Anarchy and the Monopoly of Violence

A common definition of a ‘state’ is, quoting Weber, an “administrative staff [that] successfully upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical violence.” Elsewhere he says “the right to use physical violence 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.”

What should anarchists think of this ‘monopoly of violence’?

Talk of a ‘monopoly’, like any use of the word ‘only’, is logically decomposable into two elements, a positive and a negative. Positively, the monopoly of violence means being willing and able to use (i.e. initiate) violence, while negatively it means preventing anyone else from doing so.

What if there were only the positive aspect – if one or more organisations claimed the right to initiate violence, but were unable (or unwilling, or unconcerned) to prevent others from doing so? That would be a situation like a civil war, whether during a period of ceasefire or a period of open conflict. That’s probably undesirable.

What if there were only the negative aspect – if all groups and individuals were prevented from initating violence (where necessary, prevented forcibly), without exception? That, it seems to me, is a worthy ideal, and the actual ideal of anarchism.

Yesterday I talked about some of Michael Taylor’s arguments concerning ways to ‘keep order’ in anarchic conditions, but focused on non-violent means (economic, reputational, etc). The issue left hanging was how to establish and maintain this ‘negative monopoly of violence’.

Taylor’s comments, here as elsewhere, are confined largely to an examination of how this has actually been done in ‘primitive anarchies’. He writes:

“In the primitive anarchies, then, we…find wide participation in the processes of social control and in the use of force and threats to use force, wherever these are used…a basic social control in primitive stateless societies is the threat of retaliation – ‘self-help justice’ carried out against the offender (and perhaps also his close kinsmen) by the victim or…his close kinsmen.

One form of this is the feud – a relation governed by recognised rules between groups of kinsmen, continuing through generations and in some cases interminably, and consisting eventually if not immediately in exchanges of homicide…

Clearly the practice of feud itself does little to enhance the security of persons and their property, but the fear of incurring violent retaliation and perhaps precipitating a feud is itself a potent deterrent from violence and theft.”

The picture painted here is in some respects similar to the arguments used by opponents of gun control: if everyone is potentially able to retaliate, people will be more civil to each other.

In both cases, it seems reasonable to think that in at least some circumstances this  could be an effective form of deterrence and protection. But in both cases, also, there’s the problem of this supposedly retaliatory violence becoming itself a threat to social order, whether by firearms encouraging lethal escalations or household accidents, or in the development, as Taylor describes, of long-running blood feuds.

What this illustrates is that a negative monopoly of violence needs two things: on the one hand, a forcible response, which needs to be rapid, flexible, and strong enough to overcome individual deviants (large organised groups of deviants become a political enemy and demand a separate treatment), and on the other hand, mechanisms to ensure that the former mechanisms are used only as necessary, which need to be sensitive and able to gather lots of reliable information.

In the typical modern society, these two mechanisms are primarily the police on the one hand and the courts on the other. Although Taylor doesn’t, in the section above, mention any mechanisms of the second sort, the societies he describes clearly possess them, in various sorts of councils, tribunals, respect mediators, etc. And Taylor in an earlier section describes how, for instance, the cross-cutting ties of kinship and location serve to encourage people to seek peaceful resolutions to disputes, by increasing the number of people with conflicting loyalties to people on both sides.

If we want to avoid blood-feuds and children shooting themselves, presumably the answer is to find the right design of, and balance between, these two sets of institutions. Is that possible without a state?

Can swift, appropriately-violent responses to danger be produced in anarchic societies? Well, if we suppose those societies, like present-day ones, have things like weapons, people, communications devices, and sufficient wealth to have some people walking around checking for disturbances and some other people sitting in a room waiting to be summoned to a disturbance, then it seems that yes, they probably could.

Could such responses remain consistent with anarchism though, i.e. involve an egalitarian distribution of political power? Again, I don’t see why not: the people sitting in a room or walking around don’t need to be a professional body – they could, for instance, be short-term volunteers, randomly selected, or following a rota. The relative lack of training and experience might make them less effective in a straight fight, but in most cases they won’t be engaged in a straight fight against equal numbers of opponents – if they are, the problem is almost more military than it is criminal.

On the other hand, can an anarchic society hold ‘courts’, i.e. gatherings of people to consider information and evaluate people’s actions? And could such courts operate in accord with the principle of roughly equal political power for each person? Well, the court system we have at the moment already incorporates substantial elements of political equality. For instance, we have some decision-making power in the hands of groups of ordinary citizens, juries – while also having some power in the hands of professionals, judges. We have various rules intended to ensure ‘equality before the law’ – while also allowing richer people to get much better representation than poorer people.

So the idea of anarchic courts is really just a matter of extending some of the principles at work in current courts, while driving out others. In particular, this relates to the police-substitutes that were discussed above. If they’re just everyday individuals, with no special authority or prestige, then they have to act in a way that they are confident will be recognised in court as seeking peace, and using the minimum necessary force to acheive that – which is also how ordinary citizens have to act today, if they resort to violence in self-defense or defense of another.

This contrasts with the actual police: their hierarchical position, as authorised users of force, means that they can, in practice, use grossly inappropriate violence at very little personal risk.

Anyway, what I’ve been trying to argue is that

  1. anarchy should be seen as establishing only the negative half of the state’s ‘monopoly of violence’;
  2. this is something well within the capabilities of an anarchic society, requiring only what everything requires, a suitable public culture and skilful design of institutions;
  3. anarchic societies are not dependent on the spontaneous sense of community in small, stable groups, as Taylor argues (without, on this particular issue, offering any argument that I can see).
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4 Responses to Anarchy and the Monopoly of Violence

  1. X says:

    It’s not a big deal, but why is the “negative monopoly on violence” a monopoly at all? Isn’t it really a “prohibition on violence,” enforceable by anyone and everyone in the community?

  2. Pingback: The Alienation of Society | Majestic Equality

  3. Phil says:

    This is a bit like a question that started bugging me some years ago, although I’ve more or less dropped it since – is law prefigurative? The answer is almost certainly “yes and no”, but mapping out which bits are which is harder than it might look.

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