Histories of Violence: The Crisis of Liberalism

November 15, 2021   •   By Brad Evans

THIS IS THE 54th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Suzanne Schneider, deputy director and core faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is the author of Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine and writes broadly about political violence, religion, and American foreign policy.

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BRAD EVANS: In your new book, The Apocalypse and the End of History, you propose a reading on the crisis of liberalism by attending to its relationship with violence. This suggests a more critical appreciation of the links between liberalism, violence, and its mimetic rivals. I would like to begin by asking: What do these relations look like in the contemporary moment? And how does this provide insight into the very nature of liberalism in the 21st century?

SUZANNE SCHNEIDER: Well, I think it is first important to underscore that the relationship between liberalism and violence is not stable over time. There are different historically embedded liberalisms, and they have produced different modes of subjectivity and economies of violence. But certainly the state is assumed to be the central wielder of at least public and political violence within the liberal political tradition — not just theoretically as in texts by Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau, but in the real practices of state formation, which has involved wresting coercive force from rival forces within a society. Looking at our contemporary moment, it seems evident that the mechanisms liberalism deployed in the past to contain violence are no longer adequate, and we can see them breaking down (or perhaps simply being outpaced) at both the practical and ideological levels. The result is that at this juncture, the state seems only capable of inflicting violence, but not at preventing or mitigating it, much less supporting the sort of social and civic order that might lead to less of it.

There are many layers to excavate when looking at contemporary violence in a place like the United States, but for convenience’s sake, we can think about violence of the individual, of the market, and of the state. Within liberal schema, violence between individuals is supposedly personal or domestic in nature, while political violence is concentrated in the hands of the state, and violence of the market is almost an oxymoron, as the market is also supposed to be a place of freedom. The crises we confront today are manifold but tied to the fact that this story isn’t broadly convincing anymore — even among groups who were prior beneficiaries of the liberal order — and the signs of this interregnum abound in the ways in which violence is allocated and experienced.

I am struck by the point you make about the way liberalism is no longer able to contain its own violence. Might you be able to elaborate on these points with some contemporary examples? I am perhaps thinking here of the seemingly endless run of mass shootings we see occurring in the United States.

There are, of course, those spectacular incidents of violence, like mass shootings (which themselves represent only a small fraction of gun deaths each year), that signal something is fundamentally amiss within our social order. But then there is also state violence, whose coercive and punitive capacities have expanded dramatically over the past several decades both with regard to policing and incarceration at home and war-making abroad. Yet a lot of contemporary violence is more quotidian and far less headline-grabbing, but no less corrosive. This is close to what Rob Nixon has termed slow violence, which I tend to think about as market violence in which the state is complicit. This is the violence at work when it is accepted that certain communities should be subjected to premature death, to borrow from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, because they live without access to basic medical care, do not have inadequate housing, or work in unsafe conditions, and so on. We could think about recent reports of heat-induced death for people living in trailers in the Southwest during record-smashing heat waves as the intersection of market violence and state neglect. Similarly, witness the EPA allowing oil companies to dump extremely toxic chemical substances used for fracking back into the ground. This is another wonderful example of the state abetting market violence, a deadly cycle of extraction and abandonment, where the well-being of people living near fracking sites is an afterthought at best.

I think the public reaction to stories of this sort is very telling: they have become so plentiful that they are greeted as utterly unsurprising, which registers a high level of cynicism regarding the capacity of the state to serve as a steward of the public good. And indeed, the champions of neoliberalism have risen to power on the back of horror stories about the ineffectiveness of the state, so we have this sort of perfect storm involving, on the one hand, sustained public skepticism of government, and on the other, an actual crisis of governance. Perhaps this is changing. It is striking to see the intense pushback from the business community against the new FTC chairwoman, Lina Khan, for instance, who has signaled an actual interest in corporate oversight. This development notwithstanding, the general direction over the past several decades has been toward diminished state capacity — speaking in terms of its ability to intervene to support social welfare and reproduction, that is — and outsize private power, abandonment, and extraction, and it is painfully apparent just how destabilizing this development has been.

