Quiet Riot

The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind BY JUDITH BUTLER. BROOKLYN, NY: VERSO. 224 PAGES. $25.

The cover of The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind

THE STANDARD DEBATES around violent and nonviolent protest are well worn, if not worn out. Those of us who defend the deployment of tactics deemed “violent”—the broken bank window, the punched neo-Nazi, the burning cop car—are told that the moral high ground lies in nonviolence alone. In response, we speak of historic successes. We bemoan the whitewashing of civil rights militancy and decry the state’s monopoly on force. We’ve been known to quote Assata Shakur: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Arguments about the legitimacy of violent protest have been repeated for decades, only occasionally refreshed by new insights and critical tools.

Judith Butler’s newest work, The Force of Nonviolence, attempts to break away from such formulaic exchanges in order to urge a philosophical and political vision of nonviolence. More meaningful than simply an abstention from physical blows, Butler frames nonviolence as a desired state of collective being, always worked toward from within the existing “field” of structural violence and interpersonal conflict. The text avoids rehashing tired moral and strategic condemnations of violence. Butler reminds us that what is deemed violence or nonviolence is a matter of interpretation and that the state maintains a monopoly on deciding which forms of violence are legitimate, and which acts are understood to constitute violence at all. Yet her book, which is neither philosophically groundbreaking nor politically bold, is more notable for what it leaves out.

Judith Butler. Photo: Verso
Judith Butler. Photo: Verso

The premise around which the text is organized reprises an important theme from Butler’s previous work on life’s livability and valuation: namely, the recognition that we live, inescapably, in a condition of interdependency and dependency on human and nonhuman life. This recognition forms the ground for Butler’s notion of proactive, collective nonviolence. We are all, Butler reminds us, “born into a condition of radical dependency.” COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief the visceral fact of our shared reliance on each other. Butler’s reflections on the subject are hardly new, but they feel newly resonant as so many people isolate, socially distance, and wear masks in recognition of the fact of our interdependence—and others continue to be forced to work in perilous proximity.

Butler is not, thank goodness, asking the people of the world to hold hands and sing in joyful unison. She recognizes that the connectedness of human life is always laden with psychic conflict. Violence, for Butler, consists of the individualistic denial and abuse of “the living interdependency that is, or should be, our social world.” This critique is well and good; indeed, it is crucial. But it is also insufficient to treat the problem of violence—both interpersonal and structural—as primarily a problem of our thinking. This is not to suggest that Butler reduces complex questions of what constitutes and legitimates violence to conscious choices made by individuals; she argues for the opposite—for a collective reorientation of our relationship to violence. We are in need of “an altered state of perception, another imaginary,” she writes, “that would disorient us from the givens of the political present” around which violence is administered and sanctioned. But it’s worth asking who this “we” includes, if it is a universalist position somehow stripped of race and class.

First, we can consider what is useful in Butler’s treatment of the entrenched “legacy of individualism” as the source of violence and its justifications. Epistemic individualism, centered around the white, propertied man, grounds the Western philosophical tradition. Butler dedicates much of her text to breaking down the phantasmic conceptions of the “self” that this individualism posits, as a way to critique claims to “self-defense” that undergird so much violent action. A Hobbesian “state of nature fantasy,” she points out, assumes that, somehow, foundationally, “there is a man and he is an adult and he is on his own, self-sufficient.” This origin story is already a scene of erasure: the idea of a self-sufficient subject negates the vast array of human labor—notably gestational labor—that went into making that adult person possible. Butler doesn’t talk much about labor; her preferred term is “dependency.” Yet she is right that these under-challenged presumptions of self-sufficiency set the stage for a “self” who must defend himself from a distinct and disconnected “other” and justify violence accordingly.

Butler argues that institutional and state violence is perpetrated through the same individualist notion of “self-defense”: a phantom threat is conjured, against which violence is justified in the name of preserving the lives of those considered to belong to the state, to possess the right sort of selfhood. Entire populations, she writes, are treated as worthy of killing by the state’s war logics or are “let to die” through power’s necropolitical operations. She then revives her concept of “grievability” from previous work to describe how state violence divides lives up into those whose deaths would be registered as a loss and those whose would not.

