A Short Post about Violence

Killing in the name of... well... Killing...

Killing in the name of... well... not much...

I’m currently re-reading that classic of anti-colonial rage, The Wretched of the Earth. For those of you who haven’t come across it, it was published in 1961 as Les Damnés de la Terre by Frantz Fanon. Fanon was a young man from Martinique who worked as Psychiatrist in Algiera during their rising against France. His experiences there radicalized him and he became a spokesman for the FLN’s violent anti-colonial rebellion. The Wretched of the Earth was the most articulate expression of the logic of their campaign, drawing on socialist and pan-African rhetoric as well as Fanon’s own experiences as a doctor, drawing a direct link between colonialism and a range of psychiatric conditions. Perhaps even more famous was the Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, addressed to European readers. He painted a grim picture of their moral complicity in the worst outrages of colonialism, and asserted the inevitability of their own revolution.

The book is a curious mix of the naïve and the insightful. The naïve I will deal with another time. I’m concerned now with the insight, specifically those into the nature of violence in the liberation struggle.

Violence in Africa is one of the central issues exercising academics concerned with development these days. Texas in Africa has done a great job in educating us about some of the issues in the Congo, and one of the things that emerge starkly from her writing is the complexity of motivation that drives violence. Single-issue causality simplicity or an analysis that denies the personal or direct motivation of violence is insufficient for her:

Many Congolese join armed groups … in order to defend their homes, villages, or co-ethnics. They are not necessarily fighting for control of gold mines or to take territory

For a layman in this issue like myself, this immediately has me thinking about the role of violence as an ends in itself and the importance of the form and practice of violence as an internally logical consequence of circumstance. Though I can’t claim an intimate knowledge of the academic writing on conflict, this seems to be a strand of analysis that gets relatively little attention.

In the Wretched of the Earth, Fanon and Sartre excel in is representing how in circumstances of oppression or intense dissatisfaction, violence is itself an ends. Sartre first:

To shoot down a European is to … destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man and a free man…

Now Fanon, for whom the process of decolonization was necessarily violent:

The ‘thing’ which has been colonized becomes a man during the same process by which it frees itself…

What both of these quotes imply is that there is a self-expression and actualisation that occurs through the process of engaging in violence, which will in turn need consideration when addressing the causes, consequences and solutions to conflict. In other words, if the act of violence plays a direct role in the remaking of the individual or groups conducting the violence, transforming them from victim to positive agent, solutions to conflict which remove violence altogether need to conceive an alternative solution to the remaking of the self-image of individuals and groups engaged in conflict.

Are there academics out there who examine this issue? It seems to me that most analysis of violence (particularly structured violence) tend to take a functionalist or instrumental view of the violence itself. It’s conceived as a means to an end, and a symptom of a relationship. This seems to me a major aspect of it, but perhaps also insufficient insofar as we wish to understand how violence is used to create new identities and outcomes and thus also how it can be averted.

There are plenty of bloggers out there who know much more about this than me. Anyone care to point me to some useful reading or present counter-arguments?