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What does violence represent for politics?


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Key words:  Africa, politics, identity, conflict, society, ideas, violence.


This paper aims to assess whether violence is the ultimate instrument of politics or its greatest challenge. Consistently, politics is understood as the decision-making process and exercise of governance applying to members of a state. Since the origin of the nation state system, governance and legitimacy have evolved in tension with citizens’ needs. State’s mere protection of its citizens, negative freedom, has increasingly given space to state empowerment of people, positive freedom, and politics has become the platform to channel citizens’ demands (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012). Yet, in some instances violence still characterizes modern state functioning. This paper tries to answer the main question by approaching the first paragraph through the insights of Hobbes’ Leviatan whose argument is to crack down on violence within state life. The next part will assess Fanon’s ideas regarding violence as a means to freedom. Lastly, Arendt’s concept of power is used to observe how violence is intrinsic to traditional politics. Relying on three case studies, this paper concludes by suggesting that when violence carries out the anger of a great portion of the population, it represents the ultimate instrument of politics. When politics does not make adjustments or peacefully discuss tensions over positive freedoms, politics dangerously leans toward violence. 


Hobbes wrote in the context of Europeans political upheavals in the 17th century prior to the beginning of the nation state system. According to Hobbes, men are inclined to a restless desire of power when there is no overwhelming force able to tame them (cited in The Open University, 2016 a). The formation of a state which has the monopoly of force is the means to solve man’s violent nature and therefore, the problem of violence in society. For example, the civil war in Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002 marked a decade of brutal conflict. The causes of the war were injustice, corruption and repression of the two decades long rule of the APC party. A former student rebel said “we needed an armed struggle, because we had come up with various demonstrations, and we had been shot at” (The Open University, 2016 b). Given the time Hobbes wrote, he did not support resistance. But if in his period legitimacy could be understood first and foremost in terms of being protected by men’s violent nature, within the existing nation state system the protection of negative freedom is given and legitimacy correspond to a social contract emphasizing positive freedom. The ACP was not serving the society as a whole and repressed peaceful demonstrations. At this point, violence became a political instrument to deconstruct the government structure. Within this framework state monopolization of violence falls into tyranny, it does not relate to people necessities and, as evidenced, it further alienates people’s rage. A former volunteer stated that the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) “came to wipe out the rotten system” (The Open University, 2016 b).  However, in the long-run and after a series of coup involving different factions, the image of the RUF deteriorated. In 1998, The Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group had managed to reinstate the government of the previously elected Kabbah, yet the RUF remained in control of most of the country and violence became the common mode of relation.


Beah, a former child soldier, remembers “if you were not brave enough, so you're not part of this group, they would kill you. Fighting for the betterment of the country, the political thing came in as a way of justifying the violence” (The Open University, 2016 b).  Obviously, following the improper use of politics, the challenge is that violence takes over politics. In this situation, violence falls outside of the political and represents a means to survival. Indeed, Hobbes suggested that “without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition…of every man, against every man” (cited in The Open University, 2016 a). Within this period, paraphrasing Hobbes, the actions proceeding from men’s desires are not sinful. This because “the notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice” (cited in The Open University, 2016 a). Until 1999, when the RUF attacked Freetown, dialogue was the only route to peace, but in this moment the British brought in their forces and the civil war came to the end (The Open University, 2016 b). In a situation of no state, Hobbes’ ideas about the use of violence are still sound because parties do not want to engage in a political process. The involvement of the British forces proved to be a turning point and the ultimate political instrument because “covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all” (cited in The Open University, 2016 a). Hobbes asserts that people beg for protection and security, negative freedoms, because they desire “commodious living,” what today may fall within positive freedom (cited in The Open University, 2016 a). A former student rebel remarks, “now in an era where democracy and freedom of expression …we wouldn't need armed struggle“(cited in The Open University, 2016 b). Nevertheless, the success of this trajectory relies on the extent to which it has resolved the tension over positive freedoms, the causes of war.


Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was written in the colonial setting of the middle 20th century. Algeria was annexed by the French in 1830 after a long and violent battle. This environment brought together two populations through violence and their cohabitation continued as a form of exploitation. With the French as the ruling class, thousands of Europeans settled in Algeria (The Open University, 2016 c). Life determinants were racially defined and the logical conclusion was the dehumanization of the colonial object. An interviewee asserted that villages where Algerians lived were called “'The negro village'. The French built yacht clubs...we saw the signs on the walls: 'No Arabs. No Jews. No Dogs…I understood that we were colonised by another nation…[which] had reduced people to a state of misery and intellectual and physical poverty” (The Open University, 2016 c). Peaceful protest increasingly turned violent in the aftermath of the Second World War as a consequence of the manipulation of the election results (The Open University, 2016 c). Algerians’ attempts to politically achieve their positive freedoms were in vain, and this resulted in the political use of violence. In some sense, being a subject or object of violence reinforced Algerians’ common cause. Fanon emphasizes that “the practice of violence binds men together as a whole, since each individual forms a violent link in the great chain” (cited in The Open University, 2016 d). The National Liberation Front (FLN) was completely unknown at its beginning, Saadi Yacef reminds “they keep their word and protect us. We have to help them…when they kill your brother, your whole family will join” (The Open University, 2016 c). With their initial attacks the FLN prompted retaliation from the French, making the Algerian people more desirous of liberation and helping the FLN to recruit. In this framework, violence escalated and a change of mentality occurred bringing politics to another level and binding ideas of justice to the practice of violence.


Zohra Drif Bitat said, “they impose violence upon you, so you have to respond with the means you have. When a bomb explodes…of course it is sad, but one that could hasten our independence” (The Open University, 2016 c). Violence helped Algerians believe there was a way to escape their object position and enter the subject one; to restore their self-esteem and control over their political life. According to Fanon “violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude” (cited in The Open University, 2016 d). The Hobbesian idea of a strong state as a solution to violence is encapsulated in the arrival of the 10th Paratrooper Division of 1957. They systematically employed torture on a massive scale and finally dismantled the FLN (The Open University, 2016 c). While further alienating the Algerian population, resorting to torture contradicted with French human rights values and became a major scandal in France and abroad. On July 1st, 1962 a referendum in Algeria led to the end of French rule (The Open University, 2016 c). This episode raised questions about the limits of the state's monopoly and legitimate use of violence. During this trajectory, France’s presence in Algeria lost its legitimacy and the FLN won the political war. This emphasizes that legitimacy is increasingly linked with positive freedoms and that protracted violence is not acceptable within politics. Fanon urges to think that violence is nothing without the inclusion of people into the political realm as to ensure a coherent state. FLN’s violence worked because colonial ideas were not sound in the late fifties and consequent subjugation was not sustainable. This suggests that violence is only a short terms instrument that must be sustained by a political agenda aiming to empower people’s agency, the root cause of potential dissent.


In Arendt’s On Violence, she emphasizes that the western political tradition of thought sees power as synonym of violence, an instrument of rule. Paraphrasing Hobbes, she says that political institutions are the manifestations of power that owe their existence to people “instinct of domination” (cited in The Open University, 2016 d). In the 1980s, the rise of national consciousness of the numerically dominant Kosovo Albanian population over Serbs prompted the demand for the recognition of Kosovo as a further republic within the Yugoslav Socialist Federation (The Open University, 2016 e). In the mid-1980’s, Serbian intellectuals openly called for the reconstitution of Serbia's full sovereignty as the solution to the tensions in the province. Milošević endorsed nationalism and offered to protect the Serb minority by ignoring the institutional system. Despite Albanians’ demands that any constitutional modification be subject to a full democratic debate, in July 1990, Serbia held a referendum on its new constitution and Kosovo’s status returned to pre-1974 Serbian subjugation (The Open University, 2016 e). Tensions grew in the province as a consequence of repression coming from Belgrade. Arendt exemplifies the transition of legitimacy as positive freedoms by pointing out that the eighteenth-century revolutions put an end to the rule of man over man, while people came to abide to laws to which they consented (The Open University, 2016 d). It follows that power belongs to people. Institutions decay as soon as people cease to uphold them. Discussing the Pareto ideas over the revolutionary role of proletarians, Arendt agreed that the empowerment and integration of people within the social and political context would put an end to revolutionary ideas (The Open University, 2016 d). This fits into the idea that violence is an instrument, the consequence of the state’s loss of power by deceiving people.


