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The Apparatus of the State and the Monopolization of Violence in Society

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Nikita Triandafillidis

In political philosophy and sociology, the concepts of the structure of a state and the legitimate monopolization of violence, have always been the center of philosophical thinking. The idea that a certain political force must have a monopoly on the exercise of legitimate violence might be seen as a controversial statement. However, the idea and promotion of this concept is a vital “cog” in the “mechanism” of society as well as in the structure and function of a modern state. Without it, we might be faced with an anarchical state, where humans will act only in their self-interest, disrupting the peace and the prosperity that can come from a controlled source of violence.

Thomas Hobbes and Max Weber: Organized Violence On The Top

In political science, the terms state violence and monopolization of legitimate violence are common concepts that can characterize the structure of a modern state. In this sense,the state has the right to exercise and authorize the use of physical violence. In his essay, “Politics as a Vocation” (1919), the German sociologist Max Weber defined the state, characterizing it as a Gemeinschaft (community), which can claim the legitimate monopolization of physical violence. For Weber, the state had to operate as a legitimate organization, holding the exclusive right and authority to exercise physical violence against people residing in a particular territorial area.

The use of physical force by state actors can be regarded as a core concept of political science, a concept that has been analyzed by numerous political thinkers. Thomas Hobbes wasone of them. In one of his most famous works, The Leviathan (1651), Hobbes portrays human beings as subjects that need to be ruled by an absolute authority to avoid the cruel reality of the state of nature. For Hobbes, the state of nature was a terrible “dog-eat-dog” world where human beings would act as rational agents, and as a result, they would seek to maximize their power and act according to their self-interests.Thus, the purpose of the state or the absolute sovereign power is to ensure stability and peace. To achieve this, however, the people as rational agents would have to agree on the idea of a social contract, where the state would be granted absolute authority. Thomas Hobbes provides a different meaning to the concept of the monopoly of physical violence than Max Weber. For Hobbes, the state needs to have this indivisible power and authority to prevent an anarchical state in society. In that sense, the idea of the monopoly of violence does not only focus on its control but also on its use, where again the state must be the sole actor and authority that can legitimately make use of the notion of violence.

Thomas Hobbes: The state as a necessary evil

Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher whose work in political philosophy is regarded as a foundation for the whole discipline. One of his most famous and influential pieces of work is his book The Leviathan (1651). Hobbes started writing his work during the English Civil War (1642-1651). The English Civil War was a series of civil wars and political animosities between supporters of the Parliament of England, commonly known as “Roundheads” and Royalists, also known as “Cavaliers”. After Charles I succeeded his father James I in 1625, many English Parliamentarians feared that the new king would potentially destroy the old English system that limited the English monarchy. The fact that Charles I openly challenged how England was governed, justified the suspicions that many Parliamentarians had about him.

Thomas Hobbes produced the Leviathan to demonstrate his theory regarding civil governance to avoid potential civil wars similar to the one that he experienced in England. The title of his book is suggestive of his views regarding the notion of state and human nature. The Leviathan is the name of the mythological monster in the biblical book of Job, which depicts a ruler, composed of tiny faces, rising over the land. In his book, Hobbes describes human beings as rational agents who will seek to maximize their power and promote their self-interests to preserve themselves. In this sense, the Leviathan is nothing more than an artificial man composed of many tiny people, thus creating the state. The state might seem like a cruel and artificial construction because it concentrates power on one single entity, however, it is a necessary evil for the protection of its citizens. Hobbes argues that if the people are to be left ungoverned and free of pursuing just their self-interests in a state of nature, then all people would be in a constant state of war against each other, living with fear and uncertainty. As Hobbes writes:

“In such condition, there is no place for industry because the fruit thereof is uncertain and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

Hobbes’s views were critically formed after witnessing the brutality of the English Civil War. In the same line of thinking, Hobbes pointed out that wars would be inevitable if men were still living under the state of nature. To avoid that, Hobbes suggested that the state must have indivisible power and authority and a complete monopoly when it comes to controlled violence for the sake of the peace that the citizens would enjoy. His views are expressed similarly to an earlier French jurist and political philosopher, Jean Bodin. Bodin, just a Hobbes, had his views structured after witnessing a series of civil wars, most commonly known as the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598). To Bodin, strong sovereignty was the key element for ensuring peace and prosperity for the citizens. He argued that only absolute sovereignty would create a stronger authority over France and that power would be based on the divine right of kings; where kings would only be accountable to God and the natural law. Thomas Hobbes himself might have argued in favor of the idea of absolute sovereignty as the only legitimate power of a commonwealth, however, Hobbes did not want to base authority on the divine right of kings, but on a social contract, where people would invest all of their power in a third party, that would ensure their safety and peace for their country.

