Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence
The State, Police Violence, and Black Lives Matter
This article addresses the history of police violence and extra-legal killings of Black people and argues that social contract theory plays an ideological role to legitimate the coercive power of the state over the African-American community. The article first looks at the alarming numbers of Black Americans killed in the United States over the past few decades and compares police violence to the extra-legal lynchings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Using Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, his classic 1921 essay, the article then describes the obfuscation of an underlying truth: that, far from being a neutral arbiter between its citizens, the state is the primary inscription of violence in the body politic. The police are the face of that state, both in its law-making violence (die rechtsetzende Gewalt) and law-preserving violence (die rechtserhaltende Gewalt). In contrast to the mythology of a social contract in which all members are treated equally before the law, the state targets African-Americans to legitimate its monopoly on violence, thereby unmasking the social contract as a racial contract, which has excluded Black people from the country’s very inception. The power of the state rests in part on the psychology of police officers who see themselves as its very embodiment and believe that any resistance to their authority is both a personal and symbolic challenge to their monopoly on violence. Yet, the article dissents from the view of many who believe that the country may transcend its history of institutional racism and violence and restore the promise of the social contract. The article concludes that, despite the hopes of modern liberalism, Benjamin’s theory leads to the conclusion that there is little possibility for either the redemption of the social contract or the rehabilitation of the state.
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