The violence of the State

A contribution by C Companyero


When one is asked to be realistic, the reality one is normally being asked to recognize is not one of natural, material facts; neither is it really some ugly truth about human nature. Normally it’s a recognition of the effects of the systematic threat of violence, usually from the State or ruling party. It even threads our language. Why, for example, is a building referred to as “real property”, or “real estate”? The “real” in this usage is not derived from Latin res, or “thing”: it’s from the Spanish real, meaning, “royal”, “belonging to the king.” All land within a Sovereign territory ultimately belongs to the Sovereign; legally this is still the case. This is why the State as the right to impose its regulations. But Sovereignty ultimately comes down to a monopoly of what is euphemistically referred to as force — that is, violence. From the perspective of Sovereign power, something is alive because you can kill it, so property is “real” because the state can seize or destroy it. In the same way, when one takes a “realist” position in international relations, one assumes that States will use whatever capacities they have at their disposal, including force of arms, to pursue their national interests. What reality is one recognizing? Certainly not material reality. The idea that Nations are human-like entities with purposes and interests is an entirely metaphysical notion. The President of Malawi has purposes and interests. “Malawi” does not. What makes it seem realistic to suggest it does is simply that those in control of Nation-States have the power to raise armies, launch invasions, bomb cities, send out police with live ammunition and can otherwise threaten the use of organized violence in the name of what they describe as their National Interests — and that it would be foolish to ignore that possibility. National interests are real because they can kill you.

Even if one treats “imaginarobert-_graphic_003tion” and “violence” not as the single hidden truth of the world but as immanent principles, as equal constituents of any social reality, they can reveal a great deal one would not be able to see otherwise. For one thing, everywhere, imagination and violence seem to interact in predictable, and quite significant, ways. Let’s start with a few words on violence, providing a very schematic overview of arguments:

The critical term here is “force”, as in “the State’s monopoly of the use of coercive force.” Whenever we hear this word invoked, we find ourselves in the presence of a political view in which the power to destroy, to cause others pain or to threaten to break, damage, or mangle their bodies, or just lock them in a tiny room for the rest of their lives, is treated as the social equivalent of the very energy that drives the world. Contemplate, for instance, the metaphors and displacements that make it possible to construct the following two sentences:

Scientists investigate the nature of physical laws so as to understand the forces that govern the universe.

Police are experts in the scientific application of physical force in order to enforce the laws that govern society.

This is the essence of one-party thought: a political view that allows violence to define the very parameters of social existence and common sense.

Open Democratic thought, on the other hand, has always been founded on a different set of assumptions about what is ultimately real, about the very grounds of political being. Obviously Democrats don’t deny the reality of violence. Many Open Democratic theorists have thought about it quite a lot. But they don’t tend to give it the same foundational status. Instead, I would argue that Open Democratic thought is founded on a political view founded in the imagination — though I could as easily have called it a view founded in creativity or making or invention. Architects, unlike bees, first raise their structures in the imagination. It is the unique property of humans that they first envision things, then bring them into being. It is this process we refer to as “production”. At the same time artists need to become the avant-garde or of a new social order, providing the grand visions that industry currently has the power to bring into being. This is the charter for a sporadic, uncertain, but permanent alliance. If artistic avant-gardes and democratic revolutionaries have feel a strong affinity for one another, borrowing each others languages and ideas, it appears it is both have remained committed to the idea that the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently. In this sense, a phrase like “all power to the imagination” expresses the very quintessence of the Open Democratic view of society.

To this emphasis on forces of creativity and production of course the One-Party-thinking ruling class tends to reply that Open Democrats systematically neglect the social and historical importance of the “means of destruction”: States, police forces, executioners, barbarian invasions, criminals, unruly mobs, and so on. Pretending such things are not there, or can simply be wished away, they argue, has the result of ensuring that Open Democratic regimes will in fact create far more death and destruction than those that have the wisdom to take a more “realistic” approach.



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