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Foundational Violence

The hackneyed expression ‘violence of language’ usually refers to the idea that

language by necessity imposes a partial order: it simplifies experience by dividing it

into manageable units through categories and common nouns, and artificially

objectifies the referent by cutting it loose from its context. As I argued in the previous

chapter, any interpretation of reality is always a form of violence in the sense that

knowledge “can only be a violation of the things to be known”, not a simple

recognition or identification of them (TJF, 9). Several philosophers following

Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida have emphasised and explicated this

fundamental violence of language. What remains less comprehensively theorised in

many of the discussions on ‘the violence of language’, however, is its relationship to

physical violence.

While the ontological violence of language does, in significant ways, sustain, enable

and encourage physical violence, it is a serious mistake to conflate them: to

unreflectively slide from the inevitability of violence understood as the violence of

language – the way language always imposes a partial and contingent order – to

ontological violence understood in a second and completely different sense as the

fundamental hostility and aggression of human beings. It is my contention that such a

slide characterises many of the recent theoretical defences of violence. Violence is

understood to be ineliminable in the first sense, and this leads to its being treated as a

fundamental constant in the second sense, too.

After discussing the violence of language in the sense delineated above, Slavoj Žižek,

for example, concludes that we cannot “wholly repudiate violence when struggle and

aggression are part of life” (Žižek 2008, 54). Chantal Mouffe makes a similar point

when she argues that violence is the inevitable precondition of any consensus. By

refusing to recognise that violence is ineradicable, political theory becomes incapable

of grasping “the nature of the political in its dimension of hostility and antagonism”

(Mouffe 2000, 132). While consensus is always a form of violence in the sense of

being exclusive of some interpretations, its hegemonic nature does not imply the

ineradicability of physical violence understood as the fundamental hostility of human

beings. Sometimes, but not always, consensus is also the result of physical acts of

violence: what are supposed to be free elections, for example, turn into a practice of

organised violence and intimidation. I will give a more detailed analysis of Mouffe’s

position in the next chapter.

While the ontological violence of language and physical violence thus cannot be

conflated, neither is there a necessary causal link between them. The linguistic

stereotyping of Jews and blacks, for example, has undoubtedly justified and sustained

anti-Semitic pogroms and lynching, but it does not, by necessity, cause them. While

these historically specific practices of physical violence have, for the most part,

fortunately disappeared, the offensive stereotyping has not. Conversely, no matter

how sympathetically we name, describe and characterise different groups of people,

the ontological violence of language nevertheless remains. It is my contention that

while the ‘violence of language’ is precisely ontological and thereby a necessary and

ineliminable feature of thought, physical violence is contingent, historically specific,

and context-dependent.
This does not mean that ontology – understood as the framework of competing

background beliefs about reality – is completely separate and free from physical

violence. On the contrary, my aim in this chapter is to show the extent to which it is

constituted by it. As I argued in the previous chapter, ontology is the sedimentation of

political practices – including horrendously violent practices, foremost among them

war. The legacies of violence have thus sedimented into the structures and the

meaning of our world. Reality as we know it reflects the outcome of past wars and is

not an objective or politically neutral realm waiting to be truthfully described. My

central claim is, however, that the investigation of the constitutive role of physical

violence must be thoroughly historical and must not rely on any notion of originary

violence as such.

Political theorists such as Hannah Arendt (1970) have argued against the idea of

constitutive violence by emphasising the purely instrumental nature of violence: it can

only be the means of politics and is devoid of any intrinsic meaning of its own. James

Dodd (2009,11) calls this ‘the stupidity of violence principle’: in its barest form it

states that violence is and can only be a mere means. It remains trapped within the

confines of a very narrow dimension of reality defined by the application of means.

Violence as such is senseless; when taken for itself it is ultimately without direction.

The practices of violence, however traumatic and extreme, fade into indefinite

superficiality unless supported by a meaningful cause or end. Dodd argues that such

an understanding of violence is the counterpart and a rejection of another influential

philosophical view on violence: violence as an originary source of meaning. In Carl

Schmitt’s thought, for example, pure violence must be understood as a radically

constitutive event: existential violence defines a moment in which the political will of

the nation as such comes into being.