Rule by violence occurs when power, and consequently, legitimacy is lost. In 1996, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was born (The Open University, 2016 e). Even though Arendt recognizes that violence might be the sole way to get some attention, violence might produce an irreversible vortex that normalize its use as common political practice. In this sense, the result of bad politics can be seen as the major challenge to politics itself and the political use of violence touches upon the threshold of politics. The fear is that the means overtake the ends. Full-blown military operations against Serbian authorities began in May 1998. On 24th March of 1999, NATO commenced a bombing campaign over the territory of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (The Open University, 2016 e). Peaceful efforts were made at first but the use of violence has proved to be necessary. Clinton said, “the dangers of acting now are clearly outweighed by the risks of failing to act” (cited in The Open University, 2016 e). NATO acted without UN backing, justifying the use of violence to restore peaceful order. Although Arendt acknowledges that death has been a great carrier of political action, she says that it has never established itself politically (The Open University, 2016 d). Yet, the idea of democracy has an uneasy relationship with violence. Buden says that Milošević' repressive policy were called upon the language of universal rights, defining the political community in terms of equal citizenship (The Open University, 2016 e). Likewise, the NATO has overlooked the UN Security Council using human right ideas. Arendt’s notion of power allows for understanding why violence becomes the ultimate instrument of politics. Non-effective politics lead to Hobbesian solutions, where the most powerful imposes himself superseding the limits of politics.


In conclusion, this paper has tried to assess whether violence is the ultimate instrument of politics or its greatest challenge. The insights of the thinkers used to answer to this question arise from distinct experiences related to the transition from legitimacy as negative to positive freedom. Hobbes’ ideas might appear antiquated but his words are useful if seen as highlighting what people’s needs were in a pre-nation state system and allow thinking that in a different circumstance legitimacy can be based on other necessities. Yet, in a failed state setting, as evidenced by his ideas, violence appears to be the ultimate instrument toward a more peaceful political practice. Similarly, Fanon evidences that violence becomes the sole instrument to topple an unjust system. Arendt, instead, highlights that violence is intrinsic to the traditional political thought. At the extremes of a hypothetical continuum, according to who exerts physical violence, negative freedom relates to state construction or deconstruction. Closer to centre on the continuum, leaders and citizens increasingly dispel physical violence and politics becomes the means to manage structural violence and therefore give way to positive freedom. As seen in the different case studies, violence becomes a political instrument when politics is ineffective. In other words, generalized violence becomes the ultimate instrument of politics when politics frustrate people’s positive freedoms. The major challenge to politics is maintaining politics within the boundaries of good practice.  




Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012), Positive and Negative Liberty, [online], Available from: (Accessed the 02.05.2016)


The Open University (2016 a), Violence and the state, DD306 -15J Living Political Ideas, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed the 01.05.2016)


The Open University (2016 b), Sierra Leone, DD306 -15J Living Political Ideas, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed the 29.04.2016)


The Open University (2016 c), The Battle of Algiers, DD306 -15J Living Political Ideas, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed the 28.04.2016)


The Open University (2016 d), Power and violence, DD306 -15J Living Political Ideas, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed the 28.04.2016)


The Open University (2016 e), The break-up of Yugoslavia, DD306 -15J Living Political Ideas, [Online]. Available at:

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