by Francisco Lobo
On 6 January 2021 the unthinkable happened: for the first time since 1812, a violent mob stormed the US Capitol, seat of one of the oldest constitutional democracies in the world. It seems the first days of the new decade have carried on the same tumultuous spirit of previous years. Indeed, the 2010s will likely be remembered as one of the most politically agitated decades on record, encompassing the Arab Spring, the ‘Indignados’ in Spain , ‘Occupy Wall Street’ in the US, the ‘Gilet Jaunes’ in France, followed by pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and the street occupations in Lebanon, and Chile during the penultimate year of the decade. Now the dreaded backlash of the fraught US presidential elections, and arguably the legacy of four years of corrosive politics, has materialised. In light of all this, we should ask ourselves: will the 2020s become the new 1930s, notorious for its economic distress, social agitation and political violence?
There is always a risk of political protests turning violent, and, as a result, of meeting reciprocal, often greater, violence by governments. Many protest movements have held that, if it comes to it, they can and should wield violence to advance their agenda, because they are convinced that their cause is just. And this may very well be true, but do we really understand violence? And are we mindful of all of its potential consequences? Indeed, we need to take the problem of violence seriously if we are to avoid two perils that contribute to its perpetuation. Namely, a lack of understanding of the phenomenon of political violence, especially when compared to similar concepts, particularly injustice. And, a tendency to underestimate its potential consequences.
In her book On Violence, Arendt differentiates several concepts that are interconnected, including power, force and violence. For Arendt, ‘power’ means the human ability to act in political concert, whereas ‘force’ is the release of natural or physical energy. ‘Violence’, according to Arendt, is essentially an instrumental phenomenon aimed at accomplishing a given goal through the multiplication of human strength. To illustrate this, we can apply these categories to what happened at the US Capitol: whilst the legitimate representatives of the American people were in session exercising power to confirm the election of the new President, a mob of protesters assaulted the Capitol, the sheer force of their numbers being sufficient to overrun security and physically break into the building. But such force was an instrument put in the service of a political goal, that is, violence to challenge the results of the presidential elections with the aim of keeping Donald Trump in office.
This instrumental definition of violence is somewhat reminiscent of Clausewitz’s doctrine. In his canonical On War, Clausewitz describes war as merely the continuation of political intercourse. Thus, political violence – up to and including war – is not a sport, nor an end in itself, but an instrument to achieve specific purposes. The Prussian general also wrote on the ability of polemic violence to escalate: “war is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force. Each side, therefore, compels its opponent to follow suit; a reciprocal action is started which must lead, in theory, to extremes.”
Armed with this conceptual framework, we can move now to the two main perils enclosed within political violence – its mischaracterisation and its capacity to escalate.
Understanding political violence
As to the first peril, it can be argued that the tendency to resort to violence (in the form of riots, rebellion, coups, etc.) in political protests is, in fact, a reaction to an economic, social, and political model that itself discriminates against the underprivileged. Feeling left out, the social status (or the lack thereof) of such groups can enrage those amongst the population who feel downtrodden and neglected by society, especially the young. In the words of Ted R. Gurr, reflecting on the Arab Spring movement: “the primal cause of virtually all protests has been the cumulation of economic and political grievances, especially among the rapidly growing population of city-dwelling youth, against corrupt and repressive regimes and their sclerotic leaders.” Such harsh and inequitable social conditions are sometimes labelled as ‘violent’. But can violence equal social injustice?
As already noted, Arendt understands violence as the instrumental use of force. Several other prominent thinkers link violence to force, including, Georges Sorel, who in 1908 advocated for the use of trade union violence to transform the bourgeois industrial society of his day; Simone Weil,, who during the Second World War wrote that violence is impossible to master, as it objectifies both the one who suffers it and the one who exerts it; and Michel Foucault, who suggested that war or social struggle is a permanent relationship throughout history. Admittedly, psychological violence understood as any intentional conduct that seriously impairs a person’s psychological integrity through coercion or threats may also be included within the extension of the concept of violence.
Still, the question remains: does injustice equal violence? The use of force can be characterised as either legal (e,g, an arrest by the police) or illegal (e.g. a murder); and as just (e.g. legitimate self-defence) or unjust (e.g. aggression against another country). It is usually legislative authorities that draw the line between what is legal and what is not. In the case of justice, it has been defined by John Rawls as the fair institutional distribution of freedoms and equal opportunities, which can be projected into the realm of international relations and be enforced through the use of legitimate political violence.
But there are injustices that may be done with or without violence, just as there is violence that can be just or unjust. Thus, the realms of injustice and violence do not always overlap. Not every injustice is violent, for it can also be veiled and operate quietly, such as happens with subtle forms of racism or sexism amounting to arbitrary discrimination. Conversely, not all violence is unjust, as argued in the Just War tradition in inter-state conflicts, or whenever violence is used legitimately within a community, such as self-defence against violent assault. Although there is admittedly infinite room for debate on these topics, the fact remains that injustice and violence do not always overlap.
The consequences of political violence
As for the second peril, we must never underestimate political violence and its ability to self-reproduce, escalate, and perpetuate itself, as Clausewitz warned us.
But how can we address this second peril? The formula that human communities have come up with to curtail the escalatory nature of violence has been, for the past five hundred years, the political construct known as the modern nation-state. One of its main features is, regardless of geographic location or historic development, is what Max Weber called “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.”
What the collective construct of the public order often makes us forget is that, at the end of the day, said monopoly rests on only a few individuals vested with law enforcement powers, who in a modern society are vastly outnumbered, as we were graphically reminded by the events at the US Capitol on last 6 January. It is important to highlight here that the monopoly of violence in a state where the ‘rule of law’ exists looks very different to the same monopoly in a state that merely has ‘rule by law’, such as China. The rule of law guarantees the legal restraint of power to secure the rights and freedoms of people, while the rule by law only ensures state control to advance public policy regardless of rights.
The lesson to be drawn from a very tumultuous past decade is that violence remains a critical phenomenon in modern societies, one that is too readily applied whenever deemed necessary to advance a political agenda. But before resorting too hastily to violence it is of the utmost importance to understand its differences with other concepts, such as injustice; and to be aware of the unpredictability of its escalation. If we want to partake in a civilised society governed by the rule of law, we must abide by the standards that we have all agreed upon, including accepting defeat after submitting to the rules of an electoral procedure. What we witnessed on Capitol Hill in early January was not just the reaction of a group of sore losers, instigated by their disgruntled leader in the White House. It was a regrettable display of illegitimate violence to advance a lost cause.
The time has come to take violence seriously, lest it become our master instead of merely a tool of the legitimate rule of law. Let us hope that, despite recent events in the US Capitol, during the next decade a responsible understanding of the phenomenon of violence, without distorting its contours or idealising it, and mindful of the risks of its escalation, will lead us to preserve the legitimate institutions that we, as citizens of modern societies, have created to keep violence at bay in benefit of our own freedom.
 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006); Alex Bellamy, Just Wars (Cambridge: Polity, 2012).
Francisco Lobo (Doctoral Researcher, Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Member of the Society, Culture and Law Research Theme and the International Relations and Ethics Research Theme at KCL’s School of Security Studies. LLM in International Legal Studies, New York University. LLM and LLB, University of Chile. International Law and Legal Theory Lecturer)