropriate the means of production and the working class sabotages the owning class. Such conditions would be insufficient to either bring about a new “general, socialist” order or preserve the economic hegemony of the strikers.

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