Because he’s a big bloke

[Sorry about the hiatus – life called.]

John Stevens:
I genuinely never thought I’d say this, but I am now convinced that the monster who executed this young woman in cold blood should, in turn, be killed as punishment for his crime.

Logically, I don’t have a problem with the concept of vendetta. I’m a peaceable type – I’ve never really been in a fight, let alone beaten anyone up – but if you were to kill one of mine, I would assuredly want to kill you or one of yours. Which would of course put me in exactly the same position as you – and so it would go on until there was nobody left, basically. The open-endedness of the vendetta is its major design flaw. In practice there is no equivalence between your loss of a son and my loss of a brother: each of them was a unique and irreplaceable person, and both deaths cry out for redress. Consequently each of us has a good and pressing reason for breaking the taboo on unregulated violence within our community – just this once, you understand… Vendetta corrodes community.

There are two basic approaches to managing the vendetta. At one extreme, it can be managed by the imposition of a superior authority – backed by the threat of superior force – on both parties: think of Mob feuds being halted by the intervention of a capo, perhaps with one final, sanctioned hit to balance the books. At the other, it can be replaced from below, by collective conflict-resolution processes which end in the imposition of penalties sanctioned by the community as a whole. The oldest Greek tragedy, the Oresteia, celebrates and re-enacts precisely this recognition of the corrosiveness of vendetta, and its replacement by sanctions imposed by a deliberative community.

These are two extremes; actually existing criminal justice systems have elements of both. The fundamental argument against the death penalty is that – as John Stevens unwittingly reveals – it moves us further from vendetta-replaced-from-below and closer to vendetta-managed-from-above:

the monster who executed this young woman in cold blood should, in turn, be killed

Should, in turn, be executed in cold blood by a monster. But our monster.

“For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH or STATE” – ‘by art’, which is to say, by collective human will and intelligence and imagination. It’s a burden, and it’s a responsibility.



  1. Rob
    Posted 22 November 2005 at 12:08 | Permalink | Reply

  2. Phil
    Posted 22 November 2005 at 12:39 | Permalink | Reply

    Rob: very interesting. My Mob analogy could be recast in terms of commodification – with hanging judges as the ultimate regulators of weights and measures. The question then is whether it’s possible to envisage a justice without commodification, or if the collective-deliberation model I suggested is just a slightly more democratic version of the same thing. Where do you think Pashukanis would come down? There’s also the question of whether the death penalty – the commodification of a life – is a big demarcation line; I tend to think that it is, but I’m not a Bolshevik.

  3. Rob
    Posted 22 November 2005 at 13:21 | Permalink | Reply

    I think that solutions to justice can only ever be linked to the specific material and cultural situations in which they operate. Therefore, commodification is the obvious outcome of most justice regimes that operate within capitalism.

    However, this does not mean that we can’t distinguish between *degrees*. Thus a collective deliberation model is an *advance* over alienated commodification to be sure, and would serve in those revolutionary or post revolutionary situations in which we have not overcome the narrow horizons of bourgeois right.

    Both Paashukanis and I agree though that the notion of ‘justice’ itself may be rooted in commodity production. Surely it’s questionable whether any notion of ‘justice’ should have a part to play in the resolution of ‘crime’. Perhaps the emphasis should be on reparation, rehabilitation and the solving of problems.

    In this regard I always find the lower courts of revolutionary regimes to be quite interesting, things like the Cuba Popular tribunals seem to move towards something vaguely different, being grounded more in an educative function that aims to resolve the underlyng causal factors for crime.

    On the death penalty I seem to remember there being an interesting Benjamin quotes somewhere in the Critique of violence on it, but I don’t have current access to my quotes. Nevertheless I personally would (attempt) to draw the line between the exception (emergency etc.) and the norm.

    I suspect that Pashukanis might support the death penalty for certain offenders. But I would imagine that the *most* dangerous offenders could be housed humanely. This of course is premised on superseding the notion of punishment.

  4. Andrew Bartlett
    Posted 22 November 2005 at 15:05 | Permalink | Reply

    I ‘look forward’ to Brazilian gunmen roaming the streets of London looking for redress.

  5. Phil
    Posted 22 November 2005 at 15:13 | Permalink | Reply

    I ‘look forward’ to Brazilian gunmen roaming the streets of London looking for redress.

    That would certainly make just as much sense as calling for Ian Blair to be hanged. Or, indeed, just as little.

  6. Bill
    Posted 23 November 2005 at 09:08 | Permalink | Reply

    The open-endedness of the vendetta is its major design flaw.

    So, who designed vendettas then? microsoft? Can we look forward to Vendetta 1.1?

  7. Jarndyce
    Posted 23 November 2005 at 10:12 | Permalink | Reply

    Wow, Hobbes is everywhere you look these days.

  8. Phil
    Posted 23 November 2005 at 11:12 | Permalink | Reply

    Jarn – that’s amazing. I anticipated precisely what you were going to write, not only after you’d written it, but after I’d read it myself. I’m having reverse premonitions. (Your quote was better than mine, too.)

  9. Brian
    Posted 25 December 2005 at 21:05 | Permalink | Reply

    Aeschylus said it all, really, in the Oresteia: if each killing (even if unintentional and unconscious of the victim’s identity) has to be avenged by another, we all end up drenched in blood. A main function of society is to relieve the individual of the burden of responsibility for exacting revenge by assuming it collectively and impersonally, thus converting it from empty vengeance into a considered and carefully graduated demonstration of social disapproval, together with protection of society from further violence and ideally with rehabilitation of the offender. That’s the reason why the BBC and the rest of the media should be prohibited (by enlightened opinion, not by law or censor) from publishing interviews with the relatives of murder victims demanding the harshest vengeance, however understandably: but giving the widest publicity to the few relatives of victims who express compassion and a wish to understand. Vengeful harpies crying out for blood sacrifice should have no influence whatever on the nature of society’s impartial response to violence.


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