The State of Violence
In the first essay of this series, I discussed the relationship of several recent events (Brexit, the strikes in France against the Loi Travail, and the massacred of Oaxaca) to Liberal Democracy and what appears to be its impending collapse. This essay will discuss the core of Liberal Democracy: violence.
As a reminder, Liberal Democracy is a specific relationship between Capital and The State, and is currently the dominant form of government in the world. With it comes apparent great benefits, like peace, stability, protections of individual rights, and a general trend towards freedom.
But does it really? If so, why are the largest Liberal Democracies always at war with weaker—and usually non-white—nations? Why are so many unarmed Black people killed on the streets in the United States, why do so many armed police show up to anti-war and anti-capitalist protests? Why do so many Liberal Democracies have standing armies with large military budgets? Why so many prisons? Why so many police?
The answer is both deeply complex and also very simple. But to get there, we need to look at the matter of violence and our own relationship to it.
“Nasty, Brutish, and Short”
Thomas Hobbes famously wrote those lines in his manifesto on State power, “The Leviathan.” According to him, life in a ‘state of nature,’ –that is, outside a strong State– was violent, full of retributive justice and vengeance killings, civil disorder, greed, and chaos. Without strong leaders, people remained in a state of violence, unable to live peaceful lives and strive towards more than just subsistence living.
It was a grand work of propaganda, one which most of us have an awful time unraveling. Because we did not live in the past—and because there’s no one around from those times to interview—we can only ever build an understanding of what life was like back then by imagination, informed by ‘history.’
That ‘history’ is actually the story of civilization, and one that is constantly open to interpretation. The well-known adage that ‘history is written by the victors’ is actually a bit misleading. Most historians were involved in no wars of conquest and subjugation. Rather, they’re individual academics trained to narrate the past. And they disagree, often vehemently, crafting sometimes warring narrations about events and historical processes.
Historians themselves aren’t the victors; they’re just academically-trained storytellers. It’s the State and Capital (particularly through the media) who chooses which narratives to privilege and which narratives to silence.
Certain histories benefit the continuation of a civilisation, other histories threaten its survival. Histories which tell useful stories to the powerful get favored; histories which tell darker tales and remind of the violence perpetrated by the powerful are at best ignored but, more often, actively marginalised and silenced.
An example from the country I know best will help show this. The dominant history of the founding of the United States, taught to every child in every school, is that a group of religious Pilgrims settled on the eastern shores of North America in search of religious freedom. They were fleeing religious persecution, and came to America in home of a better life.
Every American knows this story. Few Americans think much about the pilgrims in question, the Puritan sect of Protestants who smashed statues in European churches, heavily persecuted and attacked Catholics and heretics, and for a little while possessed great power in England. When they were no longer in power, they in turn became the ‘persecuted.’ Many fled first to extremely tolerant Holland before being ejected for being too violent, and took a charter from England to colonize the ‘new world.’
This other part of the story doesn’t get told much. It greatly complicates the founding myth of the United States, and most children might be turned off from such details. And though such details are well known and considered historical consensus, none of the powerful people in the United States have any interest in correcting the public perception.
This same selection occurs for the history of violence and the State, as well. While violence certainly existed before Liberal Democracy, it has not gone away now. States have always been violent, and Liberal Democracy is not different. But Liberal Democracy has perfected a trick that previous forms of government never quite could.
That trick? Violence in your name.
Hobbe’s Leviathan deserves a little more examination. Examine the frontispiece from the original edition for a moment–The image shows a sovereign giant made up of millions of people, the model for the ‘commonwealth’ and later Liberal Democracy:
Liberal Democracies are generally ‘republics’ or constitutional monarchies. In both cases, the government is given the power to rule on behalf of the people. In such an arrangement, the leaders are elected to act as representatives of the entire public, either directly as in France or the United States, or elected as part of a parliamentary party as in the United Kingdom or Germany.
