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What is Violence?

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Etymology of the word "violence"[edit | edit source]

Etymology makes it possible to understand all the reflections in political science on the concept of violence.

The root of the word violence is the violated word created in the 1080s, which is the violation of a person's integrity; it is the violation of the person's physical, moral and personal integrity.

This word will then be extended to institutions and the moral order. The word will evolve towards the 13th century, meaning the abuse of force. The one who would use violence and the one who would abuse his strength, that is to say, he who uses his strength for purposes that are contrary to good conventions. From 1342 onwards, the verb "to violate" appears which denotes the fact that there is an action in violence. What characterizes violence in the first sense is an action, it has a dimension of intentionality. To act violently is to act with intent in an abrupt and immediate manner. In the 16th century, the adjective "violently" and the expression "to do violence" appears, which shows that we are talking about an action.

Thus, violence is the domain of action and the order of human action, which is intentional, an intention of action. The essential component is strength. However, there are many other dimensions, one can be in psychological or moral abuse. It is not necessarily something of the order of aggression by force, it is an aggression of moral spirit.

Violence is within the realm of action, there is intentionality of action that is violence. One possible mode of expression of violence is the use of force and de facto coercion. It is a constraint to change position because of the damage done.

Hannah Arendt will contrast violence that requires instruments with what she calls the power of might. In essence, violence must be distinguished from power and power because power is directly instrumental. Thus, she will question the expression of different forms of violence.

Scientific fields of reflection[edit | edit source]

Cognitivists have been working scientifically on violence for about 30 years. The central concept is the concept of aggression expressed by Konrad Lorenz in the 1970s. He will first question what aggressive behaviour is and whether it would not be the natural instinct of man. Depending on the context and the nature of the contextual situation, aggression would be natural to man.

Science and biology refer to the question of impulses on the instinct of aggression that is in all living beings and found in nature. So there could be a commonality that would be aggression.

Aggression should also be seen as a mode of expression and action. We can see the passage from a medical cognitive science to a question. A cultural and political issue. Thus, expression would not be a means of expression, aggressiveness makes it possible to express individuality. The expression of individuality is nevertheless an expression of communication.

In essence, the three-dimensional nature of violence is taken as biological factors.

There are biological factors, factors related to the subject's personality, knowing that aggression is partly related to the difficulty of being social, thus a child, the less it is socialized young the more violence and aggression emerges. These three circles make it possible to understand these factors of socioaffective exchanges and to what extent this can be managed.

The fundamental challenge in limiting aggression and violence can be the ability of individuals to control their environment.

Emotion is at the heart of the subject, it is the perception and reading of his situation. The concept of emotion is important because it allows us to understand these situations where there is a loss of rationalization; indeed, it is because we feel aggression that we can express aggression.

These three dimensions are important and explain situations of aggression, i. e. a situation of the order of perception.

If political science is interested in violence, it is because the very heart of political science is the question of action if we talk about the hypothesis that violence is action, then there is a theory to be forged. On the other hand, it is a contextual theory i. e. the relationship between the individual and the collective f but it is the collective dimension.

The question is how do we move from an individual fact to a collective fact and how can we qualify violence as a societal fact? We integrate into an analysis of a functioning and social regulation that raises the question of political management as a fundamental fact.

Classical theories of violence[edit | edit source]

Hobbes and the theory of violence as social utility[edit | edit source]

Thomas Hobbes.

According to Hobbes, there are three possible levels of violence:

  • Level of interindividual relations in the state of nature;
  • Level of international warfare;
  • Level of war between ruler and rebel.

Hobbes lists three causes of violence:

  • rivalry;
  • mistrust;
  • pride.

This leads to wars and conflicts.

Level of interindividual relations in the state of nature[edit | edit source]

Thus, violence is unreasonable, it is a space of passion. The paradox is that violence is passionate and unreasonable, but it leads to rational action.

Opposition = unreasonableness = passion = anarchy

The underlying question is whether the action can be rational, can it, therefore, be called irrationality?

Level of International Warfare[edit | edit source]

The transition to the state of war is a Westphalian state theory, states that are at war with each other.

The first hypothesis is the desire for accumulation, which means that each State wants to acquire more power at a given moment in time to reign over the others. The state of war is a state of accumulation that will triumph thanks to the sovereign and public institutions, it is a state of appropriation of resources. For this to work, it does not mean that violence will be reported on the war side, but that the state will have to deal with its own violence.