The concept of a social contract between the ruler and the ruled had only two viable options, argued Hobbes; either live without government, in the state of nature or live with a government that would act as the necessary evil to avoid the anarchical situation that would be produced in the state of nature. Only by subjecting themselves to absolute authority through the social contract, will the ruled subjects enjoy peace and prosperity. This concept would eventually lead to the establishment of a state, or a commonwealth that would ensure that life for the citizens would no longer be a “war against all”. The concept of a commonwealth is described in great detail in the second part of Hobbes’s book.

“The final cause, end, or design of men (who naturally love liberty and dominion over others), in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, (in which we see them live in Commonwealths), is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, (as hath been shown), to the natural passions of men when there is no visible power to keep them in awe and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants”.

Hobbes details the process in which this artificial “man”, the Leviathan, who is a metaphor for the state, would eventually construct the perfect political community, the perfect commonwealth. In that commonwealth, every man will agree to obey the law and respect the authority of the sovereign, whose power will be unlimited. With this unlimited power, the specific authority of the state would have the freedom to act in any way possible to protect the commonwealth. Every right of the citizens would be transferred to this third party authority, retaining only the right to self-preservation which was the first reason why Hobbes suggested the idea of the Leviathan state.

In addition, the sovereign that Hobbes advocates for will consist of certain principle rights. Some of those rights indicate Hobbes’s idea behind the concept of the state monopolization of violence. For example, when it comes to violence, and more specifically war, the state has the right to make war and peace whenever it sees fit. This principle demonstrates the idea of the monopoly of violence. It is the primary tool of the state to avoid potential wars with other commonwealths, use it as a self-defense mechanism, or even conduct a war, but only if it serves as a means to the end, in which the end will be prosperity and peace for its subjects.

It is important to note that Hobbes never theorized about the perfect society. His ideas were always primarily influenced by the English Civil War, and his focus was on the advocation of the necessity of a strong government with absolute power and authority, to avoid the anarchical state of nature. His theories contributed significantly to the modern formation of political thought and international relations, focusing on pragmatic politics. As for the state monopoly of violence, although Hobbes focused mostly on the principal right of the state to conduct a war, nowadays there is a significant challenge to this idea, with the rise of private militias that can conduct wars on behalf of the state. In this case, we have the theory of the state granting permission to third-party actors to use violence, something that has been discussed thoroughly by the German sociologist Max Weber.

Max Weber: The state as a bureaucratic mechanism

Max Weber was a German sociologist whose work and ideas are regarded as fundamental pillars for the development of social theory in Western society. With the rise of capitalism in the 19th century and the dramatic changes of the industrial revolution, Weber found fertile ground to analyze these changes and provide his theory regarding the industrial society, as well as the function of the state in the modern bureaucratic form. In contrast to Karl Marx’s materialist conception of history, Weber points out that cultural influences that have been embedded in religion have played a crucial role in understanding the capitalist system. In one of his most influential books, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1930), Weber argues that our society could only be understood based on the individuals that are composing it. Through direct observation, instead of relying on internal logic like Karl Marx, Weber understood that each individual could act according to how information was developed around him. In addition, individuals operated collectively in ways that could be understood from a sociologist’s point of view. For Weber, capitalism was heavily influenced by a collective understanding of religion, specifically, Protestantism, where the Protestant work ethic was the most important force behind the rise of modern capitalism.

