Sunday, October 16, 2011

Walter Benjamin and Georges Sorel on the nature of law and violence

One of German literary critic Walter Benjamin's most famous essays is his "Critique of Violence" (1921). It is a response to the German philosopher Georges Sorel's most famous work, Reflections on Violence (1908).

Benjamin in this essay understood the historical role of violence to ultimately be a question of the expiating role of violence as directed by God in history. The sacredness of life, understood as demanding freedom and development toward godliness of human beings, has to be the underlying principle for judging acts of violence. This principle opposes pacifism because defending the sacred elements in human life requires violence against those who would degrade or destroy them. But he elides the meaning of violence in discussing German pacifism. Those like the antiwar dissenters from the majority Social Democratic Party prowar position who were called pacifists during the First World War were opposed to international war in particular because of its multiple destructive effects. That's not the same as denying the role of violence in the legal order and the opposition to it.

Building on the Sorel's conceptions, Benjamin argues that law-preserving and law-establishing violence are the two types which belong to the world of profane history. "All violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving." He treats the military as law-establishing and militarism in the form of conscription in the First World War as law-preserving, the latter because it preserves the basic violence inherent in the state itself. The police as the regular organ of force in an established order combine both functions. They enforce the existing laws ("the right of disposition") but also establish precedents by their actions, thereby creating law in practice ("the right of decree").

Apollo and Artemis killing the children of Niobe
Benjamin argues that natural law provides no justification for revolutionary (law-making) violence. In this point, he seems to be following Sorel, who took natural law in this context to be Thomas Hobbes' state of nature, a war of all against all. He finds the justification for law-making violence in mythic violence. But in a conventional Jewish religious judgment, he argues that God opposes mythic violence, specifically that the divine (including divine violence) is the "antithesis in all respects" (p.249) to mythic violence and that God will ultimately destroy all law to create a state of divine anarchism beyond law and the state as we know them. "if mythic violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates." He uses the judgment against Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Num. 16-17) as an illustration of this divine, expiatory, law-destroying judgment with a "lack of bloodshed". (In the Korah story, the deaths come from being swallowed up by the earth, by fire from heaven and from a plague.) This Niobe-Korah contrast frames his concept of the establishment of divine justice requiring the abolition of positive law and the violence associated with it, both law-preserving and law-establishing.


The judgment of Korah
 Issues with Benjamin's argument in his 1921 essay include: his conventional Jewish distinction between mythic violence (Niobe) and divine violence (Korah), though Biblical scholarship would treat the Korah story as mythical, as well; eliding the meaning of violence, as when he treats the act of a normal labor strike as violent because its exercise reinforces the established legal system which ultimately relies of violence for its self-preservation; his Sorelian view of natural law as not placing any restriction of violence as a means when used toward a just end; a failure to distinguish between underlying violence and actual acts of violence, e.g., in his discussion of parliamentarianism; and, what seems to be the equation of Darwin's theory of natural selection with Social Darwinism.

No conservative would likely disagree with Benjamin's argument that normal strikes represent extortion, which he equates with violence. This connects with Sorel's essentially conservative idea that any normal strike preserves the existing order. But both Sorel's and Bejamin's concepts of violence in the works in question treat violence in a very abstract manner. It does make a difference in real life and death whether conflicts are handled through means that don't involved beating, maiming and shooting people, or through means that don't involve physical violence. That is not meant to dismiss the importance of the larger frameworks, only to note that those formulations, especially with Sorel, can too easily lend themselves to empty sophistry.

Benjamin makes an interesting twist on Sorel's 1908 discussion of two kinds of general strikes: the "political" general strike, which is of a law-making character, but is essentially violent in that it leaves in place some system of law based on violence. The second is the "proletarian" (working-class) general strike, which Sorel described a general uprising of a self-conscious working-class that would not be dependent on politicians and which would be essentially non-violent because it would completely abolish law as we know it and establish a sort of New Jerusalem state condition in which humanity would cooperate without the need of a system of law and therefore the New Jerusalem state condition would not be based on violence. Sorel argued that the vision of the working-class general strike was more important as a myth, a motivation vision by which the working class could frame their actions.

Benajamin considers the same two types of general strikes. But he defines the political general strike as mythic violence (the Niobe type). And he suggests that the working-class general strike would be a type of divine violence (the Korah type). Thus he sees an eschatological function for the working-class strike, as Sorel does. But where Sorel defines the later as having its great value as a myth, Benjamin sees it as the "antithesis in all respects" to the mythic violence which Benjamin identifies with the political general strike rather than the working-class general strike.

Benjamin is considered part of the Frankfurt School circle, though he never actually worked at the Institute for Social Research. His articles were featured in their journal and they considered his thought as closely related to theirs. There were differences, of course. Theodor Adorno argued with Benjamin about the latter's affinity for Jewish mystical theology. Benjamin was a close friend of the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem (1897—1982).

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