Is state violence justified?

In his 1918 essay Politics as a Vocation, Max Weber described the monopoly of state violence as an essential characteristic of modern governments. (1918 p. 1) State violence is monopolised towards the pursuit of societal compliance, which according to political history, is a necessary condition for a functioning democracy. (1918 p. 2) As Tolstoy points out, history has demonstrated the advent of modern states to be forming under extreme violence. (1918 p. 2) According to Noam Chomsky violence is legitimised by its efficacy at lessening a greater evil. (1967, p. 1).

This suggests that in order to assess the legitimacy of state violence, one must apply it to specific historical circumstances. This essay will focus on the state violence during the Civil Rights Movement in the USA from 1955-1968 arguing that state violence is legitimised by the fabrication of an objective morality, using laws created through an assumed national identity. Anthropology, as a subject, is concerned with people and how ideas of self-hood ally with their political society. The Civil Rights Movement started revolutionary protests like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and radical dissent movements such as the Black Panthers andpolitical  ideologies such as Black Power in self-defense against the state-advocated violence. (1990 p. 111-116).

The dissidence persisted against both the violence and the legal policies of the US, and was therefore seen as a threat, not only to national identity, but national security as well. The need for a Civil Rights Movement in the USA to ensure equal liberties to all its citizens was an example of an unrepresentative government failing to provide its people with the justices they thought they deserved. Following the abolition of slavery in 1865, black Americans have been awarded minimal freedom and agency within their own country with laws disallowing their vote and most importantly the 1920 Jim Crow racial segregation law which was introduced by Ulysses Grant as a response to the continued racial violence which was present across the USA. (1990 p. 21-30).

After decades of dealing with substandard accessibility to public spaces and institutions such as transport and education, the black public organised themselves and began to protest using boycotts, marches and sit-ins such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Selma to Montgomery march. These protests most often resulted in violent clashes with the police and fellow citizens who opposed the idea of integrating African Americans into their society and rewarding them with equal American civil liberties.

(ibid. p. 31-36) This often resulted in many protesters criminally imprisoned and killed by citizen vigilante gangs and the police as the American government expressed their monopoly on violence. (ibid. p. 31-36) Civil Rights Movement leader Angela Davis argued against the creation of laws and political imprisonment alluding to the violent struggle minorities have faced through hundreds of years of involuntary servitude followed by political oppression, legitimised by state laws and ideas of national identity which only represented a portion of the population. (1971 p. 11)

As a black American, Davis witnessed how state violence around and within her community was frequently used to maintain civil obedience. She argued that the federal state policies imposed on its citizens an incessant state of poverty, defended police brutality and created political prisoners. (ibid. )

Advocating resistance against state violence is something Davis adopted as a part of her personal objective and, using Marxist ideologies, called for a policy reformation for the people, using any means necessary. (ibid. p. 12-16) The government’s responded to resistance using force, expecting society to simmer down out of fear. Davis explained how minorities were no longer interested in compliance and they revolted against the political for a more just society, one which added no discrimination. (ibid. ) Protesters were met with extreme state-induced violence which was publicly justified as it was legal policy to defend the integrity of American citizenship.

State violence consumed numerous deaths before laws were changed to de-legitimise the use of state violence against CRM protesters. (1971 p. 27-42; 1990) During the turn of the 20th Century, Max Weber bore witness to the advents of emerging states around him in the Occident. He recognised a pacifying society with regulating applications of laws and constitutions; states began to operate under the rule of law, meaning every citizen would be governed under the same rules and regulations, reinforced by a bureaucratic court and justice system. (ibid. p. 57)

By creating a bureaucratically regulated and measurable justice system, society encouraged obedience and conformity as people were rewarded with civil rights and social equalities, Compared to the feudal systems which operated under monarchies limited government was considered favourable (1947 p. 124-138). Although, as Davis comments, rights and liberties were not fairly distributed within the USA, encouraging “political repression of monstrous proportions. ”, (1971 p. 11) Citizens were encouraged to remain faithful to the government’s democratic order in the hope that eventually the repressed will too be presented with human rights. (1971 p. 27).

Debates surrounding justice and rights within the new Occident appear as early as Hobbes’s Leviathan and Rousseau’s Social Contract. Both books describe a social contract given to citizens by birth, depicting their position in society and their duties towards it in return for citizenship and protection by the state. (1651;1762). Within the advent of citizenship, a public is created.