I will examine Schmitt’s position in more detail in the next chapter. My aim here is to

argue that while violence is constitutive of meaning, its constitutive function must

always be understood through concrete historical practices of violence, not in terms of

pure or originary violence as such. I will turn to Foucault again in my attempt to show

how, alongside the political tradition that links the persistence and constancy of

political violence to the hostile and aggressive nature of man, runs another strand that

also insists on a strong connection between politics and violence. This connection is

historical rather than natural, however, and is crucially tied to the birth of the state.1

Foucault’s lecture course Society Must Be Defended makes an important contribution

to this tradition of thought. The lectures represent a major break with the Hobbesian

legacy in political thought, whilst forming Foucault’s most explicit engagement with

the question of political violence. They expose the violent origins of states, which are

covered over by theories of timeless war and legitimate contract. I argue that his

engagement with Hobbes in these lectures has strong implications for the efforts to

historicise political violence and to envisage agonistic conceptions of politics

uncoupled from it.

Leviathan versus the Discourse of War

Max Weber gives a famous formulation of this idea in his lecture ‘Politics as
Vocation’, in which he defines the state as a human community that holds a monopoly
over the legitimate use of violence. See Weber 2004.
Foucault introduced his lecture course by noting that he would like to begin a series of

investigations into whether war could provide a principle for the analysis of power

relations. He summed up his previous efforts to rethink power by noting that “until

now, or for roughly the last five years, it has been disciplines”, but for the next five

years, it would be “war, struggle, the army” (SMD, 23). As we now know, this large-

scale project never materialised. The lectures ultimately represent a failed attempt to

rethink political power according to the model of war, and Foucault himself explicitly

criticised the model in his late definitive essay “Subject and Power”. Pasquino

Pasquale (1993, 86), who worked closely with Foucault at the time the lectures were

delivered, claims that he would never have wished them to be published, for he

regarded his courses as working hypotheses. From a concern with war Foucault

moved to a more fruitful study of biopower and governmentality.2

It is my contention that while the war model was ultimately abandoned, what

nevertheless remains significant in these lectures is that it was not abandoned in

favour of an understanding of the political based on consensus or contract. The idea of

power as the governing of conduct – a set of actions upon actions – and the practice-

based account of political rationality conveyed by the notion of governmentality and

developed in the lecture series following Society Must be Defended meant that

political power was still understood as essentially agonistic and strategic.3 Moreover,

Beatrice Hanssen argues (2000, 148) that the change of plan revealed Foucault’s
disenchantment with the unwieldy dimensions of what threatened to become an all-
enveloping power/war matrix. Alessandro Fontana and Mauro Bertani (2003) argue
that the lectures represent a transition between Discipline and Punish and The History
of Sexuality, vol. I. From a concern with disciplinary power and sovereign power
Foucault gradually moved to a more pronounced interest in biopower.
In his introduction to the English translation Arnold Davidson argues (2003, xvii-
whilst forming Foucault’s most explicit engagement with the question of political

violence these lectures also make a definitive break with the Hobbesian legacy in our

conceptualisations of violence in political thought.

The essential distinction that structures and organises the disparate body of texts that

the lectures cover is the opposition Foucault sets between the favoured “historico-

political discourse” and the “juridico-political theory of sovereignty” as exemplified

by Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. His central claim against Hobbes is that political

power should not be analysed in terms of contract, laws and the establishment of

sovereignty, but in terms of a shifting, historical struggle, a movement that makes

some dominant over others. In other words, he wanted to replace theories of contract

with theories of actual conquest. 4

In the first lecture he famously inverted Clausewitz’s dictum that war was the

continuation of politics by other means, and chose as his working hypothesis the

claim that politics was the continuation of war. 5 He distinguished this model from the

juridical contract schema represented by Hobbes and his contractarian followers by

claiming that the essential opposition was not between the legitimate and the

illegitimate, but between domination and submission – or winners and losers – in the

concrete struggle that would establish the legitimate (SMD, 17). The central concept

of war thus does not refer to the abstract, Hobbesian war of every man against every

xviii) that in studying the discourse of war in this course Foucault formulated a
strategic model of power. Although it is widely recognised that its articulation was
one of his major achievements during this time, the full scope and significance of the
model has not been fully appreciated.
Cf. Pasquino 1993, 86.
See Clausewitz 1984, 87.
man, it refers to a concrete, historical struggle in which groups fight groups. As

Foucault polemically formulated the aim, it was to show how the birth of states, their

organisation and juridical structures are not the result of a contract, but arise from and

are maintained in the blood and mud of battles.

