The purpose of the first version of this essay, written in April of last year, was to examine some of the prominent liberal theories over the last few centuries, and suggest a liberal model of violence between citizens of a single nation state. It was essentially a collection of crude (but entirely sensical) thought experiments. This updated version of the essay still reflects on Eco’s typology of fascism, but now (still crudely) wants to explore the limits of liberal and political violence. It invites you to question: When is violence legitimate? When is the state illegitimate? As the original introduction made clear, the goal posts of liberalism have shifted a lot of over the centuries since its ‘inception’.
A tremendous amount of ‘political violence’ has occurred in the last year in the US, some of it ‘liberal’, much of it not. It is on this reflection that I have revised the essay, and suggested a new message on the place of violence within liberalism.
Liberalism allow its adherents to commit violence in times of war. Uberto Eco’s essay ‘Ur-Fascism’ is adamant of this. In speaking of the ‘liberation’ of Italy from the fascists, Eco fondly remembers how almost magically the fascists seemed to begin slipping away, until one day they had all vanished. Their disappearance was accompanied by the appearance of a new lexicon of liberation, and physical signs of ‘freedom’ of ‘speech’, press and political association. Eco recalls that while the universal fascism of the regime attempted to project everywhere onto society a model of homogeneity, the ribbons of the partisans had many colours. The deeply unsettling realities of the end of fascist Italy—Blackshirts hanged from lampposts—are viewed in terms of a necessary, and perhaps even moral, crescendo to the violence the fascists themselves instigated.
This is obviously too limited, however. Few would deny the necessity of war against a sworn enemy of mankind’s emerging international order. In order to understand the place of violence in liberalism, we ought to examine state violence in peacetime.
Virtually all liberals are comfortable with Mill’s ‘harm principle’. That is, when considering whether taking action against an individual is permissible, it is right to apply a moral philosophy that interrogates whether our intervention would prevent harm to others.
The principle, like any human risk assessment, is only as apt as its assessor. In 2005 Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick gave the order for officers to kill Jean Charles de Menezes as he went about a normal day boarding the Victoria Line, under the false assumption he was carrying explosives in his bag. But is this issue ‘aesthetic’ or principled? In regretting Menezes’ death, are we objecting to the facts of the matter—in this case, the fact he was innocent—or are we lamenting the matter of fact that it is acceptable for the state to kill terrorists, without warning, to save lives?
The answer is obviously a mix of both. Yet, how can we occupy two distinct fields of thought, where we invest in the state the power of emergency security to protect life, whilst also recognising the state’s human characteristics, and thus human flaws? The answer (I think) lies in the fact that liberalism has moved past the absolutes of the 19th and early 20th centuries, where in its ‘classical’ form it was assertive over its grasp of the ‘absolute’ truths in its innovative doctrine, and of the resolute perfectibility of human life. One of the few great 20th century thinkers I can claim to be intelligent enough to understand is Isaiah Berlin. His staunch defence of liberalism has given it legs with which to survive in lieu of these 20th century criticisms over the objectivity of knowing, and the problems involved in the state claiming a monopoly over knowing what’s best. He argues that if we are to defend pluralism and liberalism, particularly if we can have liberty when humans possess often-irrational and dangerous free will, we have to reject utopias and definite optimism. The ‘benevolent’ or utopian ideas of Enlightenment and ‘classical’ liberalism are grounded in the belief that man’s free agency is there to perfect itself. To possess free will and liberty will drive man forward, and this drive is its only justification.
One cannot hold such a view in the 21st century. We can’t assume that the state and individual will interact and associate in an intrinsically objectively ‘improving’ manner in a liberal environment. For one, liberalism and freedom in Berlin’s thought are not free standing. They require a modern conception of humanism—that human beings are of primary importance, and that avoiding harm is the first moral priority. The moral priority of avoiding harm and the universalism of humanism rejects the ‘scientism’ of the Enlightenment—thus rejecting that any worldview can quantify the immeasurable complexity and beauty of human life, nor can anyone define what makes it successful or laudable. As Berlin wrote in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, choice, for better or worse, is essential to what is human, and so we must occupy a “precarious equilibrium” of avoiding “intolerable choices” in governing man, and avoid applying the “right” choice by force.
