Violence & Power

Violence & Power

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19. VII 2020

The cat uses force to catch the mouse, to seize it, hold it in its claws and ultimately kill it. But while it is playing with it another factor is present. It lets the mouse go, allows it to run about a little and even turns its back; and, during this time, the mouse is no longer subjected to force. But it is still within the power of the cat and can be caught again. The space which the cat dominates, the moments of hope it allows the mouse, while continuing however to watch it closely all the time and never relaxing its interest and intention to destroy it — all this together, space, hope, watchfulness and destructive intent, can be called the actual body of power, or, more simply, power itself. (Elias Canetti)

Violence and power stand in opposition to each other. Power is revealed when violence is withdrawn (the destructive clock stops when the cat releases the mouse). Inherent in power is certain extension in space and time (releasing the mouse, giving it space and time to develop illusion of freedom and hope). In contrast, violence takes place at a particular point.

American history resides in the interstices between violence and power. That has always been its preferred habitat. From inception, its history has been marked by an unprecedented reliance on violence, from the systematic genocide and practical eradication of Native Americans to Slavery – a prime foundation of the country’s industry, finance, commerce and general prosperity – and its successive mutations, Jim Crow, cities of destruction, hyperghetto, resulting in explosion of the networks of incarceration with the most extensive carceral system on the planet.

The persistent coexistence of violence and power, and the longevity of that configuration, is difficult to understand in a broader context of the dialectics of power. When taken in a political context, violence represents stupid power. It is an extremely inefficient way of rule, unsustainable when applied alone. Violence automatically causes an opposing will, which weakens its effect and demands escalation in order to offset that will. This causes violence to exhaust itself in the long run, and as its power erodes, its rule results either in capitulation or in the tragic end of annihilation. Between the beginning and the end of its rule, there is a tipping point beyond which violence, as it collapses under its own weight, either disappears or crushes everyone else.

How did American violence survive for so long without self-destructing? The systematic resort to violence as a way of maintaining a grip on power for four centuries remains one of the major paradoxes of modernity primarily due to its longevity and continued escalation.

The anatomy of violence and the masquerade of power

In domestic affairs, violence functions as the last resort of power against criminals and rebels — against individuals who refuse to be overpowered by the consensus of the majority. Even in actual warfare, like during the Vietnam war, we have seen how superiority in the means of violence can become helpless if confronted with an ill-equipped but well-organized opponent who is much more powerful. The accumulation of means of annihilation does not make superpowers mightier — military might is often the counterpart of internal weakness. (Hannah Arendt)

Violence is a transient phenomenon; it may contribute to the creation of power, but power is not based on it. One can use violence to seize power, but cannot maintain it with violence. In order to survive, violence must continuously reinvent itself. Following the process of mutation of violence through American history brings some clarity to the paradox of its longevity. There are three main ingredients, which define the landscape: The use of culture as a lever arm, economic forces, and particular patterns of mutation of state as the main source of lawlessness and violence.

1) Culture as a lever arm

Benedict Anderson’s observation that nations are imagined communities[1] (the emphasis is on “imagined”) frames the problem and alludes at its non-linearity. This notion indicates that the idea that complete strangers might share identity with us as a group or nation is not obvious from our direct experience. The fact that multiethnic and multicultural communities are trans-experiential, requires an abstract layer, like ideology, for example, that provides justification for their existence. A wide acceptance of these ideologies, thus, allows the mobilization of social movements and mass media, which may acquire power over people because they are ready to accept ideas that make some plausible sense of their world.

According to B. C. Han’s account of the power-violence dynamics, as opposed to violence, which does not allow for either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, power relation contains the possibility of resistanceFreedom, no matter how illusory it might be, is the essential precondition for the exercise of power (cat has to release the mouse in order for power to begin to configure itself). The illusion of freedom must never stop in order for the power relations to continue existing[2].

These considerations outline the importance of interplay between violence and the transient windows of illusory freedom, which creates pockets of power underlined by the cat & mouse dynamics: The space which the cat dominates, the moments of hope it allows the mouse, while continuing however to watch it closely all the time and never relaxing its interest and intention to destroy it, all these elements have been in play at each new node of violence in American history.

