The Obscenity of Human Rights: Violence as Symptom - Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek

The anxious expectation that nothing will happen, that capitalism will go on indefinitely, the desperate demand to do something, to revolutionize capitalism, is a fake. The will to revolutionary change emerges as an urge, as an "I cannot do it otherwise," or it is worthless.

With regard to Bernard Williams's distinction between Ought and Must, an authentic revolution is by definition performed as a Must - it is not something we "ought to do" as an ideal we are striving for, but something we cannot but to, since we cannot do it otherwise. Which is why today's worry of the Leftists that revolution will not occur, that global capitalism will just go on indefinitely, is false insofar as it turns revolution into a moral obligation, into something we ought to do while we fight the inertia of the capitalist present.

However, the ultimate argument against "big" political interventions which aim at a global transformation is, of course, the terrifying experience of the catastrophes of the XXth century, catastrophes which unleashed unheard-of modes of violence. There are three main versions of theorizing these catastrophes: (1) the one epitomized by the name of Habermas: Enlightenment is in itself a positive emancipatory process with no inherent "totalitarian" potentials, these catastrophies are merely an indicator that it remained an unfinished project, so our task should be to bring this project to completion; (2) the one associated with Adorno's and Horkheimer's "dialectic of Enlightenment," as well as, today, with Agamben: the "totalitarian" potentials of the Enlightenment are inherent and crucial, the "administered world" is the truth of Enlightenment, the XXth century concentration camps and genocides are a kind of negative-teleological endpoint of the entire history of the West; (3) the third one, developed, among others, in the works of Etienne Balibar: modernity opens up a field of new freedoms, but at the same time of new dangers, and there is no ultimate teleological guarantee of the outcome, the battle is open, undecided.

The starting point of Balibar's remarkable entry on "Violence" 1 is the insufficiency of the standard Hegelian-Marxist notion of "converting" violence into an instrument of historical Reason, a force which begets a new social formation: the "irrational" brutality of violence is thus aufgehoben, "sublated" in the strict Hegelian sense, reduced to a particular stain that contributes to the overall harmony of the historical progress. The XXth century confronted us with catastrophies, some of them directed against Marxist political forces and some of them generated by the Marxist political engagement itself, which cannot be "rationalized" in this way: their instrumentalization into the tools of the Cunning of Reason is not only ethically inacceptable, but also theoretically wrong, ideological in the strongest sense of the term. In his close reading of Marx, Balibar nonetheless discern in his texts an oscillation between this teleological "conversion"-theory of violence and a much more interesting notion of history as an open-undecided process of antagonistic struggles whose final "positive" outcome is not guaranteed by any encompassing historical Necessity (the future society will be communism or barbarism, etc.).

Balibar thinks that, for necessary structural reasons, Marxism is unable to think the excess of violence that cannot be integrated into the narrative of historical Progress - more specifically, that it cannot provide an adequate theory of Fascism and Stalinism and their "extreme" outcomes, shoah and gulag. Our task is therefore double: to deploy a theory of historical violence as something which cannot be mastered/instrumentalized by any political agent, which threatens to engulf this agent itself into a self-destructive vicious cycle, and - the other side of the same task - to pose the question "civilizing" revolution, of how to make the revolutionary process itself a "civilizing" force. Recall the infamous St Bartholomew's Day Massacre - what went wrong there? Catherine de Medici's goal was limited and precise: hers was a Macchiavellian plot to have Admiral de Coligny, a powerful Protestant pushing for war with Spain in the Netherlands, assassinated, and let the blame fall on the Guise family, the over-mighty Catholic family. In this way, Catherine hoped that the final outcome will be the fall of both houses that posed a menace to the unity of the French state. But this ingenious plan to play off her enemies against each other degenerated into an uncontrolled frenzy of blood: in her ruthless pragmatism, Catherine was blind for the passion with which men clung to their beliefs.

Hannah Arendt's insights are also crucial here: she emphasized the distinction between political power and the mere exercise of (social) violence: organizations run by direct non-political authority - by an order of command that is not politically grounded authority (Army, Church, school) - represent examples of violence (Gewalt), not of political Power in the strict sense of the term. Here, however, it would be productive to introduce the distinction between the public symbolic Law and its obscene supplement: the notion of the obscene superego double-supplement of Power implies that there is no Power without violence. Power always has to rely on an obscene stain of violence, political space is never "pure" but always involves some kind of reliance on "pre-political" violence. Of course, the relationship between political power and pre-political violence is one of mutual implication: not only is violence the necessary supplement of power, (political) power itself is always-already at the roots of every apparently "non-political" relationship of violence. The accepted violence and direct relationship of subordination in the Army, Church, family and other "non-political" social forms is in itself the "reification" of a certain ethico-political struggle and decision - what a critical analysis should do is to discern the hidden political process that sustains all these "non-" or "pre-political" relationships. In human society, the political is the encompassing structuring principle, so that every neutralization of some partial content as "non-political" is a political gesture par excellence.

