- Violence and Freedom:Canonical Interventions and Heretical Reading
The sheer volume of literature on Niccolò Machiavelli and Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes writing on them a daunting task. Yves Winter in Machiavelli and the Orders of Violence and Jimmy Casas Klausen in Fugitive Rousseau succeed brilliantly in combining a deep knowledge of these thinkers, of the secondary literature, and of historical context to intervene in contemporary theoretical discussions of violence, politics, slavery and freedom. They draw on Machiavelli and Rousseau to parse out the meaning of these concepts, frequently treated as monolithic and ahistorical.
Contemporary treatments of canonical European theorists can fall into two camps: those that further canonize them and those that dismiss them as Eurocentric and universalizing. Winter and Klausen avoid both tendencies, by simultaneously situating these thinkers and highlighting the anti-universalism of their ideas, bringing their arguments—including their silences and contradictions—to bear on present discussions of what a radical politics might look like and how freedom and violence might be understood within them. Thematically, Winter and Klausen show that if force is to produce lasting results, it must always be supplemented, either by law, religion, contract, ideology or lack of exit and that this gives us important insight into how sovereignty and domination succeed, and how they might be subverted or evaded. Both Winter and Klausen show how domination involves not just direct coercion of another, but also an appeal to an audience whose consent must be secured. Finally, both remind us that universalism and anti-universalism can be put to different uses and that neither is necessarily at the service of liberation or domination.
In the beautifully written Machiavelli and the Orders of Violence, Winter argues that contemporary political theory tends to understand violence only in terms of direct coercion and this has the result of sanitizing state violence, separating coercion from its material conditions of possibility and making political actors less responsible for the violence they use. Dominant approaches depoliticize violence by treating it as pre-political or anti-political, as purely a "tool of enforcement," as a wrong that can be justified in limited cases, or by wrongly isolating it to a moment of state founding or originary political struggle. In Machiavelli Winter finds a "materialist conception of violence" that serves as an antidote to these depoliticizing and dematerializing approaches (6). Through close readings of The Prince, Discourses on Livy and Florentine Histories, Winter shows how violence is both "subject to orders and constitutive [End Page 1128] of them" (2). Violence is not specific to time, place or political order. Republics, for instance, must make private force public.
Challenging conventional realist readings of Machiavelli that separate politics from moral considerations, Winter argues that Machiavelli examines violence "in terms of the particular relations of forces at a given historical moment," without capitulating to a conservative pragmatism that ignores the role of imagination in determining which ideas are abstract and which have the potential to be actualized (14–15). Contrary to the realist view that politics is the realm of statesmen and its goal is to sustain the status quo, Winter reads Machiavelli as a "democratic theorist of popular freedom" who views violence and corruption as a function of inequality, and who sees the elite's insatiable desire for domination as far more threatening to freedom than the people's desire to avoid being oppressed (20). Machiavelli, however, does not present violence as the clash of two wills, purely instrumental or directly coercive. Instead, he triangulates it by showing how it is performative and productive. Whereas liberals and realists treat violence as a last resort, Machiavelli's approach allows one to see how violence targets not primarily the body of the victim, but the passions of an audience, producing fear, yes, but also desire, hatred and solidarity (24). "Political violence," argues Winter "is a performance, elaborately staged, and designed to be perceived, experienced, remembered and narrated" (23). It is...