‘Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Philosophy’ reviewed by Philip Cunliffe

Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Philosophy

Columbia University Press, New York, 2015. 232pp., £20.50 hb
ISBN 9780231153980

Reviewed by Philip Cunliffe

About the reviewer

Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent. …


In his most recent book Balibar offers a series of meditations on the inter-relationship between violence and politics. Originally delivered as part of the Wellek Library lectures at the University of California, Irvine in 1996, the theme is justified by reference to what Balibar calls the ‘Hobbesian turn’ in political philosophy and contemporary social thought more broadly. Variously embodied in the study of figures as diverse as Kant, Schmitt, Arendt and Strauss (25) for Balibar the ‘Hobbesian turn’ means conceiving of politics in a distinctive way – that is, as instantiating and maintaining collective social life against the disintegrating and asocial threat posed by extreme violence. Violence is no longer imagined as the state of nature as per Hobbes’ original theory, but rather by reference to contemporary ‘ethnoreligious conflicts’ and ‘national or transnational identity wars’ (26) among other examples of suffering and disruption.

The theme is a good one, as there is a strong vein of liberal internationalism abroad today that is inspired in no small way by Kantian ideas of rights, politics and state authority, and that is addressed to the secular decline in violence, both criminal violence within the developed world and organized, political violence between countries and within them. Much of this debate would be deepened and enriched by considering in more profound ways the categories deployed to organize the empirical study of these trends – categories such as violence, order, progress, and so on. Unfortunately Balibar’s book is not the one to do it.

Obviously it is not incumbent on Balibar to engage with say, all the United Nations reports recounting the global decline in violence, but he roots his discussion instead in sweeping portents of anarchy, doom, disaster and depravity. Balibar’s intention here is presumably to signal his seriousness and the importance of the theme. Instead it reads like a middle class, academic fantasy of what the nasty and dangerous world looks like beyond the suburban garden – a fantasy in which the banlieues of Paris morph into the slums of Third World mega-cities and civil war battlefields, in which the world is ruled by gigantic multinational corporations regimenting millions of slave workers deranged by exploitation, beset by marauding gangs of organ traffickers preying on slum children, the whole edifice about to be swept away by pandemic disease, ethnic civil war and economic catastrophe. The overall effect is not unlike reading dystopian science fiction, except for the fact that it is more tedious and portentous given the absence of a plot and the redundant intrusion of Foucauldian and Marxist jargon about laws of population and biopolitics. Ironically Balibar’s portrayal of modern violence is more fantastical and imaginary than even that of Hobbes’ state of nature, and certainly more titillating when compared to Hobbes’ sobre, rationalistic analysis of the functions and origins of violence. In that at least, Balibar’s book shows its age, partaking in the dystopian mood of the mid-1990s reflecting the ethnic civil wars that followed the collapse of the USSR.

Readability is a serious problem for the book: already undercut by its structure as a series of lectures, Balibar further gouges out coherence and meaning by persistent parenthetical elaborations and the repetitive use of scare quotes; the introduction is almost unreadable as a result. All of this is a shame as there is a fragmented pattern of insight developed across the lectures, concerning say, the relationship between progress and modern political traditions, and his production of intriguing conceptual neoligisms (e.g., counter-violence, anti-violence) and his discussion of Hegel.

Balibar’s engagement with Hegel is the most sustained in the book, and worth examining in a little more detail. Hegel’s thought on the relationship between violence and politics is crucial to Balibar’s discussion. Among all modern thinkers, Hegel presents arguably the strongest case for how political order emerges from originary violence, or what Balibar calls the ‘conversion thesis’, the means by which violence against an existing order is converted into the basis of a new order (36). Balibar is sufficiently well-versed with Hegel’s theory to capture the nuances and yet still miss the overall case. He recounts in some detail, for example, Hegel’s paradigmatic account of the rise of Caesar. Caesar embodies Hegel’s conversion thesis, as Caesar founds the Roman imperial order by criminally violating the constitution of the republican order. In earnest vein, Balibar is concerned to insist that there is a violence against which politics is powerless, which results in the breakdown and deracination of any institutionalized social life rather than, as per Caesar, in the founding of a new, higher order.

Balibar wishes to cast Hegel as willfully and vainly resisting the notion of violence that cannot be institutionalised into political order. What Balibar misses is that this is precisely the kind of violence that Hegel is already talking about – Caesar’s violence is the extreme violence that cannot be contained within the pre-existing political and social order. It is violence that is so targeted and extreme in its context that it cannot but lay the foundations of a new political order. In this way, violence is both progressive and extreme. Bertolt Brecht’s famous epigram ‘What is the robbing of a bank compared to founding one?’ neatly captures the logic (although not the spirit) of Hegel’s progressive thesis regarding the conversion of violence. Committed to underestimating Hegel, Balibar is left to worry around the issue, indulging morose visions of fin-de-siecle gloom and splicing up of categories (counter-violence, anti-violence, etc.)

Balibar is happy to indulge the usual arguments against Hegel – that Hegel presents us with a secularized theodicy and an untenable teleological vision of history, and so on. Yet for all his claim to a superior and cynical wisdom, it is Balibar who here falls into the role of the naïve Christian, leaving us with a portrayal of a fallen humanity, wallowing in original sin of violence, its petty designs and institutions afflicted by the ever-present possibility of meaningless and inscrutable violence. 

26 May 2016

One comment

  1. Very interesting and helpful review, and confirms my intention not to acquire this book – and is also further evidence of the way in which Balibar is taking part in the “religious turn” led by my colleague Costas Douzinas – who recently invited Balibar to speak at the Greek Parliament of which Costas is now a member

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