This acceptance of violence, this "political suspension of the ethical," is the limit of that which even the most "tolerant" liberal stance is unable to trespass - witness the uneasiness of "radical" post-colonialist Afro-American studies apropos of Frantz Fanon's fundamental insight into the unavoidability of violence in the process of effective decolonization. One should recall here Fredric Jameson's idea that violence plays in a revolutionary process the same role as worldly wealth in the Calvinist logic of predestination: although it has no intrinsic value, it is a sign of the authenticity of the revolutionary process, of the fact that this process is effectively disturbing the existing power relations. In other words, the dream of the revolution without violence is precisely the dream of a "revolution without revolution"(Robespierre). On the other hand, the role of the Fascist spectacle of violence is exactly opposite: it is a violence whose aim is to PREVENT the true change - something spectacular should happen all the time so that, precisely, nothing would really happen.

But, again, the ultimate argument against this perspective is the simple encounter of excessive suffering generated by political violence. Sometimes, one cannot but be shocked by the excessive indifference towards suffering, even and especially when this suffering is widely reported in the media and condemned, as if it is the very outrage at suffering which turns us into its immobilized fascinated spectators. Recall, in the early 1990s, the three-years-long siege of Sarajevo, with the population starving, exposed to permanent shelling and snipers' fire. The big enigma here is: although all the media were full of pictures and reports, why did not the UN forces, NATO or the US accomplish just a small act of breaking the siege of Sarajevo, of imposing a corridor through which people and provisions could circulate freely? It would have cost nothing: with a little bit of serious pressure on the Serb forces, the prolonged spectacle of encircled Sarajevo exposed to ridiculous terror would have been over. There is only one answer to this enigma, the one proposed by Rony Brauman himself who, on behalf of the Red Cross, coordinated the help to Sarajevo: the very presentation of the crisis of Sarajevo as "humanitarian," the very recasting of the political-military conflict into the humanitarian terms, was sustained by an eminently political choice, that of, basically, taking the Serb side in the conflict. Especially ominous and manipulative was here the role of Mitterand:

The celebration of 'humanitarian intervention' in Yugoslavia took the place of a political discourse, disqualifying in advance all conflicting debate. /.../ It was apparently not possible, for Francois Mitterand, to express his analysis of the war in Yugoslavia. With the strictly humanitarian response, he discovered an unexpected source of communication or, more precisely, of cosmetics, which is a little bit the same thing. /.../ Mitterand remained in favor of the maintenance of Yugoslavia within its borders and was persuaded that only a strong Serbian power was in the position to guarantee a certain stability in this explosive region. This position rapidly became unacceptable in the eyes of the French people. All the bustling activity and the humanitarian discourse permitted him to reaffirm the unfailing commitment of France to the Rights of Man in the end, and to mimic an opposition to Greater Serbian fascism, all in giving it free rein. 2

From this specific insight, one should make the move to the general level and render problematic the very depoliticized humanitarian politics of "Human Rights" as the ideology of military interventionism serving specific economico-political purposes. As Wendy Brown develops apropos Michael Ignatieff, such humanitarianism "presents itself as something of an antipolitics - a pure defense of the innocent and the powerless against power, a pure defense of the individual against immense and potentially cruel or despotic machineries of culture, state, war, ethnic conflict, tribalism, patriarchy, and other mobilizations or instantiations of collective power against individuals." 3 However, the question is: "what kind of politicization /those who intervene on behalf of human rights/ set in motion against the powers they oppose. Do they stand for a different formulation of justice or do they stand in opposition to collective justice projects?" 4 Say, it is clear that the US overthrowing of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in the terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people, not only was motivated by other politico-economic interests (oil), but also relied on a determinate idea of the political and economic conditions that should open up the perspective of freedom to the Iraqi people (Western liberal democracy, guarantee of private property, the inclusion into the global market economy, etc.). The purely humanitarian anti-political politics of merely preventing suffering thus effectively amounts to the implicit prohibition of elaborating a positive collective project of socio-political transformation.

