top of page


Amid recent student uprisings across university campuses globally, Lukas Ziel, MA student in sociology at the University of Amsterdam, delves into the unsettling reality of violence as a tool for political exclusion. Having witnessed the rise and fall of the Amsterdam University encampments, they shed light on the stark disparity between political rhetoric of (anti)violence and the harsh brutality faced by protestors. As the university's calls for dialogue continues to linger, Ziel challenges us to question our place in this political playing field: Do we yearn for acceptance into a political realm that excludes us, or do we embrace the raw truth of our social positioning, raising our voices against the odds? This philosophical consideration urges us to confront not just the violence we endure, but also the very essence of our struggle and where it leads us next.

Text continues below image

Image: "The Academe" (2022) by author.

Image description: an illustration of four capybaras in the foreground of a burning university building. Black and white, ink on paper.

Scenes of violence unimaginable. Riot police called upon by the University, by universities as institutional mechanisms, upon student protesters on their campus. In most recent memory, the police were mobilised against the Amsterdam Student Encampment at Roeterseilandcampus, University of Amsterdam, on the night of the 7th of May. Again, in full brutality on the 8th of May at Oudemanhuispoort, University of Amsterdam. We have seen similar scenes in the United States, at universities such as Harvard and Columbia and Chicago, and in Germany at the Freie Universität Berlin. The demands of this encampment, as prior demands via temporary protests were not met, were simple:


1.Disclose! Fully comply with the Freedom of Information Case regarding the disclosure of university ties with Israeli institutions and companies;

2.Boycott! Cease all academic collaborations with Israeli institutions;

3.Divest! Cease all contracts with and divest from Israeali companies.


The encampment was erected and continued in action peacefully, an assertion of presence to the University of their student body. Police were announced at 10pm of the 6th and arrived to enact the forceful dissolution of the encampment at around 3am of the following day. I reject the notion of “peacefulness”, with its risk of throwing it around as a qualifier. No action on the protester’s parts could have suggested or justified the enactment of violence we have witnessed. We have been subjected to witnessing against us. Students were beaten and violated by police mobilised by the University, 169 students were arrested, a few placed in what can only described as the torture of solitary confinement. People are wounded, mutual first aid providing essential treatment. The student council is attempting to enter into conversation with the Executive Board, attempting a negotiation of terms that don’t necessitate violence. On the afternoon of the 7th of May, a police van enters the campus and is promptly drilled back by a united student front. No cops on campus! As I write, police terror is called upon by the dean onto the new occupation at Oudemanhuispoort. In the center of town, students brutalized without sense or significance. I am not sure what will happen tonight. Most of us don’t.


How do we live? I am not here to pretend to offer a solution (is there one?), nor to needlessly critique actions on a contested ground of morality (a circular debate). What I do believe useful is a clear idea and articulation of what we are up against – not just in this moment, but as a movement and as movements. I don’t pretend to stand on a high horse of critical knowledge, that my position is not contested onto itself. I am aware of the pretense of ideological purity when we are faced with the violence of State. This is but context of our conditions. I want us to pay attention to the ideas and modes we assume to be true, to pay attention to where we are positioning ourselves. Where we have been positioned. In a discussion of a statement put out by the University, a true testament to HR speak, a friend noted that the deployment of police against students, of physical violence against students, is political as well. I want us to contest this. It is a useful frame, that is certain. The personal is political and all that. But it also obscures the terms of our playing field. It obscures, hides, occludes the specific places where we are excluded from the political and it excuses us from having to ask ourselves if the political is something we want to participate in. If we do, we can move from there. If we don’t, I believe things only start to get interesting. It is, fundamentally, a question we have to move with.


To do so, I want us to think alongside the distinction between the political and the social that Hannah Arendt proposes in The Human Condition (1958). I am not particularly fond of Arendt, nor how she then employs this distinction, but its usefulness lies in helping us think through our position. Drawing on the terms of ancient Greek society, she poses a distinction between the polis and the household. The polis is a space of freedom, whereas the household is characterised by the fulfilment of base needs. In the polis, in the political sphere, that is where freedom is located and only there. She writes that


The polis was distinguished by the household in that it knew only “equals”, whereas the household was the center of the strictest inequality. To be free meant both not to be subject to the necessity of life or the command of another and not to be in command oneself.” (p.32)


Free men held the ability to ascend from the confinement of needs and hierarchy into a political realm of freedom and equality. All matters of violence in this notion are relegated to the social realm captured by the domestic. Violence here is a justified necessity for the maintenance of the social and the polis. The political realm is one of action and speech, of great deeds and great words – great because they come from the capacity for greatness, not because they are great onto themselves. Correct speech is an action and valorised as such.


