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Who's Afraid of Violence?...

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

A Review of Judith Butler's The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political

(A quick note on why this piece is here and not published elsewhere: writing as a freelancer is often fraught with disappointments. In this case, this piece was slated to be published in a book review, but in the course of an editorial changeover followed swiftly by the publication folding, this piece never found a home. And of course, so much of book criticism exists primarily for the purpose of enhancing sales--so by the time this saga had ended, it was too late to publish this piece. Why do I point this out? Primarily because I think the whole thing says something about the political economy of criticism. Yet I felt that nobody had offered this kind of anti-colonial critique of Butler's book, and believe it could be useful to readers of any of the works I cite. This piece also became an excellent genealogical device for my thinking on feminist critiques of violence, which I have written about in many places.)


“The question would remain open whether violence, as a principle, could be a moral means even to just ends. To resolve this question a more exact criterion is needed, which would discriminate within the sphere of means themselves, without regard for the ends they serve.”[1]

Walter Benjamin’s 1921 “Zur Kritik der Gewalt” (“Critique of Violence”) opens with this salvo, and proceeds not to answer the open question, but instead to establish the “more exact criterion” Benjamin calls for. It can be tempting to read Judith Butler’s new book, The Force of Nonviolence: the Ethical in the Political (Verso, February 2020) as settling the question, or at least responding to it, by siding summarily with nonviolence. But those who would draw such a straight line of unvexed inheritance badly forget history: the near century between Benjamin’s writing and Butler’s has been one of continued anti-colonial struggle and post-colonial statecraft. Those decades of violence, almost necessarily, have nurtured critical and even redeeming writings on violence and its relationship to history. As Benjamin enjoins, “[t]he critique of violence is the philosophy of its history— the ‘philosophy’ of this history, because only the idea of its development makes possible a critical, discriminating, and decisive approach to its temporal data.”[2] Far from being able to judge or critique violence on its own terms, one must take account of violence inside history.

Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at University of California Berkeley, made most famous by her work on the performativity of gender, particularly the 1990 Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, which identified gender roles as a kind of performance, far from being fixed or fixable. That attention to how language contains shifting and contradictory meanings remains Butler’s first line of examination. But at least since 2003, Butler has increasingly focused on the roles of violence and nonviolence in the contemporary world. It is thus the confluence of Butler’s longtime penchant for deconstruction and her more recent interest in the problem of violence that leads Butler to her work The Force of Nonviolence: the Ethical in the Political.

Like Benjamin, Butler considers it necessary to first clarify what violence is, to respond to its “labil[ity], its semantics appropriated in ways that call to be contested”; to think through the ways “power that misuses language…seeks to secure its own monopoly on violence through maligning the opposition,” which is to say, how violence becomes a tactic for naming struggles illegitimate.[3] Equally, Butler demands a clarification of nonviolence and its meanings. For Butler, nonviolence is not so much “a moral position, a matter of individual conscience” as it is “a critique of individualism…requir[ing] that we rethink that social bonds that constitute us as living creatures.”[4]

In invoking “nonviolence,” Butler explicitly calls upon a Gandhian tradition of nonviolence—on the notion of satyagraha (roughly, “soul force”), which extols the nonviolent response as one of righteous rage, miles away from pacifism.[5] To that end, The Force of Nonviolence opens with an epitaphic citation from Mohandas Gandhi: "Whenever and to whatever extent there is room for the use of arms or physical force or brute force, there and to that extent is there so much less possibility for soul force.”[6] There is much more to be said on Butler’s uncritical deployment of Gandhi, a figure whose legacy as a proponent of anti-Black racism and misogyny has surfaced in the last several years.[7] But beyond the obvious critiques one mighty levy against Gandhi or Butler’s employ of him, Butler betrays an astounding complicity with state narratives about Indian independence—that Gandhi and his cadre of nonviolent followers wearing homespun swadeshi cloth forced the British to leave India. This is a narrative of moral persuasion, a popular narrative that circulates among Indians as well as Western observers, but it fails to account for the crowds of openly violent anti-colonial Indian freedom fighters and the impact of their actions.

