- Law, Justice, and PoliticsDerrida on Deconstruction and Democracy to Come
Law, justice, politics, violence, performativity, Derrida, Benjamin.
In “Critique of Violence,” Walter Benjamin addresses the question of political, violence by showing how violence fundamentally concerns the institution of a state and serves to conserve its organization (1996). The essay puts into question the inherence of violence to a system of positive laws, which aims to prohibit and punish individual acts of violence. Benjamin describes the dialectical movement of the institution and the fall of states, and inquires into the sort of violence that deserves being characterized as “revolutionary.” If the logic of the historical dialectic explains the coming into being and the eventual destruction of states, revolutionary violence remains outside of that history; it is ahistorical, nondialectical, and pure. Jacques Derrida offers an interpretation of “Critique of Violence” in the second part of “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority.” However, the first part, entitled “Deconstruction [End Page 111] and the Possibility of Justice,” can also be situated within a Benjaminian approach to politics. If the two parts are taken together, the relation of Derrida’s political philosophy to Benjamin’s reflection on politics becomes clearer. It is my contention that Derrida’s political philosophy is born of a philosophical reflection on Benjamin’s discussion of violence and Carl Schmitt’s thinking of sovereignty; and, as such, it is based on an acknowledgment of the irreducible relation between law and violence.
Unlike Benjamin and Schmitt, Derrida retains a certain faith in democracy as a political structure (at least, a democracy to-come). However, he takes seriously their suspicion that parliamentary democracies and their unending deliberations can in fact disguise that sovereign decisions are made by individuals or small groups, and that most parliamentary democracies are just another disguise for unfettered violence. This suspicion leads Derrida to reflect on the reopening of “the political” by way of the deconstruction of the state. Deconstruction involves recognition of the violence that brings states into being and keeps them in existence for a limited period of time. This recognition is not mere realistic acceptance of a political fact; it comes with a radical questioning. In “Force of Law,” he argues that the philosophical gesture that is “political” par excellence is to question the act that institutes the law that founds a state (1992). A radical questioning of the historical and structural violence in political institutions paves the way for a democracy before all unifying and instituting performatives. This priority cannot be justified by historical chronological order; it stems from the irreducible dimension of promise, which belongs to the sense of democracy. Throughout Derrida’s readings of Schmitt and Benjamin, politics is thus situated between the “question” and the “promise.” If the question is one that concerns the foundations of law, the promise is the promise of that which is to come from within such a questioning. What kind of promise can democracy be? The explication of the difference and the necessary relation between justice in the sense of law, and justice beyond law provides the ground for thinking a pluralistic politics and a democratic universality—not as present, but as always “to come.” The duality between law and justice in “Force of Law,” the concept of “foundation” that is instantiated in the “Declarations of Independence,” the questioning of nationalism(s) in the reading of Schmitt in Politics [End Page 112] of Friendship, and the analyses of the temporality of justice and democracy in Specters of Marx are undoubtedly important steps for an explanation of Derrida’s approach to politics. In this essay, I shall only focus on Derrida’s response to Benjamin’s account of violence, which I take to be crucial for Derrida’s conception of the relation between law, justice, and politics.
I. Law and Justice
The first part of “Force of Law” is not a commentary on Benjamin; however, it is interwoven with the essay that follows it, “Benjamin’s First Name.” The role that Benjamin plays for Derrida in this first part suggests that the dichotomy between law and justice functions as a response to Benjamin’s distinction between mythic violence and divine...