So where does this leave us with Mill’s though experiment and Cressida Dick? Ignoring Mill’s caveat that the principle only applies in ‘civilised communities’, Mill’s thought experiment moves in the right direction, but is too narrow to be much value in providing a negative test of moral state action today. While we can try to use education and permissiveness to encourage people to not become terrorists, they are free agents. We are frequently brought into positions where we have to make ‘intolerable choices’ as irrational and flawed human judges of action. Importantly, our conception of preventing harm to others is bordered by our understanding of the potentiality of that harm, which unless the decision regards blatant physical harm, is a process intrinsically bound to our own subjective understandings of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I cannot provide any solution to this anymore than others have. When we grant the state the right to security, we are not only accepting the reality of its flawed application, we are accepting a necessary paradox of our own liberalism.
Nicolas de Condorcet’s liberalism will guide us through questioning how and when individual-on-individual violence is acceptable. What I will aim to elucidate is that in this third realm of violence, we have to begin to question what ‘political’ violence is, and whether it carries any merit any more (or at least right now).
Condorcet detested violence. His Equisse [‘sketch’] of human nature and subsequent essays on liberty located the origin of rights in the human. At the time of his writing, Rousseau’s majoritarian contract theory and Sieyès’ ‘will of the majority’ were being married to the language of anti-political identity, and national brotherhood and ‘security’, by Saint-Just and Robespierre, the latter two being thoroughly ‘anti-political’. I will return to this idea of being ‘anti-political’ later, but for now it is important to establish that while the Jacobins were envisioning stateless brotherhoods of men, created by ‘social concords’, Condorcet (who was essentially a social scientist) argued that only the political union of the state could secure man’s liberty by pinning rights upon man’s birth.
We can imagine the liberalism of Condorcet as being like a circle surrounding all individuals, the boundaries of which we ought never to cross: this would be an unjust or non-consensual infringement of someone’s freedom. These bounds were observed by the neutral person of the state, a body governed by these inalienable mechanics of equal rights–protection which no human could enter and change. When Robespierre and his allies cried that it would be unjust to not kill the King, Condorcet’s philosophy rebutted that whatever abuses Louis had committed, he was still a citizen: the great innovation of Condorcet was to say that this equality worked both ways.
However, his 150 page Equisse recognised that liberty was part of an unending chain of the progression of human nature. Condorcet saw that these freedoms were an inalienable product of one’s humanity. Perhaps the brilliance of this was to detach the idea of perfectability from man and reattach it to society. But this is also where it allows us to consider violence against other individuals.
His essay on slavery reflects the climate of French salons in encouraging mediation and dialogue, but the mechanical implications of his philosophy say otherwise. Condorcet recognised the absurdity that slavery could be justified by predicating freedom either on natural law or the superior ‘reason’ and ‘civilisation’ of the oppressor. This is to say, that unlike most European natural law theorists following Grotius’ tradition, the Scottish Enlightenment traditions, or even Catholic Pietists, Condorcet found that your ability to recognise and use reason was not the pre-condition for liberty. Human life itself was. In Condorcet’s philosophy, if you are enslaved by some force, for no reason other than being born into a plantation on a European colony, your basic humanity is being held from you.
The humanity of all men is subsequently limited by such an enslavement—how can the progress of his Equisse continue without the liberty of all? As John Donne wrote a century and a half prior, ‘ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee’.
What does liberalism offer us when this common humanity is suppressed? As a slave you have no recourse to vote for anti-slavery candidates: you cannot vote. You typically have no recourse to third party protection from violence or rape—after all, you are not a ‘person’, but property. Your situation, or if you be free, the situation of your fellow man, is abominable, inhuman, and perhaps unchangeable by peaceful means. You are denied the action to change your situation peacefully, and have no reason to presume it will be changed.
