Watered-down reflections

Reflections on Violence
March 21, 1997

The 20th century has been horrifically violent. Two world wars, Holocaust, mass murder. . . And, sadly, the end of the cold war has hardly given way to a peaceful new world order. At the same time, there is little agreement about the dynamics and meaning of modern humanity's violence, let alone ways of addressing it in all its ugly diversity.

Contending that the political theory profession is suffering from "frozen political imagination" regarding the question of violence, John Keane offers his Reflections on Violence in favour of stimulating fresh thinking and debate. Professor of politics and director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, Keane is the respected author of several works in political theory, and a truly outstanding biography, Tom Paine: A Political Life (1995).

Keane's book is a long essay composed of five parts: The Long Century of Violence, The Limits of Barbarism, Judging Violence, Uncivil Society and Uncivil Wars. Unfortunately, brevity does not necessarily make for ease of reading. It is not merely the subject matter and the imperative of having to capture this century's nightmarish killings in a few words. More practically, there is the absence of any prefatory statement about where exactly the reflections are going to take us. Call me lazy, but - given Keane's parenthetical asides, long sentences, and numerous points - directions would have been helpful. Furthermore, the "reflections" themselves are unevenly developed. Occasionally they seem to be no more than notes toward a larger project.

Engaging the diverse arguments of a host of thinkers from the 18th century to the present, Keane seeks to cultivate historically informed and democratically committed thinking on the problem of violence. For example, as appreciative as he is of the recovery of thinking about "civil society" before and after 1989, Keane rightly charges theorists such as Ernest Gellner with idealising civil society and of failing to address the negative tendencies of the "realm of freedom" and, thus, the "problem of incivility".

Then, considering the development in the 18th century of the presumption that modern history is an "evolutionary" process whereby civilisation overcomes barbarism, he proffers how such notions remain operative in contemporary theorisations of civil society. This, Keane says, distracts us from certain facts about our own century of violence: "The chronic persistence of violence within all extant civil societies; the permanent possibility that civil societies can and do regress into uncivil societies; and the long-term growth for the first time on any scale, of a new politics of civility aimed at publicising and reducing the incidence of such disparate phenomena as murder and rape, genocide and nuclear war."

Recounting Norbert Elias's historical sociology of the "civilising process" and state formation, Keane insists that we comprehend this century's violence not, as some have formulated it, as regressions to premodernity, but as modernity's own horrors. Nevertheless, he eschews cynicism and pessimism about modernity. Appreciating but rejecting Zygmunt Bauman's formulation of "modern civility as barbarity", Keane demands that we appreciate the "potentially productive - if dangerous - contradictions of modernity", especially modern initiatives to limit violence, including "constitutional" efforts, from the 1780s formation of the United States to the 1949 creation of the Council of Europe, and "the politics of civility", for example, peace movements like CND and END.

Committed to the development of democratic civil societies, Keane next takes up the question "what is to be done?". Rejecting absolutes - both pacifism and the "fetish of violence" - he posits the "paradox of civil violence" whereby, in certain circumstances, "the attainment or preservation of civility" entails violating the body of individuals and he acknowledges the modern historical connection between the resort to arms and the making of democratic civil societies, referring in particular to the American Revolution.

Keane's reflections on state and civil society and the politics of incivility and civility are interesting and worthy of further elaboration. However, they do not strike me as dramatically original. Perhaps, given my general sympathies with his arguments, I underestimate the originality of Keane's insights; but I think he would have served us better had these reflections remained as notes towards a more developed scholarly tome or, as I would hope might yet be be the case, a more accessible popular treatise on the historical nature of political violence and the possibilities of creating, extending and deepening democratic civil societies globally.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Reflections on Violence

Author - John Keane
ISBN - 1 85984 979 2 and 115 5
Publisher - Verso
Price - £39.95 and £9.95
Pages - 200

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