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 9 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.

  5. A bit late to the party, but I’ve been waiting for enough of a backlog to build up I could binge these!

    I’m going to keep using “Monopoly on violence” for the same reason I’ll quote Shakespeare as “Brevity is […] wit”, right? I think it’s important to know and understand the full and longer context, but I think it’s useful in the same way an idiom is.

    We see what happens when a state loses a monopoly on violence, which is the rise of black markets. Black markets are run by definitionally criminal elements – they’re serving a need the state denies – and they form a tax base from it. This parasitic element forms inside of a state while separate from it, but this ensures many of the same preconditions for forming a state are met. A pressing need for organized defense, beurocracy, an internal story, specialist labour, etc.

    This gives the tools for the black market to then start subverting and assuming the roles of the state within *its* borders, which ultimately makes the core of cyberpunk media – taken to the extreme, capitalist inequality theoretically makes a large enough black market when a large portion of the population is denied having their basic needs met through the legitimate state.

    All that is to say – when a state loses its monopoly on violence, it creates the preconditions to lose its monopoly on statehood. And history is full of the fascinating consequences and counter-consequences of that. So it remains useful as a shorthand to get to the meat of those more interesting conversations.

    • Don’t get me wrong, shorthand is indeed important for having the interesting conversations. The problem is not realizing it’s shorthand, and thinking it’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That tends to lead to weird and less-than-desirable outcomes.

      Still, I’d argue that a monopoly on the legitimate use of force only makes sense within a narrow context—specifically a post-1848 European context. If you need help falling asleep, here’s a snippet from something I wrote a few weeks ago about the effects the Albigensian Crusade had on state formation in France, where I touched on that with inexcusable glibness:

      -=-=-=-=-

      Before looking for signs of state formation, it might be prudent to first define what a state is. Unfortunately, this is more easily said than done. Definitions vary among and between scholars of political science, history, and anthropology, and their definitions are not always entirely useful. Notwithstanding the variety, at the core of most modern definitions of the state one finds the elements described by Max Weber in 1978. [See Graeme Gill, The Nature and Development of the Modern State, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003, at 3.]

      The primary formal characteristics of the modern state are as follows: it possesses an administrative and legal order subject to change by legislation, to which the organized activities of the administrative staff, which are also controlled by regulations, are oriented. This system of order claims binding authority, not only over the members of the state, the citizens, most of whom have obtained membership by birth, but also to a very large extent over all action taking place in the area of its jurisdiction. It is thus a compulsory organization with a territorial basis. Furthermore, today, the use of force is regarded as legitimate only insofar as it is either permitted by the state or prescribed by it. . . . The claim of the modern state to monopolize the use of force is as essential to it as its character of compulsory jurisdiction and of continuous operation.

      [Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, eds., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.]

      Parsing Weber’s convoluted prose, his state consists of four essential elements:
      (1) A territory with defined borders;
      (2) A supreme, centralized authority with the power to control what people do within that territory;
      (3) Bureaucratic institutions, which exercise that authority through executive and judicial administration; and
      (4) The power to compel obedience, which implies an exclusive power to use violence or approve of violence.

      Others have come up with variations on Weber’s theme, but these four elements remain generally consistent. More recently, for example, Francis Fukuyama has defined the critical elements of a state as:
      (1) A territorial basis of authority, as opposed to authority over a people. (“Thus France was not really a state in Merovingian times when it was led by a king of the Franks rather than the king of France.”)
      (2) A centralized source of authority which is sovereign, and “trumps all others within its territory;”
      (3) A hierarchy of subordinate administrators with the capacity to exercise sovereign authority throughout the whole society;
      (4) A monopoly on the legitimate means of armed coercion is what backs the sovereign authority;
      (5) Great social inequality and class stratification; and
      (6) A cultural sensibility that the sovereign authority is legitimate.
      [Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, at 80-81.]

      These modern definitions of the state rely heavily on a sort of bureaucratic absolutism. Bureaucratic institutions are what give the state its long-term stability, and the capacity to exercise sovereign authority—to tax, defend, and control the whole population within its territorial boundaries. Bureaucratic institutions are what ensure the impersonal exercise of state authority—their regimented hierarchy, specialization, and accountability guaranteeing that government is not a tool of personal power. Without such a formal, impersonal administrative organization, the definitions would seem to imply that one does not have a true state. [Gill, supra at xi, 2-4.]

      But these definitions are more aspirational prescriptions of what an ideal state ought to be, rather than objective descriptions of what actual states are. History is filled with contrary examples of states that enabled, even endorsed, the corruption of government to serve private purposes at the expense of public good. The venal offices of Bourbon France, the absence of political accountability and rule of law in dynastic China, the kleptocratic tyranny of imperial Russia, and countless self-serving governors of great empires and weak states around the globe, do not render their countries something other than a state. [Indeed, a significant portion of Fukuyama’s book on the subject is dedicated to all the ways that historical states have failed to satisfy this element. Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, supra, passim.]

