Political Violence

Journal Review

 Mark Muhannad Ayyash, ‘The paradox of political violence’ European Journal of Social Theory August 2013 vol. 16 no. 3, pp. 342-356. 

* (Originally Submitted to the University of Leicester, Politics and International Relations Dept.  on 9th May 2018)


This paper argues that although Ayyash’s thesis on political violence is a sophisticated theoretical attempt to reveal the complexities underpinning the paradoxical relationship between political power and violence, its underlying assumptions that ground such an attempt require further clarification.

Part 1 and 2 of this essay challenge Ayyash’s argument that both Arendt and Fanon respectively ‘…fail, analytically speaking to accomplish a neat separation  between violence and politics.’ (Ayyash 2013, p.343). Part 3 critically analyses Ayyash’s perspective on Focault’s schemata for the analysis of power.

Part 1 Arendt’s conception of Political Violence

Ayyash argues that Arendt’s use of the productive – destructive paradigm ‘fail(s) analytically speaking, to accomplish a neat separation between violence and  politics’, (Ayyash 2013, p.343) or to analytically limit violence, since Arendt ‘divides violence into that which can be used for short term goals and that which can only destroy.’ (Ayyash 2013, p.347). This paper argues that an  appreciation of the ‘mood’ in which Arendt was writing gives one insight into Arendt’s  eloquent defence of ‘the integrity of politics’ (Dallmayr 2001, p.186) divested of the stain of violence that had tainted the historical period preceding her writing. She speaks of writing in a ‘generation that inherited from their parents the experience of a massive intrusion of criminal violence into politics evident in concentration camps’ (Dallmayr 2001, p.188). It is submitted that Arendt’s analytical attempt to separate political power from violence is not premised on the productive-destructive distinction of violence. Rather, Arendt argues that ‘Power…….springs up whenever people get together and act in concert’, and ‘derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow.’ (Finlay 2009, p.28). It is argued that Arendt’s conception of power as distinct from violence is not contingent upon a consequential good that legitimises it; rather ‘a challenge to legitimacy will properly be met with an ‘appeal to the past’( Finlay 2009, p. 28). Ayyash argues that ‘… the productive–destructive distinction is a mere matter of perspective and cannot act as a genuine analytical framework’. (Ayyash 2013, p. 347). It is submitted that Arendt’s analytical separation of power from violence is achieved by invoking power’s legitimacy rather than its justifiability. The limits that Arendt places on violence by alluding to short term goals is not an attempt to achieve power’s legitimacy,  but to ensure that ‘violence, being instrumental by nature’… ‘is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end that must justify it. (Finlay 2009,  p.28). To Arendt, violence resides only in the realm of   justifiability, and is not legitimised by short term goals, which can only act as an imperfect rationale to justify the ends. 

Part 2  Fanon’s concept of violence

Ayyash argues that Fanon analytically ‘delimits the concept of violence within neatly distinct categories of productive violence … and destructive violence’ (Ayyash 2013, p.345), suggesting an instrumentalist approach to conceiving violence. Intuitively speaking, it may be morally defensible to speak of Fanon’s writings as ‘a productive’ form of violence since it appears justified by its ends in the ‘overthrow of the colonial regime.’ ( Ayyash 2013, p.345) . This paper argues that Fanon rejects such an instrumentalist approach by asserting that ‘..it is going beyond the historical instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate the cycle of my freedom.’ (Roberts 2004, p.145). To Fanon, violence evinced in struggles of freedom of the colonised against a coloniser is perceived as possessing an ‘intrinsic rather than instrumental’ value (Roberts 2004, p.147) as apparent from Fanon’s writings: ‘After centuries of unreality…..at long last the native, gun in hand, stands face to face with the only forces which contend for his life – the forces of colonialism .. the native discovers reality and transforms it into the practice of violence’.(Roberts 2004, p.147). It is argued that violence of the colonised in this passage is portrayed by Fanon as an intrinsic part of his or her ‘reality’ of experiencing freedom from the brutalities of the colonizer, and should therefore be valued as a good in itself.Fanon’s assertion that  ‘the colonized man finds his freedom in and through violence’ (Fanon 1963, p. 86) speaks of an ‘intrinsic violence’ that ‘places positive value on a violent act irrespective of the outcome at a specific moment of implementation.’ ( Roberts 2004, p.146).   It is submitted that Fanon’s assertion  that ‘if this pure, total brutality is not immediately contained it will, without fail, bring down the movement within a few weeks’ (Gibson 2007, p.72) speaks of a  pragmatism of avoiding ‘pure brutality’  to avoid annihilation of the colonized rather than a call for brutal  violence to be limited in order to  justify its use against the colonized. 

