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The best books on State, Power and Violence

recommended by Geoffroy de Lagasnerie

Judge and Punish: The Penal State on Trial by Geoffroy de Lagasnerie

Judge and Punish: The Penal State on Trial
by Geoffroy de Lagasnerie


French philosopher and sociologist Geoffroy de Lagasnerie argues for a more realist political theory, one that fully acknowledges that state violence is the one thing in your life that you can never escape. His selection includes works by Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin, as well as a history of the Black Panther Party.

Interview by Edouard Mathieu

Judge and Punish: The Penal State on Trial by Geoffroy de Lagasnerie

Judge and Punish: The Penal State on Trial
by Geoffroy de Lagasnerie


The complex articulation between the state, power and violence has been an integral part of many of the last decade’s upheavals, revolts and political changes around the world. How did you choose these books?

These are ideas that have been on my mind for a while. In my latest book, I argued that political theory is filled with lies and myths. The way classical authors, activists, politicians or radical academics talk about the state or the law is largely based on abstractions. They use mythical concepts like ‘the people’, ‘popular sovereignty’, ‘the general will’, ‘democracy’, ‘legitimate violence’, ‘social contract’, ‘public space’, ‘common’, ‘we the people’… Our political discourses are almost always based on fiction or lies, as opposed to the truth contained in the books I’ve chosen. These books tell the truth about law, power, state violence, and help expose the lies of political theory, to build what I call a realist political theory.

To give you an example, classical theory typically looks at the political scene from the point of view of the legislator, the President, Parliament… But the real, everyday political scene is one where somebody has to submit to a state they’ve been sucked into, often against their will. In this way, someone being arrested by the police is the ultimate political scene. Being arrested, imprisoned, forced to comply to a law you never wanted, this is the political reality. To me, because of this, the drug dealer, the thief, or the anarchist, are more important political characters than the legislator or the head of a government.

How did you come to focus on this subject?

Originally, I worked for my doctoral thesis on the topic of intellectual and academic thinking. I was interested in what it meant to be an intellectual or a researcher. I wanted to think critically about research practice in modern universities. It’s only after this that I switched the focus of my research to the state. There has been a tendency over the last few decades to give less importance to the state in political theory, following Foucault’s ideas that modern power is mostly diffused and decentralised. But I believe there are places of power. And personally, I’ve always experienced a phobia of the state. I’m always struck by people who are scared of algorithms or large tech companies like Google or Facebook… but these companies have never put anyone in prison. If you don’t like them, you’re free to delete your accounts and leave their website.

“You can always leave your partner, your job, your neighbourhood, your family, your computer—but you can never leave the state.”

Compared to this, the power of the state through violence, wars and imperialism sounds to me like a much more pressing issue. There is no substantial difference between the state and other types of powers, but the one defining characteristic of the state is that you can’t run away from it. You’re forcibly integrated into it at birth, and it’s the only social construct that takes you hostage. You can always leave your partner, your job, your neighbourhood, your family, your computer—but you can never leave the state. That’s a specific question I explored in The Art of Revolt, where I looked at how whistleblowers like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden tried to escape this system.

Let’s start exploring your favourite books on these issues. Your first choice isn’t actually a book, but an academic article by Robert Cover, “Violence and the Word”, published in 1986 in the Yale Law Journal.

This article is a great classic in legal studies. And for me it launched a paradigm shift in the analysis of law and justice. Robert Cover was an American law professor and scholar. He died very young but was involved in many important debates of his time. You could say he is a model intellectual for me, in the way he wrote about radical and transformative concepts.

What he explains in this article is that the state and the law are structures that constantly deny the violence they are exerting on people. Every interpretive act by a judge or a legislator has violent effects on an individual’s body, belongings, or reputation. One of the characteristics of the state is to take what is intrinsically violent and make it look non-violent. All of our thoughts on these issues are therefore biased, because when thinking about the state and violence, we tend to think of them as opposed: people will for example say that they are against violence or personal vengeance and instead favour respecting legal proceedings. But they’ll forget that the latter option means arresting someone, searching their house, undressing them, putting them in jail, etc.

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In this context, Robert Cover’s text is really important because he reminds us that the law is exerting violence. In essence, we should never oppose state and violence, due process and violence; instead, we should see it as an opposition between the state’s violence and private violence. If we want to define the work of a judge correctly, we shouldn’t say “they’re interpreting the law”; but rather “they’re causing suffering”.