I appreciate the way you navigate here between the complex lines through which liberals have often denied themselves of any complicity when it comes to acknowledging the violence of their own systems. While you have rightly attended to the pernicious separations between market and state, which is often a mask of mastery for liberal powers, I am also reminded of the separation between society and the individual. How does the so-called liberal commitment to the autonomy of the individual play out here?

There are admittedly many elements to explore here. How should we understand the incredible uptick in gun sales in the US over the past two decades, for instance, during a time of declining rates of violent crime? Here too we find that the cracks in liberalism’s official narrative are gaping. There is a strong current within American gun culture that holds that citizens are required to augment the forces of law and order (this is not a novel feature of American political life, as I return to below). Such messaging upends the vaunted division between public and private violence, but also points to a quasi-fascistic type of political order in which violence becomes the premier form of civic participation for the far-right, nationalist, white supremacist base — all the while denying violence, whether political or simply protective, to so many others. It reflects an authoritarian political vision in which the pathways for mass political activism are mostly hollowed out. You can cheer the Great Leader or shoot at “enemies of the state,” but the options for wielding power beyond that are inherently constrained. All of this is to say: The US may have never been a real democracy, but we should not discount that it might yet become even less democratic, and that such a shift may very well entail an intensification of violence at each of the three levels charted above.

I was particularly taken in the book by the chapter on private violence. Critics might invariably argue here that the history of war has always been a complex mix between state and private entities. What would you argue is novel about the private forms of violence we witness in the world today?

It’s an excellent question. Has the liberal order ever existed in the material, as opposed to merely ideological, realm? How we answer this question is significant because it will help indicate whether we are witnessing a breaking down of liberalism, or on the other hand, a revelation of what was lurking beneath the shiny exterior this whole time — the generalization of conditions that were always present for the oppressed.

At the international level, yes, I do think that the boundary between public and private violence has become increasingly difficult to sustain in the 21st century. The fact is that most armed conflicts are no longer inter-state in nature, but involve sub-state or non-state actors, militant organizations, corporate entities, mercenaries, etc. In this context we could point to military contractors like Blackwater (now Academi), on whom the US has relied on to fight its unpopular wars abroad, but also the Islamic militant groups that have emerged over the past few decades to contest the legitimacy of governments in the MENA region.

Taken together I do think these developments indicate an elemental shift — not necessarily from the long history of warfare — the East India Company was an instance of private violence par excellence, after all — but from the preceding century in which there were efforts, however incomplete and uneven, to establish democratic control over war-making. This was evident not only in Western democracies but in anticolonial revolutions throughout the Global South, which can be read as attempts to gain access to a state wherein the use of violence could be subject to public control. This brief period of history may well prove to be the exception rather than the rule, but to echo my comments about democracy above, abandoning even the pretense of democratic control over warfare is alarming. We may never have truly had it to begin with, but I do think it represents an aspiration worth striving toward, and I don’t see how that occurs outside the structure of a state that is genuinely, radically, democratic. Such a state has never existed, but I do not share the anarchist position that the proper response is therefore to reject the state form altogether.

At the domestic level, we have seen examples of private individuals and organizations exercising political violence within the US itself — from self-appointed police auxiliaries like Kyle Rittenhouse to vigilante squads at the Mexican border, militias like the Oath Keepers gearing up for revolution, and of course the January 6 insurrectionists at the Capitol. The reality, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that the sacrosanct division between state and private violence has always been quite blurry in a land built on the legacies of Native American genocide and African slavery. Looking at the role of individuals in Western expansion, for instance, propels us toward a more contrarian and critical assessment of the liberal state’s supposed monopoly on violence. So too we should note that this tacit acceptance of private violence has historically been reserved for white people — witness the hysteria over the Black Panthers, for example. But the historian in me is not willing to concede that there is nothing new to explain here at either the domestic or international level (and indeed, it is vital to think about the ways in which acts of violence within each realm are related).