I’ll conclude this section here, as I think my point is clear. In acting out of one of the few irrefutable ‘moral’ obligations—that of protection your own humanity—you are permitted, and perhaps even obliged, to act with the only recourse you have: violence and force. Indeed, if there is any notion of shared humanity, any individual who is free is perhaps equally permitted and obliged to commit political violence against such oppressors.
In April 2020 it was reported by Al-Jazeera that hospitalised Iraqi victim of domestic abuse, Al-Zubeidi, had passed away. She had been set on fire and tortured by her husband. Even if it were not for overt lawlessness in regions of war-torn Iraq, few could argue against the fact that in some societies across the world, there is little opportunity for recourse to the authorities for women and migrant workers. If you could prove, which would likely not be hard, that the patriarchal (or other) power structures in these government were reflected in power relationships among citizens, then violence against the aggressors would be political violence against tyrants. Do we not then owe an allowance of violent force to these people, and indeed to ourselves in outing them to preserve our own futures in a society that can only truly move forward in a state of liberty?
As with the previous section, I am not certain. The last year in America had shown that ‘political violence’ can be both a necessity and a tremendous evil. However ironic it seems after my invocation of Isaiah Berlin or the postmodernists and post structuralists, I am not a relativist with vague ideas of truth. I won’t accept that this week’s storming of the capitol was driven by an equally valid idea of oppression as last year’s BLM riots: it very clearly was not. But in a year which has been marked with tremendous progress in areas—striking evidence of the slow erosion of black and minority voter suppression in the deep south; the slow march of state-by-state abolition of capital punishment; and the gradual electoral awakening of America’s political underclass—the political violence of the last year has left us with a lot of questions.
Violence, good or bad, is obviously a dangerous and unpredictable force. The cowardly admissions of wrongdoing by senators McConnell, Loeffler and Graham are not to be lauded. It apparently took violent death in the heart of government to bring home the reality of the political agonism they have spent four years encouraging and lighting fires beneath. This concept of agonism is crucial to the revisions in this essay; it is an idea that was introduced to me in the writings of one of my now-favourite thinkers from the last century, Bhimrao Ambedkar. I am coming around to the position that sees politics as simple agonism: the peaceable and rule-dictated mediation of violent and hateful tendencies.
The drive for change and political attacks are the embodiment of this agonism. Where Hume’s emotivist philosophy tells us that what is ‘moral’ is whatever is considered so in the heat of the moment, politics and the state is the bulwark that separates the impulse from action.
But this has raised an interesting question for me. This essay originally concluded at this moment that all violence against social oppressors, if they be in any way supported by cultural politics and the state (i.e patriarchy), is political violence. I want to instead question whether at a certain point, violence exceeds these political bounds. If agonism is pushed to the extreme and explodes, violence may be politically motivated, but is it political any more?
Locke and the ‘state of war’
The original essay explored the prospect of ‘liberal’ violence within the confines of democracies, manipulating Locke’s seminal concept of the ‘state of war’. In this revised edition, I will use it to examine the contemporary ‘insurrection’ at the heart of US politics.
Locke’s Second Treatise is a conveniently famous (proto?)liberal text, and presents a framework that universalises some of the ideas we have already discussed. You will at this point have to excuse my jumping-between very different time periods and contexts: this is not a history essay. The crucial part of Locke I want to examine is found in his justifications for rebellion. Departing from Hobbesian ideas that compel man into the state at any cost, Locke recognises that there is no freedom in simply escaping the ‘state of nature’: Life may at times be ‘shorter’ and more ‘brutish’ within a state than it might be without. Locke challenges the right of the absolute sovereign. He suggests that even when the state does not face a greater external security threat, the sovereign is capable of doing so much ill that to remain obligated to them would contravene your own internal moral obligations for survival. In this very dressed-down account, I want to present the very obvious point that rebellion or action against the state may at times be justifiable.