Part 3  Focault’s schemata for the analysis of power

In relation to the ‘war- repression ‘ and ‘contract-oppression’ schemas, Ayyash argues that that ‘the most important point that Foucault’s text makes visible is that…they are connected in the sense that they are both concerned with the relations of domination and relations of power operating within political violence.’(Ayyash 2013, p. 350). This argument may be supported by Foucault’s phenomenological account of violence as a feature of ‘our experience of reality’ that ‘reflects the outcome of past wars and is not an objective or politically neutral realm waiting to be truthfully described’ (McCall 2013, p.203). Such an analysis of power which departs from the juridical approach ‘seeks to expose the cunning and wickedness of a rationality of technical procedures that attempts to keep in place existing relationships of force.’ (Ville 2011, p.216-217). It is submitted  that in distinguishing Focault from writers such as Arendt, analysis of Foucault’s antirealism, which recognises that ‘politics provides the conditions for the possibility of the real’, (McCall 2013, p.201), should be further explored to appreciate the ontological reality of political violence  as a result of the struggles against domination that pervades in institutions such as prisons.

This paper supports Ayyash’s argument that ‘power and freedom are entangled to such an extent in the contemporary world that they form an ‘agonism’ which ‘is at the basis of power relations’ (Ayyash 2013, p. 351). To Foucault, the dynamic interaction between each of these two forces engaged in ‘a strategy of struggle’, ‘constitutes for the other a kind of permanent limit, a point of possible reversal’ (Foucault 1982, p.794), suggesting a degree of fluidity rather than a static state that exists within the oppositional relationship between power and freedom. It is argued that the reality of the exercise of power is contingent upon  freedom ‘since without the possibility of recalcitrance, power would be equivalent to a physical determination’ (Foucault 1982, p.790) no different from that exercised in totalitarian States. The domination  of a group results from consequences of ‘the locking together of power relations with relations of strategy’ (Foucault 1982, pp. 95). This perspective arguably underpins the ‘dual-form’ of ‘political violence’ which Ayyash argues as the ‘crux of the  paradoxical relationship between politics and violence.’ (Ayyash 2013, p.352): It is submitted, however, that Foucault’s ‘distinction between power as strategic relationship and power as dominating relationship’ (McCall 2013, pp. 207) could be further analysed by Ayyash to distinguish strategic relationships which are ‘based on mutual consent  which an individual conducts the conduct of another’ from ‘power relations of domination, in for instance prisons’, which fall within the realm of ‘violent exercise of power.’  (McCall 2013, pp. 207).


Ayyash’s work on the paradox of political violence could be further clarified by contextualizing Arendt and Fanon in a way that transcends the productive- destructive paradigm of violence and recognizes violence in its intrinsic rather than its instrumental form. Further, analysis of Focault’s anti-realism would serve to clarify the distinctiveness of his work in relation to the writings of Arendt and Fanon on power and violence.          


Ayyash, M. M. (2013) ‘The paradox of political violence’, European Journal of Social Theory,16:3, pp. 342-356. 

Dallmayr, F. (2001) ‘On violence (again): Arendtian reflections’, Journal of Power and Ethics, 2:3, pp.186-212.

Fanon, F. (1963)The Wretched of the Earth (CFarringtonTrans.), Newyork: Grove Press.

Finlay, C. J. (2009) ‘Hannah Arendt’s critique of violence’, Thesis Eleven, 97:1, pp 26–45.

Foucault, M. (1982)‘Subject and Power’, Critical Inquiry, 8:4, pp. 777-795.

Gibson, N.C. (2007) ‘Relative Opacity: A New Translation of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth—Mission Betrayed or Fulfilled?’, Social Identities, 13:1, pp.69-95.

McCall, C. (2013) ‘Foucault, Politics, and Violence’, Comparative and Continental Philosophy, 5:2, pp.199-211.

Roberts, N. (2004) ‘Fanon, Sartre, violence, and freedom’
, Sartre Studies International, 10:2, pp.139-160.

Ville, J. (2011) ‘Rethinking Power and Law: Foucault’s Society must be Defended
’, International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, 24:2, pp.211-226.

Photo by Rafael Cosquiere on Pexels.com

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