Part of what we must explain is that the public-private partnership is actually quite fragile, and really threatening to pull in different directions. You see this on the right for instance in the idea that supporting the forces of “law and order” is not necessarily support for the state itself, but for those organs of it that are deemed trustworthy. The popularity of right-wing militias that at times position themselves against the state, and at times align with it, gestures at a reality in which individuals cannot abandon the right to private violence because the state can no longer be trusted to enact political violence of the “proper” kind. This is also why you get the creation of the KKK in the aftermath of Reconstruction, a truly radical moment in American history in which state violence was deployed for the cause of equity. It’s not coincidental that many of the current political forces on the right can be traced to reactionary responses to the Civil Rights era, when again the state seemed to renege on the white supremacist agenda.

When ideas about the illegitimacy of the government are aided and abetted by the nation’s most powerful political party and its media arms, you have a real possibility of state fragmentation that is, if not new, then newly intensified. Much in the way that scholars have spoken about neofeudalism as a phenomenon that recalls past arrangements of power without directly replicating them, we need to keep a similar interplay of old/new in mind when we account for ways in which private violence echoes the past without repeating it.

I want to now turn to the final phrase in the book’s title, which inevitably will raise memories of Francis Fukuyama. Can you elaborate more on what the end of history means to you?

As a manifestation of liberal triumphalism, the end of history has aged poorly. But the end of history is not merely the smug assurance in the ultimate victory of liberalism evident in Fukuyama’s original essay. It indicates the much broader collapse of political and social imagination that remains one of neoliberalism’s hallmarks — one that has outlived the heady days of the Washington Consensus.

It is also here that I argue that developments in the West intersect ideologically with contemporary jihad, at least in its Islamic State iteration. It is noteworthy that the apocalyptic theme figures so much more prominently within ISIS’s political and theological vocabulary than it did for earlier militant organizations like al-Qaeda, to say nothing of the revolutionaries of prior decades. It also differs markedly from mainstream Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. At the most elemental level, Islamists have an alternative political and social order they are trying to enact in this world, and I don’t think that is precisely the case for ISIS. I find the Caliphate’s politics quite nihilist in ways that markedly differentiate it from Islamists, who tend to be quite pragmatic, and tie the case for Islamic governance to the claim that it will lead to a materially better society and world. Governance is for the here and now, whereas in the Islamic State redux, it is more akin to something you muddle through until the apocalyptic showdown begins.

Given that apocalyptic writings within the Islamic canon have been available for many centuries, why do they have such purchase in our current moment — far more than they had in 1990, for instance? This fact underscores that we cannot explain the Islamic State’s apocalyptic fever dream merely by pointing to the Qur’an or Sunna. There is a historical question here of “Why now?” that has to be addressed in material terms. My view is that the Islamic State recognizes the moral bankruptcy of the status quo and the human suffering it entails, and so too validates deep-seated desires for a better, more just world. Yet it offers no pathways to achieving this world in practice. There is no vision for social or economic development, for instance, but rather rule through extortion until the social base collapses — as it did in Iraq and Syria. What is fetishized instead, in this instantiation of the neoliberal fixation on individual choice and responsibility, is the mujahid’s pursuit of his or her own death, often regardless of strategic considerations. This is not a timeless feature of jihad, as Olivier Roy and others have demonstrated, but represents a very recent historical turn. However geographically distant and culturally distinct, I cannot help but hear echoes of our own fraying ends of history in the Caliphate’s apocalyptic call. Both relay failed utopian promises — and the enforced deferment of a better world to the afterlife (at best).

If we understand the violence of groups such as ISIS then embodying this new historic turn in Islamic violence, I wonder how all this connects to the issue of nihilism and the proto-fascism you mention previously. We owe it to Nietzsche for showing how nihilism was a key element of political modernity. But he also understood that such nihilism and its fascistic drivers were never static either. Could we therefore argue that what we are facing today is a battle between competing fascistic visions for the world?

