Liberalism’s problem with the concept of violence

Liberalism is averse to violence, and often for some understandable reasons. Early liberal philosophers such as John Stuart Mill defined the foundations of the contemporary political theory of ‘free speech’. The utilitarian ‘harm principle’, played a significant role within Western societies definition of ‘hate speech’. The harm principle acted as an intellectual foundation to the legal codification of human rights surrounding speech. Despite the controversy surrounding the previous statement, liberalism has attempted in some way to address the dangers of uncontrolled violence. Which raises the question, who controls violence? Liberalism presupposes that conflict is almost always damaging; it impedes on the autonomy and agency of an individual. In a sense, liberal thinkers oppose violence due to the ‘harm’ that it inflicts upon rational actors.

What is violence? In truth, there is no clear definition. Political theorists often disagree about the parameters of the word and its relation to other metaphysical concepts such as power. This leads to radical differences. An anarchist may see violence as any act which restricts choice; whereas, a liberal may view violence as physical, empirical, an action of causing harm. How violence is theoretically treated radically defines many political doctrines.

In 2007 Slavoj Zizek published ‘Violence’, a book which critiqued an amusing idea of ‘liberal communists’ and advocated a need for a systematic analysis of political force. Notably in this book, Zizek explored the fundamental nature of violence to political life. Zizek has often struggled with the same problem his idol Hagel suffered from, incommunicability. However, Zizek, along with many other left-wing thinkers do something that liberalism struggles to comprehend; they consider violence as an instrumental element of politics.

A considerable problem faced by liberal ideology is an attempt to see conflict as only unjust when it has not been legitimised. Therefore, the state can rarely be violent? Max Weber the sociologist defined a state as being ‘a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force’. Which would presume that any state by its nature is violent. Both academic work from the left and right of the political spectrum has criticised the liberal approach to violence, and especially, the disdain for praxis.

Praxis is simply the process of practically enacting theory. Fascist, Communist, and Anarchist intellectual movements have emphasised the importance of praxis in advancing a political thesis. How can it be that a liberal democracy can condone the bombing of a foreign territory but oppose the use of violence at a politically motivated protest? Liberalism starts to look like ‘elitism’ and the proclaimed disconnected ‘liberal elite’ when brutality by ‘the state’ is a by-product of justice or security measures, but individual actions are ‘hooliganism’. Of course, how violence is conducted can vary greatly, especially depending on its intent. But the act of praxis is still largely opposed by liberal thinkers as being irrational, or an act of forcing ideology onto other due to an inability to rationally justify it.

However, contemporary liberal philosophers have certainly in some form noted the unsatisfactory approach that liberalism takes to violence. Martha Nussbaum, the American liberal feminist advanced a thesis centred around capability and the revised idea of liberal interventionism. Nussbaum, through a feminist approach, revises the liberal view of violence, and instead proclaims that in a sense, justified force can be used to restrict unjust violence. For example, taking a young girl away from her abusive father, is an action of restricting the father to free the daughter. The state here can be seen to use intervention to expand the access to opportunities an individual has. Nussbaum’s revised view of state violence is a respectable attempt to re-engage liberal intellectualism with violence in a feminist context.

Liberalism approaches the topic of violence with an uncomfortable relationship and this has been evident for many political philosophers. When Carl Schmitt wrote his controversial book ‘The Concept of the Political’ in 1932 he critiqued liberalism’s rejection of communitarian values as central to the liberal disdain of violence and praxis. Liberalism often rarely considers identity as being central to political discourse. For both left and right-wing critics of liberalism, the role of identities in politics is a core feature of justifying the use of state force and praxis. Schmitt’s critique of liberalism was influential in highlighting the idea that liberalism is a form of political elitism, as it refuses to consider identity, whilst ignoring the possible existence of an economic elite class.

Liberalism needs to learn from its most notable critics. It is a sign of academic ingenuity not to assume that everything is always correctly presented in its original form. Within contemporary liberal democracies it appears that liberalism is no longer valued as highly as it perhaps once was; some would argue it was never ‘valued’ at all. However, liberalism’s difficult relationship with violence is just an illustration of the continued need for reconsideration. If liberal political philosophy intends to reassert itself as an appealing model of social life that isn’t simply for the elite, it will need to revisit some of its oldest problems. If liberal politics cannot fairly consider its weaknesses, it is unlikely to successfully display its merits.

Stephen Mallet 2 Articles
Intelligent scepticism is never an overrated characteristic within modernity. I'm a Politics and International Relations student at Royal Holloway and a freelance writer. I take an interest in a variety of topics, mostly concerning political philosophy and contemporary political affairs. An advocate of critical thinking who prizes analysing the normal and justifying the non-existent.

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