The Politics of Violence

Politics of Violence

The Politics of Violence is an authoritarian impulse present in all forms of government including democracy. This is the fourth section on my description of democracy and part of a larger comprehensive work called The Democracy Paradox.

Police as a Coercive Apparatus of the State

The trial of Derek Chauvin and the murder of George Floyd have come to symbolize the most egregious example of police misconduct. But the debate is far wider than any single case. It involves questions surrounding the legitimacy of the police to exercise force. While the conversation in America has largely focused on racial bias and profiling, a broader question exists regarding the legitimate use of force. 

The debate over police accountability is really a question over the size and scope of government. The police represent the coercive apparatus of the state more than any other institution. Even the military plays a minor role in the life of ordinary citizens compared to law enforcement. It is no accident the public describes totalitarian regimes as police states. And yet, those most afraid of the growth of the state support the expansion of the size and scope of law enforcement operations. It is ironic how conservatives fear a bureaucrat at a desk as a danger to liberty, but have no concerns about actual licensed officers carrying weapons. 

Ideological Divide Over Law Enforcement

On the other hand, the left has a fundamental belief that government works, yet will question the intentions of law enforcement. They believe the government can resolve problems, but view the police, the most common manifestation of the state in most communities, with suspicion. They believe government must compel society to clean the environment, keep consumers and workers safe, and fund a variety of social programs through taxation. Yet they remain suspicious of law enforcement. 

The ideological divide is not unique to the United States either. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines have both encouraged law enforcement to use violence to fight crime. Duterte in particular campaigned on the use of extrajudicial killings as a tool to fight the war on drugs and other crimes. At the same time Bolsonaro has refused to enforce the law to protect the Amazon. Politicians of the right have reduced state capacity, while they have expanded the size and scope of the coercive apparatus of the state. 

Guns: Rights, Crime, and Deterence

The conversation over police accountability parallels a related debate over gun ownership. Conservatives largely support widespread gun ownership. In the United States, the second amendment guarantees a right to bear arms. Yet most conservatives do not simply defend the right, but advocate for the widespread ownership of guns. They regularly cite the study from economist John Lott on concealed carry laws called More Guns, Less Crime. The title of his book does not simply advocate for concealed carry laws, but implies the public’s adoption of concealed carry is beneficial. The link between gun ownership as a tool to reduce crime comes across almost as a democratization of law enforcement. Everyday citizens become an extension of the state’s security apparatus. Gun ownership empowers citizens to protect their community. 

The United States is an outlier in its constitutional protection for gun ownership. In other countries, advocates for gun ownership cannot look to a constitutional amendment as a trump card on ownership restrictions. Brazil has recently rolled back restrictions on gun ownership. President Jair Bolsonaro wants every Brazilian to own a firearm. Nonetheless, John Lott did not argue for the widespread use of firearms. Counterintuitively he believed the widespread presence of firearms raised the costs of violence so fewer people took the risks to engage in violent crime. His argument also focused on concealed firearms that introduced an element of uncertainty as to who carried firearms. 

More Guns, Less Crime?

The actual experience of societies where gun ownership is widespread tells a different story. The United States has higher levels of gun deaths than Europe. Brazil has seen the expansion in firearm ownership has brought about an increase in its homicide rate. It is not realistic to arm a population and expect they will not use them. Of course, an increase in gun deaths is not the same as an increase in murder or even violent crime. Perhaps many of these deaths involve self-defense. 

Of course, the presence of firearms has raised the stakes for self-defense. The trial of George Zimmerman exposed how the line between murder and self-defense is not always clear. The jury acquitted Zimmerman of murder under Florida’s stand your ground law. Yet it is unclear how things might have transpired had Trayvon Martin killed George Zimmerman. Would Trayvon have been found innocent under the same stand your ground law? It’s difficult to remove questions of race from a trial like this. Zimmerman probably does not approach Martin if he is not black. Nonetheless, gun rights advocates had a bias that went beyond race. They gave Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt in part because he possessed the gun. They saw themselves as gun owners in the experience of George Zimmerman. Similarly, they view themselves in the eyes of the police rather than the victims.

The Might Makes Right Logic

Gun ideology follows the logic of might makes right. The confer credibility on the military, the police, and themselves because they have the legal right to carry firearms. The use of those firearms is given the benefit of the doubt because of their right to possess the firearms. The need to use firearms becomes a justification for their right to possess them. The argument follows a circular logic based more on emotion and identity rather than reason. Nonetheless, gun control strikes particular fear in advocates of gun ownership because they view it as a threat to more than their right to possess firearms. Gun control threatens to restrict or even take away the “might” that confers their “right.” It turns them back into an innocent bystander. 

The disarmament of the police represents a similar threat. The legitimate possession of firearms effectively legitimizes the use of force in the eyes of many. Any effort to reduce their firepower reduces their legitimacy to use violence as a tool to impose social order. Americans widely assume law enforcement requires a gun, but many European countries do not equip their law enforcement officers with firearms. Whether these reforms make sense for the United States is beside the point. The limitation on firearms removes “might” so it becomes a limitation on their “right.” 