There’s a very beautiful text by Noam Chomsky in which he criticizes people who say that anarchism means the law of the jungle, by reminding us that states are the very thing that brought us multiple world wars, millions of victims, genocides, colonialism, slavery, and imperialism. The question is: why do we fail so often to acknowledge this violence?

Is it perhaps because, unlike a few centuries ago, the share of the population that’s likely to be a direct victim of state violence is shrinking as decades go by?

There are two levels of consciousness of these issues. The first level is that of people who are direct victims of it, such as those arrested and thrown in prison. State violence has always been felt this way by ethnic minorities, prisoners, colonised people, etc. But of course, they’re not the ones writing political theory.

Beyond the most visible victims, nobody can escape the violence of the state. It’s always there, ready to exert its power. In a way, a subject of the law is first and foremost a person who is ‘arrestable’—always susceptible to being taken into custody.

“States are the very thing that brought us multiple world wars, millions of victims, genocides, colonialism, slavery, and imperialism.”

But there’s also another dimension. The academics, legal scholars and politicians who uphold the existing political order are not ignorant of what’s going on, yet they would never recognise it publicly. They all belong to an intellectualised culture that constantly distances itself from the ‘mass’, by claiming to be non-violent and ethical and rejecting ‘ordinary’ inclinations towards brutality.

But non-violence is a concept that is politically senseless; if you’re in favour of laws and having them respected, you’re necessarily in favour of judges, policemen and their power. In a world of antagonisms, non-violence is nonsense. The judicial world is a world that thinks of itself as extremely rational, but it is one of the most mythological: it denies its own violent truth by relying on myths. And sentencing someone doesn’t just mean sending them to prison: it means living in horrendous conditions, being beaten, sometimes raped, often contracting diseases such as scabies or herpes.

By writing this article, Robert Cover wanted to lead his fellow jurists to realise that their discipline doesn’t simply involve analysing universal criteria for justice and the applicability of sentences; it involves directly brutalising people. As a result, this article tries to dismiss the legal tradition from Kant to Rawls.

Did it work? How much of an impact did this article have on American academic thinking?

It’s always difficult to judge the influence of a theoretical text, especially in a country like the United States, where the gap between the academic field and public opinion is so large. To some extent, it helped push forward these ideas, and Cover’s article has become a classic for American legal thinkers. But simply because the discussion of an idea becomes more publicly and academically frequent, it doesn’t mean that reality changes accordingly. In the United States, the question of racial justice and mass incarceration is a well-identified issue in academic and public discourse, but the situation for Black Americans has hardly changed in any meaningful way.

This is precisely the focus of the second book you chose: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. The main thesis of the book is that there is a historical continuum between slavery, racial segregation, and the mass contemporary incarceration of millions of Black people in the United States.

Michelle Alexander shows how you can change a system politically and legally, but without ever destroying its social roots. Racial domination in the United States has always found a way of coming back to life, despite legal changes. From slavery to Jim Crow, from Jim Crow to civil rights, the caste system of racial domination has almost stayed the same, though using different instruments. Since 1964, segregation has become illegal, yet the caste system hasn’t disappeared. It has been re-created through the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Alexander shows that discrimination isn’t illegal in the United States, because in many ways it is possible to discriminate against criminals. All the system had to do was find a way to label Blacks as criminals, to be able to cast them aside again.

It is probably the most important book on prisons since Foucault’s Discipline and Punish in 1975. It proves that you can win the judicial battle, change the legal order and still lose the political one. Racial and social discrimination is, in a way, autonomous from the law and can perpetuate itself despite equal rights. It is essentially the same idea that Pierre Bourdieu developed in Masculine Domination, when he wrote that feminism had won many battles for women, but that the structure of male domination had survived. And the #MeToo movement has shown just how much this domination still exists today in the form of sexual violence.

For these reasons, we have to completely reinvent what it means to change social structures. How should you fight when you have apparently won the political battle? What remains to be changed once everyone has the same rights? How to change social structures and not only legal structures? If we go back to Michelle Alexander’s book, if we abolished prisons, the caste system would find a way to use different instruments and morph into something else. And this applies to almost all issues that the left cares about. Politicians on the left tend to think that making issues visible is what’s important, so they can be discussed and new laws can be voted. But what we need is a way to change objective structures, and laws are never enough to do that.

“What we need is a way to change objective structures, and laws are never enough to do that.”

The real question is: how do we change the culture and mental attitudes that are at the root of the problem? In the last 50 years, the only movement that may have reached this goal is the LGBT movement. It has managed to change both the legal structures—by obtaining equal rights in many countries—and the mental structures by reversing public opinion. Of course, homophobia remains a worrying issue in many places, but it is remarkable how far the gay movement has come.