The public becomes a single entity to be represented and the state has the obligation of creating a justice system which reflects that. Hence the necessity for a national identity is created. Ben Anderson defines this as creating imagined communities, as people adopt identities from the environment and institutions which inscribe them knowledge. (1983 p. 37-46) People support its authenticity through experiencing this through their own consciousness and imagined communion. (ibid. ) In the USA, the emancipation of the slaves in 1863 was not socially accepted in the Confederate south, where profit from plantations formed a large part of the economy.

After centuries of using and seeing the Black man as a slave, it was very difficult for the Confederate South to accept new laws outlining their civil freedom and the vilification of blacks pursued in attempt to reconstruct the social situation of the white man’s hierarchical status.

The emancipation Proclamation was not a referended alternation to the law, it was imposed upon the people and they were forced to oblige. Hannah Arendt suggests that the use of power is the breakdown of power and that only weak states need the threat of terror and violence to sustain social order. (1947 p. 124-125;1958 p. 200-201) Violence is found within those states which have exhausted their persuasive resources and, through compliance, can no longer sustain control over its people (ibid. ).

Arendt’s disapproving comments regarding the desegregation of the Little Rock High School reflect this argument as she opposed using the National Guard as force to impose federal law over state law as she saw this as undermining authority and therefore demonstrating weakness at the failure to gain social acceptance through persuasion. (1959) The CRM brought forth movements of peaceful opposition, met with state-sanctioned violence, something Arendt would recognise as a sign of weakness by the state and it’s use of force.

Modern day states operate under Rational-legal authority, meaning that the law and constitution decide morality and operate as highest authority over its citizens. (1947 p. 57) One can raise the argument that these laws should be questioned in accordance with ideas about national identity as, especially within the USA, constitutional requirements are often representations of morality and justice as well as interpretations of liberty and freedom. (ref). Laws and courts define these boundaries, including those who comply and excluding and persecuting those who refuse. Pairing Said’s reflections with Foucault’s discourse on power and knowledge in the creation of a perceived cultural “Other”, (1978 p. 325) a distinction of Otherness is defined amongst the public as people are distinguished between being good, obeying citizens, or disobeying criminals. (1975)

States inaugurated prison systems to extract these criminals from society in an attempt to conform them to society through an over-exaggeration of surveillance, conformity and discipline, found within the characteristics of prison architecture and structure, (1975) although the purpose of criminalising people into prisoners is still debated amongst intellectuals today, especially Davis who bore witness to the epidemic of black imprisonment during the CRM political struggle.

(2003) Davis witnessed the increase in prisons containing political prisoners; people became criminals as they opposed the law during their struggle for equal civil rights. (1971 p. 27-29) Regardless of one’s personal stance on ethics and morality, citizens will be punished as a criminal for not obeying the laws of the state. As laws are seen as the moral definitions of society, criminals are deemed immoral as they defy state law, regardless on whether the laws comply with personal ideas surrounding morality. This creation of the criminal is depicted as far back as Tolstoy’s essay The Beginning of the End, quoting.

Van-der-Veers 1896 letter to the Dutch government explaining his refusal to fight in the military as it opposed his political and moral position, and in doing so, he accepted the automatic label as a criminal and his inevitable incarceration for opposing the state. (1900) Van-der-Veer lived fifty years before the birth of the CRM, but his dissent was perpetuated by the conflict between his personal ideas of morality and how he thought the state represented them. (ibid. ) Davis herself was falsely accused as an accessory to murder and spent many months in prison as a political prisoner.

Maintaining a position in the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List, in 1970, Davis was rendered an enemy of the state by the government and President Nixon. (1971) Although not convicted of any violent crime, her intentions of spreading communist ideology was a sufficient threat to the state to interpret her position of resistance as a resistance against America and the integrity of the American justice system. (1971, p. 190-192 ) John Rawls argues that true justice does not allow for inequalities. (1971b p. 2)

It is through the development of a national identity and a complete alliance of citizen conformity when public agreement upon a system of justice is made, (1971b) but as societies evolve, so do ideas surrounding morality and ethics. If these ideas are not reflected amongst a portion of society, revolts against the government will pursue with demands for law reformation. (1971b) The Trilateral Commission, a group of private citizens from Japan, Western Europe and the USA released a statement in 1973 describing what they called the Crisis of Democracy, explaining the inevitable discordance democratic states will encounter when imposing a national identity upon a society of different and often opposing cultures. (1975)

The TC recognised the power of public opinion within democracy and focused on maintaining one which supported democratic rule. The commission addressed the problem that arises when countries carry a domestic population who’s ideas and cultural beliefs oppose the government and its laws and highlighted the need to restore “apathy, passivity and obedience so that the democracy in the third sense can survive”(ibid. p. 107).

