What’s odd about Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” at least from our present context, is how little the essay has to say about power. There is much about violence (of course) and much about the law. But the question of power hardly arises, and when it does its relation to violence and law is unclear.
“Lawmaking is power making,” Benjamin tells us, “and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence. Justice is the principle of all divine end making, power the principle of all mythical lawmaking” (295). Here, on the one hand, law and power are intimately related: to make law is to make power. On the other hand, power and justice are counterpoised: justice relates to ends and to divine violence; power relates (presumably) to means, and to mythical violence.
And this comes immediately after the observation that lawmaking, and so mythical violence, “establishes as law not an end unalloyed with violence, but one necessarily and intimately bound to it, under the title of power” (295). Power, here, is the “title” under which law and violence are “necessarily and intimately” bound one to the other.
This relative silence about power is odd in our present context, because for the past thirty years or so, political theory has been concerned above all with the problem of power. It has been the project of, first, Michel Foucault and, then, Antonio Negri to reconceive power, to rethink its origins and its historical vicissitudes. Indeed, at the core of Foucault’s and Negri’s political philosophy is power’s relocation, even dislocation: Foucault with the concepts of disciplinary, capillary, and (most influentially at present) bio power; Negri with the fundamental distinction between constituent and constituted power.
It’s not immediately clear how to map Benjamin’s essay on to our contemporary concern with power. I’m not convinced by Paul Passavant’s suggestion that we can read “violence” as “power.” That’s a little quick. It’s true that Benjamin indicates that “mythical violence is bloody power” and “divine violence[,] pure power” (297). There’s surely a nexus between violence and power. And there’s no doubt that government without violence, or rather parliaments without “the sense that a lawmaking violence is represented by themselves,” also lacks power, and proves unable to “achieve decrees worthy of this violence” (288). Yet the fact remains that Benjamin’s is a critique of violence, not a critique of power.
I wonder if this is not because, whatever Benjamin’s hesitations towards Bolshevism and the Soviet Union, he is not yet prepared to question the party form. It is not, yet, part of what Althusser would call his “problematic.”
After all, the post-1968, perhaps better post-1956, critique of power for which I have provided the ciphers of Foucault and Negri (but one could add Deleuze and Guattari and even the whole tradition of cultural studies) is premised on an unease with if not outright rejection of the party form. This unease provides the problematic of contemporary political theory. It is only very recently indeed, essentially with Zizek’s somewhat quixotic revival of Lenin, that anybody has had anything much good to say about the party as a mode of political organization. But this reassessment has entailed also a frontal assault on and so acknowledgement of the dominant problematic.
By contrast, Benjamin, for all that he draws on Sorel, is not yet, at least, post-Leninist. This is what is fundamentally alien about his essay.
Benjamin writes of the “state power” that the “proletarian general strike” is set to destroy (291), but in such a way that the phrase “state power” is almost an unexamined tautology. It is certainly not interrogated alongside the “educative power” that, for Gramsci (writing at about the same time), is the power of hegemony incarnated in the party cadre. Gramsci, of course, happily welcomed the notion that the party and the state wielded the same form of power: both aspired to hegemony, to be Prince, old or modern.
And Benjamin, for all the inkling of something like constituent power that this essay so tantalizingly invokes, is not yet able either to critique the party or to suggest an alternative to hegemony.
(Cross-posted to Long Sunday.)