To associate violence with democracy seems, on the surface, to be a profound misunderstanding of both terms. Violence, which was either associated with the arbitrary, spectacular display of power of the Absolutist State or with the life of human beings in the “state of nature,” would appear to be the antithesis of democracy. One version of the secularization thesis might hold that the violence visited upon Western European nations by the wars of religion has been sublimated into the ‘violence’ of competition in the unregulated market and the partisan political public sphere. The rule of law, guided by principles of equality, fairness, and justice, would seem to have removed the conditions that gave rise to societal and State violence.
In the view of many scholars of American democracy, the United States has been exceptional with respect to the phenomenon of political violence which has plagued much of the rest of the world in the twentieth-century. Louis Hartz’s still compelling thesis, that the liberal tradition took root in the United States to such an extent that Americans are unwittingly Lockean in political behavior, is still reflected in social scientific analyses. David Truman and Robert Dahl, in a less synthetic-historical mode, argue that American politics does not involve ideologically-driven political violence because it is oriented to compromise and negotiation. For Truman, this is explained by the fact that America’s robust associational life cause individuals to hold overlapping memberships in multiple interest groups. For Dahl, this associational life does not allow a minority interest group can become a dominant majority. In a word, then, American politics is about moderation. The views of Hartz, Truman, and Dahl indicate that American democracy is fundamentally incommensurable with violence; moreover, any violence that has occurred has been exceptional.
The definition of violence and its function
At the most general level, violence has been characterized in two forms: physical and symbolic violence. Physical violence is more clearly described: Weber’s generic definition of power coupled with his argument that the State monopolizes the legitimate use of violence might provide an initial sociological definition of physical violence. Violence that compels the action of individuals or groups includes, assault, torture, killing; the use of force to restrain action; the use of threats and/or physical force to compel conformity or acquiescence.
In the sociological literature and democratic political theory, physical violence is treated as synonymous with “violence.” Studies of social movements, collective action, and revolution as well as normative arguments against Absolutism, totalitarianism, and authoritarianism have focused almost exclusively on physical violence: from the violation of the physical integrity of individuals and groups to the physical exclusion or removal or individuals and groups from access to such social resources as food, wealth, occupations, and membership in a political community.
However, a different form of violence has come to be recognized in more recent years in a range of disciplines: anthropology, gender studies, literary theory, poststructuralist philosophy, and psychoanalytic studies. This violence, termed symbolic, pertains to what I have called the symbolic order of society: its representations, discourses, signifiers, names, and categories. These symbolic forms are both the means through which we understand the social world and the way in which we become situated within the social world. This system of social meanings can be construed as exerting a type of force or violence to the extent that these meanings and the bodies upon which they are projected are arranged hierarchically and, more importantly, are not necessarily freely chosen. Individuals and groups situated at the bottom of society’s symbolic order are more likely to experience symbolic violence (stigma, disparagement, hate speech, and representational dispossession) and are more likely to be the target of physical violence (political subordination, violations of bodily integrity, and material deprivation).
What explains the existence of violence? Leaving aside explanations that might be found in evolutionary psychology, three broad explanatory models offer different answers. Social theory and political theory have emphasized explanations of political violence; what can be called cultural theory has emphasized explanations of symbolic violence.
First, social theory:
Max Weber: physical violence is connected to societal domination; it is the power that can compel actions that individuals or groups would not otherwise undertake.
Emile Durkheim: Physical violence is meted out by society in the form of punishment: its function is moral insofar as it restores the that aspect of society that is integrated via mechanical solidarity.
Michel Foucault: On his account, the spectacle of physical violence as a mechanism of social control has gradually been replaced by the disciplines; the disciplines implant within each individual a predisposition to self-surveillance and correction. Institutions like the school, the military, and the medical professions (as well as correctional institutions themselves) are sites where disciplinary power produces docile bodies. This power cannot be understood in terms of the relations of State and society.
“One impoverishes the question of power if one poses it solely in terms of legislation and constitution, in terms solely of the state and the state apparatus. Power is quite different from and more complicated, dense and pervasive than a set of laws or a state apparatus.” (“The Eye of Power,” Power/Knowledge, 158)
Political theory: in the main, democratic theory views physical violence that rests outside of the maintenance of social order or national security to be anathema to the rule of law. The forms of violence enacted by the democratic constitutional state (from criminal justice to military defense) is legitimate so long as it is governed by rational procedures.
In contrast to this view of legitimate violence, Carl Schmitt dispensed with normative justification. Schmitt argues that the political only comes into existence in the fact of an existential threat to the way of life of a nation-state. Violence (as the transgression of Law) arises from an act of Sovereignty (the decision to suspend the Law) and is not guided by legal norms.