Since the abolition of slavery, every new concession to the freedom of Black Americans has created a new temporary space of power by implying a new mode of violence in place of the old one as a reminderEvery subsequent institutional change of repression just made violence more systematic and less transparent. As apparent superficial freedom was changing, from slavery to Jim Crow, to ghetto & hyperghetto, to the expansion of the prison system, and police brutality, violence did not taper; it only reinforced the grip on power.

Every shift in the underlying systematic violence has had its ritual part aimed at creating a temporary space of power: lynching, manhunts, and other manifestations of (white) male bonding, institutionalized and reinforced later through the carceral state. The entire white supremacy act, both in its original incarnation and its subsequent mutations, has been just ritualized violence with an unambiguous aim to reiterate and cast into peoples’ subconscious a symbolic message associated with each black face: “Your nature is to be a slave”(cat & mouse play, again!), for the sole purpose of transforming that violence into power, while the vulgar-materialistic evangelical narrative was structured around interpreting this order of things as a heavenly dictum aimed at mobilizing forces that provide its legitimacy.

2) Economic factors

All this has been playing against powerful economic factors. The backbone of the system’s attachment to Slavery and its modernized versions resides in capital’s insatiable need for free labor. This highlights the second dimension of violence.

According to Michael Mann’s model of ethnic conflicts[3], all cases of oppression against certain segments of society involve material interests. Usually, members of one segment/class/ethnicity come to believe they have a collective economic interest against an out-group. Often, ethnicity trumps class. Class sentiments are displaced onto ethnic group relations. The oppressed group identifies the other as an imperial exploiting class, considering itself an exploited proletariat. Exploiter on the other hand sees its imperial rule as bringing civilization and progress to inferior ethnic group/class. The defense of this imperium against revolutionary threats from below is what is called imperial revisionism.

3) State as the center of dissemination of lawlessness

In the past, culture had a dual role, to shape consensus and act as an agent of change. In the last 50 years, gradually, but perceptibly, culture has abandoned its missionary course; it has become the mechanism for creation of a parcelized space of power and a tool of division and maintenance of the status quo.

The modern state has redefined itself inside the gap between cultural and economic powers, where the two became inextricably intertwined providing the background for the imperial revisionism as the framework for expanding the space of power. The main trend of technocratic governments in developed democracies, and in America in particular, has been gradually giving up ideological consensus and replacing it with cultural division as the main lever arm. Without big ideological causes, the only way to actively mobilize people (and their passions) is through fear. In this way, culture wars became class wars in displaced mode. Neoliberalism and populism are just two different modes of implementation of this agenda.

According to Charles Tilly, the state in many ways functions like organized crime and uses its monopoly position as a racketThe very activity of producing and controlling violence favors monopoly, because competition within that realm generally raises costs, instead of lowering them. The production of violence enjoys large economies of scale. Governments are generally in the business of selling protection with state having a monopoly on violence. They legitimize its use in order to maintain and reinforce consensus and, thus, maintain their power. Subordinated government tends to maximize monopoly profits as well as turning protection rents to the economic interests of the dominant class[4].

Based on an extrapolation of Tilly’s argument, in response to each installment of innovation in violence during the last 400 years, time and again, the state had adapted to the new context accordingly, giving rise to new institutions of oppression.

By criminalizing the Other, power could be deployed as a way of protecting or maintaining the fractured consensus, which, in effect, refers to selling protection to the privileged segment of society, while drawing the revenues to maintain and/or expand its repressive apparatus. In that process, state tends to invent new problems, which it proposes to resolve, and in time becomes itself a source of lawlessness and violence[5]. This is the logic behind institutional racism, the criminalization of poverty, the war on drugs, the exploding carceral network, and other institutions of programmatic repression in America, all this against the background of a systematic, ideologically driven, elimination of empathy and pathological individualization as the main cultural dimension.

