Dilemmas of Violence

Reading Jane Addams’ essays in my on-going exploration of reflections on violence and non-violence.  Two (fairly) quick observations.

First, Addams writes that “an ideal government is merely an adjustment between men concerning their mutual relations toward those general matters which concern them all” (3).  To that end, “organization is [our] only hope, but it must be kept distinct from militarism, which can never be made a democratic instrument” (3).

Politics, in short, is a consequence of humans being social animals.  We must find modus vivendi, ways of managing to live together that foster, at the minimum, survival of the species and, at the maximum, the flourishing of members of the species.  Ideally, flourishing will be available to all—but that can only be achieved through collective action, through cooperation.

Thus, politics requires organization, making arrangements and then striving to maintain them.  In the usual formulation, it is assumed that there will always be outliers who threaten any particular arrangement, people against whom that arrangement will have to be defended.  There is also the problem of blood feuds.  Classically, the origin of the state is attributed to one of these two motives: protection of social arrangements (particularly property) against threats internal and external—or the establishment of a legal system that takes vengeance out of the hands of private citizens.  The argument then goes that the establishment of the state leads to a reduction in violence because the state acts to suppress violent actions through deterrence and punishment.  Certainly, Steven Pinker takes this view in his book on violence.

The nay-sayers to that view, however, point out that organization as represented by the state greatly increases the scope and effectiveness of violence perpetuated by state actors as contrasted to isolated individuals.  Armies are far more violent than criminals; wars far more devastating than family feuds.  “War is the health of the state,” writes Randolph Bourne.  Even if there is pre-state violence, the formation of states to restrain it introduces a cure that is worse than the disease. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  Violence is just baked in.  And we don’t even get to pick our poison since the state has become (just about everywhere) triumphant.

Back to Addams then: one way to express the problem is to say: how do we get the benefits of organization and cooperation without the militarism?

Worth mentioning, I guess, that there is a school of anthropologists and primatologists (I am just beginning to read their work) who say violence isn’t baked in and that the archaeological record does not indicate much violence among humans prior to the Neolithic Age (about 10,000 years ago, a mere blip in the evolutionary time scale), while studies of our primate cousins also suggest violence is rare.  For these writers, the state is the culprit, not human nature.  But not clear how that helps, since it is hard to imagine a return to a pre-state human condition.

Second thing in Addams.  In her attempts to broker a peace during the First World War, she advocated the charming idea of convening an international tribunal that would hear the claims of each nation in the conflict.  In other words, each nation would come to the table and say (for example): that we, the British, are at war with Germany because we need this or we object to the Germans doing that. And then the tribunal would judge which claims were legitimate needs or grievances, and which were not.  There would follow an international effort to satisfy the legitimate claims.

What is so charming about the idea is that it slyly (I don’t in fact think this was Addams’ intent) reveals how many “war aims” cannot stand the Kantian publicity test, that is could not be acknowledged openly with any faith that others would admit their justice.

But, less charming, is the fact that, by the end of 1915, few of the nations involved in the war would have even been able to articulate what the war was about.  As Addams discovered in her many conversations with belligerents on both sides of the contest, the war continued because to end it would be to admit or accept defeat—which was unacceptable not because of any dire consequences that would follow from defeat, but simply because of the humiliation of defeat.  In short, the tribunal idea, precisely because it is so irrelevant to the actual causes of the conflict’s perpetuation, indicates just how irrational violence is.  The violence is not the means to some end.  It does not partake of means/ends rationality at all.  It exists in some entirely different register, which we can conveniently call “madness.”  But that designation gets us nowhere in trying to explain what is going on.

So my other dilemma concerning violence (in addition to how states both prevent and cause violence) is how to “think” violence when it seems essentially irrational.  I want some satisfactory account of the dynamics, motives, and trajectories of that irrationalism.

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