The fascism debate is seemingly unending and often gets bogged down by thinking of fascism in ahistorical terms: i.e., it is possible to determine whether a political formation is fascist or not by comparing it to Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. Echoing my friend and BISR colleague Ajay Singh Chaudhary, who has very thoughtfully weighed in on this question, I find it more productive to regard fascism in general terms as a type of mass politicization from the right. It does not have to hew to a single phenotype or operate in a uniform manner over time, though there are certain family resemblances that mark movements as fascistic: the belief in natural hierarchy and corresponding rejection of democracy, the embrace of authoritarian governance, and some sort of imagined social unity that is simultaneously regarded as dominant and yet vulnerable to attack from within, such that the state must become a tool for protecting the interests of the “real” nation (I think here we can see just how easily ethno-national movements, which view the state chiefly as a tool for advancing the needs of a specific national group, can slide into fascist ones). There are several examples today of what Chaudhary regards as neofascism, including the BJP in India and AfD in Germany, and yes, even Trumpism in the US.

As much as the Islamic State shares certain characteristics with these groups, I am wary of attaching the fascist label to it given all the reactionary, imperialist, and racist mobilizations that have already occurred during this century by reference to “Islamofascism.” The logic here is not one that attends to the inner workings of different groups or asks why right-wing political formations are flourishing worldwide, but one that imagines that all “our” enemies are essentially alike. To understand the limitations of this approach, we can take something like the Islamic State’s noted antidemocratic posture, to which I devote a good deal of attention in the book. Yes, this is something that is characteristic of several far-right groups globally. Yet its origin within the ISIS universe is also quite unique, stemming from a particular reading of divine sovereignty on the one hand, and the idea of fundamental equality among true believers on the other. This is not particularly fascistic, though it remains within the pantheon of reactionary, right-wing movements. All of this is to say, beyond striving to determine whether a group or party qualifies as fascist in some sort of formal sense, more attention is needed to what is gained (and lost) when we deploy this term.

So to return to the question at hand, I’m not certain that the battle is between competing fascisms so much as between different right-wing projects, some of which are more recognizably fascist. But here is the kicker: this may not be much of a battle. Many of the far-right figures who might qualify as neofascist are quite happy to see their counterparts seizing power in other countries. The leaders of Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, India, and the Philippines do not view themselves as in conflict with one another, but with whatever is left of their leftist or liberal opposition. That is, in some ways these neofascisms — if we are to use that terminology — are quite compatible with one another. They can also play ball with capital, and even make the case that they are good for business. They are threatened less by one another than from the socialist left on the one hand and the reactionary right — which is where I would position the Islamic State — on the other. The Caliphate is also dissatisfied with the unsustainable status quo and gains followers by acknowledging the corrupt and self-serving style of traditional elites; it’s just that they offer no workable alternative that can be realized in this world.

To conclude, I would like to end by pressing you more on your own thoughts on the future of liberalism. Leaving aside my own thinking here that liberalism is effectively dead, I would be interested to know whether you believe liberalism can be rescued. And if so, what would it need to do in terms of its relationship to violence if it were to appeal more broadly to an endangered humanity?

Historians have very fuzzy crystal balls, but my sense is that no, I do not think that liberalism can be rescued in its current form. The pandemic has been disastrous for many neoliberal orthodoxies and the political energy has most definitely moved left and right. The best-case scenario is probably that tenets of liberalism — democratic governance and respect for individual rights, for instance — can be folded into a new sort of social democratic project. But it seems just as likely that certain features of liberalism — free markets propped up by state violence, for instance — could well be preserved by a new right-wing or fascistic order. It may be a “socialism or barbarism” scenario in the end, and the real question is whether liberals are more afraid of the left than they are of authoritarian capitalism. Events from the last century have not proven very encouraging on this front.

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Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.