Thinking with a more critical, sidelong interpretative framework, we might read Butler’s decision to open her text with an epitaph from Gandhi rather differently: not only does Butler endorse “nonviolence,” but she endorses a particular vision of nonviolence, one that aligns with state-sanctioned narratives about the moral integrity and forcefulness of nonviolent action.

Violence is not a thing so much as it is a practice of naming—this is Butler’s starting point. As Butler argues, “violent” is the name given to those acts which threaten the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of force. In this way, protests against the police become “violent,” though the state never nominates the police as such. But Butler asks that we not despair of “the fact that political efforts of dissent and critique are often labeled as ‘violent’ by the very state authorities that are threatened by those efforts.”[8] Instead, Butler insists, “we have to expand and refine the political vocabulary for thinking about violence…taking account of how that vocabulary is twisted and used to shield violent authorities against critique and oppression.”[9] Thus Butler opens the door to understanding how “violence” is produced—not as a thing, but as a conceptual frame for thinking about the world. To trace the production of violence, Butler historicizes, massaging the European philosophical canon on the “state of nature”—the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In Hobbes, the state of nature is a state of endless war, which necessitated the development of the social contract for controlling and excising violence. Wading into this overworked philosophical field, Butler asks us to “try a different story,” to imagine that a person living in the state of nature is not a fully-grown man, as the general assumption holds, but instead a child, borne of parents and dependent on them for food, for clothing, for love.[10] This is a state, not necessarily of ceaseless conflict, but of dependencies and obligations—a dense matrix of interdependency, of “global obligation.”[11] Global obligation disincentivizes conflict—after all, why bite the hand that feeds you? But, as Butler recognizes, global obligation names not only a matrix of care, but also the colonial world order—genocide, exploitation, and expropriation create as much in the way of obligation (operating under the name debt) as more benign visions of interdependency does.[12] Further, Butler suggests it is insufficient to mark the boundaries of interdependency at human life—all living creatures, Butler argues, depend on each other; this presumptive equality forms the basis of Butler’s intellectual commitment to nonviolence.[13] In Butler’s own accounting, interdependency demands a shift in perspective about moral philosophy. The tradition of continental Enlightenment philosophy has centered on the social need for human individuals to account for their actions; Butler is instead seeking to sketch out a “social relationality” that exceeds the individual, or even the world as a sum of its individuals.[14] To speak of social relationality this way requires thinking about excess, thinking about social bonds as immanent and greater than the individuals that they contain. Though Butler does not cite Jacques Derrida’s 1993 Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, that work might better clarify Butler’s meaning. “What the one gives to the other, over and above the market, above market, bargaining, thanking, commerce, and commodity, is to leave to the other this accord with himself that is proper to him (ihm eignet) and gives him presence,” Derrida writes. Derrida suggests that justice does not name principles of equal exchange (“an eye for an eye”), but instead giving what is deserved, even and especially when that means making a gift of one’s excessive forgiveness, excessive contrition, or excessive care.[15] Through such excesses, the “market logic” of European accounts of justice comes undone, yielding to a more Butlerian vision of social relationality. But the system of laws—the one that demands crime receive punishment, or that state meet violence with violence—offers not justice, but its negation, an adherence to the market logic as reparation. Justice is a gift, justice begins where the calculation of harm and punishment—the calculus of law—ends.

It’s worth understanding Butler’s argument alongside Derrida’s, and merits working over in both ways—justice is not only the end of nonviolence, but justice is also the means to nonviolence. Where justice is an end, nonviolence is a promise—a rigorous commitment to nonviolence, to suspending the practice of producing violence, might produce justice as a recognition of the excesses of the social bond. Where justice is a means, the practice of disregarding the legal calculus and “giving away…over and above the market” becomes a practice whose effect is a more nonviolent world. In Butler’s terms, violence is a nomination, but nonviolence is a praxis, a way of moving through the world—both a means and an end.

