Kevin Duong, "The Virtues of Violence: Democracy Against Disintegration in Modern France" (Oxford UP, 2020)

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Kevin Duong, a political theorist in the Politics Department at the University of Virginia, has written a fascinating analysis of the way that violence has been used, in a sense, to create or promote solidarity during the course of the “long nineteenth century” in France. Duong explores four separate periods and experiences in France, starting with the French Revolution and the trial of Louis XVI, moving to the long military engagement in Algeria, then to the Paris Commune in later half of the century, and finally to the preparations and the run up to World War I. And while The Virtues of Violence: Democracy Against Disintegration in Modern France (Oxford University Press, 2020) is about the French engagement with violence, it is a much broader analysis of the role that violence plays, particularly the concept of redemptive violence, in constructing democracy and establishing a cohesive social body among the citizenry.

Duong makes a complex and important argument that the establishment of democracy is built on an often-violent overthrow of an old order, and instead of the move from the state of nature that social contract theorists like Hobbes and Locke argue for in their texts, the democratic state comes into existence not in the welcome transition from the cruelty of the state of nature, but in the violent convulsions of bloody revolution more like the French experience. In order to create a democratic people, violence is often implemented as the means to pulling people together, and it is a kind of collective violence. Duong’s analysis posits that modern society is held together by social cohesion, which comes out of unifying violent experiences that bring people together. While mass violence is often associated with anarchy and disorder, The Virtue of Violence makes a different case, compelling us to consider how violence solves a kind of social solidarity problem, and is a means of knitting together potentially disparate members of society. While this is a book that explores the French experience, France provides the case studies to consider how violence works constructively within democratic thought, and, how redemptive violence has a kind of revitalizing power in these political contexts.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

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