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The Brains of the Living: A discussion on political violence

by Dilip Simeon, 17 June 2012

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NB: This paper was presented to a seminar in Patna in April 2003, and at the Indian Social Institute on September 4, 2003. It contains material from earlier articles by me including Out of the Shadow (Communalism Combat, February 2003); The Enemy System (Hindustan Times, December 6, 2002); and The Currency of Sentiment: An Essay on Informal Accumulation in Colonial India; presented at a seminar on corruption in April 1999. The appendix contains an extract from The Retributive Impulse and the Politics of Remembering, a presentation made at a seminar on Memory, Politics and Forgiveness in the Vidya Jyoti seminary in Delhi, in June 1999. The paper is an outline of work in progress. Please do not cite or reproduce without the prior permission of the author.

"The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world". Hannah Arendt, in Reflections on Violence

"The very first essential for success is a perpetually constant and regular employment of violence." Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf.


1.1/ The argument that I would like to develop may be summarised thus. Whereas violence is considered by various political tendencies as radical, productive of closure, and susceptible to legitimising (ideological) control; the truth is quite the opposite. First, violence is the most conservative, even primordial social relation in the history of human society. To treat violence as a radical element in the polity is to forget that it emanates from the lizard’s brain that still resides in the human cranium. Second, violence does NOT result in the closure of any issue. Rather, it becomes autonomised in state-hood and reproduces itself in an endless spiral, much like the accumulation of capital, to which (in modern times), it is inextricably tied. Third, the ideological bonds of legitimacy, by means of which society seeks to contain violence, have always remained tenuous and fragile, leaving space for the autonomisation of systemic physical brutality and exterminism. This tendency (realised to greater or lesser degree) of violence to break free of institutional constraints, occurs across the political spectrum, and across the boundaries of state and civil society. Violence, to my mind, is not merely the symptom of a malaise, it is a malaise in itself. Understanding violence does not require a pragmatic debate (about its efficacy in this or that situation), but a phenomenological analysis about its intrinsic qualities, functions and effects.

1.2/ The contemporary world is witness to the universal degeneration of democratic governance - viz, power exercised with the consent of the governed. The rulers of the world order have decided (as do the Indian authorities from time to time) to expose the brutality beneath the mask of ‘civilisation’ and ‘the rule of law’. From Gujarat to Iraq, New York to Chechnya, Bosnia to Palestine, we find growing evidence of a contempt for human life. To use the language of Indian politics, communalism is now operating on a global scale. This is a complex historical issue, requiring much study and analysis. One stark aspect of political reality is the blurring of lines between state violence and violence deployed by those who claim to represent oppressed people. Another is the public awareness of brutality as a political tool.

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The Brains of the Living - thinking political violence
by Dilip Simeon
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