Whatever the government does, then, is considered to be the ‘will of the people,’ done for them and done on their behalf as if the people themselves have done it. Because the government leaders are elected by the people, the decisions of the government then act with what can only be described as a divine mandate.
Previous governmental forms sought sanction from religious leaders in order to gain this divine mandate. This is why European kings, queens, and emperors were crowned by Popes and Archbishops, and why the state priesthood in the Roman Empire had so much power. Though that mandate now comes from people rather than gods in Liberal Democracy, it still functions the same way.
Likewise, kings and emperors once sought the blessing of religious leaders to justify large military actions. Why? Whether or not the Christian god actually approved of those wars is not something we can know, and actually, it was probably never the point. Instead, leaders needed the approval of ‘god’ in order to win the support of their own people.
It’s hard to convince someone to go die for you, even if you’re offering money. And judging from the tales of my friends in the US military, soldiers are never paid well. To pay soldiers enough to justify the likelihood of death would drain the coffers of any king or government.
Religion can often succeed where direct threat or bribe fails. It’s a lot easier if you’ve got something to tempt them with, be it innumerable virgins in paradise, a full drinking horn in Valhalla, or reduced time in purgatory. And in each of those offers there is also a threat, because once the god/gods have given their blessing on a war through their priests, to not join, to not support or—much worse, to act against the war—is to go against your community and the divine itself.
Liberal Democracy (mostly) dispensed with the need to gain support for violence from what we normally think of as the divine. But it still relies on all the same sort of divine blessing that previous governments required. The ‘divine’ is now the people, the Leviathan itself, with the leaders at the head.
That is, we are the ones who grant legitimacy to State violence, even if we never say yes.
State Monopoly on Violence
I’ve used the word ‘violence’ quite a few times so far without defining it. In fact, we face a problem whenever we try to define violence if we live in Liberal Democracies—we can rarely agree on what actually counts as violence because of the State’s monopoly on it.
By ‘monopoly on violence,’ I mean simply this: the government is the sole legitimate agent of violence within Liberal Democracy. That is, agents of the state (police, military, etc.) are legally empowered to perform violence on behalf of the people, and all acts of violence not by the State are illegitimate (that is, illegal).
If you kill someone, or assault them, or take their property, or raze their house and burn their fields, you have used violence illegally, regardless of your reasons. The victim in this case may have been someone who slaughtered your family and poisoned your water and raped you: regardless of that, you have used violence illegitimately, and if caught will be subject to state violence. Only the State is allowed to do such things within Liberal Democracy.
What sorts of violence the State can use is supposed to be restricted by laws. Those laws, of course, are passed by the government (through representatives elected by people, or in rare cases by referendum), and though States often make appearances to obey these limits on its power, the State—being the only one empowered to enact violence–is always able to make exceptions.
The State, being the only legitimate agent of violence, is empowered within Liberal Democracy to enforce laws and punish those who break them. When the State enacts violence against individuals or groups within the Leviathan, it’s called Justice. Violence outside the Leviathan—that is, against other states and foreign individuals—often also falls into the category of Justice, especially in the last hundred years, despite the fact that laws can only apply within the State which makes them.
Justification for foreign wars doesn’t come from their legality, though—it derives solely from the assumed consent of the people, the ‘divine mandate.’ The State has all sorts of tricks to maintain that consent, including propaganda, religious rhetoric, identity politics and other ways to manufacture consent (including, unfortunately, the social justice framework, which will be addressed in my next essay).
Justice for Most
While all Liberal Democracies enshrine some concept of equality in their founding documents, none actually deliver that equality. In the United States, for example, though everyone (except felons and those who cannot afford identification documents, usually poor and people of color) have the right to vote (assuming their ballots are counted, assuming they can take time off work), it hasn’t always been the case. Originally, only white men were allowed to vote, and it took more than a century for women to be given that right.