The law is born of real battles, victories, massacres, and conquests, which can

be dated and which have their horrific heroes; the law was born in burning

towns and ravaged fields... This does not mean that society, the law, and the

State are like armistices that put an end to wars, or that they are the products

of definitive victories. Law is not pacification, for beneath the law, war

continues to rage in all the mechanisms of power, even the most regular...

(SMD, 50)6

The task of unmasking the violent foundations of the state and the law attaches

Foucault to a long lineage of thinkers, including figures such as Max Weber and

Walter Benjamin. The way he accomplished this hackneyed task was strikingly

original, however. His multilayered analysis moves through a complex and

compressed set of historical material from sixteenth-century England to fascism. It is

thus thoroughly historical, or to be more precise, genealogical. In these lectures he

was not presenting a philosophical theory of power or a political history of states, but

was offering a series of investigations into a specific discourse on the political history

“La loi naît dés batailles réelles, des victories, des massacres, des conquetes qui ont
leur date et leur héros d’horreur; la loi naît des villes incendiées, des terres ravages…
Mais cela ne veut pas dire que la société, la loi et l’État soient comme l’armistice dans
ces guerres, ou la sanction définitive des victoires. La loi n’est pas pacification, car
sous la loi, la guerre continue à faire rage à l’intérieur de tous les méchanismes de
pouvoir, même les plus réguliers. “ (IFDS, 43)
of England and France. He was charting the genealogy of historiography with the aim

of revealing its connections with power: how it had been used as a weapon in political

struggles and what power effects it had had.

To briefly sum up the argument, Foucault claimed that up until the sixteenth century

history was written by power to justify power: it was a record of the glory of power.

At the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century there

emerged a radically new type of discourse in England and France, however, a

counter-history that was used to contest power. Foucault called it “historico-political

discourse” and argued that it was based on a new model for thinking about power and

the origin of states: the present political order was the result of a past war and those

holding power held it for no other reason than that they won the war. Its central thesis

was thus the idea that war, rather than a contract or a natural right, formed the

ineradicable basis of all relations and institutions of power. The historically specific

facts of war found the political order of the state and power relations as they

functioned at that time.

This new “historico-political discourse” functioned as a counter-history to the

mainstream political history. With it a new historical practice emerged, characterised

by the principle of heterogeneity: the history of some people was not the history of

others. It revealed that history was in fact “a divisive light that illuminates one side of

the social body but leaves the other side in shadows or casts it into the darkness”

(SMD, 70).
Foucault shows how this discourse was used in different ways to further the political

aims of different groups. In the process he rewrites much of the history of

historiography. He argues, for example, that the French historian Boulainvilliers – a

mostly forgotten and controversial figure because of his claim that aristocracy

constituted a distinct and superior race – was in fact a highly significant historian

because he opened up the historico-political field in France. By evoking the memory

of the war between the Franks and the Gauls he argued for the original right of the

Franks – and the aristocracy as their descendants – to power. In his hands history

became knowledge that was deployed and functioned within the field of political

struggle. Boulainvillier’s importance lay in his realisation that historiography not only

analysed and interpreted political events but also deployed and modified them.

Foucault’s lectures thus operate and attempt reversals on various levels. On the level

of historiography he is defending a practice of counter-history that is always

perspectival, the discourse of a combat position rather than a supposedly neutral view

from nowhere. He identifies the emergence of this historiographical counter-discourse

and traces its developments in the truth games of historiography and its uses for

political life. He does this with the help of controversial figures such as

Boulainvilliers, and attempts to reconfigure, even completely overturn, the accepted

assessments of their significance in historiographical research.

On a philosophical level, Foucault’s historiographical arguments support several

theoretical insights. Although he did not invent the model of war as a tool for

understanding political power, which rather emerged from historical discourse, he

clearly approved of and even praised it. He found in it a number of benefits compared

to the juridical model of sovereign power. Firstly, it was able to provide a concrete

analysis of the multiplicity of power relations that manufacture subjects, rather than

presupposing subjects and rights that existed already. The juridical model of

sovereignty presupposes that the individual is a subject with natural rights and

primitive powers. Foucault, on the other hand, argues that we should not attempt to

study power on the basis of the primitive terms of the relationship, but should focus

on the relationship itself. The power relation determines the elements on which it

bears. Rather than asking ideal subjects what part of themselves or their powers they

have surrendered in order to let themselves become subjects, Foucault asks us to

consider how relations of subjugation manufacture subjects (SMD, 265).

