Some reflections on the relation between civilisation and violence, peace and war, bio-politics and necro-politics
Introduction: ‘I can’t believe I am protesting this shit again’
Throughout the world today we increasingly see a reversal of what was in early modernity too often optimistically considered an irreversible linear civilizational process. In the past there was a firm belief, at least in the west, that we humans were progressing from a society based on arbitrariness, law-lessness, intolerance, unrestrained exploitation of humans and natural resources, and more or less generalized authoritarianism and violence to a more peaceful society increasingly regulated by the rule of law, democracy, tolerance towards otherness, measured exploitation of people and an exploitation of natural resources aware of the limited availability of these resources and the need to protect nature and create ecologically sustainable futures. Today we see those earlier forms of relationality re-invading social space with authoritarianism, sexism, racism and the unbridled exploitation of people and resources on the rise. ‘I can’t believe I am protesting this shit again’ said a banner carried by a woman opposed to US president Trump’s proposed introduction of laws restricting women’s access to abortion clinics. So firm is the idea that we ought to be progressing towards an increasingly peaceful, tolerant, lawful society that these intrusions of micro and macro forms of authoritarianism, domination and violence into social space are seen as unusual. They are also defined popularly and by some analysts as ‘a crisis’ such as when the ‘rise of racist violence’ is defined as a crisis.
The idea that the appearances of these micro or macro forms of oppression, exploitation and violence represent in themselves a crisis is based on particular conceptions of the relation between ‘peaceful civilized reality’ and ‘violent uncivilized reality’. It is those conceptions that need to be challenged if we are to better understand the relation between violent and non-violent forms of existence in the world today. So let us begin by examining what these conceptions entail.
Civilisation as negation or repression of violence
To begin with, and as the chosen terminology ‘peaceful civilized reality’ and ‘violent uncivilized reality’ already indicates, in these dominant conceptions we have an association of violence with barbarism and non-violence with civilization. Now as far as the relation between these two orders is concerned, this is seen in two ways: The first as a relation of negation and the second as a relation of repression. Negation involves the idea that wherever civilization comes democracy, the rule of law and reason displace and replace the violent and barbaric rule of authoritarianism, arbitrariness. The latter simply disappear as the former consolidate themselves into a new civilized order. Repression on the other hand involves the different idea that the new civilized non-violent order is a continuous process of taming violence, cruelty and savagery. The capacity and the tendency towards violence is always there and the function of civilization is to stop this capacity and tendency from materializing. What distinguishes negation from repression is that in the first conception civilization is seen as eradicating violence entirely wherever it manages to institutionalise itself, while in the second civilization is in a continuous struggle with the violent order of life that is always there in a latent form and is always ready to rear its head wherever and whenever civilization falters or weakens.
It could be said that negation as a conception belongs to an early optimistic phase of modernity where the belief in the capacity of civilized non-violent life to spread and entrench itself was strong and where for some people at least there was a palpable experience of a retreat in the forms of life ruled by authoritarianism and where violence prevailed. Today, repression is a far more popular conception as it can make sense of an experience of decline in the colonizing momentum of the democracy-tolerance-rule of law assemblage and can help explain the re-emergence of the micro and macro violent forms of life mentioned above. But also the belief that there is a struggle between the forces of civilization and the forces of despotism and violence with each representing a different set of antagonistic interests. Thus while the optimism of the idea of ‘negation’ has disappeared, the idea of ‘repression’ maintains it in a more qualified way. It stages a situation where, on one hand, it allows for a pessimistic outlook which can make sense of a reality where racist, nationalist, ethnic, homophobic, sexist and other forms of violence is on the rise, continuously rearing their head, but on the other hand, it offers the optimistic promise that there are forces, from education to policing, that are fighting against this uncivilized order and which, if supported, can still prevail and perform their repressive function and allow the civilized order of life to prevail.
But there is an even greater optimism underlying this conception of the repressive relation between civilization and uncivilized orders of life: it is the idea that they belong to two different and antagonistic political and moral orders. It is a version of a struggle between good and evil where the two can easily be distinguished from each other and where ‘any reasonable normal person’ would know where they stand and which side to support in this struggle. In this mode of thinking, the inability of the civilized order to tame violence, such as the situation we find ourselves in today, constitutes a ‘crisis’ (defined as an intrusion of evil into the space of goodness) which will continue for as long as violence and its source are not properly domesticated.
This same relation between civilization and barbarism, and between good and evil, is also the lense through which some see, with a slightly simplified Foucauldian gaze, the relation between an imagined civilized democratic good government and an imagined barbaric violent bad government: the first is a government that is primarily interested in the politics of fostering of life; a government that rules through an interest in controlling the forces and mechanisms that shape the physiological and psychological health of its population. It is a government that maintains itself in power through these bio-political practices. The second is a government that has no interest in the lives of those it rules but rather in the way it maintains power over them repressively. Such a government rules though the control of demonstrative and actual violence and the technologies of death and domination. It is a government that maintains itself through its necro-political practices. Similar to the way the relation between civilized and violent modes of existence, as examined above, is conceived, bio-politics is seen as flourishing either through the displacement and negation of the primacy of the necro-political or through the repression of the necro-political. And in much the same way, necro-political spaces when they intrude are seen in themselves as constituting a crisis, as blotch on the bio-political landscape, a failure of the bio-political to saturate political space with its civilized logic.