The United States, like European Democracies and other former British Colonies, is mostly ruled by white men with money. In all these countries, white men without money are given more privileges by the powerful (note the language here: privilege is something given, not something inherent to the person) than others, in return for their support of the governing class.
Not all Liberal Democracies are white (but most are!); however, they all follow the same pattern of favoritism given to a lower class of people who resemble the people in control.
Those who are given fewer privileges tend to dislike having fewer. In fact, they tend to resent this greatly, and either demand more rights (as in the Civil Rights movement in the United States) or stop seeing themselves as part of society—unconsciously withdrawing from the Leviathan. Those in that latter case have less respect for the laws (many of which are designed to keep them in line anyway) and for the unspoken sacredness of certain institutions and modes of being. That is, they become criminal.
That’s not to say that criminals are all making conscious choices to reject the ruling class, or that criminal behaviour doesn’t have other causes too, like abject poverty. In fact, Liberal Democracies actually create the conditions which lead to criminal behaviour, including defining criminal behaviour in the first place.
And what does the State do to criminals? It uses violence against them, violence derived from its supposed ‘divine mandate’ from the people.
That violence takes many forms, and here’s where we can finally start to define violence. Police employed by the State are empowered to physically detain, assault, subdue, imprison, and even kill ‘criminals’ on behalf of the State. Of course, this is all before a trial has occurred to determine if the victim of state violence was actually ‘deserving’ of these actions (that is, was ‘guilty’ of a ‘crime’).
Of course, if the victim is dead, there is no way to determine their guilt or innocence, so in many places (especially the United States), killing a ‘suspect’ is actually a wiser choice than arrest for many police officers worried about civil rights lawsuits for wrongful arrest.
Since police officers are employed as agents of State violence, and since the State acts on our behalf, than the police, also, are acting as our agents of violence. When we call the police because of a robbery or assault, we are notifying the police that we would like them to find and enact violence against those who wronged us, rather than us doing so ourselves. And though there are many cases where someone else perpetrating violence on your behalf makes sense, it is the victimization of one person (or group) which then demands the victimization of those who perpetrated the violence.
In essence, the police act as agents of violence for others, no different from hired mercenaries or assassins except in one specific way: they are actually paid for and under the employ of the State, not by the victims.
Within Liberal Democracies, the people (who give the divine mandate to the State) are both separated from the violence the state enacts and also intimately connected to it at the same time. When police kill a murderer, we feel a sense of relief and of justice being ‘served,’ though we did nothing at all and may not even be able to know if the person actually murdered anyone. We become accustomed to believing that the police, because they act on our behalf, are doing good things, and except in rare cases we tend never to question their actions.
If anything, our relationship to them is similar to that of a fan of a sports team, overly identifying with players they’ve never met. “Our team won” means nothing at all, unless you are on the team or one of the owners of the sports franchise, yet that identification is unshakeable. That same identification occurs between us and the police and the military, particularly if we are within the class of people who are given more privileges than others by the government–and thus less likely to be on the wrong end of a police officer’s nightstick or assault rifle.
Violence is always subjective—that is, subject to our perceptions. A fist to the face is violent, certainly, but it’s less violent if we feel that the person deserved it, or if that fist was meant to stop more violence. A rape is violent, absolutely, yet those who are more likely to identify with the perpetrator than the victim are quick to re-conceptualize that violence through that same logic (how was she dressed, how drunk was he). Basically, we skew our judgments about justice according to our identification with those involved.
Liberal Democracy benefits greatly from this process. In fact, it encourages and abuses it, wielding our identifications and subjectivity as a bludgeon against enemies both foreign and domestic. As much as we all mitigate violence through identification with either the victim or the perpetrator on an individual level, we do the very same thing to a greater (and more destructive) degree with State violence.