Does this mean that the current debates around criminal justice reform in the 2020 American election aren’t focusing on the right problems?

Legal changes are very important, because when we’re talking about sending fewer people to prison, the law remains the most direct instrument to achieve this. But the discrimination system could easily survive such reform, by quickly moving to a different realm.

As Marx theorised, a legal structure that is supposed to be neutral, universal and abstract, once applied to a world of inequalities, always becomes an unequal structure that reinforces social gaps. The staggering differences between sentences in white-collar and blue-collar trials is a well-documented proof of this. It doesn’t mean, though, that we should send all white-collar convicts to prison as we do for blue collars. Revenge should never be the goal. If we want to challenge the criminal justice system, we should re-evaluate the repressive impulses on which we are too often relying.

Some political or social movements think of themselves as emancipating, but still base their rhetoric on punishment and incarceration in order to solve social issues. Certain branches of feminism sadly are a good example of this.

The third book in your selection stays close to these issues of racial segregation. Black Against Empire, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin, tells the history of the Black Panther Party and its ideology, from its inception in 1966 to its end in 1982. As somebody who’s not American, I knew very little about the Panthers’ ideas, which made this a fascinating read.

I dedicated an entire chapter of my last book to the Black Panther Party and to this book. I found it randomly in a San Francisco bookstore, and reading it moved me it many ways. To me, the Panthers’ ideology, as developed by Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton and so on, represents the less mythological and the most accurate way to do political theory and to think about the political condition.

First and foremost, the Panthers redefined their situation by thinking of themselves not as a minority but as a colonised people. They stated that they considered themselves to be a population occupied by the American police, and that the various rebellions and riots in Black neighbourhoods were to be seen as liberation struggles. Under this framework, the law became an external force voted by certain white people in Parliament and applied to them without their consent.

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Interestingly, the Black Panther Party is nowadays commonly portrayed as a violent movement. But not once in their history did they initiate violence. All they wanted, initially, was for the Constitution to be respected. They tried to do so by conducting armed patrols in Oakland, during which they followed police officers to prevent aggressions by the police against black citizens. With this method of ‘policing the police’, they were actually behaving in a very legalistic manner. This tendency to label a group as ‘violent’, when it actually wanted to fight state violence, is very telling. It’s as if in our political vocabulary, ‘violent’ referred less to a category of actions than to anything that is opposing the state.

But the State of California quickly reacted by passing the 1967 Mulford Act that repealed the law allowing open carry of loaded firearms. That’s when the Panthers realised that the law wasn’t made to protect them, and thus it could no longer be their law. So they stopped thinking of themselves as a minority, and began to describe the black community as a colony within America, and the police as an army of occupation.

It seems to me that this refusal of the idea of political belonging could be extended to the political condition in general: since your birth, you have had to submit to hundreds of laws that have been voted by governments you partly or fully disagreed with. It wasn’t your law, and voting it was a way for an external force to colonise your life. In classical political theory, there’s always an opposition between democracies and colonies. We tend to think of democracies as places where people govern themselves, and colonies as places where people receive their laws from a foreign power, such as Algerians under French rule. But simply because your head of government shares your skin colour and your nationality, it doesn’t make it any less of a colonisation process, philosophically speaking. The law is always somebody else’s law.

“The Panthers’ ideology represents the most accurate way to do political theory and to think about the political condition.”

If you push this to its extreme, democracy—in the way it exists today—becomes a meaningless concept. The idea of a people that governs itself is devoid of meaning. A people is a space inside which some individuals are governing others. Voting is using the state to submit a stranger to your will. This is why a political relation is by definition a colonial relation; we’ve never left the colony. Of course, my own situation cannot be compared with the situation of Algerians before 1962 or Black Americans; it would be indecent to say that. But the difference must be established by comparing the concrete nature of power relations, living conditions, and rights. We need to eliminate from our political language the ideas of ‘democracy’ and ‘self-determination’, because they are, in effect, impossible.

Another aspect the book covers is the party’s interactions with other political contemporary movements, including ethnic minorities, feminists and gays. The party’s hierarchy mirrored much of the social norms of the period, by promoting ‘strong’, male, heterosexual leaders. But in his writings, Huey Newton seems to have been, very early, on the right side of history by promoting gender equality and LGBT rights.

