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Judith Butler on "protest, violent and nonviolent"


Earlier this week we linked to a piece by Wendy Brown entitled “Defending Society,” which was part of an online symposium convened by Public Books on “what’s at stake in Trump’s America.” Today sees a contribution to the symposium by Judith Butler entitled “Protest, Violent and Nonviolent,” in which she observes that it is difficult to have a reasoned debate about “violence” versus “nonviolence” when these very terms are distorted and coopted by forces of state violence and capitalist power. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

The debate between those who affirm and those who oppose violent tactics has taken on a new form. For some of those who claim that the electoral system brought a fascist to power, it is no longer possible to work within the law. Their reasons are various: the legal electoral process brought fascism to the government, and is therefore unjust; the law itself encodes and reproduces the economic violence of capitalism; the law is a tool of the state, and so an instrument of state violence that can only be undone through counterviolence.

Under conditions in which the law serves unjust state power, or serves an economic system that exercises its own violence, then independent, extralegal judgment and actions are required to oppose state violence. Resistance movements make use of tactics of disobedience, and so invariably debate the role of violence. Yet one reason those debates run into difficulty is that it seems as if violence and nonviolence are terms that are already twisted by the frameworks in which they appear: the state can decide to call certain actions “violent” because they are perceived as a threat to its monopoly on violence, even when those actions are nonviolent forms of expression, such as assembly, dissent, boycott, and strike. On the left, social structures and systems are regularly called violent even when the structure itself does not physically act, but gives rise to forms of subjugation and disenfranchisement that undermine the lives they affect.

In both cases, “violence” is no longer restricted to a physical set of acts. A demonstration can all too easily be called a “riot” when a university administration, a corporation, or a government seeks to justify the use of the army or police or security forces to quell dissent. A “boycott” can be labeled violent even when it is a deliberately nonviolent means of expressing a political objection. Such instances produce confusion about what we are arguing about when we are debating violence.

Image via Public Books.


Reading this text, it gave me the impression that Butler was evading the real issue: White Supremacists and the events on Charlottesville.

For instance, it seems to me a bit suspicious or weak the fact that Butler chose to mention Milo Yiannoppolous as a sort of a victim of “free speech” when in Charlottesville we saw the assassination in real time of Heather Heyer by Milo’s “alt-right” sympathizers.

At the same time, Professor Butler’s reluctance to name as a “fascist regime” the current US Govt. seems to me to be something quite common in literature or academicism about fascism that obscures it. A trend that is better embodied by Robert O. Paxton’s book The Anatomy of Fascism.

Regarding the central question of whether punching nazis is ok or not, she chooses to mention ways in which violence is labeled or used, and how it has become blurred or difficult to define (another common place in academics). The problem with this argument is that violence is overwhelmingly used against minorities, and for them it is not invisible or difficult to define. Again, why choose to “punch down” on “antifa” or violent leftists when actual nazis are chanting “blood and soil” and re-modernizing KKK speech?

Finally, the believe that it was a minority who chose Donald Trump, or that somehow Trump is the only problem with US Politics, says nothing about the actual power structures and the racist nature of the electoral system. A system that’s been filled with gerrymandering, disenfranchisement laws, massive voter suppression, and so on.

I think Butler’s analysis is outdated at best and apologist of white violence at worst, or else, I’m missing her point.