“The concept of the State presupposes the concept of the political” (19). “The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend-enemy grouping” (29). “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy” (26). “The friend enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense…” (27). “[The enemy] is not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. The enemy is solely the public enemy…” (28) (The Concept of the Political).
Cultural theory: cultural explanations articulate the logic and effects of symbolic violence, a form of violence that is not typically recognized as such in conventional social and political theory. Understood as the violence that is produced by virtue of the fact that we are situated in the force-field of language, symbolic violence is ubiquitous. In Judith Butler’s account (reflecting J. L. Austin and Louis Althusser), subjects are interpellated by linguistic performances. For Pierre Bourdieu, classifying practices consign individuals to high or low positions within various social fields.
So far, I have proceeded without acknowledging several assumptions that lie behind these definitions.
1. I’ve assumed that physical violence is primarily produced by the State. Yet, violence occurs within the institutions and private spaces of civil society. Moreover, social movements have resisted as well as initiated violence against the State or segments of civil society with which they have come into conflict.
2. I’ve also assumed that physical and symbolic violence is illegitimate from a moral or legal standpoint). However, one can certainly ask whether there are violent acts that can be considered “normal”, as guided by norms? Or what distinguishes normal violence (such as incarceration) from exceptional violence; that is, violence that transgresses the legal order itself? Or, is violence that transgresses the law and social order in the name of law and order, legitimate?
In order to address these assumptions and questions, I’ll limit my discussion to two areas: the question of legitimate versus illegitimate violence in relation to democratic institutions. Here I’ll touch on the opposition of normal and exceptional violence, and of internal and external violence. Second, I’ll touch on the American case itself, namely, the relation of Republicanism to violence and the American State.
Presumably clear-cut examples of legitimate forms of violence would include the internal violence that is related to the punishment of criminals and the external violence that arises in the case of a “just war.”
It is taken for granted that specific acts, classified as criminal, are punishable under the law. Leaving aside capital punishment, incarceration involves violence to body of the criminal: it restrains his or her movement. It also constitutes a form of symbolic violence or symbolic exclusion: the criminal is the one who is no longer fit to walk freely among us; she is the one who “forfeits” her right of liberty. The violence that relates to punishment is legitimate as long as the rule of law is upheld, as long as legal procedures have been carried through fairly and justly. Nonetheless, inside prisons violence and the threat of violence is every present, from sexual assault to prison riots. Can the exposure of convicted criminals to these forms of violence be justified with respect to the rule of law or the claim that this is the price of social order?
With respect to the legitimate violence that is directed externally towards other societies, there are two ways of legitimizing extra-territorial violence. The first is related to the theory of just war. For Michael Walzer, States may, with moral justification, inflict violence against another State in defense of its integrity and the lives or its citizens. Included under this notion of defense is the pre-emptive strike that maybe justly undertaking when a threat of war is imminent.
The second way for democratic states to “justify” external violence dispenses with Walzerian normative considerations. Again, Schmitt is a useful guide. For Schmitt, war is the moment when the political comes into existence. In order to defend the way of life of a nation from internal and external enemies, the State (the Sovereign) must suspend the rule of law. However, the justification for this action is not a legal norm but rather self-preservation.
“Sovereign is he who decides the exception. . . . The assertion that the exception is truly appropriate for the juristic definition of sovereignty has systematic, legal-logical foundation. The decision on the exception is a decision in the true sense of the word. Because a general norm, as represented by an ordinary legal prescription, can never encompass a total exception, the decision that a real exception exists cannot therefore be entirely derived from this norm. . . . The exception, which is not codified in the existing legal order, can at best be characterized as a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state, or the like. But it cannot be circumscribed factually and made to conform to a preformed law” (Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, 5-6.)
What Schmitt imagines is a scenario in which sovereignty comes into sharp focus, such as when the State (a single or collective actor) takes an action that transcends the existing legal order.* Such an exceptional action, which Schmitt associates with a situation of extreme political or economic peril, abjures the rule of law even if the decision on the exception is premised on the presence of legal norms. This decision corresponds to events that cannot be entirely planned for within the normatively and normally valid legal system. In short, the occurrence of the unexpected calls forth, and can only be addressed by, the decision on the exception: the sovereign.
In this formulation, Schmitt affirms that it is the sovereign who possesses unlimited power. He points out that the tendency of the liberal constitutional state is to “repress the question of sovereignty by a division and mutual control of competences.” Such a tendency is evidenced by system of checks and balances provided for in the American Constitution, of which the enactment of the War Powers Act of 1973 is a prime example.** Yet, according to Schmitt, no amount of constitutional maneuvering can remove the defining moment of sovereignty: the act of deciding the exception.