Secondly, this type of analysis could reveal relations of domination in their

multiplicity, their differences, their specificity, and in their reversibility rather than

identifying a sovereign as the single form or central point from which they spring.

Foucault suggests that these relations should be studied as relations of force that

intersect, refer to one another, converge or, conversely, come into conflict and strive

to negate each other. Thirdly, rather than taking the law as the fundamental

manifestation of power, this model could identify the technical instruments and

techniques of constraint that would guarantee the functioning of the relations of

domination. (SMD, 266.)

While the contract theories following Hobbes thus represent attempts to explain the

genesis of sovereignty in terms of three basic elements – subject, unitary power and
law – Foucault wanted to offer an alternative way of thinking about political power

that did not assume any of these elements as given (SMD, 44-46). He was continuing

his critique of sovereign power in these lectures, but he was no longer content with

the idea of disciplinary power as a complement to it: it was not enough to show that

there were modern forms of power that escaped the sovereign-juridical model or

functioned at the interstices of it.7 He now wanted to overturn this model completely

by questioning it in terms of how it represented the foundations and origins of the

state, its institutions and power mechanisms. He summed up his lectures by writing

that in order to make a concrete analysis of power relations, one must completely

abandon the juridical model of sovereignty (SMD, 265). The hypothesis was that the

discourse of war could offer an alternative.

As we now know, Foucault never completely abandoned the juridical model of

sovereignty: instead, he ultimately abandoned the war model. His lasting contribution

to political philosophy lies in his critique and rethinking of sovereignty, not in any

supposed move beyond it. His war lectures showed that sovereignty was not the result

of contract and rights, but was an ongoing battle, both physically and discursively.

The History of Violence versus the Primal State of War

Foucault began his critique of the model of sovereign power in Discipline and
Punish, but it was still his central target in these lectures. He claimed that the juridical
model of sovereignty that located power in the centralised state apparatus was a
problematic legacy of monarchical notions of sovereignty. We must ‘cut off the
king’s head’ in political theory and analyse the phenomenon of power without the use
of this model. See e.g., SMD, 59.
While Foucault clearly aimed to unmask irreducible violence through the model of

war – violence that is foundational and indispensable for the functioning and

existence of the state – it should be noted that this violence is not naturalised in his

historico-political discourse. In challenging Hobbes’ view of the origin of political

power, Foucault can be read to be challenging the idea that violence is a universal

constant, an inevitable feature of the state of nature. Instead, he moves the discourse

on war and violence to a thoroughly historical level: the origin of states lies in a

history of violence, and not in a natural state of war.

Foucault concedes that, at first glance, Hobbes appears to be the man who said that

war was both the basis of power relations and the principle that explained them. More

fundamentally, however, his thought announced the beginning of the modern master

discourse on law and sovereignty, which covered over the empirical realities of war

and the violent facts of history. What Hobbes calls the war of everyman against every

man is not a real historical war – a direct confrontation of forces marked by blood,

battles and corpses – but a play of representations, which were played off against each

other. Instead of real war there was an unending diplomacy between rivals who used

mutually intimidatory tactics, calculated presentations of strength and expressions of a

pronounced will to wage war. The establishment of sovereignty was ultimately the

result of this diplomacy and not of actual war. (SMD, 89.)

There are no battles in Hobbes’s primitive war, there is no blood and there are

no corpses. There are presentations, manifestations, signs, emphatic

expressions, wiles and deceitful expressions… We are in a theatre where

presentations are exchanged, in a relationship of fear in which there are no

time limits; we are not really involved in a war. (SMD, 92)8

Hobbes makes a distinction between two categories of sovereignty: commonwealth

by institution – sovereign power that is based on a contract – and commonwealth by

acquisition – sovereign power that is acquired by force.9 Commonwealths by

institution are clearly founded on a contract according to which the sovereign

represents the people. However, in the case of commonwealths by acquisition, it

seems that there must have been a real battle: winners and losers of an actual war.