Indeed, throughout their history, the Black Panthers managed to be the avant-garde of radical politics in the United States in the late 1960s. In both its practices and its politics, the party was revolutionary in a very complete way, by supporting many struggles in American society and around the world, and by creating alliances between separate struggles. There’s a very beautiful quote by Huey Newton who, as early as 1970, linked homosexuality and revolution, going against those who associated homosexuality with bourgeois decadence: “maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary”. It’s important to remember this idea today, as we see a tendency to sometimes oppose the LGBT movement and the anti-racist movement.

The Black Panthers also differ from many 21st century social movements by not claiming to be ‘leaderless’ at any point in their history. On the contrary, the party followed a very hierarchical structure from national leaders to local chapters. Do you think it helped them to become so popular, so quickly?

There is a tendency today, in some parts of the radical Left, to reject organisation and leadership, thinking that social struggles can spontaneously rise and act efficiently. But pragmatically, building a movement means taking time to talk to people, help them meet one another, print leaflets, organise events, and so many other things. And this can’t be done spontaneously. There’s nothing wrong with leading people. Strong movements need strong leaders who can embody a struggle, carry the voice of others, help generate identification and cast a message that will be heard by the media.

Your fourth choice is a much shorter essay called Critique of Violence, written by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin in 1921. How does this shed light on these issues from a new angle?

I chose it specifically because of its relevance and importance in understanding the special role of the police in everything we’ve discussed so far. Walter Benjamin’s essay focuses on the distinction between two types of violence: one that creates legal order, such as a revolution, and one that is meant to protect an existing legal order.

According to him, there are two activities that blur this dichotomy. The first one is the general strike, in which one uses an existing right to take society to a halt and create a new legal order; it’s a way of using an already-acquired power for revolutionary purposes. The other exception is the police, which is one of the rare instituted powers that is able to invent its own legality. The police, and we can see it in many examples of trials around the world, are always able to claim their own innocence by interpreting their own acts in a favourable manner; by saying that an officer felt in danger, or that they reacted in a proportionate manner to an aggression, or that they acted with ‘strong suspicion’ that somebody had committed a crime. This makes the police a very problematic institution, one that has the power to reinterpret the frame under which its activity is supposed to be regulated.

“Everything that the police does is violent, in the effects it has on an individual’s freedom, their body, their possessions, or their future.”

The ideas of Walter Benjamin should also help us rethink the way in which we, too often, describe how the police acts. I have been strongly involved in a French movement called Comité Adama, that is fighting against police practices and defending its victims, who are mostly young black and Arab boys. I published a book, The Adama Fight (Le Combat Adama), with Assa Traoré, whose brother Adama was killed by policemen in 2016. In this context, I gave a lot of thinking to the notion of ‘police brutality’. In recent years especially, some of the media has started keeping track of what it calls acts of police ‘violence’ during strikes, riots, marches, etc. But this categorisation of certain acts as ‘violent acts’ necessarily implies that the police, the rest of the time, acts in a non-brutal way, simply because it is acting legally. It implies that a police search, an arrest, or even an identity check aren’t violent.

But everything that the police does is violent, in the effects it has on an individual’s freedom, their body, their possessions, or their future. So it is almost impossible to identify a specific category of police actions that could be called brutal, as if others were not. Police means violence. And so the type of police brutality seems irrelevant. What’s violent about the police isn’t when they go too far by punching a protester in the eye, or suffocate a drug dealer during an arrest. What’s truly violent is the law that protects them, takes them out of our reach, and allows them to create their own legality. In a sense, I argue that what we call ‘police violence’ isn’t what is beyond legality but, on the contrary, moments when the police are redefining the legal order. What is violent in the police is the law.

Finally, you picked The Birth of Biopolitics, the written version of a series of lectures given by Michel Foucault at the Collège de France in 1978–1979. How does this tie in with everything we’ve discussed?

A few years ago, I wrote a book called The Last Lesson of Michel Foucault, in which I tried to understand why Foucault gave this lecture, in which he focuses on neoliberalism, and to explain why it is important to read and understand neoliberal thinkers. There is indeed a paradox: everyone says we live in a neoliberal world, and yet no one in the field of critical theory wants to read the theories of neoliberal, ordoliberal, and libertarian authors such as Gary Becker, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, or Robert Nozick. Today neoliberalism is presented as the evil idea, but this ideology is much more subtle than we think. And when I read Foucault’s lectures, I realised he’d had the same fascination. In this series of lectures he begins by saying that he’ll simply dedicate one lecture to the birth of neoliberalism, and he ends up spending the entire year on this history of modern political economy and the different schools of neoliberal thought.

