People formed the first state-level societies, despite the massive loss of liberty and equality, because they're a great solution to a unique set of problems.

To be fair…

…the original quote wasn’t that the State has a monopoly on violence, but rather that the State is a ““human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Max Weber first said that in a 1919 speech, about a very different kind of state (the Westphalian nation-state) than the one we’re discussing, and in a very different context.

(The original German is: Heute dagegen warden wir sagen müssen: Staat ist diejenige menschliche Gemeinschaft, welche innerhalb eines bestimmten Gebietes—dies: das “Gebiet,” gehört zum Merkmal—das Monopol legitimer physischer Gewaltsamkeit für sich (mit Erfolg) beansprucht.)

We can argue about Weber’s statement in the comments (in fact, I’m kinda hoping we do). But the quote that always gets thrown around? It’s neither accurate nor correct.

Here’s a question that could start a debate: When Weber spoke of the “legitimate” use of violence, who did he think would decide what counted as “legitimate?” The State? Politicians? Those committing violence on the State’s behalf? The citizenry? Something else? Is that different from how Bronze Age peoples would have thought? 21st-century Americans?




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There are now 7 comments... what are your thoughts?
  1. Madeleine says

    Someone should tell those 5 little individuals-representing-community-members that it’s usually a bad idea to handle a sword by its blade … Especially one *this* large!

    Regarding that quote, its translation makes me wonder if I’m misunderstanding the term “violence” here (I’m not a native English speaker) because it kind of makes me think of someone getting a beating. But having someone go into a barred room and locking the door behind them, or imposing a fine on them are also part of the state’s options to enforce laws. The German word “Gewalt” that was originally used has various possible translations …
    Or were jails or fines originally not an option and it really boiled down to someone getting a beating back then?

    • I don’t speak German, but from what I’ve read “Gewalt” kind of equates physical force with violence. Or at least it doesn’t have connotations distinguishing one from the other.

      The answer to your last question appears on the very next page!

    • The only reason people pay their fines is because if they don’t the state will arrest you, and if you don’t come quietly they will bring the violence.
      You don’t always have to use the violence, but the threat of it is always there.

  2. STM says

    I do not think the plain meaning of Weber’s translated words (to 21st century American English speakers) is wrong. Nor does it conflict with the state preferring to use violence.
    A private individual may only legitimately use force in narrow circumstances, like self defense or citizen’s arrest. In those circumstances, you’re only allowed to because the State can’t get there in time.

    You can’t rob the guy who rear ended your car, but you can sue him, and the State will enforce the judgement. You can’t surveil your neighbor whom you suspect is a terrorist, but the State can tap his phone. If you catch someone in a crime, you can’t kidnap him or steal his money, but the State can arrest him or fine him. You can’t bomb foreign countries to settle real or imagined grievances, but the State can declare war, and force you to fight in it. What am I missing?

  3. B.J. says

    “It’s not like I wrested my power from the people…”

    If I remember the discussions on power and slavery from last page correctly, isn’t it true that State’s power comes from a privileged subset of her population, with the rest of the population supporting her under compulsion?

    • I thought that was how the state wielded her power once she had it, not how she came by it in the first place.

  4. Satinavian says

    I always understood the “monopoly on violence” thing as an attribute of explicitely a modern state, not a state per se. As something that at least in central Europe only happened after the end of feudalism. And was by many contemporaries seen as a power grab of the gouvernment.

    For Germany specifically it was only the Allegemeiner Ewiger Landfrieden of 1495 which ended the right to legal feuding which not only nobility but also the free people had had before.

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