Walter Benjamin - Critique of Violence

WALTER BENJAMIN
Critique of Violence (1921)

A cause becomes violent only when it enters moral relations.
The most elementary relationship is that of ends to means. Violence can be sought only in the realm of means, not in the reals of ends.

The question would remain open whether violence […], could be a moral means even to just ends.

Violence is a product of nature, as it were a raw material, the use of which is in no way problematic unless force is misused for unjust ends.
Natural law = ends.
Positive law = means.
If justice is the criterion of the ends, legality is that of means.
Natural attempts to “justify” the means, positive law to “guarantee” the justness of the ends.

The system strives to limit by legal ends even those areas in which natural ends are admitted in principle. According to present-day European legislation, all natural ends of individuals must collide with legal ends if pursued with a greater or lesser degree of violence. It follows that law sees violence in the hands of individuals as a danger undermining the legal system.

The interest in a monopoly of violence vis-à-vis individuals is explained not by the intention of preserving legal ends but, rather, by the intention of preserving the law itself; that violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens it not by the ends that it pursues but by its mere existence outside the law.
That is why the figure of the “great” criminal has aroused the secret admiration of the public.

By what function violence can with reason seem so threatening to the law, and be so feared by it, must be especially evident where its application […] is still permissible.

The right to strike constitutes the right to use force in attaining certain ends.
Conduct involving the exercise of a right can nevertheless, under certain circumstances, be described as violent. It is violent if it exercises a right in order to overthrow the legal system that has conferred it.
Military force is used quite directly towards its end.
Yet, a peace ceremony is entirely necessary. The sanctioning of victory consists in recognizing the new conditions as a new “law”. (as a new “ism”).
There is a law-making character inherent in all such violence.
The great criminal violently confronts the law with the threat of declaring a new law.
The state fears this violence for its law-making character.
Militarism is the compulsory use of violence as a means toward legal ends.
The subordination of citizens to laws is a legal end.
Law-preserving violence and law-establishing violence.
Law-preserving violence is a threatening violence.
If violence is the origin of the law (law-establishing), then where the highest violence, that over life and death, occurs in the legal system, the origins of law jut manifestly and fearsomely into existence.
Its purpose is not to punish the infringement of law but to establish a new law. For in the exercise of violence over life and death the law reaffirms itself.

Police violence.
An authority wherein the separation between law-establishing and law-preserving is suspended.
Often against thinkers, from whom the state is not protected by law.

The “law” of the police marks the point at which the state can no longer guarantee through the legal system the empirical ends that it desires to attain.
The police intervene “for security reasons” where no clear legal situation exists, accompanying the citizen as a brutal encumbrance through a life regulated by ordinances.

The workings of police in democracies bears witness to the greatest conceivable degeneration of violence.

All violence as a means is either law-making or law-preserving. It follows that all violence as a means is implicated in the problematic nature of law itself.


Are there other than violent means for regulating conflicting human interests?
A totally non-violent solution of conflicts can never lead to a legal contract. This would finally lead to possible violence. It confers to each party the right to resort to violence. The origin of every contract also points toward violence.

Without doubt a non-violent resolution of conflict is possible.
E.g. in the relationships among private persons.


Since unalloyed means (courtesy, sympathy, pleasurableness, trust, etc) belong to indirect solutions, they apply only to direct matters concerning objects. The sphere of nonviolent means opens in the realm of human conflicts relating to goods.
Various techniques of civil agreements: e.g. the conference. There, there is no sanction for lying.

The state grants the right to strike because it forestalls violent actions which the state is afraid to oppose.

To induce men to reconcile their interests peacefully without involving the legal system there is one effective motive: the fear of mutual disadvantages that threaten to arise from violent confrontation.

Pure means.
Two types of strikes:
1.       Political strike.
Wherein the state loses none of its strength.
Generally Violent and law-making.
2.       General strike.
Focused on destroying state power. Indifferent toward material gain with the intention to abolish the state.

Because of its pure means, it’s non-violent and anarchistic.
The violence of an action can be assessed only from the law of its means.

Diplomats and referees must resolve conflicts peacefully and without contracts.

Every conceivable solution to human problems remains impossible if violence is totally excluded in principle.

The non-mediate function of violence is illustrated by man’s angry outbursts of a violence that is not related to a preconceived end. It is not a means but a manifestation.

Mythic violence is a mere manifestation of the gods, of their existence.

Elaboration of the myth of Niobe. A boundary stone on the frontier between men and gods.

Law-making is power-making, assumption of power, and an immediate manifestation of violence. Justice is the principle of all divine end-making, power the principle of all mythic law-making.

Where frontiers are decided, it is the same line that my not be crossed by both parties of the peace treaty.
Reference to demonically ambiguous and unjust “equal” rights: “Poor and rich are equally forbidden to spend the night under the bridge”. Anatole France.

From the point of view of violence, which alone can guarantee law, there is no equality, but at the most equally great violence. The act of establishing frontiers is also significant for an understanding of law.
Unwritten laws, retribution. 

Divine violence.
If mythic violence is law making, divine violence is law-destroying; if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them.

Mythic violence brings retribution. It threatens. It’s bloody. Demands sacrifice.
Divine power expiates. It strikes. It’s lethal without blood spillage. Accepts sacrifice.

“Thou shall not kill” is not a criterion for judgement. It’s a guideline for the actions of persons or communities who must wrestle with it in solitude and, in exceptional cases, to take on themselves the responsibility of ignoring it.

The law governing their oscillation rests on the circumstance that all law-preserving violence indirectly weakens the law-making violence it represents, by suppressing hostile counterviolence. This lasts until either new forces or those earlier suppressed triumph over the hitherto law-making violence and thus found a new law, destined in its turn to decay.