Butler writes that the “ethical stand of nonviolence has to be linked to a commitment to radical equality. And more specifically the practice of nonviolence requires an opposition to …logics that regularly distinguish lives worth safeguarding from those that are not.”[16] This statement is hardly worth quibbling with, except that Butler’s own actions fall so far short of this moral courage. In December 2019, a Twitter user determined through examining campaign contribution rolls that Judith Butler had donated to Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign earlier that year.[17] Harris, of course, has been soundly criticized for her championing of various regressive measures in the California carceral system—from Harris’ embrace of “broken-window policing” as a district attorney to her failure to support body-camera legislation, support for Harris cannot be read in any terms as a “practice of nonviolence.”[18] That campaign donation suggests that Butler’s intellectual commitment does not necessarily translate materially, or at least that Butler fails to critically evaluate the direct line between California’s carceral crisis and Harris’ own hand in developing a prison system found in 2011 to have violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.[19]

This is disappointing, particularly for a book whose preoccupation is “how the world is built such that the infrastructural conditions for the preservation of life are reproduced and strengthened.”[20] But perhaps Butler does not see herself as somehow compromised by her own actions—in an interview with Masha Gessen published in The New Yorker in February, Butler offers that her book does not seek to establish a framework in the sense of a set of rules whose exceptions threaten the integrity of the framework itself, so much as to establish an ethos, an approach and sensibility to social relations that “would make violence less likely.”[21]

Even with that caveat, it is hard to square Butler’s argument with her own practice, and it is perhaps even futile to do so. Perhaps Butler fucked up; perhaps she has no material commitment to the ethics of nonviolence that she preaches. Still, it offers an object lesson: though Butler does not linger on it, she acknowledges that nonviolence risks thwarting and moral compromise at every turn. Nonviolence as a praxis remains open to the possibility of failure. Yet it is precisely in remembering and allowing for that possibility that a nonviolent future remains open to us: disavowing moral missteps surrenders the nonviolent future to the realm of the impossibly utopian, of that which cannot come to pass. Acknowledging and seeking to work through blunders like Butler’s widens the horizon, allows us to see how a nonviolent future remains in-the-making. Or, as Derrida might say, it allows us to see that justice and nonviolence are always to-come.

That I am able to read Butler’s campaign donation somewhat redemptively should not signal a dismissal of Butler’s actions, or an unwavering endorsement of The Force of Nonviolence. Indeed, the invocation of Gandhi as an epigraph foreshadows a much larger problem that haunts The Force of Nonviolence: namely that Butler’s reading of colonial and racial violence is aporetic at best. Butler acknowledges that all lives are not made to matter equally: there are some whose lives are not marked as lives, who cannot be grieved in public, and invokes both migrants to the European Union and Black victims of police brutality to make this point. But Butler’s answer is to insist upon counter-reality, to insist on the intellectual commitment to a norm of “every life should be grievable.”[22] Even while recognizing the value of utopian and utopic thinking, Butler fails to offer any strategy for enacting such a utopia. Indeed, to readers who have followed Butler’s intellectual trajectory in this matter, Butler seems to have retreated from a robust praxis-oriented approach to both her critique of the individual vis à vis the social bond and the question of grievability. In her 2006 Precarious Life, Butler had suggested that grief—and in particular, the action of mourning—"furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order…by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.”[23] There is a subtle distinction between “grievability” as Butler writes of it in The Force of Nonviolence and grief or mourning as it is described in Precarious Life: the first is an attribute assigned to populations, which poses a measurement problem. The second is a feeling, a practice, and a cataclysm—an overwhelming sense that makes itself known by the ways it dissolves one’s integrity, one’s sense of self. Of grieving, Butler had earlier written that,

What grief displays, in contrast, is the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control…I tell a story about the relations I choose, only to expose, somewhere along the way, the way I am gripped and undone by these very relations. My narrative falters, as it must. Let's face it. We're undone by each other. And if we 're not, we 're missing something.[24]

In 2006, Butler had proposed this—mourning, acknowledgement of how loss dissolves the boundaries of selfhood—as a response to violence and the sovereign assignment of ungrievability to (usually racialized) populations. As a mode of responsiveness, it asks more of our faculties—that one mobilize both their affective and intellectual capacities, and perhaps that one make a spectacle of oneself—than does the rhetorical insistence on normatively evaluating every life as grievable.