And, at an even more general level, one should problematize the very opposition between the universal (pre-political) Human Rights which belong to every human being "as such," and specific political rights of a citizen, member of a particular political community; in this sense, Balibar argues for the "reversal of the historical and theoretical relationship between 'man' and 'citizen'" which proceeds by "explaining how man is made by citizenship and not citizenship by man." 5 Balibar refers here to Hannah Arendt's insight apropos he XXth century phenomenon of refugees:

The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships - except that they were still human. 6

This line, of course, leads straight to Agamben's notion of homo sacer as a human being reduced to "bare life": in a properly Hegelian paradoxical dialectics of universal and particular, it is precisely when a human being is deprived of his particular socio-political identity which accounts for his determinate citizenship, that he, in one and the same move, is no longer recognized and/or treated as human. In short, the paradox is that one is deprived of human rights precisely when one is effectively, in one's social reality, reduced to a human being "in general," without citizenship, profession, etc., that is to say, precisely when one effectively becomes the ideal BEARER of "universal human rights" (which belong to me "independently of" my profession, sex, citizenship, religion, ethnic identity...).

We thus arrived at a standard "postmodern," "anti-essentialist" position, a kind of political version of Foucault's notion of sex as generated by a multitude of the practices of sexuality: "man," the bearer of Human Rights, is generated by a set of political practices which materialize citizenship - is, however, this enough? Jacques Ranciere 7 proposed a very elegant and precise solution of the antinomy between Human Rights (belonging to "man as such") and the politicization of citizens: while Human Rights cannot be posited as an unhistorical "essentialist" Beyond with regard to the contingent sphere of political struggles, as universal "natural rights of man" exempted from history, they also should not be dismissed as a reified fetish which is a product of concrete historical processes of the politicization of citizens. The gap between the universality of Human Rights and the political rights of citizens is thus not a gap between the universality of man and a specific political sphere; it, rather, "separates the whole of the community from itself," as Ranciere put it in a precise Hegelian way. 8 Far from being pre-political, "universal Human Rights" designate the precise space of politicization proper: what they amount to is the right to universality as such, the right of a political agent to assert its radical non-coincidence with itself (in its particular identity), i.e., to posit itself - precisely insofar as it is the "surnumerary" one, the "part with no part," the one without a proper place in the social edifice - as an agent of universality of the Social as such. The paradox is thus a very precise one, and symmetrical to the paradox of universal human rights as the rights of those reduced to inhumanity: at the very moment when we try to conceive political rights of citizens without the reference to universal "meta-political" Human Rights, we lose politics itself, i.e., we reduce politics to a "post-political" play of negotiation of particular interests. - What, then, happens to Human Rights when they are reduced to the rights of homo sacer, of those excluded from the political community, reduced to "bare life" - i.e., when they become of no use, since they are the rights of those who, precisely, have no rights, are treated as inhuman? Ranciere proposes here an extremely salient dialectical reversal:

/.../ when they are of no use, you do the same as charitable persons do with their old clothes. You give them to the poor. Those rights that appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes, and rights. It is in this way, as the result of this process, that the Rights of Man become the rights of those who have no rights, the rights of bare human beings subjected to inhuman repression and inhuman conditions of existence. They become humanitarian rights, the rights of those who cannot enact them, the victims of the absolute denial of right. For all this, they are not void. Political names and political places never become merely void. The void is filled by somebody or something else. /.../ if those who suffer inhuman repression are unable to enact Human Rights that are their last recourse, then somebody else has to inherit their rights in order to enact them in their place. This is what is called the "right to humanitarian interference" - a right that some nations assume to the supposed benefit of victimized populations, and very often against the advice of the humanitarian organizations themselves. The "right to humanitarian interference" might be described as a sort of "return to sender": the disused rights that had been send to the rightless are sent back to the senders. 9

So, to put it in the Leninist way: what today, in the predominant Western discourse, the "Human Rights of the Third World suffering victims" effectively mean is the right of the Western powers themselves to intervene - politically, economically, culturally, militarily - in the Third World countries of their choice on behalf of the defense of Human Rights. The reference to Lacan's formula of communication (in which the sender gets back from the receiver-addressee his own message in its inverted, i.e. true, form) is here up to the point: in the reigning discourse of humanitarian interventionism, the developed West is effectively getting back from the victimized Third World its own message in its true form. And the moment Human Rights are thus depoliticized, the discourse dealing with them has to change to ethics: reference to the pre-political opposition of Good and Evil has to be mobilized. Today's "new reign of Ethics," 10 clearly discernible in, say, Michael Ignatieff's work, thus relies on a violent gesture of depoliticization, of denying to the victimized other political subjectivization. And, as Ranciere pointed out, liberal humanitarianism a la Ignatieff unexpectedly meets the "radical" position of Foucault or Agamben with regard to this depoliticization: the Foucauldian-Agambenian notion of "biopolitics" as the culmination of the entire Western thought ends up getting caught in a kind of "ontological trap" in which concentration camps appear as a kind of "ontological destiny: each of us would be in the situation of the refugee in a camp. Any difference grows faint between democracy and totalitarianism and any political practice proves to be already ensnared in the biopolitical trap." 11

