Weber I: Monopoly on Violence

I think this time I'll break it out by topic, starting with the one I mentioned in the introduction below. 

Weber begins by asking what "politics" is, and -- therefore -- what a "state" is, the state being the field of political activity.

But what is a 'political' association from the sociological point of view? What is a 'state'? Sociologically, the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand, and there is no task that one could say has always been exclusive and peculiar to those associations which are designated as political ones: today the state, or historically, those associations which have been the predecessors of the modern state.

Aristotle would object to this philosophical claim. For Aristotle, politics is the science of the highest human good: how we should order ourselves and our activities in order to maximize human flourishing. He says this right at the beginning of the Politics:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.

Note that this embraces Weber's claim that lots of different "tasks" have been undertaken by various states; it disputes Weber's claim that these represent different "ends." Even the Communists, who brought about more human misery than all the others, claimed that they were acting for the good of humanity and indeed for its highest good as they understood it. 

One could also dispute Weber on a point where Aristotle agrees with him, to whit, that the state is the 'highest' level of such organizing activity. The European Union and the United Nations both imagine a supra-national level of organization. It may or may not be attainable or sustainable, given human nature; or it may not be capable of attaining the 'highest' human flourishing, if such things can only come in more intimate relationships. Nevertheless it is conceivable, at least.

In any event, Weber does not think we should define the state in terms of its end, but rather by its choice of means:  "[O]ne can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force." [Emphasis added.]

Now again, this would not be obvious to the ancients nor to the medievals. Aristotle and Plato worry continuously about the problem of family and clan producing factions within the political sphere that will turn to violence. The medievals tried to use political friendship between families as a way of organizing states, but it was in fact the families that often proved the most powerful -- as reflected in their literature, for example when the blood feud between Gawain's family and Lancelot's lays the groundwork for the destruction of Arthur's kingdom. If you read through the full version of Le Morte Darthur, or the long French cycles like the Prose Lancelot, these blood feuds are constantly pulling apart the feudal relationships on which the state of the day is based. 

Weber will talk at some length about the medievals and feudalism, but he is especially interested in "the modern state." Now by "modern" philosophers generally mean "the 18th Century," and to some degree the things that followed from that: thus, the American and French Revolutions, Kant and Hegel, and the consequences of Marx and Marxism, Nietzsche and Romanticism, and the fascists and Nazis as well. We are living at or just past the end of the modern period, and most of the states extant today remain modern states -- perhaps, it must be said, states that are also at or just past the end of their time. 

So, speaking of the claim that the modern state makes, Weber gives it thus:

'Every state is founded on force,' said Trotsky at Brest­-Litovsk. That is indeed right. If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of 'state' would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be designated as 'anarchy,' in the specific sense of this word. Of course, force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state­­ - nobody says that - ­­but force is a means specific to the state. Today the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one. In the past, the most varied institutions­­ - beginning with the sib­ - ­have known the use of physical force as quite normal. Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that 'territory' is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. 

The state is considered the sole source of the 'right' to use violence. Hence, 'politics' for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.

Notice that the current protests against police are a kind of double attack on the state on these terms. Groups like Antifa and BLM violate the laws, storming businesses or public transit (just last week, the Metro in DC was invaded by hundreds of BLM-aligned protesters who jumped the turnstiles and took over a train), invading people's space, clash with the police, use physical force. They claim they are doing so legitimately, and the state because of its injustice is illegitimate in resisting them. Likewise, in claiming that the police must be defunded and abolished, they claim that the state has no right to use physical violence at all -- not only no legitimate monopoly, but no legitimacy to use force to police its laws whatsoever. 

As I said in the introduction, the claim the state (n.b., not Weber, but the modern state) is making is fundamentally incompatible with the principle of the Declaration of Independence that the people may abolish the state if it becomes destructive to the end of protecting their rights. Actually, the Declaration is also against Weber's own claim that the state has no proper end: it holds that all states do have a proper end, specifically, the protection of the natural rights that human beings are endowed with by their Creator. If any state becomes destructive of that end, then the people have the right (and eventually the duty, the Declaration goes on to say) to alter or abolish the state. 

Therefore, if that principle is true, the state cannot ever have a legitimate monopoly on the use of force. 

Well, unless...

I propose that the citizen is an officer of the state.  More, if the American Declaration of Independence is morally correct, citizenship is the office in which the sovereign power resides. The sovereign power is originally all the power, some of which is delegated to the formal government. Even after delegation, however, the sovereign retains the power to determine when the rest of the government may exercise the powers delegated to it by the sovereign....

The citizen is the officer the Declaration of Independence is thinking of when they speak of the “Right of the People to alter or to abolish” any government that becomes destructive to the defense of their rights. The citizens, and only the citizens, have the right to make that awesome decision. No foreign power may dissolve the United States Constitution, and no elected nor appointed executive officer, nor a Congressperson, nor a judge nor Justice of any kind. The citizens alone have that sovereign right. They may delegate it to a constitutional convention, called by their other delegates in the legislatures. They may instead take up arms and do it themselves, as Washington and his generation abolished British rule. But whether they do it the one way or the other, no one may do it against their will nor without their consent.

That mechanism of treating citizens as a part of -- as the sovereign officers of -- the state ends up harmonizing Weber's description of the modern state with Hobbes' prescriptive idea that human beings desperately need a state to hold back the dangers of the world. If that is right, the 2nd Amendment's reliance on the militia of citizens as the last and best defense of 'a free state' makes a lot of sense.

Nevertheless it should be clear just from what has been said that we are in a revolutionary moment. The government is trapped between a segment that is openly contesting its claim to a monopoly on legitimate force -- or to having the legitimacy to police at all -- and a segment that questions whether the government continues to enjoy a more basic and fundamental legitimacy. The government's response to one side is cowering submission; to the other, an attempt to suppress their concerns rather than to address them. 

In the next segment, we will look at Weber's ideas about how state legitimacy is grounded, and why the United States' legitimacy is therefore in grave peril. 


james said...

I like the model of society in which the glue is successive circles of love: for the family, for the neighbor, for the clan, for the tribe, for the nation--with diminishing strength of love as the circle expands. (Courtesy is an attenuated form of love.)

With that model in mind, perhaps what Aristotle referred to was something more like a city/tribe than a modern several-orders-of-magnitude larger nation. The bonds of love and custom are less strong in the larger organization, and the threat of violence becomes more integral to its operation, and perhaps to its nature.

Granted, he knew of empires, but I'm guessing his framework for understanding states grew from his understand of the city-states.

Grim said...

Aristotle is definitely thinking about the polis as far better than any of the empires he knows about. It's ironic that his best student went on to found the largest empire the world had yet known -- although he did it through personal relations with his military forces, and left those with at least tangential family/tribe relations in charge.

Since you were around for the Laws reading, you know that Plato compared and contrasted Egypt with the Greek city-states. Herodotus had a lot to say about Persia, some of it quite complimentary.

But remember too how concerned Plato's Athenian was with establishing reverence for custom and ancestry as a means of building political friendship as a glue.

Aristotle too:

"It is clear then that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange. These are conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of families and aggregations of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life. Such a community can only be established among those who live in the same place and intermarry. Hence arise in cities family connections, brotherhoods, common sacrifices, amusements which draw men together. But these are created by friendship, for the will to live together is friendship. The end of the state is the good life, and these are the means towards it. And the state is the union of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honorable life."

(Politics III, Part 9)