Cauleen Smith, We Were Never Meant to Survive, 2017, recto/verso, satin, poly-satin, wool felt, upholstery, indigo-dyed silk-rayon velvet, metallic thread, embroidery floss, acrylic fabric paint, poly-silk tassels, sequins, 72 × 52". From the series
Cauleen Smith, We Were Never Meant to Survive, 2017, recto/verso, satin, poly-satin, wool felt, upholstery, indigo-dyed silk-rayon velvet, metallic thread, embroidery floss, acrylic fabric paint, poly-silk tassels, sequins, 72 × 52″. From the series “In the Wake,” 2017. Courtesy the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey

Butler recognizes and asserts how grievability is unequally distributed by race, gender, and class. She highlights the horror of thousands of migrants left to die in the Mediterranean Sea or on the southern US border. Meanwhile, white nationalists, aided by the technologies of statehood, defend closed borders as “self-defense.” Borrowing from Frantz Fanon, she describes how “historic-racial schema” transforms the meaning of violence such that an armed cop can shoot an unarmed Black child and call it “self-defense,” and the entire judicial system will agree. But every ten pages or so, I found myself writing in the book’s margins, “Who is this for?” Who does she think this reader is, who needs to cognitively challenge the legitimacy of state violence? Who, exactly, needs to be told that a critique of violence must extend beyond questions regarding murderous individuals and also apply to the processes by which millions are left to die? Perhaps all too many of Butler’s interlocutors in the academy. Black people rising up for their lives, and those joining the struggle against white supremacy, already acknowledge—and actively reject—the state’s logic of violence. For this reason, Butler’s text does not seem to be in conversation with those on the streets, and a book about violence that is not addressed to those on the front lines fails to engage on the terrain where questions about violence and nonviolence are most crucial.

Butler states that nonviolence “is not an absolute principle.” She praises “anti-colonial resistance” and cites Fanon, though she fails to address what Fanon saw as the necessary violence of decolonization, which, he wrote, “reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives”—a fangless evasion on her part. Her critique of violence focuses on the bogus “self-defense” claims of the state and other white-supremacist, masculinist constellations. But she does not grapple in any serious way with the history of militant, sometimes violent struggle that has not, in fact, served to perpetuate further cycles of violence. Consider, as the late political theorist Cedric J. Robinson did in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983), that in the rich but all-too-erased history of slave rebellions and marronage communities, there was a reliance on some physical violence to ensure escape and sustain freedom, but a remarkably small number of retributive killings of white enslavers. In the last century, too, even the most militant Black liberation struggles in the US, while ideologically committed to using any means necessary, empirically involved very little killing or physical harm. Again and again, violent tactics deployed against the overarching violence of white supremacy have not exceeded their aim. Butler does not reckon with these nuances. She advocates for “aggressive” protest actions, strikes, and boycotts. But she does not make explicit in the text where she thinks the line between “aggressive” tactics and violence lies.

BUTLER IS RIGHT to denounce the white-supremacist and patriarchal operations of epistemic individualism and its legitimization of state violence. Yet “another imaginary” of mutually sustaining, collective life, one not formed around the Cartesian cognizer, needn’t be conjured as a utopian abstraction. The Black radical tradition of rebellion, care, and survival; Indigenous knowledge systems and practices upholding human and nonhuman life—these are not simply rejections of individualism (although they are that, too). They are born out of altogether different epistemologies and traditions, different ideas of the “self” and its value. Inattentive to these powerful and ongoing legacies, Butler fails to address the possibility that the “new imaginary” she calls for already exists.

Equally, when considering the history of Indigenous and Black liberation struggle, and the practices of armed self-defense and defensive violence therein, it would be incorrect to apply Butler’s critique of individualistic “self-defense.” The “self” in need of defense in these cases—communities forged in shared life, practices, and struggle—is not the same as the self that undergirds the logic of fascistic state violence. Butler rejects claims to “self-defense” derived from Western individualism. But what of claims to “self-defense” in which the self in question is a different, more interdependent construction?

Butler wants a world where each life would be treated as a life worth grieving, a world where each life would be affirmed and supported in its livability. I want that world, too. To affirm such a reality requires antiracist struggle, feminist struggle, LGBTQIA struggle, antifascist struggle, and anticapitalist struggle. And Butler agrees with all of the above. Yet a reader could come away from the book with the impression that violence is just a perverted feature of human relationships in need of rethinking. It is not—it is a system of congenital antagonism.

When Donald Trump and his ghoulish allies expressed their desire to lessen restrictions around the pandemic and restart the economy, it was with the explicit knowledge that the cost would be hundreds of thousands of lives. The capitalist class may adhere to individualist thinking, but they know their dependency: on human life as labor, both productive and reproductive. Capital is the sovereign force that orders a blood sacrifice of the poor, the incarcerated, and the sick. In the face of it, Butler’s hopeful framing of nonviolence is inadequate.

Natasha Lennard is a columnist at The Intercept.