It has been reported that two police officers were shot at Ferguson on Thursday, hours after the city’s police chief resigned in the wake of an inquiry into the excesses that his department committed under his reign. This assault follows on the heels of another fatal attack on two NYPD police officers in December by a young Black man who claimed to be taking revenge for police brutalities in Ferguson and elsewhere. Ironically, the cops whom he murdered also happened to be “people of color”. Can these incidents, the general mood of public unrest in Ferguson, be read as acts of “divine violence”?
Disease of the old world order
Slavoj Zizek evokes Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” to defend this argument. Without condoning or condemning, he rightly observes that such outbursts “with no concrete programmatic demands” are sustained “by just a vague call for justice.” Indeed, Benjamin’s thesis is that “If mythical violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying”. But this is only a part of it. Benjamin further adds, “if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythical violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood.” Did the reactive violence by the oppressed in Ferguson achieve, or even aim at any of this? Sadly, no. Why is this? The “irrational outbursts” such as Ferguson are not symptoms of a new world order – they are symptoms of the disease of the old world order.
The advocacy of indiscriminate violence to combat White racist power centers is nothing new. In the past, Black activists like Eldridge Cleaver advocated rape of White women as a form of resistance to White racism – though he later expressed regret for such ideas. Life came full circle when he eventually joined the Republican Party and became a Christian conservative. What does this say? The reality is that the American system is more than capable of defending itself against such violent excesses by its minorities. If anything, it would prefer the pampering of such particularist minority identity politics because the postmodern logic of global capitalism requires the proliferations of multiple minority identities. This impotent violence of particularist identity politics, fueled only by anti-Whiteressentiment, creates more boundaries and comes nowhere closer to destroying them, which alone would be the real act of divine violence. So the White racists who are phobic about the “brutal Blacks” and the multicultural left who, to overcome a misplaced sense of guilt, celebrate “Black resistance by any means necessary” are actually conforming to the logic of the same system.
Overcoming black separatism
Frantz Fanon was precisely talking about this when he wrote in his “Black Skin, White Masks” that those who adore the Black person are as pathological as those who hate him. His message is crucial – the practice of attributing an immutable identity to an exotic Other and preaching phobia against it, as the racists are wont to do, or preaching a patronizing tolerance for it, as multiculturalists are wont to do, damages the possibility of an universalist political project. In fact, more than Black nationalists in America, it was Martin Luther King Jr. who took this message to heart, when he argued it was necessary to overcome Black separatism and fight on a universalist plank for all the oppressed in the country.
Where does this place those on the radical left? Of course, we have to, without any hesitation, acknowledge that the police system in several parts of America is totally racist. But at the same time, we should not slip into the quite problematic multiculturalist position of endorsing everything that goes by the name of Black/minority identity politics. One can acknowledge that a section of the population has been systematically marginalized, convey solidarity with their struggles, while also remaining critical of reactionary cultural and political tendencies within those minority communities. We can learn a few lessons here from VI Lenin who, while being extremely sensitive to the precarious position of the Jews in Russia, was also boldly critical of isolationist Jewish Bundist politics. To make an excuse that reactionary politics of minority communities have to be tolerated just because “they are different from us” is after all another form of racism.
Defending the egalitarian aspects of Western society
What is needed is, as Zizek suggests elsewhere, a “radical emancipatory Third” that rejects both an identity politics based on anti-Western ressentiment and a shallow liberal multiculturalist tolerance. It is this Third alone that can defend the egalitarian aspects of Western society. This might take the form of a reinvented Jacobinism or a heretical Leninism, but the urgent need is to imagine such a politics of universalism, one that breaks boundaries, expiates both guilt and ressentiment, strikes potently, and is lethal even without spilling blood.
Only this force which the current system cannot accommodate and liberals cannot imagine can bring forth the real event of divine violence.