Such a failure to reckon with racism (or more broadly, grievability) beyond normative rhetoric haunts Butler’s passing engagement with Frantz Fanon. Butler writes on an early moment in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, where the colonized subject “discovers that his life, his breathing and his heartbeats are the same as the colonist’s.”[25] The spare lines of analysis she offers to Fanon is to read this moment as one where “the racial phantasm breaks up and the assertion of equality shakes the world, opening up a world-making potential.”[26] This reading in itself is not wrong, but Butler declines to examine what Fanon sees as “world-making potential.” Fanon’s essay “De la violence” is no less monumental in the historiography of intellectual critiques of violence than is Benjamin’s “Zur Kritik der Gewalt,” to which Butler allocates nearly half a chapter. But a sustained and rigorous engagement would require Butler to understand that Fanon’s account of violence itself offers a robust and refined vocabulary for thinking about violence. In Butler’s account, grievability appears already-assigned, nearly a priori to the scene of the social contract. In this way, Butler elides the role of colonial relations as have they shaped the global topography of power and created the category of “human” as exclusive of and in opposition to (a priori non-human) Black subjects. In the history of humanism, while other racialized groups also find themselves excluded from human subjecthood, the writings of European colonial thinkers like William Petty or Bartolome de las Casas reveals the absolute primacy of excluding Black people from the European humanist project that emerged in the course of the European Renaissance.[27] Thus if Butler writes an account of violence from without the colonial context, Fanon’s account emerges from within the colonial crucible of revolutionary 1960s Algeria. In Fanon’s account, violence can dehumanize—violence is, after all, the practice that sustained centuries of colonial rule throughout the Global South. But for Fanon, violence can also be the mechanism by which the colonized subject reasserts his own humanity and equality to the colonizer—the scene of epiphany that Butler writes about in Fanon ends thus: “I am no longer uneasy in [the colonist’s] presence. In reality, to hell with him. Not only does his presence no longer bother me, but I am already preparing to waylay him in such a way that soon he will have no other solution but to flee.”[28] Just a few sentences later, Fanon offers, “The colonized can see right away if decolonization is taking place or not: The minimum demand is that the last become the first.”[29] For Fanon, the moment of recognition and epiphany is important, but it only offers world-making potential. The actual world-making—the making of a new world where the last becomes first—remains the purview of violent revolution. Nor for Fanon is the role of violence nearly so aporetic as is nonviolence for Butler—the colonized can see right away if decolonization is happening, based on the minimum demand; for Butler, nonviolence always remains a horizon: uncertain, and hazy in its distance.

What is most disappointing about Butler’s failure to meaningfully engage Fanon is that readers may come away thinking that Butler’s ethos of nonviolence cannot successfully tackle and defend against Fanon’s redemption of violence put to anti-colonial ends. Rather, if nonviolence can be thought of as more than an intellectual commitment to radical equality and acknowledgment of the social bond, a nonviolent ethos may not so much contest as comport with Fanon’s contention that violence can radically reassert the humanity of the colonized (one might extend this insight to all the populations that Butler labels ungrievable). This comportment may take different forms: In a Butlerian framing, perhaps the force of the colonized does not merit the label of “violence” at all—an implication of what Butler names the lability of violence, and Butler’s insistence that “we cannot give up on the demand to decide the difference between violence and nonviolence…the operation of critique cannot preclude commitment and judgment.”[30] Such a judgement of anti-colonial resistance aligns with Butler’s allowance of the right to self-defense, within precisely the broad, social notion of defense that Butler champions. Another way to synthesize Butler’s thinking with Fanon’s might be to suggest that nonviolence is about recognition and strengthening of social bonds—that the colonizer in fact fractures the social bond when his violence excludes the colonized subject from the genre of the grievable, and the colonized subject insists upon both the social bond and the equal grievability of all lives in each act of anti-colonial resistance. These are only two of the possible reconciliations between Fanon and Butler—but Butler fails to offer any. Against Benjamin’s injunction, Butler has severed her critique of violence from a philosophy of history, eschewing a century during which anti-colonial contests have produced commensurate contests of meaning over “violence” and its justifications.