Chomsky has been critical of the TC intentions, recognizing the urgency displayed by governments to reinforce an opinion and reward compliance whilst punishing resistance: “… if the domestic population begins to make unpleasant noises, then something has to be done about it” (1992. p. 106) This was reflected in 1876 in the USA when the US Confederacy instituted Jim Crow laws which imposed racial segregation within public spaces to deal with racial violence. Over time, ideas of segregation became legitimised by law and tradition. Rationalised through majority agreement, racial segregation was seen as normal and humanitarian, despite the indirect violence of poverty and exclusion endured by the racially discriminated.

This violence was legitimised by the state laws, which, through majority representation, were publicly accepted as just, as they were part of the social contract of being a citizen. (1947) During the opposition of this social contract violence becomes physically transferred and vigilantism, such as the Ku Klux Klan, was encouraged to protect state laws. (1990 p. 36) Angela Davis observed that within the history of dissent, “there has seldom been an agreement on how to relate in practice to unjust, immoral laws and the oppressive social order from which they emanate” (1971, pg 26).

Davis was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, a heavily racially segregated city tarnished with an ongoing history of racial violence from state authorities since the freeing of the slaves in the 19th Century. She recognised the oppression of minority groups and saw these social inequalities being supported by her own government’s policy. She noticed how these ideas spread throughout the national consciousness of the USA, thus legitimising the development of the “exploitative and racist nature” (ibid. pg. 36) often found within American Politics.

She witnessed police brutality against political resistance and argued that criminals are condemned within their own state by choosing to defy unjust state laws, echoing Foucault’s ideas about the creation of a criminal being only an anomaly within society. The creation of a passive society is something that Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish, demonstrating the creation of ‘docile bodies’ through systems of Governmentality, a process of normalisation through institutionalisation, creating a sense of constant surveillance and allowing fluidity of powers to be reproduced within society through personal self-disciplining and self-monitoring.

(ibid. p. 28) Davis describes how minority prisoners begin to understand their political status as they are victims of politico-economical oppression which is legally state-sanctioned. (ibid. pg. 36) Violence, is not universally defined, yet ideologically understood in many different respects which extend outside of the infliction of physical pain. Violence between individuals is characterised and treated with different legal objectives than the violence produced and practised by the state.

Violations of human rights, dehumanising people through laws which legitimise social inequality and forcing people into economic poverty are indirect ways in which the state has applied violence upon its citizens. (1971) This violence is backed up with ground forces such as the military and the police to apply direct physical assault against individuals who oppose their state-sanctioned position. (ibid. ) As a victim of many forms of racial violence, Davis echoes movements like the BPP and calls for reciprocating the same methods of resistance against these social inequalities, by applying violence as means of fighting further violence. (1971 p. 23)

In Chomsky’s previous definition, this means of violence would legitimise itself through its struggle at eliminating a greater injustice. (967:1) In the US the courts and the bureaucracy pardoned those representing the state using terms such as ‘justifiable assault’ and ‘justifiable homicide’ when convicting police officers, yet almost always dismissed claims of self-defense made by Black Liberation fighters. By defining political resistance as criminal, the state “discredits any radical and revolutionary movements, thus affirming the invulnerability of the existing order” (1971, pg 32)

The existing order, was demonstrably opposed by many people and relied on violence and force to survive reflecting Arendt’s strong state/weak state dichotomy. (1971;1958) The second Amendment to the American Constitution allows the right to bear arms and the right to use self-defense and is seen as a right by nature. (1803:300) With this strongly upheld constitutional right, one must wonder to what extent citizens are allowed to defend themselves if they are, by virtue of their intended political disposition, already considered an enemy of the state?

