Controlling the Means of Violence

I have been incredibly distracted lately. I want to be a good graduate student and dedicate the bulk of my day to dissertation research but it is hard when I feel we are the cusp of…something. I don’t even know what. But ever since the Zimmerman verdict I have this overwhelming sense that something is wrong and something has to change. So, instead of dutifully researching statelessness in the 20th century, I find myself researching racism, police brutality, self-defense laws and the deadly intersection of the three.

The problem is I am not a race scholar or a legal scholar. I study the state. What does the death of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and so many other unarmed men of color in this country tell us about the state of our “modern” state?


Let me tell you want I think…

Weber, writing in the early 20th century, defined the modern state as having  a legitimate monopoly over the use of violence. In his own words:

…the use of force is regarded as legitimate only so far as it is either permitted by the state or prescribed by it….The claim of the modern state to monopolize the use of force is as essential to it as its character of compulsory jurisdiction and of continuous organization.

This is why after an incidence of violence there is a mechanism (such as a trial) for the state to determine if the use of force was legitimate or not– or, in other words, to determine whether or not the state will permit others to commit violence of that kind. Weber provides an example:

Thus the right of a father to discipline his children is recognized–a survival of the former independent authority of the head of household, which in the right to use force has sometimes extended to a power of life and death over children and slaves.

The modern state views the use of force as its domain but often there are holdouts from the past. The process of consolidating the state in Europe meant compromise–heads of household can discipline their members but local gangs or fiefdoms had to relinquish that power to the central government. In the United States, we saw a different process of state formation.

According to the Spierneberg thesis, democracy came too early to the United States. The concept of a centralized state was introduced before that state had the means to back up its claims. The federal government was formed at a time when most localities, and even most individuals, were responsible for securing their own people and property. Overtime, the inhabitants became accustomed to their arms and hostile to the idea of the very existence of a monopoly of force. In the United States, for many people, the right of armed protection of their own property and interests is fundamental to democracy. This is American Exceptionalism, we are exceptionally vigilante.


Between 1882 and 1920, while Weber was theorizing on the state, the United States saw thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out by mobs.  On the rare case the vigilantes were arrested, they were quickly acquitted by their all white juries.  This extreme form of vigilantism, known as lynching, was ignored (permitted) by the state and often took place with the assistance of law enforcement. Numerous attempts to pass anti-lynching laws were blocked by Congress or the Senate. Resistance on the part of African-Americans (the main target of lynch mobs) and the work of the young NAACP helped spawn a Civil Rights movement that saw the first successful conviction of lynchers in 1946.

Lynching is no longer a legitimate use of force but, unfortunately, the legacy remains. Extrajudicial killings are still considered legitimate by the state. The state allows law enforcement to carry out hundreds of extrajudicial killings each year, though not without some paperwork or internal review to determine if they were “justified”. The state also allows individuals to carry out extrajudicial killings in the name of self-defense, however broadly defined.


The state as the will of the people.

Personally, I would like to see the American State expand its monopoly on violence. Democracy, in my mind, does not mean that we all equally have access to the means of violence but rather that we all have a say in how the state uses force. I would rather people rely on state-sanctioned mediators, such as the police, when they feel threatened. Because, even though the police often make mistakes, it is easier to demand change from the state’s representatives than it is from the population at large.


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