Production of political subjects or Banality of Evil

To be human remains a decision (Carl Schmitt)

As the state manufactures excuses to escalate violence and extend its life support, it enables violence to masquerade as power and sustain itself longer. Implementation of this approach to power requires the production and cultivation of a special kind of mindset: Philistine, self-righteous, ignorant, aggressive male, devoid of ethical constraints and accountability, which conforms unconditionally to ideological tasks, whatever they may be. These are mediocrities, not fanatics or sociopaths, who, rather than thinking for themselves, rely on clichés; they are driven primarily by their petty interests (promotion, careers, money,…) and believe in success as the chief standard of a “good society” to which everything else is subordinated. Such people, especially them, are capable of committing the most extreme acts of evil. Their actions are motivated by extraordinary complacency. These extraordinarily unexceptional men become champions of extraordinary evil, the condition identified by Hannah Arendt as Banality of Evil.

Creating conditions for this mode of social interaction has been the main ideological tool of American politics. Social atomization eliminates cohesion and unified expression, except in terms of violence or hostility towards the Other who have been identified as such through one of the modes of exclusion, like racism or social Darwinism, as not worthy of the same rights. The same mechanism – absence of organizational power – that allowed a relatively small number of slave-owners to handle a large number of slaves, or labor camp guards vs. inmates, is now in full display. When such a weakened social community is attacked and people are unable to organize themselves around their interests and political rights, they cannot find a common voice or underpinning, except in aggressiveness towards other groups.

Foundations of this order began to shake in the last decade with the escalation of systematic violence. The cumulative result of rampant inequality, systemic exclusion, and endemic precarity was ultimately the devastation of the political space inherent in the existence of the medium of power and, as access to power became more exclusive, consensus began to form independently of the state, which grew more isolated and without real power to rule. The context that provided power for decades continued to shrink and began to collapse onto itself as contours of superior non-coercive, smart, power emerged. This is when things started to unravel.

The system of violence, which masqueraded as power for four centuries, revealed its cracks in the last decade and, in 2020, reached the tipping point when the space of traditional power began to implode. Political/social matter and antimatter began to collide triggering the annihilation process. Centuries of the masquerade of power were exposed for what they always have been: violence, i.e. stupid power.

Hannah Arendt

If one of us is chained, none of us are free (Solomon Burke)

In a sociopolitical context, power is predicated on commonality and cohesion, but without necessarily having one central actor. Power creates a medium against which collective action can arise. This medium is the ground state of power. Violence, on the other hand, is a lonely act. It is not supported by the affirmation of the others — it is One against All[6].

However, power has another dimension besides shared space and commonality. During the accelerated transformation of the American political body in the last four years, the 45th president’s abject figure has emerged as the origin of the new political subjectivity. His only consistency, to be always, without exception, on the wrong side of any and every argument and decision, has inadvertently galvanized the process of political reconfiguration. He has made the present so appalling that unconditional change, wherever it takes us (as long as it is without him), has become a preferred direction embraced by traditionally opposing ends of the political spectrum, leading to the formation and buildup of massive like-minded crowds, unified in their common desire. He has become the center of mass of political anti-matter, which repels the rest and defines the direction of “against” and, thus, emerges as a reference point of political action.

Power is above all an affirmation of self[7]This is Arendt’s most powerful insight. It is not an absolute consensus, but a mirror image of violence as expressed with “One against All”: Power is “All against One”, where “One” is the object to be opposed, the repulsive core of social antimatter, an anchor of subjectivity and the origin through which coordinates of subjectivity are drawn. The collective that is configured around this origin becomes the seed of spatialization of power.

Power is greatest where the holder of power encounters no resistance whatsoever. Power and violence, therefore, meet in the limit of their absolute: There is no resistance not only in the case of infinite violence, but also in the case of infinite power[8]. At some point, the distinction between the two becomes blurred and transition from one to another seamless.


[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Revised Edition, Verso (2006)

[2] B. C. Han, Was ist Macht?, Philip Reclam jun. GmbH & Co. KG, Stuttgart (2005)

[3] Michael Mann, Dark side of Democracy, Cambridge University Press (2005)

[4] Charles Tilly, War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, in Bringing the State Back, ed. By P. Evans, D. Rueschemeyer, and T. Skocpol, Cambridge University Press (1985)

[5] ibid.

[6] Hannah Arendt, On Violence, Harcourt Brace Javanovich; First edition (1970)

[7] ibid.

[8] B. C. Han, ibid.


 

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