Do our right to self-defence also apply outside of the boundaries of the law? And are political criminals, calling for state reform, offered the same amount of protection against the state as they are by the state? History has demonstrated that within the application of state violence, the protection of constitutional laws supersede individual rights of self-defence. (1971:34) Social contracts administering civil liberties only extend within the boundaries of the laws which uphold them. (1762) Drawing on Foucault’s ideas about Governmentality, Thomas Lemke further critiqued this notion of freedom and rights as a system of choice, similar to Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory. (ibid. ;2001)

He claims that modern democratic law defines freedom as the privilege to choose whether or not to comply with authority. (2001 p. 191) This raises the question of how systems of justice are defined and legitimised by the people and the state. In Politics as a Vocation, Weber describes the advent of the state as legitimising its use of violence. (1918) Historical revolutions which brought the dissolution of European Empires across the globe, State status has always been achieved through violent and bloody revolutions. (ibid. :1)

A Foucauldian interpretation would expert the application of physical sacrifice against the state, as a revolt against bio-power; people using their bodies in the systems of protest, thus weakening the state’s use of Govermentality by elimination of participants. Proponents of violence as a legitimate means of resistance point out that the history of civilian protest against authoritative power has always been violent in its journey. (1967:12) The copious amount of deaths which incurred from police brutality and state advocated violence against the Civil Rights Movement protesters demonstrated the power of the people over the state and the power that people are capable of once mobilised with intent for justice.

Racially orientated state violence is still rife in the USA. To this day, many still feel that the civil rights laws enforcing equality for all are not representative of their personal and cultural beliefs, as they continue to resist government imposed morality in favour of their personal views. Political resistance is labeled as Anti- or Un-American in the media and often turned into political refugees in other countries to escape persecution in their own country. (1971) The uprising of the oppressed in the USA was a revolt against centuries of civil abuse and violence that citizens faced from their own government.

Strength in the mobility of numbers and an imminent threat to the survival of their culture allowed for their resistance to succeed, armed with intellectual thought, peaceful demonstrations displaying civility and decree as well as the threat of a revolution from radical, non-passive parties such as the Panthers with and an intent of reform displayed the worst and the also best sides of American politics: the initial violent resistance against the movement from authorities, but then the eventual federal policy reform concerning civil liberties, therefore introducing new ideas defining identity and equality with the Civil Rights Act of 1960. (1990 p. 97-117).

This discussion entices one to conclude that the debate lies not within whether laws are just or not, but rather how interpretations of justice and freedom develop within a state rule and the morality within systems of Rule of Law, which enable the legitimisation of state-sanctioned violence. Laws are created to maintain social order. (1918) The Civil Rights Movement was a prime example of how the desperation to seek justice can be used to resist laws and reform political policy. (1990).

When revolutions become too powerful in their mobility by size and the sacrifice of individuals, governments are forced to change their laws and advocate social compliance, in the hope that the minority group which is not represented by law will be small enough to comply regardless. (1992) Morality is embedded into our society as an objective phenomenon, yet history shows us that ideas surrounding morality evolve with society, creating new representations of identity through public agreement and embodiment into political policy. (1971b)

According to Rousseau, freedom exclusively established through the action of choice is an illusion of freedom (the freedom of choice) to keep citizens orderly and accepting of their political situation. (1762) Marxists would argue that state laws will never be just as they are reserved for the interests of a controlling elite few. (1848) Foucauldians would argue that ideas of justice are merely reproduced within our society as we accept and obey at our own disposition. Rawls would claim that justice and freedom are entirely unachievable if attempted to be maintained within a state and laws unless it achieves total representation.

With that in mind, one could argue that true freedom is the abolition of the social contract and the dependence on the state which allows the State to claim ones person for their own disposal. So long as theories of justice and freedom are reproduced by society and require legitimacy through laws, those who have the power to influence government, will maintain the power to influence knowledge of ideas behind moralities such as right and wrong and the technologies and systems available which legitimise those classifications within government, while those with minimal governmental influence will continue to see their personal liberties, such as self-defense, repressed in favour for the objectives of the state.

State laws can never be just in that they will never represent the entire society. Modern States are formed with the monopoly violence as they attempt to protect these laws from the minority opposition. Legitimacy is found within the concept of protecting the integrity of these laws and the recognition that the government is the highest form of authority over the people and their bodies. Bibliography: Anderson, Benedict (1983) Imagined Communities.

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