When, in a shift from Foucault, Agamben identifies sovereign power and biopolitics (in today's generalized state of exception, the two overlap), he thus precludes the very possibility of the emergence of political subjectivity. - However, the rise of political subjectivity takes place against the background of a certain limit of the "inhuman," so that one should continue to endorse the paradox of the inhumanity of human being deprived of citizenship, and posit the "inhuman" pure man as a necessary excess of humanity over itself, its "indivisible remainder," a kind of Kantian limit-concept of the phenomenal notion of humanity? So that, in exactly the same way in Kant's philosophy the sublime Noumenal, when we come too close to it, appears as pure horror, man "as such," deprived of all phenomenal qualifications, appears as an inhuman monster, something like Kafka's odradek. The problem with human rights humanism is that it covers up this monstrosity of the "human as such," presenting it as a sublime human essence.

What, then, is the way out of this deadlock? Balibar ends with an ambiguous reference to Mahatma Gandhi. It is true that Gandhi's formula "Be yourself the change you would like to see in the world" encapsulates perfectly the basic attitude of emancipatory change: do not wait for the "objective process" to generate the expected/desired change, since if you just wait for it, it will never come; instead, throw YOURSELF into it, BE this change, take upon yourself the risk of enacting it directly. However, is not the ultimate limitation of Gandhi's strategy that it only works against a liberal-democratic regime which refers to certain minimal ethico-political standards, i.e., in which, to put it in pathetic terms, those in power still "have conscience." Recall Gandhi's reply, in the late 1930s, to the question of what should the Jews in Germany do against Hitler: they should commit a collective suicide and thus arouse the conscience of the world... One can easily imagine what the Nazi reaction to it would have been: OK, we will help you, where do you want the poison to be delivered to you?

There is, however, another way in which Balibar's plea for renouncing violence can be given a specific twist - that of what one is tempted to call the Bartleby-politics. Recall the two symmetrically opposed modes of the "living dead," of finding oneself in the uncanny place "between the two deaths": one is either biologically dead while symbolically alive (surviving one's biological death as a spectral apparition or symbolic authority of the Name), or symbolically dead while biologically alive (those excluded from the socio-symbolic order, from Antigone to today's homo sacer). And what if we apply the same logic to the opposition of violence and non-violence, identifying two modes of their intersection? We all know the pop-psychological notion of the "passive-aggressive behavior," usually applied to a housewife who, instead of actively opposing her husband, passively sabotages him. And this brings us back to our beginning: perhaps, one should assert this attitude of passive aggressivity as a proper radical political gesture, in contrast to aggressive passivity, the standard "interpassive" mode of our participation in socio-ideological life in which we are active all the time in order to make it sure that nothing will happen, that nothing will really change . In such a constellation, the first truly critical ("aggressive," violent) step is to WITHDRAW into passivity, to refuse to participate - Bartleby's "I would prefer not to" is the necessary first step which as it were clears the ground for a true activity, for an act that will effectively change the coordinates of the constellation.


1. Etienne Balibar, "Gewalt," in Historisch-Kritisches Wüsrterbuch des Marxismus, forthcoming.
2. Rony Bauman, "From Philantropy to Humanitarianism," in South Atlantic Quaterly 2/3, Spring 2004.
3. Wendy Brown, "Human Rights as the Politics Of. Fatalism," in South Atlantic Quaterly 2/3, Spring 2004.
4. ibid
5. Etienne Balibar, "Is a Philosophy Of. Human Rights Possible," in South Atlantic Quaterly 2/3, Spring 2004.
6. Hannah Arendt, i.e. Origins Of. Totalitarianism, New York: Meridian, 1958.
7. Jacques Rancière, "Who is the Subject of Human Rights," in South Atlantic Quaterly 2/3, Spring 2004.
8. ibid
9. ibid
10. ibid
11. ibid


JJ Steyn
Jun 10 2011 08:01

Freedom = violence?