Legitimizing the Politics of Violence

Gun ownership advocates regularly draw parallels between the second amendment and the first amendment to the American constitution. They argue an armed populace is necessary to defend rights and freedoms from the government. Indeed, many repressive regimes throughout history have restricted the ownership of weapons as a measure against rebellious populations. Once again it follows a might makes right logic. It assumes the state only respects constitutional rights because the population is armed. The disarmament of the population according to their logic becomes the first step towards the violation of other rights. Nonetheless, it overlooks the role of an armed population to violate the rights of others. Throughout history violence has been a tool to impose racial hierarchies, interfere in elections, and perpetuate injustice.

The might makes right logic legitimizes the politics of violence. It justifies the use of violence in politics. The politics of violence seeks to impose its aims without deliberation or debate. It looks to a politics of exclusion rather than inclusion. Moreover, it is no surprise authoritarian regimes rely on repression and violence to impose their political priorities. The politics of violence is by nature authoritarian. So it is no surprise violent resistance almost never produces democratic outcomes. Rather armed resistance replaces authoritarian regimes with new authoritarian rulers. On the other hand, civil resistance is not only more effective at regime change, but is more likely to produce democratic outcomes. Nonviolent resistance makes negotiated settlements possible that open the door to inclusive governance.

What is the State?

It helps to recognize the vast differences in how liberals and conservatives imagine the idea of the state. Max Weber offers a classic definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” So, violence, according to Weber, becomes the defining characteristic of the state. His definition offers two key implications for political theory. First, the state is coercive so any expansion in its size or scope expands the coercive apparatus into new areas of society. Secondly, it legitimizes the coercive elements of the state. The non-coercive aspects of the state become threats because they exist outside the proper role of the state. So the state becomes both feared for its coercive capabilities and at the same time legitimate only in the use of coercion. 

But Weber complicates the role of violence in politics. He gives the state an exclusive right to physical force. Other conservative political theorists do not draw such firm distinctions. Friedrich Nietzsche believes any self-imposed limitations become a form of weakness. He embraces the use of violence as a form of political creativity. But where Nietzsche merely glorified violence, Carl Schmitt offered a theoretical construction for the justification of violence in politics. The political, for Schmitt, “is the possibility of the extreme case taking place, the real war, and the decision whether this situation has or has not arrived.” The influence of Weber is obvious when Schmitt writes, “The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political.” But where Weber limits the use of legitimate force to the apparatus of the state, Schmitt believes the political itself is the legitimation of force and violence.

Violence as Ideology

Fascism is the radical idealization of violence into a political ideology. It both empowers the individual as an agent of violence, while subordinating the individual to the aims of the group. Fundamentally, it is anti-democratic. It looks to use violence as a tool to exclude divergent opinions from the political process. The state’s capacity for violence becomes valued in its own right and it liberates the state from the limitations of the law. Totalitarianism does not abolish the law, but rather makes it the servant of the state. Free societies, in contrast, make the state the servant of the law. 

Democracy as an idea is inconceivable through the act of violence. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, depends on violence as a tool of exclusion. But democracy as a regime finds it cannot enforce its laws or defend itself from hostile neighbors without a coercive apparatus. Democracy as a form of government relies on many nondemocratic elements. Nonetheless, democracy as a regime must continuously work to become democracy as an ideal. It must strive to govern through consensus rather than force. Democracy finds ways to incorporate the views of minorities, while it continues to reflect the ambitions of the majority. In many ways, democracy is an impossible ideal. Its realization requires tradeoffs. The rights of minorities may interfere with the will of the majority. The enforcement of the law may require coercion for some to obey it. 

The Simplest Path to Authoritarianism

Nonetheless, the acceptance of violence as a necessary evil is a far cry from its glorification or its idealization. The politics of violence represents a departure from constitutional governance and democracy, it reduces the law to the whims of individuals, and distills politics into a dangerous form of individualism. Liberalism is an ideology focused on individualism, but it has self-imposed limitations. The politics of violence is a perverted sort of liberalism where all limits have withered away. It reorients politics through a purely subjective lens. 

Democracy is distinct from liberalism in its deference to the group. Despite repeated references to liberal democracy from scholars, conservative principles form key foundations of any democratic regime. From this perspective, the politics of violence rejects conservative principles. It defies institutions. It dismisses responsibilities. Violence can only tear down society and culture. So while appeals to identity may give the impression it represents the idealization of the group, it undermines social cohesion. Ultimately, it narrows political options to a single choice. Widespread violence, even when in the name of freedom, leads to the centralization of power in a single leader. The politics of violence is the simplest path to authoritarianism. 

A Few Sources

Erica Chenoweth (2021), Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know

Björn Dressel and Cristina Regina Bonoan (2019), “Southeast Asia’s Troubling Elections: Duterte Versus the Rule of Law,” Journal of Democracy

Friedrich Nietzsche (1901), The Will to Power

Carl Schmitt (1932), The Concept of the Political

Max Weber (1946), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Ross Benes on Nebraska and Rural Conservatism

Nic Cheeseman and Gabrielle Lynch on the Moral Economy of Elections in Africa

More Episodes from the Podcast

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