In Hobbes' theory, violence can always reappear within the framework of the state, because it must by definition be instrumentalized towards ends and objectives, it will have to defend itself from the outside, but also from violence within its own system.

Thus, Hobbes hypothesizes that violence will be channelled, but it will exist within the state even if the fundamental issue is the war between states.

Level of war between ruler and rebel[edit | edit source]

Even if there is violence in the state of nature, violence between states in a Westphalian system with control of violence within themselves, there is no doubt that there can be a third which is the war between the sovereign is the rebel between the one who holds power and the one who disputes.

What is of interest in Hobbes' theory is that he describes violence as a story and as the assumption that violence remains and cannot disappear as such.

George Sorel and Contesting Violence[edit | edit source]

Georges Sorel.

Sorel is a state socialist, Marxist, trade unionist and revolutionary then he will drift to the extreme right. His book Réflexion sur la violence publié en 1906[1] is interesting, because it will pose violence as a collective. It will take up elements that structure it by saying that violence is not spontaneous, it is not spontaneous and unpredictable, it would be contrary to the order of constitution and a will in action.

Chapter 1. Class struggle and violence Chapter 2. Bourgeois decadence and violence Chapter 3. Prejudices against violence Chapter 4. The proletarian strike Chapter 5. Productive General Strike Chapter 6. The morality of violence Chapter 7. Producer morale

If violence is collective violence, which is used to change social relations and to fight against capitalist poverty and bourgeois exploitation, there is a form of morality of violence, hence it is not considered as amoral, but profoundly moral.

The class struggle is a positive violence, because it is the way to put pressure on the bosses to get social progress. We have to look at the forms of violence that can animate the proletariat to obtain a response to these legitimate demands.

This also makes it possible to understand one of the impasses of terrorism and extremist movements that start from the legitimacy of violence in the name of oppression, which is the theory of anarchism. Since violence is legitimate, we are going to start attacking the bourgeoisie, which justifies a morality of the acts. From the ethical and philosophical point of view, from the moment one starts from the hypothesis of violence as a moral one can reach extremes.

The debate on morality and violence is fraught with the issue of politics and how the issue of politics is analyzed.

René Girard et la violence sacrificielle[edit | edit source]

René Girard.

René Girard was a trained philosopher born in 1923 and died on November 4, 2015.[2]. He was a professor at the major American universities and is also a member of the Académie française. His entire career has been based on works of philosophy, religion and ethics. He is very interesting because he is in the great lineage of structural anthropologists and has worked all his life on the issue of violence and the sacred.

  • La violence et le sacré[3]
  • Le Bouc-émissaire[4]
  • Le sacrifice[5]

What is interesting is that he will re-read all the founding myths of societies to question the issue of violence. His fundamental assumption is that the individual act is of no use in itself, it must be taken in a matter of collective system.

Basically, all individuals are caught up in a mechanical process of imitation strategies, this is what he calls the theory of mimicry. Individual acts are nothing in themselves and are part of a mimetic process towards the society inscribed in a collective mimetic destiny, whether it be in loving relationships or in emotional relationships. Thus violence cannot escape this mimicry.

Girard's first very strong theoretical point is to say that every society is constituted in violence, it is a structuring concept. Therefore, every society has a duty to control violence. Often, violence is mythical and sacrificial; it must control its violence. The paradox is that societies will build themselves with violence and must control it.

Violence is a space of myth, ritual and sacrificial practice, i. e. every society must have a historical consensualist relationship in its narration with violence.

Societal violence will be regulated in the scapegoat theory. Every society according to René Girard first builds a specific report on violence, not to prohibit it, but to frame and ritualize it. It is not a question of stopping violence, but of structuring and channelling it.

Therefore, the most important cause is to work on myths, since myth is the foundation of our society. The first work of philosopher is a cultural analysis of myths to decipher them not as a simple narrative, but to understand the mimetic meaning structure of violence, i. e. how the myth distributes and constructs violence as a phenomenon that will be incorporated into society. By deciphering them, we see the fundamental notions that allow us to understand how this theory of the sacrifice necessary to calm the gods emerges.

Girard's hypothesis is to say that any society must ward off violence by developing myths that themselves become rituals to exorcise violence while helping each other or encouraging controlled violence. Since violence is a constituent part of society, it must be controlled and channelled, but also occasionally encouraged by controlled violence. Controlled violence makes the societal system work.