Weber believed that a theological reason, specifically Calvinism, influenced people to develop their enterprises and businesses, promoting work ethics and devotion to crafts and trade. At the same time, they promoted anti-consumerism and the accumulation of wealth for investments and further societal development. Furthermore, Weber points out the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism in terms of attitudes and beliefs. Notably, he points out the difference in the family association. Where in Catholicism, the concept of family revolves around their everyday lives, and it is considered to be a top priority, Protestantism focuses more on the community than the family. Thus, Protestant workers contributed more to society and the development of capitalism by focusing their energy on the prosperity and function of their community. For this reason, Weber believed that political and historical explanations were not enough to describe the rise of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic.

Apart from his views on how a society operates in the age of capitalism and rapid industrialism, Weber was also focusing on the function of the state to meet the new demands of capitalism. In the field of political sociology, one of the most important contributions of Max Weber lies within his work essay “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). In his essay, he explains that from a sociological point of view, politics cannot only be understood by leadership and its influences but also from a political association, hence the modern state. The state can be defined as a Gemeinschaft (community) that possesses the right to be the sole grantor of legitimate physical violence in a specific demarcated geographical area, with a structure of monopolistic command.

However, he noted that the connection between legitimate rule and violence was not historically so close together as concepts. He points out that, even under a feudal system, there were examples of private warfare and religious violence, particularly in cases of heresy. Nevertheless, the state exists and functions only if a single authority can authorize violence or even conduct, as was mentioned before in the works of Thomas Hobbes. Furthermore, when it comes to the monopoly of violence, Weber drifts away from the theory of Hobbes, about an absolute sovereign that conducts violence when it sees fit. He expresses the view that a monopoly of violence does not mean that only the state will be able to conduct violence, but instead it will be the only “community” that will have the authority to claim that it will be the only source of legitimate physical violence. In that sense, the state can grant third actors the right to use violence while still claiming the status of the only legitimate source. However, to continue claiming this status, a state must have the necessary legal capacity to enforce its legitimacy and influence, hence coercion emerges as a necessary tool to enforce this capacity.

From his thinking about the state as a legitimate grantor of violence, Weber concluded that the authority that a state project falls under three main legitimations of domination. First of all, we have the traditional authority, where “traditional’ domination is exercised by the patriarch and the patrimonial prince of yore. Secondly, there is the charismatic authority which is exercised by an extraordinary and charismatic figure or political leader. Finally, there is the legal or bureaucratic authority which Weber thought eventually would be the ultimate legitimation of domination. As he points out:

“Modern bureaucracy operates on the general principle of precisely defined and organized across-the-board competencies of the various offices. These competencies are underpinned by rules, laws, or administrative regulations”

The bureaucratic authority can be essentially characterized as the final stage of social evolution. In this system of domination, bureaucracy operates as a value sphere for the late modern citizen. It can take the form of administrative law that provides rule conformity to the citizen. Bureaucracy achieves and contains its power through knowledge. In that sense, the theory of an absolute sovereign authority that controls everything, as Hobbes suggested, falls short of the modern political community that Weber observed.

The Bureaucratic Leviathan

Both Thomas Hobbes and Max Weber managed to explore and provide essential definitions and explanations regarding the structure of a state and its implications when it comes to the organization of a society. For Hobbes, the idea of an absolute authority that would have control over its subjects could be achieved through force. However, as he explained, the idea of a social contract would be more acceptable for the people, submitting to a specific authority for their protection. On the other hand, Max Weber, after witnessing the rise of capitalism in Northern Europe, concluded that the ethical work of Protestants contributed massively to a collective understanding of capitalism. Through this understanding, Weber introduced the idea of a bureaucratic authority, where each individual would operate as a single “cog in an ever-moving mechanism”. In a way, Weber, similarly to Hobbes, introduced a new idea of a social contract. However, this “social contract” was mostly based on knowledge and on the fact that the ideas that people produced were more important than any “Leviathan” that would act with indivisible power. As for legitimate violence, although Hobbes focused on its use and Weber more on its control, we can safely say that both political thinkers agreed on the concept of the state as the only legitimate authority when it comes to violence. In the end, we can see that the state plays a crucial role in the function of a stable community. A stable community that provides a better alternative to the individualistic and anarchical state that parts of our modern world experience. Authority and power are vital concepts for a state to operate, and both the ideas of Hobbes and Weber can be taken into account when it comes to visualizing a political community that can operate under the protection of a legitimate authority of power. The legitimate authority of the bureaucratic “Leviathan”.