However, Foucault argues that in this case the establishment of sovereignty takes

place after the war and, in a sense, independently of it. The foundation of sovereignty

lies in fear and the will to prefer life to death, and this leads to a contract.

The insignificance of any real war becomes evident when Hobbes adds a third form of

sovereignty – the type that binds a child to his or her mother – and states that this type

is very similar to the institution of sovereignty by acquisition that appears after the

end of a war, or after the defeat. The child has to obey its mother because its life

depends on her, not because of violent coercion. There is no essential difference

between the way a child consents to its mother’s sovereignty in order to preserve its

life and the way the defeated give their consent when the battle is over. Whether there

has been a real war or not is not the decisive issue. Sovereignty is established out of

fear of death, the will to live and the consent that follows.
“Il n’y a pas de batailles dans la guerre primitive de Hobbes, il n’ya pas de sang, il
n’ya pas de cadavers. Il ya des representations, manifestations, des signes, des
expressions emphatiques, rusees, mensongères…On est sur la theatre des
representations échangées, on est dans un rapport de peur qui est un rapport
temporellement indéfini; on n’est pas réellement dans la guerre.” (IFDS, 79-80)
See Hobbes 2004, 129-157.
Foucault thus claims that for Hobbes the only difference between commonwealth by

institution and commonwealth by acquisition is that, rather than choosing their

sovereign due to their fear of one another, people chose him due to their fear of him.

Sovereignty by acquisition is therefore as juridical and legitimate as the sovereignty

that was established through the mode of institution and mutual agreement. The

historical reality of war and its outcome is completely eliminated from this

explanation of the genesis of sovereignty. (SMD, 94-97)

This is significant because against this background Hobbes’s theory appears first and

foremost as an attempt to legitimise and defend the sovereignty of the state against the

civil struggles that were tearing it apart in England at the time. Foucault claimed that

by advocating a general and abstract discourse of contract and sovereignty the

historical reality of war that Hobbes was trying to cover over was the Norman

Conquest. His discourse was directed against its adversarial counter-discourse at the

time – political historicism – that could be heard in the demands of the

parliamentarians and in the more extreme positions of the Levellers and the Diggers.

These groups contested the absolute power of the monarchy by evoking the historical

knowledge of war, namely the Norman Conquest. They argued that the power of the

monarchy was not the result of a legitimate contract, but an outcome of a violent

conquest and therefore a state of non-right in which all laws and property relations

were invalidated. Rethinking the basis of political power through the reality of war

functioned as a form of resistance for these groups: a way of contesting the legitimacy

of the monarchy and the existing relations of power. It was in the analysis of the

historical discourse on the juridical meaning of the Norman Conquest that Foucault
identified the first implicit formulation of the war model as the analyser of power, and

as a counter-discourse to Hobbes’s theory (SMD, 109).10

Power versus Violence

The formulation of power as a relationship of force in these lectures is philosophically

ambiguous, and is indicative of their transitory status in Foucault’s attempts to

fundamentally rethink prevailing conceptions of power. The notion of force is used in

frustratingly elusive and even contradictory ways. Sometimes it is used as a noun: it is

not an inert substance, but it is nevertheless something that can be used and possessed

to empower. Boulainvillier’s counter-history, for example, analysed and interpreted

the forces of the people and was also a force itself, “the strangest of all those forces

that were fighting one another within the social body” (SMD,168). At times Foucault

restricted himself to the more relational formulation of ‘relations of force’, but used it

in differing ways: sometimes it seems to be a synonym for ‘the play of power’,

sometimes power is ‘the play of relations of force’ (e.g., SMD, 169).

Historico-political discourse underwent a problematic naturalisation of its own in
the 19th century, however. Foucault argues that the discourse of two races struggling
for political power – such as Normans and Saxons in England or Franks and Gauls in
France – was being reworked in socio-biological terms. The historical dimension of
this discourse was suppressed and replaced with a biologico-medical perspective
resulting in the emergence of State racism. The historical reality of war was again
eliminated and social conflict recoded in biological terms as the need for one race to
defend itself and to protect its purity. This mutation of war discourse into State racism
was cotemporaneous with the development of biopower. What is now the familiar
idea of biopower was first introduced in the last of these lectures, and linked to the
question of state racism: racism emerged as a way of rationalising biopower killing its
own subjects. See SMD, 254-263.
This means that the understanding of the political that Foucault relies on is not very

clear either. He clearly understood the political sphere as agonistic, an essentially

open, even limitless field of shifting struggles or forces, but the exact ontological

status of these competing forces remains unclear. The substantive formulations could

suggest Nietzschean metaphysics11, while ‘relations of forces’ echoes a Marxist

conception in which politics is understood as a realm in which the forces of history

can play themselves out. The notion of force would thus seem to take Foucault back

to advocating some form of essentialist political ontology, albeit a different one from

the one he detects in Hobbes’ thought – a position that I suggest his political

historicism was intended to question.