To give an example, Friedrich Hayek developed really strong ideas about the possibility of a spontaneous social order based on plurality which could help us avoid the unification of powers into sovereignty. By thinking about a world that would self-regulate and not need to be unified and governed, these intellectuals helped us think about life without a state. There is an anarchistic element to these ideas. Foucault says that the core idea of neoliberalism is that ‘we always govern too much’, and for this reason, the neoliberal tradition could be seen as one of the contemporary incarnations of critical theory. And without agreeing with these ideas, once you truly study them, you realise how much we don’t live in a neoliberal world. Some reforms are neoliberal, of course, but many of them aren’t. Whenever people tell me that neoliberalism is ruling everything, I jokingly reply: ‘I wish!’ If we don’t understand the world we live in, how can we hope to transform it?

Neoliberal thought is incompatible with the criminalisation of drugs, the interdiction of sexual labour, the refusal of migrations, the carceral system—all of which are central elements of conservative politics today. Some neoliberal thinkers gave a lot of thought to the issue of prisons and judgments; to them, nothing justifies how by committing a crime against another person, a third-party—the state—could require you to spend time in prison or pay a fine. Foucault also mentions how neoliberal thinkers didn’t try to address the usual question of ‘how to stop crime’, but rather focused on the question of how much crime should be allowed for society to function well. This is a completely fresh way of looking at the issue, breaking away from the disciplinarian ideal of normalisation.

“Neoliberalism allows us to identify the blind spots of our theories, the things we have failed to criticise, the power devices we blindly accept.”

Many authors and experts on Foucault, as they couldn’t grasp his interest in such ideas, interpreted these lectures as a critic towards neoliberalism. But I think it was rather a thought experiment. Every author is born in a preset ideological universe. The neoliberal economic rationality is so peculiar that Foucault uses it to reveal some crucially-overlooked concepts in social and political theory. Since neoliberal authors aren’t read by the left, and belong to a tradition that is so different from the one we are used to, they allow us to identify the blind spots of our theories, the things we have failed to criticise, the power devices we blindly accept. Reading these authors is a way of confronting ourselves with our subconscious, our reflexes and our weaknesses. Economic rationality makes it possible to break with certain themes that are often naive in contemporary thought, such as the ‘common’ or the ‘social bond’.

Why, then, are these philosophical ideas rejected by the left? Could it be that these ideas of limiting the state are theoretically interesting, but practically in contradiction with some other goals of the left, such as achieving equality and protecting those who lack power?

The real caveat is that neoliberalism lacks a coherent framework to think about justice and social classes. Exploitation, domination, persecution aren’t among its preoccupations. That’s why I wouldn’t define myself as a neoliberal or a libertarian. But thinking seriously about neoliberalism has allowed me to shed light on two things.

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First, the fact that many left-wing academics and politicians have lingering authoritarian impulses. Their ideas and speeches often imply that the issues of our world are disorder, a weak state, and individualism. In this way, anarchists or anti-institutional ideas are much less powerful in the left than they used to be.

But more importantly, I have realised how conformist the academic field has become. The contemporary intellectual world is becoming more and more a unified body, rather than a field of disagreements. There are various themes and reflexes that you must follow to be seen as a credible researcher, and this leads to a terrible homogeneity. If you want to be recognised as a critical theorist, you must show you belong to the field by following its instituted modes of thinking. Thus, a field that was meant to rely on critique and experimentation has gradually become plagued with censorship, self-censorship and conformism. It’s almost like a small village, where there are minor disagreements, but people mostly get along and don’t like causing too much trouble.

Interview by Edouard Mathieu

November 8, 2019

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Geoffroy de Lagasnerie

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie is a French philosopher and sociologist, and a professor at the École Nationale Supérieure D'Arts in Paris-Cergy. His interests range from political philosophy to critical theory, the sociology of law, and the sociology of intellectuals. He is the author of several books, articles and lectures, including The Art of Revolt: Snowden, Assange, Manning (2017) and Judge and Punish: The Penal State on Trial (2018).

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie is a French philosopher and sociologist, and a professor at the École Nationale Supérieure D'Arts in Paris-Cergy. His interests range from political philosophy to critical theory, the sociology of law, and the sociology of intellectuals. He is the author of several books, articles and lectures, including The Art of Revolt: Snowden, Assange, Manning (2017) and Judge and Punish: The Penal State on Trial (2018).