We must divert societal violence from a system of society because the system of sacrifice is cohesive. The theory is that embezzlement implies that the faithful do not know the role played by violence. The theology of sacrifice is that the gods claim victims, it is to satisfy God that they can return to a normal order.

Sacrificial violence can, therefore, be understood as either alternative or substitute violence. We substitute a form of violence accepted by all the actors in the name of collective happiness, it is a symbolic transfer of the burden of violence. What is at stake is the transfer of collective violence through a collective game of re-designation of the guilty party or the guilty party.

Sacrifice to an important social function which is to appease the conflicts within society, it designates a substitute, it designates a third person who soothes the conflicts. Sacrifice makes it possible to appease conflicts within any society, hence the usefulness of making constant sacrifice based on very strong symbolic rites.

The sacrifice that restores purity is a kind of perpetual rebirth that is the concept of scapegoat. That is, it is the theory that violence expels itself from violence, it must pay and atone for the sin of others, it is sacrificed in the name of all others. We limit violence to the maximum, but we will use it at the end to avoid greater violence, it is a transfer of charge.

The paradox is that as a result, society's violence still expels itself through violence. There can be no society without myth that is the very essence of society, there can be no society without mythical space because it is at the very foundation of the construction of this relationship between individuals and violence. Moreover, in any society, there is the capacity to produce scapegoats. So any society produces scapegoats, all this is done without rationality of judgment, we are not going to question the veracity of the harmful action of the scapegoat.

The benefit is that the only interest of the device and the perception that society wins and has won something in particular, it gains a form of cohesion around a common goal.

State and political violence[edit | edit source]

Political violence and extreme violence[edit | edit source]

Four concepts are used today:

  • the classic concept of political violence;
  • the concept of infrapolitical violence;
  • the concept of meta-political violence;
  • the concept of extreme violence versus the barbarian.

Classic concept of political violence[edit | edit source]

The classic concept of political violence establishes a link between the use of violence and public and political power. There may be a relationship between the use of violence and public and political power. There is no question about the legitimacy of violence, it refers to the relationship to politics that is exercised in a legitimate or illegitimate framework.

Two arguments put forward to justify the use of violence:

1) Violence as a principle of defensive action

It is the idea that the use of force would be legitimate to the extent that the good is defended:

  • or the state can be wrong and it's not infallible;
  • or the state is never wrong and at that time it had no reason to question the legitimacy of its violence.
2) Violence at the service of a just cause

It is a mode of legitimation that has always existed:

  • legitimacy of war intentions or violent actions through idealistic arguments;
  • the relationship to religion and morality is the most evoked.

In these considerations and this conception of political violence, there is the question of the purpose of violence in order to defend the rule of law, but with a danger on the part of public actors that if one is too violent it is likely to re-mobilize the opposition.

The symbolic question and how far it is possible to go, the blunder which is an act of violence that leads to a serious thing that is very costly in symbolic terms and can, therefore, be denounced as a barbaric and brutal act.

Beyond a certain threshold, repressive violence arouses rejection, explaining why when politicians use violence they must argue and explain it. The question of political violence often involves the construction of a discourse. A rationality of judging the use of violence must be constructed.

Violence in the service of a just cause is a moral interpretation of violence. The moral law has an important outlet in the 1980s which is the right of international interference. -

The right of international interference was a curious invention that was almost against the nature of international law. If populations are killed and victims of genocide, the international community must exercise a right of international interference in the name of human rights. Thus humanitarian law justifies military intervention in certain countries. Therefore, military intervention can be justified in the name of peace.

The concept of infrapolitical violence[edit | edit source]

It relates to the economic and political changes in the world of the 1980s, ie. the weakening of the nation-state with a privatized political violence giving the possibility to armed groups that will constitute themselves as a system of forces to use violence to have a certain number of territorial, spatial and economic prerogatives. It is infrapolitical violence that complicatedly articulates legality and illegality, which no longer makes it possible to unravel what would be real political issues of what would constitute organized crime.

This refers to a concept of privatization of resources and articulates a joint legality and illegality in disadvantaged countries or regions where there are systems or the nation-state no longer has the power to control the territory.

The concept of meta-political violence[edit | edit source]

The concept of meta-political violence means that violence transcends the boundaries of nation-state politics or subordinates politics to new strategic issues. It is, for example, political or religious violence, or violence that emerges from modernity, i. e. the form of meta-political violence in the name of a general interest.