Violence as foundational to the civilizing process
While there are clearly some important differences between the conception of the relation between civilization and violence as one of negation and as one of repression, they nonetheless both work by creating a radical difference between the two. In both, as we have seen, civilizational forces and violent forces, bio-political forces and necro-political forces are antagonistic to each other and are seen as having nothing in common. There is, however, a third way of conceiving the relation between civilized spaces and spaces of violence which highlights forms of dependency between the two, a relation that the conceptions examined above disallow us to perceive and understand. In this third conception, civilized peaceful space, even though it might be aiming to repress the spaces of violence, it is also, paradoxically, dependent on it for its very existence.
A good introduction into this relation is what Marx has called ‘Primitive Accumulation’. In his critique of political economy, Marx ridicules the story classical economic theory tells itself about the origin of wealth and whereby wealth begins when, unlike the majority of people who unthinkingly live for the present and spend what they have, a group of people decide to think for the future. They start living a frugal and thrifty life and in doing so manage to save the money that becomes the original capital accumulation. Marx argues that there is no historical evidence of this kind of accumulation ever occurring. In fact, he argues, most early forms of accumulation of capital occur in the form of violent appropriation of wealth like theft, piracy and plunder. In this sense, civilised capitalism has its origins in what Marx then called ‘primitive accumulation’. What’s more as the argument was later developed by radical political economists, capitalism is continuously in need of such a ‘primitive accumulation’ which historically most often took the form of violent colonial appropriation of wealth, or the creation of spaces of extreme exploitation of people and resources.
Here, then, we have a very different conception of the relation between ‘civilised space’ and the space of violence. Civilised space is not antagonistic to violence but has violence as its very historical and structural foundation. This is not specific to capitalist primitive accumulation. Though primitive accumulation draws our attention to the more generalized phenomenon where civilization is founded on violence. We can sit in a very civilized and cosmopolitan restaurant and eat a particularly pleasant and well-presented piece of steak, but behind this experience and at its very foundation lies the killing of an animal. This is no different from enjoying a nice cosmopolitan cup of coffee in Tel Aviv and forgetting the violence towards Palestinians which has made this experience possible. Likewise, we could enjoy the peace and the health facilities that the Assad regime provided some of its population and forget the people languishing in its prisons, or the populations that have been massacred with chemical weapons, and which made ‘peace and health facilities’ in some other places possible to experience. Just as civilization is grounded in violence, so is bio-politics grounded in necro-politics: some are made to die in order for others to be made to live.
Perhaps one of the most important ramifications of thinking the relation between civilized bio-political and violent necro-political modes of existence in this way is a radically different conception of what constitutes a crisis. In the first section we looked at how crisis is perceived as the very existence of violence in what should be a peaceful civilized space. This can only be true if we believe that civilization and violence are opposites and that civilization aims at eradicating violence. But if we take as our starting point that civilizational bio-political existence needs violent spaces as a condition of its emergence we arrive at a different conception of crisis. This is because, first of all, we arrive at a different conception of civilization. Instead of saying that civilization is the process of eradicating or repressing violence, we say that civilization is the art of hiding or concealing from people the violence needed for them to experience a peaceful civilized existence. Colonialism by locating the space of violent necro-political appropriation in a space geographically remote from the metropolis used geographical separation as a mode of concealment. The citizens of London did not have to experience the necro-political dimension of governing India that was at the foundation of their civilized existence. But the technologies of concealment are different when necro-political space is within the nation such as in a colonial settler society like Australia or Israel, or in an authoritarian regime such that of Baathist Syria. Indeed it can be said that what makes some nations more civilized than other is their capacity to hide their foundational necro-political violence from their citizens. Even more so, we can also say that the wealthier a nation is, the more sophisticated are the mechanisms of concealment at its disposal. It is from this perspective that we arrive at a different conception of crisis: crisis is not the emergence of violence amid peaceful civilized space since this violence is always there and civilized space needs it. Rather, crisis is the failure of the mechanisms of concealment. It is when the foundational violence that was concealed seeps into the peaceful interior where it is not supposed to appear that makes the people occupying those violent free spaces experience a ‘crisis’.
From the above we can offer a couple of tentative theses relating to Syria:
1. The difference between the state of war and the state of peace in Syria is not a difference between a state where a civilized bio-political imperative ruled and where a necro-political order has replaced it.
2. One of the key differences between bio-political and necro-political space is that the repressive government of bio-political spaces involves the primacy of policing while the repressive domination of necro-political spaces involves the primacy of war. The nature of the crisis that existed in Syria prior to the current war was that already at that time policing against certain sections of the population took the form of a war of eradication. Therefore what we have today is an extension rather than an emergence of the space of war and necro-politics.
3. The provision of health and the entire bio-political network of pre-war Syria was founded on an extensive necro-political order which constituted the foundation of its bio-political order. That is, the Syrian regime was already predisposed to treat a large part of its population as enemies that need to be eradicated rather than as citizens whose quality of life needed to be maximised. When one speaks of a return to the norm in Syria this is the norm.
4. Non-Syrian organisations aiming to intervene in Syrian space have had to face a particular situation: It is not that the State was no longer able to provide health for a section of the population. Nor is it simply that the State had no interest in the provision of health for this same section of the population. It is that the State had an interest in the extermination of such a population as part of its strategy to lay the foundation of its post-war bio-political order. Health organisations are not operating where governmental bio-politics has failed. They are operating where governmental necro-politics is being practiced successfully.