Must the law be a liar? Walter Benjamin on the possibility of an anarchist form of law

Authored by: James R. Martel

Routledge Handbook of Law and Theory

Print publication date:  August  2018
Online publication date:  August  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138956469
eBook ISBN: 9781315665733
Adobe ISBN:


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In the “Critique of Violence,” Walter Benjamin writes that in order to practice nonviolent forms of agreement, we must above all avoid “the sanction for lying” as well as the condemnation of fraud. This seems highly counterintuitive at first glance because lying and fraud themselves seem part and parcel of what Benjamin calls “mythic violence,” the violence of law itself in asserting false ends and projecting authority onto screens like God and nature, which human actors are then forced to follow and obey. It seems like mythic violence is a form of lying and so the question becomes, why does Benjamin think that avoiding the sanction on lying is itself the path to nonviolence? The answer lies in the way Benjamin sees the law, particularly in its modern iterations, as not tolerating any competition for its claims to truth. The sanction on lying, he suggests, is evidence of the law’s own insecurity, its desire to monopolize authority and even ontology. Rather than say that the law’s own lies mask over the truth that exists in the community that it stands over, Benjamin offers instead that there are nonviolent forms of legal practice that eschew the very idea of truth itself in favor of a far more contingent and local set of responses. Thus, it is not so much that Benjamin favors lying per se, but rather than the sanction on lying presupposes an access to truth which Benjamin denies that human actors ever have. Accordingly, for Benjamin, the question of the law’s relationship to truth masks a deeper and more critical question – the way that law as a mythic practice disguises a much more prevalent – and anarchist – set of nonviolent practices. The purpose of this chapter is to consider what Benjamin has to say about these practices and the ways that he suggests such practices could be extended and expanded to allow for a fuller convergence between anarchist politics and nonviolent legal techniques and practices.

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