Philosophy Today

Volume 67, Issue 1, Winter 2023

Violent Democracies

Ashley J. BohrerOrcid-ID
Pages 99-115

Toward a Critique of (Police) Violence
Walter Benjamin and Abolitionism in Theory and Practice

In Walter Benjamin’s pivotal essay “Toward the Critique of Violence,” the state emerges as an originary site of violence, and the police figure as a key institution that makes possible both law-preserving and law-founding violence. I argue that Benjamin offers a unique and clarifying understanding of violence that can help make sense of twenty-first century calls for police and prison abolition. At the same time, Benjamin critiques several leftist attempts to combat state violence—such as the workplace strike and leftist reformism—finding in them a reformulation of the very violence they seek to combat. I argue that many of these critiques could be equally levied at some manifestations of the contemporary abolitionist movement. This paper concludes by distilling some of Benjamin’s insights about the propensity to reflect the violence we attempt to contest into some lessons for contemporary activism and social movements.