Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Politics and International Studies

Democracy and Violence, a theoretical overview

08 October 2008 | 4:00pm - 6:00pm | Seminar

Room 11.14, Social Sciences Building

Part of the Security, Development and Democracy Seminar Series

The speakers at this session are all political theorists from Leeds University; they will be setting out the general issues of the whole series: what is violence? Why is it a problem for democratic societies today? What should our response be to violence?

Speakers: Dr John Schwarzmantel, University of Leeds, Dr Maureen Ramsay, University of Leeds and Dr Brad Evans, University of Leeds.

Discussant: Prof. David Beetham (Emeritus Professor, University of Leeds).

Listen again to the talk (MP3, 37MB - 1 hour 43 minutes)

    Abstract from Dr John Schwarzmantel

    My presentation will try to set out some of the issues involved in analysing the challenge of violence to contemporary liberal-democratic societies. It is designed to be a general introduction to the whole series, so the purpose is to 'set the scene' by asking some broad questions. After a brief (and, I think, uncontroversial) definition of the key terms 'violence' and 'democracy', I wish to present the following four themes:

    • Democracy as, ideally, aiming at the exclusion of violence, through the substitution of dialogue and reasoned discussion for violent confrontation.
    • The use of violence by democratic societies to maintain themselves when faced with those who do not accept the reconciliation of conflict through democratic channels. Is this legitimate? How can it be controlled?
    • The causes of violence in the contemporary world: what are the main issues and reasons which provoke people to use violence as a political weapon?
    • The response of democratic societies to the challenge of violence: what it is, and what it ought to be.

    I hope to indicate some answers to these four problems, though I realise that covering such broad topics in a talk of 20 minutes makes it difficult to go into detail. The main aim of the talk is to provide a framework for the subsequent contributions in this seminar and, hopefully, for the following seminars in the series.

    Abstract from Dr Brad Evans

    Violence and Liberal Reason

    It is common for political analysts to suggest that the 1990’s proved to be a defining moment for Liberal interventionism. Faced with the onset of "New Wars", it is argued that a new desire to intervene was matched by a realisation that in certain circumstances the use of force/violence was necessary in order to establish lasting capacities for peace. This paper will directly challenge this limited approach. To achieve this, my presentation will at first work through the important theoretical contributions provided by Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and Giorgio Agamben, whose combined efforts enable us to have a clearer understanding of the intimate relationship between, Liberalism and Violence. The paper will then build upon these theoretical reflections to offer the following three critiques: - Firstly, the notion that Liberal forms of governance only discover the need for violence in the 1990's does not stand up to historical interrogation. Liberalism has since its inception always depended upon the use of violence in order to pacify resistance and establish the political terrain. Secondly, since this type of analysis offers a narrow conception of Liberal rationality which is associated with a juridical commitment to rights, then it fails to acknowledge that the Liberal recourse to violence is not always predicated upon political considerations. And thirdly, given that this approach misreads the Liberal "limit condition" (the reasonable threshold beyond which violence becomes acceptable), then serious questions need to be raised in terms of whether such violence can ever be considered legitimate.

    Abstract from Dr Maureen Ramsay

    This talk sketches some thoughts on the relationship between democracy and violence. The first section focuses on how the relationship is characterised, depends on how violence is defined. Radical definitions extend the ordinary understanding of violence as an act of direct physical coercion. Variously, they draw attention to indirect forms of violence that are the result of failures to act by governments and their agents, to the systematic violence that underpins the smooth running of the capitalist economic and political systems, to the structural violence of poverty and inequality. These radical redefinitions of violence intend to make visible the injustices that are endemic in existing social democratic states whose proponents can appear to be dedicated opponents of violence while supporting or ignoring the institutional and structural violence of everyday life. This together with liberal democrats' readiness to resort to or support for violence of a direct kind counters the idea that violence is an anathema to democracy. On this view, violence and democracy do, or so far, have gone hand and hand.

    The second section explores one way in which democracy and violence do appear to be mutually exclusive. When democracy is threatened by violence and that threat is portrayed as exceptional, democratic governments show a remarkable eagerness to jettison even the most foundational democratic principles and values.  This is not an overriding of values to protect democracy, but rather a reflection of the collapse of value where the virtues of democracy have no coherent content or are perceived as sources of vulnerability and weakness rather than of strength.

    All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

    Location Details

    Room 11.14 is located on the first floor (Level 11) of the Social Sciences Building.

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