That resistance to historicity manifests, too, in her treatment of “the movement for Black Lives,” the popular present name that is part of the longer, nearly six-century struggle for Black freedom from police violence. Butler engages the Movement for Black Lives only in passing: as two parenthetical mentions in the introduction. This, even as Butler’s paradigm of grievability, which she frames as the question of “who matters,” inherits language and form from the movement. Butler’s book, published in February 2020, precedes the present mass resurgence of Black Lives Matter over the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, but that does not excuse Butler’s failure to account for the intimate relation between policing and anti-Black violence, which is at least as old as enslavement itself. In both English and American slave societies, the police maintained social order by preserving race and class hierarchies—in part this meant preserving the difference between the Black enslaved qua property and the non-Black enslavers qua property owners. This history intersects with Benjamin’s analysis of the police as an authority for which “the separation of lawmaking and lawpreserving violence is suspended.”[31] That is, police do not only apply laws, but make the law in their applications of force. This is how police officers can be found not guilty of murder: even where the killing of Black people is outside of the formal law, the police remake the law for their own protection. The state, suggests Benjamin, is not innocent so much as it is strategic in its employ of the police—"the ‘law’ of the police really marks the point at which the state, whether from impotence or because of the immanent connections within any legal system, can no longer guarantee through the legal system the empirical ends that it desires at any price to attain.” So long as the state itself seeks to maintain the hierarchy of race and property, it will continue to use the police to achieve those ends.

One can see how this critique helps constitute the distinction between police reform and police abolition. Celebrity activist DeRay McKesson helped launch the police reform movement 8 Can’t Wait, which suggests that eight pieces of reform could reduce police violence against Black people by seventy-two percent; police abolitionists responded with 8 To Abolition, suggesting that police violence of any degree is unacceptable.[32] In grappling with Benjamin’s critique, one must take a stance—either the present order of property and race hierarchies is acceptable, or it is not. That question itself is the deciding question between one’s support for reform or abolition. Yet Butler, here as she does with Fanon, discards the rich theoretical terrain Benjamin develops for thinking about violence and its redemptive qualities to instead focus on Benjamin’s limited writings on nonviolence. Benjamin concedes that nonviolent modes of resolution have emerged—he names the “conference” (perhaps diplomatic conferences) as an instantiation of nonviolent principles, in that there is no sanction for lying.[33] Butler moves to locate utopic nonviolent potential in language itself, but quickly allows that language is often violent—she makes this point by describing how judicial sentences enact immense violence against its subjects. That this argument appears so deeply nuanced near allows the reader to get wrapped up in this contest over utopic potentiality, and thus to forget the most crucial question of all—the one that Butler fails to answer repeatedly: what’s the matter with violence?

While Butler acknowledges and expounds upon the contests over naming violence, she never allows that violence can be redemptive: that a struggle can be violent, but still be worth waging, and be an important step to dissolving the “intensification of social inequality” that Butler argues is internal to violence. One must ask, upon whom does the ethical injunction to nonviolence fall? The answer is not, as politicos suggest, that protestors must be nonviolent—indeed the history of colonial resistance rejects connections between nonviolent protest and liberation of any kind. Rather, as Butler argued previously,

[It’s] precisely because we are capable of waging war, and of striking back, and of doing massive injury, that peace becomes a necessity. Peace is a certain resistance to the terrible satisfactions of war. It's a commitment to living with a certain kind of vulnerability to others and susceptibility to being wounded that actually gives our individual lives meaning.[34]

The moral obligation to nonviolence can never fall on people who are themselves the victims and objects of violence—nonviolence obliges those who are capable of striking back (the state, for example), rather than those whose “violent” resistance is negligible (protestors). Unfortunately, Butler’s present work fails to incorporate this kind of nuanced analysis of power, and instead excises the history of race and colonial relations from its framing. Even conceding the demand for economy, the failure to substantively engage with either historical or present police violence is a glaring one; coloniality and slavery are not peripheral concerns of violence, but its constitutive ones.