We could also see the novelty of Foucault’s notion of force as lying exactly in the fact

that it accommodates the materiality of violent coercion, whilst not being reducible to

it. He stated in his lectures that an army of the king could be a force, but so could the

history of the people. With his notions of war and force he could thus be read as

breaking the ontological boundary between the discursive and the non-discursive: the

hegemonic institution of meanings, identities and systems of thought is intertwined

with the violent inscription of bodies.12 The political order is a crystallisation of power

relations and an outcome of a concrete combat; objectivity is the result of a struggle

between conflicting interpretations and is constituted through a silent ‘war’, and

Colin Gordon (1996, 266), for example, argues that Foucault’s exploration of
notions of struggle as a principle of historical intelligibility has led some to suppose,
wrongly, that he equivocally endorsed a Nietzschean metaphysics of war, will and
struggle. Nietzsche’s idea of the world as the will for power can furthermore be
understood in very different senses depending on what status is given to the Nachlass
notes. The metaphysical reading of it is only one possibility. Rather than being a flux
of forces pertaining to the being of everything, animate or inanimate, it could also be
read as an empirical observation about human behaviour. See e.g., Williams 2001.
See e.g., NGH.
importantly, the two are inseparable. As Beatrice Hansen (2000, 15-16) formulates

Foucault’s aim, it was to show how the role of political power was perpentually to use

a silent war to reinscribe the relationship of force established through concrete war in

institutions, economic inequalities, and the identities of individuals. Politics sanctions

and reproduces, through symbolic practices, the disequilibrium of forces manifested

in war.

The model of war, as well as the notion of force, would thus articulate the

intertwinement of the physical combat over life with the interpretative combat over

truth and objectivity. Our political history, as well as the present political order,

reveals how the imposition of hegemonic meanings, identities and interpretations has

been inseparable from physical violence – the historical facts of wars. Violence is

fundamentally consitutive of the very fabric of our world in the sense that reality as

we know it reflects the outcome of past wars and is not an objective or politically

neutral realm waiting to be truthfully described.

I argue that Foucault must have come to see the dangers that the complete merging of

these two meanings of force – physical and symbolic – would lead to, however, and

he later abandoned the war model. If his intial question was: “To what extent can a

relationship of domination boil down to or be reduced to the notion of a relationship

of force” (SMD, 46), he later answered it unequivocally by denying that power could

ever be reduced to force or violence. The violent inscription of bodies fuses with the

inscription of meanings in the functioning of modern political power, but these

aspects cannot be completely superimposed without committing a fundamental

ontological error.

In his seminal essay “Subject and Power” from 1982 Foucault poses the classic

question of political philosophy – the same one as Hannah Arendt did in On Violence,

for example – namely whether violence is simply the ultimate form of power: “That

which in the final analysis appears as its real nature when it is forced to throw aside

its mask and to show itself as it really is” (SP, 220). He also follows Arendt in his

negative reply, and puts forward an oppositional view of the relationship between

power and violence. 13 They are opposites in the sense that where one rules absolutely

the other is absent: “Where the determining factors saturate the whole there is no

relationship of power; slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains” (SP,


Foucault distinguishes power from violence by arguing that a power relationship is a

mode of action that does not act directly and immediately on others, but rather acts

upon their actions: it is a set of actions upon other actions. This means, firstly, that the

one over whom power is exercised is thoroughly recognised as a subject, as a person

who acts. Secondly, he or she must be free, meaning here that when faced with a

relationship of power, a whole field of possibilities – responses, reactions, results and

possible inventions – may open up and be realised. Violence, on the other hand, acts

directly and immediately on the body. It is not an action upon an action of a subject,

