Walter Benjamin’s (1982-1940) Critique of Violence (1921) is an analysis of the relationship between violence, the law, and justice. He believed that violence had not really been explored deeply enough and it appeared to him a rather neglected feature of the law which reared its head during times of crisis. In order to examine this relationship, Benjamin introduced several concept and distinctions within his Critique, such as the concepts of mythical violence, divine violence, and a distinction between the two through the use of practical examples.
According to Benjamin, mythical violence is a kind of violence which is the “ground” of the law, and is used to establish a law that needs to be enforced (Benjamin 1921, 249). As Benjamin explains, both law-making and law-preserving violence exists within the system of positive law, namely the man-made legal systems created within legal, democratic, and political structures (such as in the processes of courts and applications of law). Given the notion that positive law is process driven, Benjamin introduces the concept of fate, which appears to give a mythical spin on the legal process (Benjamin 1921, 248). According to this idea, violence is not only inherent within law but it is also inevitable (Kellog 2011, 76). It is somehow fated within the system itself, and will inevitably occur or manifest at some point. Benjamin uses an example from Greek mythology in the story of Niobe to demonstrate this idea. According to the story, Niobe boasted about her fourteen children while also claiming to be more fruitful than the goddess Leto. Leto, in response, decided to punish Niobe for her arrogance by sending her own children, Apollo and Artemis, to kill Niobe’s children. The story is meant to represent the preservation of authority and the establishment of law which suggests the relatedness of law-making and law-preserving forms of violence (Benjamin 1921, 248). It also implies guilt. Niobe, because she is subject to the law, is rendered guilty of the death of her children, which intends to show that the law is the result of an arbitrary power and is not related to justice.
The question arises then as to whether or not it is possible to free oneself from the means-ends cycle of law-making and law-preserving violence. This led Benjamin to introduce the concept of “pure means” (a violence of a means without ends) in the form of divine violence (Kellog 2011, 76).
Benjamin introduced a type of violence, namely divine violence, which is not a repetition of the founding violence of the state (Benjamin 1921, 248). Benjamin explains that divine violence is a violence conducted by a person or group of people towards a power in an attempt to destroy that power’s law in favour of justice. As such, divine violence opposes the coercive violence of the law which Benjamin viewed as inherently unjust and “rotten.” However, is it not perhaps strange that Benjamin, while in the process of critiquing violence inherent within the law, decides to present another form or concept of violence? Why does he not introduce the concept of peace and settle with it? There are several reasons, one of which is that peace has an end in sights (i.e. we go fight a battle because there is peace in the end) and therefore does not break free from the means-ends justification. Further, peace, which is understood as merely the succession of violence, it is simply the succession of the threat of violence, and therefore does not solve the issue of violence itself.
An example of divine violence Benjamin uses is Korah’s rebellion and subsequent destruction as found within Jewish tradition. According to biblical story, Korah was born in Egypt and was a great-grandson of Levi, the son of Jacob, and a cousin to Moses and Aaron. Korah would have accompanied Moses as he led the Hebrews out of enslavement in Egypt under the pharaoh, and would have also witnessed the miraculous events such as the parting of the Red Sea that occurred on the voyage. However, Korah is perhaps most well remembered because of his leading role in the rebellion against Moses and Aaron. According to Numbers 16, Korah along with many others, turned on Moses, questioning the leader’s decisions. He felt that Moses had appointed his brother Aaron as High Priest and had done so on his own accord, thus without instruction and guidance from God. Through a test proposed to Korah and his company, Moses would affirm that Aaron was rightfully selected by God to be High Priest. In vindication of God’s selection of Aaron, God opens up the Earth which consumes Korah, his company, as well as their families and possessions.
According to Benjamin this is divine violence. It is a type of violence that does not seek to re-establish order but rather wipes out those who question Moses’ authority. As such, the violence is a form of justice not for the benefit of God himself but for the sake of those who God spares. It might strike many readers as strange that Benjamin seeks to break the mythical cycle of violence by using an example such as this which is clearly violent. But according to Benjamin, although it is still violent, it somehow puts a halt to legal forms of mythical violence. Why? Because it destroys law, does not pursue particular ends (does not seek to re-establish its domination and order), and it seeks justice.
Although Korah and his punishment by God is used as an example, the concept of divine violence, according to Benjamin, does not mean a sort of violence conducted by God or on behalf of a supernatural agent. Rather, it is a violence committed by human beings in favour of justice and that seeks to preserve and protect humanity’s sacredness against the coercive force of unjust law. As the Korah examples shows, divine violence does not serve any means in itself. As such, divine violence both opens up and defends several conditions of humanity from people’s own well-being, to their freedom, and ability to understand and discover the world through language and observation.
The Difference Between Divine Violence and Mythical Violence
Benjamin goes to great lengths to show that divine violence and mythical violence are very different forms of violence. In fact, so much so that they stand in diametric opposition to one another, as Benjamin himself succinctly put in one of his often referred to quotes, “If mythic violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying; if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythic violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood” (Benjamin 1921, 297).
Benjamin’s statement makes several key distinctions: if mythical violence concerns power, then divine violence concerns justice. Whereas mythical violence renders the subject of the law guilty, divine violence “expiates” the subject because it destroys the system which cultivates guilt. Whereas mythical violence sustains the ends-means justification because it is primarily concerned with law and power, divine violence discards this idea because it concerns itself with justice. Mythical violence seeks to preserve and perpetuate law and power, but divine violence wishes to destroy the law by bringing it to and end because of humanity’s sacredness and/or the sacredness of the human being.
Mythical Violence in South Africa
Benjamin uses the example of the political general strike and the proletarian general strike to distinguish between mythical violence and divine violence (Benjamin 1921, 291). The political general strike is mythical violence for the violence is used to modify the laws of the state, and does not seek to abolish the system (Kellog 2011, 76). However, the proletarian general strike is divine violence because it does seek to abolish the system via the destruction of state power, and does not attempt to create new laws (Kellog 2011, 76).
One witnesses mythical violence in the South African historical and contemporary context. For example, one might suggest that the abolishment of the apartheid system of racial segregation constitutes mythical violence. Apartheid came to its end in the 1990s through the formation of a democratic government in 1994. Its end was largely a result of violent internal protests by the oppressed black population combined with international economic sanctions, among other factors. However, the overthrow of apartheid, while concerned with justice, did not seek to abolish law or the ultimate destruction of state power, but rather to transform the state from a state of oppression to a state of democracy. As such, the efforts to transform South Africa installed with it new constitutional laws, and therefore did not seek to abolish the system of law itself. Thus, law-preserving and law-making violence is yet prevalent within South Africa as the state seeks to preserve rule and domination through means of violence, particularly police violence to quell threats to the state. Student activism and protests across the nation in recent years, such as in the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall protests, have had a destructive effect on public and private property, and were heavily opposed by police, often with little choice but to resort to aggressive and violent methods to control rioters. As such, these student protests engaged in a mythical form of violence for they did not wish to destroy the law and its system but to change it, as seen in the protest leaders who called for policy changes in favour of free education which led to government increasing the budget for higher education as well as government subsidies to universities. Benjamin would have likely thought that neither the violence that overcame apartheid or the violence conducted by the student activists was pure means, or a divine violence.
Benjamin, Walter. 1921. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol 1, 1913–1926.
Kellog, Catherine. 2011. “Walter Benjamin and the Ethics of Violence.” Law, Culture and the Humanities, (1) 71–90