Of course, what constitutes a state of emergency or crisis or threat to a way of life is not given objectively but rather involves social construction. Take the United States: Emergency and crisis rhetoric has been used at various points to justify physical and symbolic violence against numerous internal and external enemies who may or may not have been existential threats: from the civil war to the post-Reconstruction era one party system of the American South; from the red scares and anti-immigration legislation of the late 1910s-20s to the New Deal; from the forced relocation of Japanese American citizens in WWII to the Cold War and McCarthyite anti-Communism. The current post-9/11 situation offers many illustrations of the social construction of a state of emergency that authorizes the Sovereign decision on the exception.
The Birth of a Violent Nation
Yet the question of the legitimacy of violence in relation to democratic regimes (in particular, the United States), can be traced back to the constitutive moments of the nation; the birth of a violent Nation. The founding of America was conditioned by three forms of physical violence: the violent relations that arose between the English puritan settlers and the native populations of North America; the violence that was connected with the importation of indentured and slave labor; and the violence that was associated with the Revolution. Moreover, violence is imbricated in the juridical documents that define the scope of democracy in America. The act of Founding itself, the constitutive (and constitutional) act of writing the nation into Law, begins with the words, “We the People.” This can be construed as an act of symbolic violence insofar as it called into being a “people” that did not exist prior to the performative act of naming and insofar as the act itself presupposed that a particular “people” already existed. Whereas, logically, the “people” did not exist prior to the document calling it into being, it did exist as a practical reality: the “people” included those who were not already excluded by previous and ongoing acts of physical and symbolic violence (Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and British loyalists). The non-recognition or misrecognition of these forms of physical and symbolic violence that inhere in the founding of the American nation—the naturalization of history, or what Bourdieu calls genesis amnesia, that is encouraged by the natural rights tradition—has meant that the subsequent unearthing of this repressed memory of violence—exemplified by the Dred Scott v. Sanford decision of 1857—makes violence appear to be more the exception than the rule in American history. Moreover, the process through which violence in American democracy has been naturalized leads, I believe, to an interesting disconnection of the official discourse of America as an exceptional democracy from the continuation of violence after the Founding: for example, violence associated with Indian Removal during the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, the conditions of involuntary servitude in the plantation economy, the violence associated with post-Reconstruction institution of Jim Crow segregation (lynching), and the violence the swirled around the history of labor organizing.
Puritanism and Republicanism: A Thick Culture of Violence
To be explicit: the opposition I set up initially between violence and American democracy might actually be better conceptualized as a relationship of co-constitution. To consider this possibility means one must take up, at first, an anti-Tocquevillean perspective, or at least one that treats the Tocquevillean interpretation of democracy in America critically.
I will only briefly suggest two discursive and logics by which we might uncover the constitutive element of physical and symbolic violence at the heart of America’s Founding. One discourse is that of Puritanism; the other, Republicanism. The discourse of Puritanism has the “virtue” of being explicit in its advocacy of symbolic and physical exclusion of those deemed morally unworthy of inclusion. The Puritan mission into the wilderness was both a trial of faith and a realization of the purification of faith in a community of believers (see Bercovitch, American Jeremiad; Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence). The encounter with both nature and North American native populations, both of which were rendered theologically as manifestations of the Devil, produced violent acts against the Native Other and the Other within the Puritan community: backsliders and witches. There are echoes in the sermons of seventeenth-century Puritan ministers like Cotton and Increase Mather of present day jihads against Western infidels.
The other dominant discourse, Republicanism, is less explicit about violence but has been able, nonetheless, to construct a logic that naturalizes its violent aspects. Republican discourse, like Puritanism, raises the question of political boundaries (who are the “people” who are to be the authors of democratic legality). Until the late 1910s and 1960s, women and racial minorities (respectively) were not fully included as part of “the people.” From the compromise on slavery during the Constitutional Convention to the Plessy case to the rise of various racial sciences which justified the exclusion of racial and certain immigrant groups; from vigilante justice deployed in race riots, police riots, and the resistance to such violence by subject groups, Republican principles have helped to define “the people” in both physical and symbolic terms.
* Nonetheless, Schmitt intends his discussion as a presentation of a “general concept in the theory of the state, and not merely to a construct applied to any emergency decree or state of siege.” (Political Theology, 5). His larger point is to ground the legal order on sovereignty rather than a norm: “After all, every legal order, which is applied as something self-evident, contains within it the contrast of two distinct elements of the juristic—norm and decision. Like every other order, the legal order rests on a decision and not on a norm.” (Political Theology, 10). Schmitt’s decisionism is not the concern here; rather, I am only interested in the insight that his concept of sovereignty provides on the decision that defines an act of war (being-in and at-war).
** The War Powers Act (Public Law 93-148) was aimed at the perceive abuses of the Nixon Presidency (e.g., withholding information from Congress concerning deployment of American forces in Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict).