The Claim to Violence

(in pandemic time)


The purpose of this writing is to make a clearing in the time of this pandemic, a space for a clarity of confrontation between the claims to violence in it. The claim between natural violence and state violence – or between the divine violence of nature and mythic violence of law as Walter Benjamin puts it in his Critique of Violence.

Reading between the claims through Benjamin's essay of 1921 show how they force us onto a new understanding between natural agency and human agency. Where another claim, of revolutionary violence, becomes a part of this pandemic.
The challenge in the time of a killer pandemic is of maintaining violence within its predicates: as much the violence of the virus in its claim to human life as the state's claim to a monopoly of violence become absolutist. If the pandemic undermines that by its force of violence, in its response the state's claim becomes the spectre. On that Giorgio Agamben's warning to us on the state's use of emergency laws could not be more warranted. But from the Critique of Violence two lines serve as sirens for our time:


All violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving. If it lays claim to neither of these predicates, it forfeits all validity.


If the danger is of the state violating these means, there is another dimension, a converse, to the pandemic. That the parameters between natural agency and human agency can equally no longer be negotiated through rights ordained by law. The pandemic in fact pushes us onto a space that requires fundamentally new conjugations of violence, rule and justice. Let us understand that it is against this space that the state acts through its use of emergencies. By this, Benjamin’s assertion that only revolutionary violence, like divine violence uncorrupted by law, with its capacity to address the question of justice becomes indispensable to the pandemic.


In any correlation between violence and justice, we are mistaken if we see the pandemic solely as an agent of nature. Instead as Frank Snowden argues in How Pandemics Change History (The New Yorker), they implicate us, reflect our orders: epidemics “hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are”, “reflect our moral relationships”; that, they are “ordered events” which expand selectively.
By this, the spread of Covid-19 may be read as a form of karmic violence or retributive violence. Along these lines, the violence of the pandemic becomes reparative violence, the violence that creates the space for nature to heal. To protect nature from human activity. We could say the longer the pandemic keeps its hold, or the longer we are inactive, the greater this reparation. But at the same time, the violence against the human lifeworld spreads along the faultlines of its inequalities. By its timing and with great devastation, the pandemic has shown the inverse relation we have constituted with nature, with its unaccounted violence.


Bruno Latour in his essay on the pandemic in Critical Inquiry shows the state's incapacity to address this: as ecological harm, social inequality, economic imbalance etc. - the interlinked generators of violence the pandemic thrives on. It is simply as Latour says: “this state is not the state of the twenty-first century and ecological change; it is the state of the nineteenth century and so-called biopower”. Thus the state's remit is to manage the pandemic as a health crisis under the banner of its protection. So that individual health equals collective health by its force. The state's entire theatre of power is consumed by that. Latour writes of the originality of the situation this brings upon us - “remaining trapped at home while outside there is only the extension of police powers and the din of ambulances, ….”.


For a reading on violence there are two points of note here. First, that by enforced self-enclosure, in its necessity, the state isn't merely protecting us. It also enacting its monopoly on violence using a pandemic. The monopoly of the state as “the sole grantor of the 'right' to physical force" just as Max Weber defined it in 1919. The greater the incapacity of the state to address a reality in question (the pandemic) the more state reins in its means and ends of violence through law, for its own protection.
Second, that the state changes the terms of its own violence in response to the pandemic. Through emergency powers, as Benjamin would diagnose, the state suspends the separation between law-making violence, "mythical, lawmaking violence, which we may call executive" and law-preserving violence, the "administrative violence that serves it". Whilst on surface the use of police powers may be benign, the state's claim to violence is emancipated from its predicates. By that all other claims are removed from its horizon.


The question then is not only to what ends in current times this serves, but by what means in a time to come? To address this by way of Latour's essay, behind the state's entrapment in the formula of biopolitics, "the sovereign power to make live and let die", Joshua Glover in his A response to Latour calls out the 'real sovereign' subject in protection:
“We need to stop fucking around with theory and say, without hesitation, that capitalism, with its industrial body and crown of finance, is sovereign; that carbon emissions are the sovereign breathing; that make work and let buy must be annihilated; that there is no survival while the sovereign lives.”


Sovereignty in a single dictatorship of capitalism provides a clear symbol but brings complexities outside capitalist logic - in nationalisms, essentialisms and archaic relationalities. Look at three revealing examples:
The airlifting of Romanian labour to work in agricultural fields in wealthier states (including Brexit Britain) outside of Covid-19 quarantine regulations, whilst barring travel to their own citizens (CNN).
The scale of containment of a reserve army of largely low-caste migrant labour in India through state interventions, denying them the means of return to their villages – the transparency of status as beasts of burdens (
The social demarcations of those who have to work on the frontline of exposure in Britain. Kept outside the bailout subsidies and how this reflects colonial relationalities. Why specific ethnicities (Guardian) are twice more likely to die in Britain from Covid-19.

Yes the mobilisation of the biopolitical state machinery to protect the health of capitalism could not be more blatantly obvious. Yet it's also clear that emergency power acts selectively, that the state of protection openly creates a state of un-protection. The 'hiatus' of the pandemic, a coincidental Lent, a Ramadan forced on us by a microbe (as Latour describes it) is in fact a generator of new logics (of the conversion of violence into rules) that extend use of state power for a post-covid time. And the longer this extends in pandemic time, by the state's relation with capitalism, the more erratic the violence of protection becomes. As we can note from Benjamin's critique, “the modern economy, seen as a whole, resembles much less a machine that stands idle when abandoned by its stoker than a beast that goes berserk as soon as its tamer turns his back,..”.


Image: Komunal Mayday Ljubljana Slovenia 2020



The question that begs to be asked in this moment is: is it possible to use the time of this pandemic interruption to other ends? That would open it up to the converse space. A space that is closed off (as revolutionary violence) by the same rational as our protection.
One way to look outside of the enclosure in a pandemic lock-down would be through Antonio Negri's Time for Revolution (2003). The book examines the time when capitalism's project of subsumption (absorption) of all life and activity is complete: the 'zero time' of capital's own revolution.
Through Negri's theory, we may see pandemic time in three-ways: time of capitalism's recaptures for its 'zero time', the 'dead time' of our compulsory service to it, and then, a 'now-time' or Jetzt-Zeit, a rupture of time with its transformative possibilities. 'now-time' is a mutation that has broken out from the pattern of time, from the flow of dead time in its ceaseless continuum. The idea comes from Benjamin's Thesis (1940), writings on the concept of history. In 'now-time' dead time comes alive with potential that needs human agency to fulfil itself.


We could say each of the pandemic time(s) is animated by a specific force of violence. If for 'now-time' this is violence as revolution, the 'revolutionary dilemma' of 'zero time' lies in that we can not attack capitalism's capacity to reproduce itself without attacking ourselves. Whilst the usefulness of the dilemma to capitalism becomes too apparent, equally self-evident is the challenge it poses to the idea of revolutionary action. This expresses itself in Negri's time for revolution, by mutations of insurrection where-by Negri by revolution does not mean (in his words) the “Jacobin path of revolution” with its “Enlightenment-terrorism”. Instead Negri situates revolution in a new “being-in-the-world” by who the factor of love becomes a protagonist. In the context of Negri's prior writing, revolution comes through a 'being-for' of resistance (as love and community) from within a biopolitical multitude, the multitude of global commoners.
We may recognise this 'being for' in our pandemic time by the necessity now for a new politics of care outside the subsumed biopolitical state. A commons of care in or against the atomised consumerism that secures capitalism's health.


What matters here is the need to read the 'now-time' of this pandemic outside of its state emergency. Because emergency uses the pandemic to partition common space - as of necessity in new ways under the edict of health. Between domestic space, social space and global space.
Isolation in domestic space now mirrors the isolation of the state, each in its lock-in. The symptoms of the state's monopoly on violence then becomes apparent. Within closed borders, we see how the biopolitical state has set upon the biopolitical multitude. What comes to surface, as seen above, are the invisibles of each state in particular who does its work on the ground. It shows the extent to which global biopower remains rooted in class, ethnic and colonial demarcation. It recalls Frantz Fanon's observation about capitalism's irrationalities. In the Wretched of the Earth (1961) Fanon writes that when race pre-determines society, “the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence”. Against it, Fanonian revolution also sought a metamorphosis of the human: Fanon's concept of the “new man” (sic) - us or the human as the site of decolonisation.


Capitalism as colonialism and vice versa presents itself in this pandemic as a renewed question through nature. For that is where virus Covid-19 comes from: the sites of capital's extraction and expansion. Where today the process of capital's subsumption is most unrelenting. Where yesterday the basis of modern law came through the neutralisation of nature and objectification (into nature) of peoples. These have become our unaccounted violence.

If we see the pandemic as a rupture in our pattern of time for a revolutionary shift, its 'now-time' can emerge to address what the state does not address. The unaccounted violence that the pandemic exposes on which the authority of law has nothing to say. The realisation that the biopolitical Emperor has no clothes but still claims a monopoly on violence. For its and our protection.
It's for these reasons that Benjamin in the final passages of Critique of Violence wrote:
If the rule of myth is broken occasionally in the present age, the coming age is not so unimaginably remote that an attack on law is altogether futile. But if the existence of violence outside the law, as pure immediate violence, is assured, this furnishes the proof that revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of unalloyed violence by man, is possible, and by what means.


This leads to the question in the mind of millions (in a million ways) in this pandemic: is this time for a revolution? By the interactions of violence shown here, between the strands of this pandemic time we know this depends on how the claim to time, its time, is attached to the claim to violence.




/ Provisional subtitle as the symptoms of monopoly in pandemic time 28.05- 05.06.20
/ Posted at nettime 27.05.20