Did any of the recent unarmed Black men in the United States ‘deserve’ to be killed by police? The answer, unfortunately, depends on whether or not any of us have done the work to see beyond our identifications with State violence. It also depends on whether or not we identify more with the interests the State is trying to protect by such murders, or with the victims. A white Capitalist who relies on the police to prevent theft from his business in a Black neighborhood is likely to identify with the police, rather than victim.
Do anti-capitalist protesters deserve to be beaten, pepper-sprayed, and arrested? That depends on how much we identify with the State and its protection of Capital and Property, or with the concerns and actions of the protesters.
And what about in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria—do the people there deserve to be killed by ‘our’ soldiers? Again, it depends on whether or not you identify more with the military or the people being killed by them, and for the majority of people in the countries whose governments are engaged there, the soldiers are more culturally, racially, and linguistically familiar than the victims are.
There’s one vital thing that none of these examples addresses, though. In each case, the question is whether or not the use of violence is justified, and this is always a subjective question. But what is almost never questioned is the role of the State (the police, the military) as agents of violence.
This is how Liberal Democracy is able to obscure its true violence from us, whether we identify with the unarmed Black men or the police officers who shoot them. Liberal or Conservative, ‘Social Justice Warrior’ or Right-wing racist, none actually threaten the State’s monopoly on violence, only question its uses and demand it be used to implement their vision of Justice.
And so Liberal Democracy has been able to carry on, unchallenged in its core violence, a lumbering Leviathan with tanks and guns, until the zero-sum game of Terrorism began.
The Upturned Table
Acts of non-state violence in the cultural and financial centers of Liberal Democracies have occurred for centuries, both from the ‘right’ and the ‘left.’ Regardless of their causes and justifications, so-called acts of ‘terrorism’ challenge the Liberal Democratic state more than any progressive or reactionary ever could.
The reason is simple: while Left-wing or Right-wing political movements can at any time take over the government, they never actually threaten the existence of the government. Communists on the Left and Fascists on the Right only want to claim the State for their own to enact their political goals. “Terrorists,”on the other hand, destabilize the State, forcing it either to abdicate its monopolistic claim on violence (which they’ll never do) or to further solidify its monopoly on violence.
That, unfortunately, is where we are now. Every Liberal Democracy has enacted anti-terrorist legislation and claimed new powers in order to combat the threat of non-state violence. To do so, they have necessarily had to curtail the freedoms granted to the people they rule over, and no longer bother much even with the appearance of law and constitutional guarantees.
One can argue, as Georgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt all have, that this process started much earlier than the recent ‘wars on terror.’ Liberal Democracies began to pass ‘State of Emergencies’ all throughout the 20th century, particularly during times of war, but not until World War II did these exceptions start to become the rule.
It was a Nazi jurist, Carl Schmidt, who first defined for all later governments the justification for the suspension of law. “Sovereign is he who decides the exception,” he wrote, asserting that it is the very fact that a State can suspend all rules in order to survive that grants the State power, not the supposed ‘divine mandate.’
From the actions of recent governments, it’s clear Liberal Democracy took his words to heart. “Free speech zones” in the United States, individual interdictions (including house arrest) from attending protests in France, suspension of freedom of movement and just-cause in the name of anti-terrorism in the UK and elsewhere—Liberal Democracies have responded to terrorism precisely as Fascist theorists would have urged them to.
And just as we tend not to question State violence against those we do not favor, we are now caught in an even greater trap. As terrorist actions continue, we are faced with the apparent choice of either supporting the restrictions of our freedoms ‘for our own good,’ or risking our lives when the next bomb or mass shooting happens. And since acts of terrorism only increase whenever the State goes to war, the cycle is likely to accelerate, pushing all of the Liberal Democracies into crisis for which, unfortunately, Fascism has always offered an answer.
It’s one we must not accept.
Next–“Assuming the State” (on Social Justice, Human Rights, and the Crisis of ‘The Left.’)
(for more on Leviathan and recent events, see Heathen Chinese’s essay at The Wild Hunt)
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.