A few quick thoughts. First, I think you’re being guided by your emotions, not critical thought. And remember, political action should be about changing the system, creating the world we want, NOT simply an outlet for self-expression. Second, you speak of “punching nazis” (presumably you mean white supremacists). But how do you identify a nazi or white supremacist in the midst of battle. I suppose you think anyone running out of their meeting hall would be fair game, right? Especially if that person is bald, right? Well, that describes a journalist who ran out of a meeting hall and was assaulted by antifa activists. Do think any journalist covering some phenomenon that you don’t like should be fair game? Finally, you seem to want everyone to label the Trump govt as fascist. Why? Do you really, truly understand what life was like for the left, not to mention targeted minority populations, under Fascist rule in Italy or under National Socialist rule in Germany, etc?! And if you label this govt as fascist then what constitutes authoritarian govt, or authoritarian-leaning govt, or despotic govt, or plutocratic state, etc? And what did we have in the U.S. before their was “universal suffrage” for all white males, regardless of property holdings, etc? What did we have in the U.S. before we had women’s suffrage? Or before the black civil rights movement and the resulting Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965? And what did we have in the U.S. just before Trump, after the Roberts court gutted that 1965 act, and the GOP gerrymandered much of the U.S? What about under FDR during WWII, when the Japanese were interned?


It seems to me that some valuable things are said in ALL of the above comments.
Particularly, a key point above - “political action should be about changing the system, creating the world we want” - which implies, correctly, going far beyond “protest” to the deliberate formation of leadership and mobilisation to overthrow the capitalist ruling class.
When it comes to describing the process of degeneration into crisis and warmongering in the USA from Reagan onwards and the current Washington administration, I think if anything the term “fascism” is underused.
People get into too many scholastic niceties about what type of fascist, what uniform, what boots, what flags etc - rather than seeing fascism as more broadly what spews out of capitalism in breakdown in the advanced metropolitan countries, and what gets done on a day-to-day basis in oppressed countries by death squads or by the CIA, invasions, bombings, torture, assassinations, sanctions, lying media and criminally corrupt stooge governments.
It is hardly surprising given the activities of white supremacists, state viciousness and the wholesale racist manipulation of the electoral process in the USA that terms like “white violence” get thrown about by African-Americans and other minorities. But it is unhelpfully divisive, as is seeing the struggle as black vs white (or North World vs South World).
If the US ruling class and their state are going to be overthrown it will take great levels of working class unity, great scientific Leninist leadership and the convinced masses seizing on the openings to revolution provided by the collapse of the “free world” “freedom n democracy” circus (possibly from military defeats more shattering than Vietnam in the 1960s).
But there should indeed be far greater clarity that REVOLUTIONARY violence keeps being shown to be NECESSARY by the actions of the decaying monopoly-capitalist ruling class through its police-state violence, vile media, and horrific international warmongering as seen in the devastation of the Middle East and support for Saudi and Zionist Nazi aggression.
And here the first “academic” comment is surely useful for describing the difficulties that students, workers, trade unionists and academics (even!) are facing when they want to confront some US state injustice but find they are attacked either physically or in the media for “dangerous and illegal violence”.
Doesn’t this put a premium on understanding what’s really necessary, so workers and students don’t face years in prison or getting their skulls broken for very little gain?
Students and workers should not be asked to throw themselves under the bus for “protest” alone.
Instead, a full perspective of the need for the socialist revolution needs to be put in front of everyone, and the nature of world history as nothing but a series of revolutions, up to the current foul decay of the monopoly-capitalist system into global war (WW1 & 2) and now a renewed slide to world war, with the destruction of huge areas of the Middle East, killing hundreds of thousands, as just a starting point.
Trump’s Mussolini-style bombast is certainly a pointer to the US Empire’s sick plans for the world, as it tries to stay “top dog” in capitalism. But German, French, Austrian, British, Japanese warmongering belligerence is spewing up too, unmistakably.
As with Brexit, where British workers are “apparently” drifting racist and to the right, the white working class in America “apparently” remain backward in their politics. But this is hardly surprising.
They’ve all had years of racist, jingoistic and class collaborating Labour party, Democrat, trade-unionist, Trot and revisionist politics rammed down their throats. No one is explaining the capitalist crisis to them properly, and therefore COMMON (black, white, Latino, man, woman) action to end all the injustices they experience is denied them.
It’s time to counter all the divisive, reformist nonsense with the CORRECT (Marxist revolutionary) politics of Leninism.
As Tracy Chapman sang, “Talkin’ bout a Revolution”.


i really liked this post, but i truly felt in love with this part!