Max Weber’s definition of the state is of “a relation of men dominating men [sic], a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence” (Rassmussen). Put more simply, a state is an organization with a monopoly on legitimate violence over a certain group of people. Note the use of the word “legitimate.” Both of the passages I discuss in yesterday’s post examine how it is that violence is made acceptable and legitimate in modern democracies. How can modern democracies break their promises of peace and still appear peaceful? Both Comay and Povinelli, then, seek an emic understanding of this democratic violence.
Comay says that “[w]ith the tennis-court oath, the ex nihilo transition of the tiers état from “nothing” to “everything” is announced and performatively accomplished: the oath both marks and makes the people’s transition from political nullity to the “complete nation” that it will retroactively determine itself always already to have been.” She’s referring to one of the major events marking the beginning of the French Revolution, when the Third Estate (the French commoners) vowed to establish a new constitution for France based on their authority as representatives of the majority of the French population. The French revolutionaries were treasonous rebels according to the laws that existed at the time of their revolution. However, according to the revolutionaries themselves, it was the French government that was illegitimate, since it did not represent the will of most of France. Therefore, the revolutionaries were the ones enacting legitimate violence, while it was the royalists that had no authority. Or as Sir John Harrington observed,
Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
Therefore, where the authority of the king made the violence of the royalists legitimate, the authority of the people — or rather, the authority conferred by claiming to represent the people — made the violence of the revolutionaries legitimate. Which is a pretty story, but wasn’t it actually the might of the royalists that conferred authority, and wasn’t it the greater might of the revolutionaries that made them legitimate in place of the royalists? Didn’t their political power grow out of the barrels of their guns?
Yes and no. Ideology isn’t just a justification for violence. It’s also a reason for it. The Third Estate rebelled because they wanted more power (to put it crassly), but they wanted more power because they thought they had the greater legitimacy.
In the passage from Povinelli, she examines how violence and liberal democracies can coexist, how violence is made acceptable in a liberal democracy. While Hegel, by way of Comay, says that democracies by their very nature demand violence, Povinelli describes the twists and turns in logic liberal democracies take to make their violence seem reasonable and rational.
It seems to me, though, that asking why democracies are violent isn’t the right question. Rather, I think it’s more interesting to ask why democracies shouldn’t be violent. All democracies are states and all states are violent, so why should democracies be an exception?
There are many theories of state formation that are empirically supported by archaeological and historical evidence. In truth, states probably formed for different reasons and for combinations of reasons. However, one of these reasons was for the organization of people for the purposes of violence — in other words, for war. In this theory, the ultimate cause of state warfare is the development of agriculture. Hunter-gatherer societies can’t accumulate material surpluses, since the resources they depend on cannot be stored for long periods. The domestication of plants, however, means that grain be stored, and more crucially, that it can be stolen. Therefore comes raiding parties to capture that grain, and therefore states are needed to both organize for and defend against the seizure of resources. Or so goes the simplified evolutionary schema taught in undergrad anthropology courses.
Just as with the birth of the French Republic, so the birth of states was also fraught with violence. State formation is not simply marked by violence; rather, it was for purposes of violence that states were formed. All states are violent and all democracies are states; therefore, all democracies are violent. Individual states may be extinguished by the violent actions of other states, or even by the violent reactions of their own citizens, but despite this, states still act out in violence. So how could one expect a democracy to act in any other way?
Asked the frog of the scorpion, “Why did you sting me in the back as I was carrying us both across the river? Now we will surely drown.” “I couldn’t help it,” replied the scorpion. “It was my nature.”
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