Arendt attempted to diagnose the political situation of her time marked by riots and
insurrections by distinguishing violence sharply from power. She vehemently argued
against what she claimed was the consensus among political theorists from Left to
Right at the time that violence was nothing more than the ultimate kind of power. To
understand the nature of power and violence and their relationship, she urged us to see
them not only as distinct and different, but also as opposites. See Arendt 1970. On the
similarities between Arendt’s and Foucault’s views, see Hanssen 2000.
but an action upon a body or things. Foucault now also criticises the war model

explicitly by writing that the relationship proper to power should not be sought “on

the side of violence or of struggle, nor on that of voluntary linking (all of which can,

at best, only be the instruments of power), but rather in the area of the singular mode

of action, neither warlike nor juridical, which is government” (SP 221).

The war model was thus ultimately abandoned, but not in favour of an understanding

of political power based on consensus or contract. The idea of power as the governing

of conduct – a set of actions upon actions – and the practice-based account of political

rationality conveyed by the notion of governmentality and developed in the lecture

series following Society Must be Defended meant that political power was still

understood as essentially agonistic and strategic. I will show in Chapter five how the

idea of governmentality introduces a futher refinement and development of his

conception of polical power, and how it opens up an original perspective for

analysing its specific connections with violence.

It is also important to emphise that the agonism that Foucault advocates, even in his

Society Must be Defended lectures, is not rooted in any kind of essentialist claims

concerning violence. The fact that the social space is agonistic does not derive from a

primal state of war or the aggressive nature of human beings: it rather derives from

the ontological view that all political realities are contingent and contestable because

they are constituted by historical practices of power and violence. The historical

reality of war means that what aquires the status of reality rather than fiction is

determined by victory, not truth in any absolute or simple sense, and bodies are used,
killed and injured, to create and confirm truths. However, while some practices and

strategies prove to be hegemonic and thus reify momentarily into relatively stable

political structures, this incites counter-struggles ensuring that the power game moves

on. No victory is final.

The State versus Government

In thinking about the possibilities of uncoupling any essential connection between

violence and the political it is also crucial to make a distinction between political

power and the state. While it seems clear that we are not in a situation in which we

can anticipate the immanent dissolution of the state, it is still important to keep in

mind that it is a historically contingent form of political power and not its eternal or

essential form. A continuous strand in Foucault’s thought is his attempt to find ways

of thinking about political power, which do not equate it with state institutions. The

radical historicisation of the state undertaken in his lectures on governmentality, for

example, imply that the modern territorial nation-state is only one historical form of

government, that might prove to be passing. His criticism of the modern state is

perhaps most explicit in “Subject and Power”, however, and the forms of resistance

that he sets as his model are “anarchistic struggles” (SP, 211). He characterises the

relationship between power and the state by overturning their order of primacy.

It is certain that in contemporary societies the state is not simply one of the

forms or specific situations of the exercise of power – even if it is the most

important – but that in a certain way all other forms of power relation must
refer to it. But this is not because they are derived from it; it is because power

relations have come more and more under state control. (SP, 224)

It is thus impossible to understand the functioning of power relations without

analysing the state, but this is not because they are derived from it. Rather, the state is

a historically contingent organisation of power that has spread its reach over an

increasing field of experience (SP, 215).14

In terms of the question whether political violence is ineradicable this means that

while Foucault’s thought clearly affirms the truism of political philosophy that there

are no states without monopolised violence and histories of actual and potential wars,

this platitude does not yet imply that violence is an irreducible feature of the political.

If politics is not equated with the establishment and maintenance of the state, but is

understood to cover all the dense, capillary networks of actions upon action in a

society, then it is not difficult to imagine forms of political practice that are not tied to

the use of violence – legitimate or illegitimate. This does not mean, however, that

politics without the oppressive state would become a harmonious realm of

deliberation and consensus. It is quite possible that agonism would take dramatically

more violent forms in the absence of the state, as has arguably happened in many

instances. The point is only to deny its inevitability. The disputes could be ongoing

and unsettled, erupt in violence or be dissolved through different procedures. Only

actual politics can ultimately decide this. The affirmation of agonism implies the

Foucault argues that the state is a new and problematic form of political power, but
not because it ignores individuals in favour of the interests of a totality. The problem
is that it is totalizing and yet individualizing at the same time. As he famously writes,
the modern state is a highly sophisticated power structure “in which individuals can
be integrated, under one condition: that this individuality would be shaped in anew
form, and submitted to a very specific patterns“ (SP, 214).
ineliminability, not of war and violence, but of power relations. What the mechanisms

for establishing, changing, regulating, limiting and criticising them should be are

political questions par excellence.