I want to examine what Locke says about the moment that the justifications of obligation are dissolved. In Locke’s words, this is when a sovereign begins to act with ‘tyrannical’ power—when individuals are subjected to a state of slavery without a justifiable reason. At this moment where the sovereign becomes the tyrant, the ‘state of war’ now exists between you and the sovereign. In fact, it exists between everyone and the sovereign. What is crucial about this moment it is not a proactive one arising from choice. You do not enter the state of war against the sovereign, as Locke sees it: they have automatically entered the state of war against you. The innovative conception of ‘trust’ in Locke’s philosophy, trust that is invested in the sovereign to protect man’s pre-political property, comes full circle and engulfs the sovereign who abuses that trust and this fails his side of the bargain. This innovation of Locke is fascinating, however flawed and outdated.
But who decides whether the obligations to servitude, and to the state’s positive law have been severed? The practical realities of Locke’s vision, and the visions of the centuries of thinkers he has influenced, are played out constantly in the everyday.
The answer here in the west, of course, is that we do-away with the requirement for all out war. We can not sustain states that see frequent violent upheavals to remove power. Returning to Ambedkar and the brilliance of India’s independence thinkers, the agonism of democratic elections is precisely that way out of eventual overthrow. Most forms of power and governments in history have eventually grown too distasteful for a people, or have moved too slowly to remain attached to the societies they govern. Elections every few years channel these often-immutable passions for violent removal into peaceful transition.
You can quite obviously see where I am going with this. Chinese state media has had a field day throughout 2020 and the first week of 2021. The ‘precarious equilibrium’ of liberal democracies has been tested, and at times ‘momentarily’ failed. But I do not want to explore questions like ‘What happens when this agonism fails?’. The answer is clearly: violence, more bitter hatred, a stain on democratic processes, and the unknown of whatever comes next. Rather, I want to suggest that the agonism of politics is clearly not limitless, and perhaps that at a certain point, ‘political violence’ (in a world where we understand politics to be a peaceful agonism that channels passions) ceases to be a paradox, and becomes simply violence.
The individuals who breached the Capitol building the other day were clearly not participating in ‘liberal violence’, but they were also not participating in political violence of any sort. Sure, they were politically motivated, but they were expressly anti-political. It was an attack on the process and fundamentals of politics, which is a historically proven danger and fascism. They waved French flags to imitate Lafayette, but they were more Jacobin in their rejection of the political state.
Their motivations were neither to reform or overhaul a system, like the immense but liberal violence of the Haitian Slave Revolt was to Condorcet. Their violence and attempt to disrupt or seize power was not a productive force like the 1980 Polish Solidarity movement was. They were obviously not being denied a recourse to peaceful agonism, quite the opposite: they were denying the rights to such agonism of the 81 million who voted for Biden.
There can obviously be no discussion of the absurdity that is ‘the election was stolen’. It was not, that is fact. There must also be no discussion of ‘tyranny of the majority’. For instance, one may be in the minority of opinion by being within the economic right, and feel that excessive taxation to pay for social care is an abuse of your right to property. Conversely, you may feel government policy has stretched pensions thin and squeezed social care through austerity. In both of these cases, almost none of Locke’s qualifications of ‘tyranny’ have been met. The discussion of tyranny must revert back to the questions of agonism and recourse. These ideas must be constantly updated for the modern age, but we must still discuss tyranny in terms of ‘inalienable rights’, peaceful recourse, and the rings of liberty that surround individuals.
What if you are a Tribal Amazonian, fearing that the majority-elected Bolsonaro may soon pursue ethnocide against you? In this case, your fears of the state entering a state of war against you are perhaps far more justified. Will the possible forthcoming ethnocide be an unbearable infringement of your inalienable rights? Most likely. Do you have anything resembling the political power to topple him peacefully, against the tide of his majority support base? Absolutely not. Are peaceful NGOs campaigning for your cause internationally likely to succeed? This I can not answer, but if they can not, the state may well be entering a state of war with you.