The origin of meta-political violence:

  • criticism of the over-modernity of advanced societies
  • criticizing political secularization and the loss of connection with the spiritual
  • all the frustrations born of modernity

Extreme violence vs. barbarism[edit | edit source]

Extreme violence is violence that has lost all the classic modes of regulation, which is often gratuitous and leads to a loss of absolute rationality. This is all that is about the specific gratuitous violence, as women rape it as weapons of war in some African wars, but also wars of ethnic cleansing is to destroy the other in an absolute way. It means the deregulation of the classical forms of violence, it is called extreme because it is described as violence beyond violence, it is violence that would no longer have any ritual and is extreme cruelty.

  • Exponentiality of physical violence against persons
  • process of regression in relation to the process of civilization
  • deregulation of war laws and principles
  • deinstitutionalization of violence: violence no longer has an institutional form.

This raises the question of what threshold can we speak of extreme violence. It is a question of the order of philosophy, but in the case of extreme violence, there might be a transition between rationality and irrationality.

The theory of extreme violence undermines all the theories of Clausewitz and Machiavelli on war, one is beyond rationality, one enters into barbarism in its purest form.

Michel Henry was born in 1922 and died in 2000 and wrote La barbarie publised in 1987 observing the rise of extreme violence by wondering what barbarism is and how man's amputation is played out in a system of barbarism.

Hannah Arendt [1906 - 1975] and Radical Evil[edit | edit source]

Extract from a German stamp printed in 1988 with the effigy of Hannah Arendt.

Hannah Arendt is a philosopher by training, a pupil of Heidegger, she exiled in France between 1933 and 1940 before moving to the United States in 1941. She is a very important political philosopher on society, culture, totalitarianism and violence. She is an inescapable philosopher of the 20th century.

Arendt saw the two world wars, the Cold War, all totalitarianism, in her work The totalitarian system she postulates that evil is in man, deep down, the twentieth century invented an unprecedented evil that is a radical evil. This is something that was previously unknown to men because it is something that resists all Western theological and philosophical categories. Basically, it is something that escapes all the knowledge that has been accumulated about society, war and violence for generations.

It is something that is an absolute evil in man. It is necessary to go back to Kant because he approached the absolute evil in the human being, thus, he showed that there was in man a potentiality of evil impossible to think and conceptualize. Thus, his theory is an attempt to think evil and new evil as well as the transformation of the modern world that was incomprehensible beyond the forms of rationality.

Arendt will challenge the scapegoat theory about Jews, they would not just harm others, but it is Nazi anti-Semitism, they are killed first and foremost because they are Jews.

Thus, she will work on the radical evil of which appears an important notion which is the concept of superfluity. From then on, there is the possibility of mass killing because at some point man is no longer anything, he is no longer a conscious being, and hence he no longer belongs to humanity. It denotes three types of concentration camps:

  • Hades: all that is in the twentieth century the management of stateless, asocial people;
  • Purgatory: it is the camps for the rehabilitation of individuals that are considered dangerous;
  • Hell: it is the extermination camp that is the death concretized by the extermination camps of the Jews.

Hell is the place of dispossession as a man, man is dispossessed first of all legally. The first thing that happens in a concentration camp is the evasion of the individual from the protection of laws. The second thing is abandonment to any regulation, the camp becomes a wild place where there is no management, aristocrats are criminals; it is the place where the personality is destroyed. The last phase is the destruction of individuality. The Nazi project as such is to make man an animal by forcing him to live in order to survive and feed himself, to make him a being without consciousness.

Jorge Semprun tells us how, in order to survive this absolute violence, he stared at a tree that represents a metaphorical mythology of freedom.

From then on, absurdity becomes the management mode to arrive at animality in order to make man lose the consciousness of solidarity that would have allowed him to survive in the camps explaining the destruction of the moral conscience of man before his assassination. It should be noted that in order to reduce human beings to the state of animals, we must reduce the ability to think about the time when we are projected into an absolute immediacy that destroys cohesion.

Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil[edit | edit source]

Adolf Eichmann in April 1961 during his trial in Jerusalem.

Arendt is going to ask about forgiveness and the Eichmann trial. Eichmann is a small Nazi civil servant, responsible for the logistics of deporting Jews from Europe. His job as a small civil servant was to supervise the trains so that they would move eastward. He will be recovered by the Israeli secret services in Argentina, taking him to Jerusalem where he will be tried.