The agonistic ontology of practices is also the reason why Foucault repeatedly refused

to offer any overall theory of resistance: resistances are formed of varying strategies

in varying practices. They “cut societies on the diagonal” and aim at specific

transformations.15 Unlike Benjamin, Foucault’s thought thus contains no messianic

moment: there is no Divine violence capable of countering the mythic violence of the

state and bringing about a new form of life.16 While state power inevitably implicates

us in violence in being both an individualising and a totalising form of power,

Foucault does not envisage any radical overthrow of the state, no final or global

liberation. Instead the anarchistic struggles he promotes are specific, immediate and

transversal. They are struggles that question the status of the individual by promoting

new forms of subjectivity and by questioning the ways in which knowledge circulates

and functions in its relations to power (SP, 212).


The apparent tension between history and philosophy, or historiography and ontology,

comes to the fore in Foucault’s attempt to rethink political power and its relationship

to violence in Society Must be Defended lectures. Initially he approached the

See e.g., Foucault PE, 375-76.
See Benjamin 1996.
theoretical question guiding the lectures – whether war could provide a principle for

the analysis of power relations – by studying the historical development of a specific

discourse that utilised such a model. He traced the history of such a historiography

from the 16th century onwards, and showed how it became a standard weapon in

political struggles. His account of political power and violence was thus thoroughly

historical, and all abstract political theory was subsumed under this methodological

choice. We are immersed in a history of violence and it is only from this perspective –

in the midst of the mud and blood of battle – that we can attempt to understand

society, political power, and ourselves. The methodological choice to discard abstract

theory in favour of an analysis that was as historically specific as possible was

paramount in these lectures.

The recognition of the need for clear and cutting conceptual weapons seems to

dominate in his late writings such as “Subject and Power”, however, and culminates

in the question of resistance. It is easy to contend that all neat conceptual distinctions

between different levels of power, force and violence quickly become blurred when

we inquire into the historical reality of politics. The conflictual nature of social reality

has manifested itself in Western political history not as the peaceful co-existence of

competing interpretations of reality, but as a tendency of politics always to aim at

hegemony through violent means. However, for resistance against this tendency to be

a viable option for the future, we cannot accept its inevitability. We have to be able to

separate the realm of the actual from the realm of the possible – the realm of political


Foucault seemed to recognise the problem acutely when he asks in the opening
paragraphs of his essay whether we need a theory of power. Since a theory assumes

prior objectification, it cannot be asserted as a basis for analytical work. He

immediately adds, however, that the analytical work cannot proceed without an

ongoing conceptualisation, one that implies critical thought and constant checking. As

I have argued in chapter one, the inevitable ontology that any theory imposes must

thus be checked and critically reflected on, but cannot be completely avoided. The

contingency of the present and every ontological order imposed on it is, after all, our

only guarantee that the violence of our past is not be the inevitable predicament of our

future. I have therefore suggested that it is probable that Foucault acknowledged the

dangers that the ontological blurring of the boundaries between different dimensions

of force and war would cause, and that he was therefore prepared to overstep the

limits of his modest historicism when analysing political violence.

Foucault’s vision of modernity is no doubt pessimistic. As Beatrice Hanssen writes

(2000, 19, 27), he constructs a genealogy of modernity saturated with violence, and

his thought announces the end of all transcendental critiques of violence. She is

wrong to claim that it relies on anthropological pessimism, however. I have attempted

to show that in opposing Hobbes, Foucault is making a significant break with the

political tradition that builds on anthropological pessimism. Even if we had to accept

that violence was so universally pervasive that it appeared necessary for human

societies, this very observation, just like the positing of any social objectivity, could

only be made as a historically perspectival and politically charged claim. In the realm

of the political there is always an undefined space for freedom in the radical

contingency of the present. These “lines of fragility in the present” do not, perhaps,

make space for utopias of a world free of violence, but they do open up a space for
political imagination, limited hope and patient labour.17

See SPS, 449-450, Flynn 2005, 250.