Was the state entering into a state of war against the BLM movement and those that it sought to represent? No, but neither were those protests an attempt at overthrow, or an obstruction of the central agonism in politics. The ambiguity of what is and what is not ‘political violence’, and thus what is ‘liberal violence’ may well be up to your own judgement. But what is plainly clear is that the violent tumult of last spring and summer was violence that operated within a political system. The calls to ‘defund’ or ‘abolish’ the police were certainly calling for radical change, and change that may restructure the apparatus of the state, but the periphery of the state’s actions are much like detachable and upgradable limbs to the political core. No straight-faced educated individual on the right would seriously claim that radical reform of the police and judiciary would constitute an overturning to upheaval to the state. If they did, you might want to ask them whether the judicial state, through voter suppression and discriminatory policing and disciplining, is indeed encouraging a recourse to violence by deterring the oppressed from political means.
People will always find contentions and reasons to claim the right of moral political action. ‘My rights are being abused’ is called from both sides. This is central to Berlin’s above-mentioned text. The role of liberalism—a nebula of vague ideas and principles united by a critical view of government and power, and a faith in the primacy of humanity—is to resolve these conflicts in ‘rational’ and just means. In politics, for it to be truly liberal, there can be no a priori aim for the state: there is no need to introduce preconceived dogmas, as every individual who takes part in the state already does so. The same is true for violence, which must never be ruled by dogmas, this qualification perhaps being what separated illiberal from liberal violence. If you ever hear some immature young’un from either political extreme deride liberalism as nothing more than ‘neoliberal dogma’ or ‘centrism’, accuse them of partaking in the doctrinal and reductive views of politics that threaten the agonism at its core.
Distributive justice of land and property and wealth, differential commitments to statism or individualism, a belief in education and individuality, and faith in the doctrine of preserving the integrity, beauty, and complexity of human life. These are all doctrines that are facilitated by this liberal view, and may be protected at great cost with ‘liberal violence’. But in the long run, they are only ever secured by political agonism and the security and futurity it provides.
I will conclude this essay by returning to Eco’s essay on fascism. The overwhelming message of which is one of caution, rather than celebration. The fascists, Eco warns, have not yet been defeated: perhaps they never will. Among a number of unnervingly accurate predictions for our internet age, Eco warns that the Ur-Fascists (universal fascists) of the future will be subtle. They will not come dressed in black or brown coats. They will not call themselves fascists; they will not be as brazen in their traditions. They will be hard to spot, but they will return all the same. He warns they will shift their emphasis from grandiose speeches and performances to whip up populist support, to using an impoverished vocabulary that appeals to the ‘real-speak’ dreams of many. They will come from a different class we have seen historically, and they may have different aims. But they will still be fascists.
My guess is that Eco is subtly reflecting on the brutal murder of Aldo Moro at the hands of Italy’s Red Brigades. In justifying their murder as being the sentence of a ‘court of the people’, they had proven that fascists, and enemies of liberality, will come in any form. Like today, they were guided by siege mentality fear of an undefinable ‘liberal elite’ coming for them. Like many fascists, from the Italians and Germans of the 1930s, to Erdoğan and Bolsonaro in the modern day, they will often be elected. As we saw this week, and coming at a cost of human life, they will come for our institutions and be incited by elected leaders.
We often like to believe that the ugliness of mankind is consigned to history. I hope this is right; I suspect it is not. In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified, reflecting mankind’s shared desire that the unspeakable inhumanity of the war and its’ genocides would never be repeated. 46 years later, South Africa hosted its first multi-racial elections; the newly-launched ‘Yahoo!’ published some of its first email bulletins celebrating Brazil’s World Cup victory; and half a million Tutsis were butchered by their neighbours after being incited to do so by Rwanda’s political leaders and radio hosts. The following year genocide returned to Europe, following years of inactivity over the Balkans.
So do not simply turn away from the prospect of violence as a means to advance liberalism. Wherever there is a deprivation of humanity, by a state or individuals, and where there is no agonism anymore, perhaps our enemies’ fates are sealed.
Equally, ‘liberal violence’ must be political. Do not be anti-political, and do not burst the agonism that secures our rights. You may win with anti-politics, but you will likely never be right.