“When the world presents as a force field of violence, the task of nonviolence is to find ways of living and acting in that world such that violence is checked or ameliorated, or its direction turned, precisely at moments when it seems to saturate that world and offer no way out,” writes Butler in her introduction.[35] What The Force of Nonviolence offers is not necessarily a way out of this violent field—instead, it offers a thinking space, a moment to reflect on violence and its meanings. Butler’s nonviolent ethos does not provide a way out—rather, it can only provoke a reckoning, a moment of psychic parenthesis in which to reflect on the lability of violence and the forms of dependency that link each of us to each other. While grievability does not offer a useful framework, nonviolence does. Nonviolence is itself as contested and uneven as is violence: the obligation to nonviolence does not fall evenly upon all parties to a struggle. Rather, the act of moral critique must center both power and history. Thinking of nonviolence in this way, while not world-making in itself, gestures to the necessary reconstitution of the world as an image of global interdependency and care, as opposed to its indebted and colonial present.


I owe tremendous gratitude to Chalay Chalermkraivuth, who was an exceptional editor for this peace and remains source of support always.


[1] Benjamin, Walter. "Critique of violence" in Reflections: Essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings, trans. Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 277-300. [2] Ibid.

[3] Butler, Judith. The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political. Verso Books, 2020. p. 2. [4] Ibid, p. 15.

[5] Butler, Precarious life, p. 23.

[6] Butler, The force of nonviolence, p. i.

[7] For more information on Gandhi’s anti-Blackness, particularly condescending and racist attitudes towards indigenous Black South Africans, see Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi before India. Penguin UK, 2013. For more information on Gandhi’s sexual practices with young girls, see Guha’s Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948. Vintage, 2018.

[8] Butler, The force of nonviolence, p. 23. [9] Ibid. [10] Butler, The force of nonviolence, p. 40. [11] Ibid, p. 44. [12] Ibid, p. 46. [13] Ibid, p. 59.

[14] Masha Gessen, “Judith Butler Wants Us to Reshape Our Rage,” The New Yorker, February 9, 2020,

[15] In later works, namely “On Forgiveness,” Derrida clarifies further that forgiveness can only be extended to unforgiveable. This is another approach to justice. [16] Ibid, p. 62.

[17] @thefoucheoe, Twitter post, December 17, 2019, 10:45am,

[18] Lara Bazelon, “Kamala Harris Was Not a ‘Progressive Prosecutor,’” The New York Times, January 17, 2019,

[19] See Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493 (2011).

[20] Butler, The force of nonviolence, p. 72.

[21] Masha Gessen, “Judith Butler Wants Us to Reshape Our Rage.”

[22] Butler, The force of nonviolence, p. 106.

[23] Butler, Precarious life, p. 22. [24] Ibid, p. 23.

[25] Fanon, Frantz. The wretched of the earth. Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007.

[26] Butler, The force of nonviolence, p. 144.

[27] See Sylvia Wynter, "Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after man, its overrepresentation—An argument." CR: The new centennial review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257-337.

[28] Frantz Fanon, The wretched of the earth, p. 10.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Butler, The force of nonviolence, p. 140.

[31] Walter Benjamin, "Critique of violence," in Reflections: Essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott, (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 277-300.

[32] For more on 8 Can’t Wait, see ; for more on 8 To Abolition, see Notably, in the week after 8 To Abolition published their response, 8 Can’t Wait and its parent organization Campaign Zero have responded that abolition should ultimately be the goal, at least in the long-term.

[33] Walter Benjamin, “Critique of violence,” p. 289.

[34] Butler, Judith. "Peace is a Resistance to the Terrible Satisfactions of War." The Believer 1 (2003): 64-72.

[35] Butler, The Force of Nonviolence, p. 10.

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