In our context, the dimensions of violence return as a problem. Violence falls outside of the political, it is not speech nor action, it is only brutality. Arendt writes that “sheer violence is mute, and for that reason alone can never be great” (p.26). Violence is not a means of political communication. If violence is enacted upon us, we are not political subjects, we do not belong to the order of free and equal men capable of political greatness. Asking what the violence itself means, provides no meaningful conclusion in this case. Where does this violence position us? What does it mean for our position that brutality was and continues to be so readily deployed against us? In my reading, it marks our clear-cut exclusion from the political. It marks us as social, some of us even beyond the stability of the social. Granted, much has changed in the modern era; Arendt’s distinction does not map on perfectly onto our conditions (nor does it need to). This arrangement of the political sphere, of the primacy of the polis over those expulsed into the social and non-social, of the structure of State and power means that violence is always readily deployed for the management of its biopolitical subjects and unquestionably against its necropolitical non-subjects. Violence is often willingly condemned by the polis — to them, violence is not speech, it has no meaning or significance. Their condemnation, to us, then rightfully rings hollow. If the polis exerts violence, whether those privileged by it agree with it or not, it is a simple necessity. Thus, when we demand action on their part, what we receive are invitations. In response to a statement of collective dissatisfaction by the students of the Master's Sociology programme at the University of Amsterdam, we received a vague condemnation of violence and, interestingly, the following:


If at a later moment you are willing to have a conversation, know that our door is always open. I also wanted to clarify that the initial invitation for a conversation was, and still is, directed to all of you. Please let me know if (some of) you are willing to have this conversation.


It is a sentiment we have received over and over, from all angles, from all the free men of the polis. What work is this statement doing here? What, in our exclusion from the polis, is this telling us? It says: Well yes, the violence is neither here nor there, we condemn the violence, but you all know that. Come to us, meet us on our grounds, ascend from the abject social we have put you in and become free men. Make your speech political, become capable of great words and great deeds. We may be willing to hear you out. It is, as many of our organisers have pointed out, a call for co-optation. Knowing where we stand, we cannot confuse this for genuine concern (once again, regardless of whether the individual men of the polis believe it themselves). Political speech calls upon us, upon some of us, to make ourselves reasonable, peaceful, rational. We precisely are not political subjects and our conditions are not political. Understanding this also shows us the places where the violence perpetrated by protesters and movements becomes relevant. Violence is justified and necessary by political and social subjects alike, as long as it works for the management of the inequality of the social as distinct from the polis. One then does not have to wonder why rallies and actions by white supremacists and neo-Nazis don't face the same repercussions. A violence that manages inequality, that encloses subjects in the order of the political, seems acceptable even if frowned upon.


Any violence on our part as students and activists calling for liberation, or any non-violence for that matter that does not qualify as political speech, becomes a problem. We are not afforded the political grounds of legitimacy; we are not political subjects. If we continue to be a problem, we may not even qualify as social subjects to be managed. The questions it produces for our movement towards liberation are pertinent. What do we want? Do we want to ascend into political beings, to be unencumbered by power, able to exert it onto the social realm that we temporarily descend to? Or do we decide to stay in the social abject, to stay with the violence and see what it produces? The procession of protestors passes the window I am writing from. Our demands are clear. Demands to the political to cease to maintain themselves through violence against us. My questions aren’t binary or necessarily in opposition to each other – some of our choices must be strategic. In true fashion of a philosopher, I don’t have answers, only questions and problems. Knowing our playing field, I ask us where we stand and to what end. Knowing where we are, where do we go?


Further readings:

  • A Poetics of the Undercommons by Fred Moten (2016)

  • Necropolitics by Achille Mbembe (2019)

  • Mutual Aid by Dean Spade (2020)

  • The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee (2007)


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page