The big question is to judge his guilt because on the count of the charge there is going to be the issue of extermination of Jews which was decided in 1942 at the Wannsee conference, however, no written record has been kept.

What strikes Arendt is that Eichmann is a small civil servant who behaves like a small civil servant defending himself against the fact that he acted as a civil servant by handling the logistics of the deportation aircraft. Thus, having obeyed orders, he does not feel guilty, he has only done his duty.

Arendt's speech and say that one does not have to deal with an inhumane monster, but an ordinary man. It is not a monster because it is simply stupid not understanding the link between private individuals and universal not feeling responsible.

« We expected to meet a human monster, we had to make an ordinary man less of a monster than a clown; »

Evil is therefore ordinary. What Eichmann describes is an ordinary reality, it is something that can be in each of us who, depending on particular circumstances, can lead to the most serious crimes. Man in historical and political circumstances, if he does not have a specific consciousness he can do dramatic things. The spirit of evil watchfulness is only waiting for the right moment to push the individual into radical evil.

What the Eichmann trial shows is the banality of evil. Deep down, in the banality of evil, it happens that the individual is not in the possibility of integrating reality. His fundamental thesis is that wickedness can be caused by the absence of thought. What would have prompted Eichmann to do this is that he was unable to think about his action. Therefore, there is no action without thinking. If you don't think about the action any more, you are in the compulsion, you reproduce a device without thinking about it, then you no longer have the ability to think about your own action.

« We expected to meet a human monster, but we are dealing with an ordinary man... not so much a monster as a clown... The bad man would, therefore, be each of us... If he slips and drags himself into the air, he manages in historical and political circumstances to commit the greatest crimes. There is no more genius in evil than in good, but only ordinary men, in whom the spirit of evil watches over and waits for the right moment to blow and push them into radical evil, so that there is a disproportion between the evil done and the ordinary appearance of the human being who has accomplished it; »

As Professor Rémi Baudoui, admirer of Arendt, likes to point out, "THERE IS NO ACTION WITHOUT THINKING."

The concept of violence[edit | edit source]

Violence has an instrumental character, it is similar to power, but it is not man's power, power and ability to act. Violence can destroy existing power, but it is incapable of creating it.

Arendt is going to challenge Max Weber's concept of legitimate violence: we must not speak of legitimate violence because there is an illegitimate use of violence by states; on the other hand, there has never been a government based exclusively on violence, but we must speak of instrumental violence, that is to say, the use of violence as a tool for action. The use of violence or the repeated use of violence can be seen as a form of absolute powerlessness of politics.

If at some point there is only the use of violence, it is no longer political. From then on, there is a risk of substituting violence for power, that is to say, of entering into regimes of terror as Robespierre had enunciated in revolutionary terror, justifying the cycle of violence and absolute terror in order to govern in the name of morality, justice and the name of the French Republic.

Arendt's danger is that violence can in some cases become an end in itself, so it is the end of politics and politics. Thus, violence destroys power, but cannot create it.

« To sum up, it is not enough to say that power and violence should not be confused in the political sphere. Power and violence do not oppose each other by their very nature; when one of them dominates in an absolute way, the other is eliminated. Violence occurs when power is threatened, but if allowed to develop, it will eventually lead to the loss of power. As a result, non-violence should not be seen as the opposite of violence. Talking about non-violent power is actually tautology. Violence can destroy power, it is perfectly incapable of creating it. »

— Hannah Arendt, Du mensonge à la violence, trad. fr G. Durand, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1972, p.166

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Sorel, Georges. Reflexions Sur La Violence. Version electronique: http://www.ultimorecurso.org.ar/drupi/files/Sorel_Reflexions_violence.pdf
  2. Jean Birnbaum (2015). Mort de René Girard, anthropologue et théoricien du « désir mimétique »Le Monde.fr. Retrieved 5 November 2015, from http://www.lemonde.fr/livres/article/2015/11/05/l-anthropologue-et-academicien-francais-rene-girard-est-mort_4803285_3260.html
  3. La Violence et le Sacré (1990), René Girard, éd. Hachette, coll. Pluriel, 2004 (ISBN 2-01-278897-1)
  4. Le Bouc émissaire, René Girard, éd. Grasset, 1982 (ISBN 2-253-03738-9)
  5. Le sacrifice, René Girard, éd. Bibliothèque Nationale, 2003, (ISBN 2-717-72263-7)