      Another generally-required element, “a monopoly on the legitimate use of force,” is also more aspirational than prerequisite. The argument is that sovereignty cannot be ensured without it. It is the monopoly on force that gives the government of Hobbes’ Leviathan the power to provide basic security and all other public goods, and it is this same monopoly that modern theorists require for a state to be able to assert supreme authority. But again, any number of counterfactual examples come to mind to any student of world history. In the European states of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, private violence in self-defense, in defense of honor, and even in vendettas were all culturally legitimate without the need for state permission—and even continued notwithstanding state commands to knock it off. Private violence in the form of self-help and self-policing is a hallmark of states with weak capacity (or willingness) to assert power everywhere at all times. The United States is a unique example—though an example nonetheless—where private rights can overrule the wishes of the state to the extent that it can actually be illegitimate for the state to use force to compel obedience. And more than that, the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States exists precisely to ensure that the government does not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. [See Akhil Reed Amar, The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, at 46-59.] And again, in none of these situations would one argue that the government in question did not govern a state.

      The definitions proposed by Weber and his successors make sense when considered as products of a uniquely European mindset post-1848. It is a mindset with roots in such things as the restrictive medieval guilds, the reciprocal obligations of feudal vassalage and noblesse oblige, absolutist monarchies, technocratic bureaucracies… a topic worthy of its own paper. Briefly put, it might be summarized as a worldview in which the state obviously has the supreme authority to dictate and control every aspect of its subjects’ lives, as a parent over a child, and like a parent therefore owes a corresponding duty to care for, protect, and provide for its subjects. A corollary equally obvious in this worldview is that, if a matter can be regulated, then the state should regulate it.

      With such a worldview as a bedrock principle, it is easy to build up to a Weberian conception of the state, which is all-powerful, supreme, highly bureaucratic, and wields exclusive power to either exercise or permit violence. But that worldview is not universal. Not only is it not universal, it is deeply incompatible with the core assumptions of societies as diverse as the liberal United States and the authoritarian Middle East. Consider a detail such as free speech: to the American mind, the individual’s freedom of speech is supreme over the government’s authority to constrain it, while in European countries (and those of the British Commonwealth) the individual is perfectly free to say anything that the government permits, while in Saudi Arabia neither the individual nor the state has the authority to say what speech is permissible. [Comparative political mindsets is another topic worthy of a separate series of papers. In September 2017, for example, the author along with Eric Hilgendorf of the University of Würzburg, Michael Widener of the Yale Law School, and Mark Weiner of the Rutgers School of Law discussed the possibility of putting together a panel on the freedom of speech aspect, and given the social media debates of 2020-2022 and various regulatory responses, the time might be right to finally host it now.] And so the Weberian definition of a state is less than ideal for our purposes.

      So what elements are necessary before a political entity can be considered a state? A defined territory with clear borders? No, because that would exclude city-states as well as territorial states with vague, undefined, or disputed borders. We cannot require effective projection of authority throughout a territory, either, as there are plenty of states where government weakens over distance, or where—as in the states of the Middle East—tribal forms of organization predominate beyond the central state institutions—or even within them. A structured, impersonal bureaucracy? No. A monopoly on the legitimate use of force? No.

      Should we at least expect a single, central source of authority and legitimacy? Again, no. The sovereign can be a single institution, like the crown. Sovereignty can be bifurcated between secular and religious rulers. Sovereignty can even be subordinate, rather than supreme, as when legitimacy comes from religious doctrine. Sovereignty can lie, not in the state itself, but in the amorphous will of the people—as under the U.S. Constitution or the dynastic Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven. Sovereignty can even lie in a single person under the tyranny of a strongman rather than any institutional office, as with Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, or Vladimir Putin.

      What then are we left with? Quite a lot, actually. Four elements appear to be universally applicable to states throughout history, regardless of time or place:
      (1) Shared identity: The state is a form of social organization that enables cooperation among a large population without the need for personal bonds of lineage, friendship, or loyalty. In other words, a political form that provides a unified political identity—“we’re all on the same team.” In the most fundamental sense, ensuring large-scale cooperation by providing a shared identity is what states are for.
      (2) Institutional authority: What authority there is to make and enforce rules—to govern—comes from an impersonal institution and not from the personal strength or worth of an individual. (A king or bureaucrat is obeyed because of what his job is, not because of loyalty to who he is. If one is willing to obey the ruler, but not his delegated agents, then one has a chiefdom, not a state. )
      (3) Supreme authority: Although governance can vary according to local conditions, all governance is subject to a single agreed-upon higher authority, though the source of this authority need not be a single centralized institution.
      (4) Power to compel: The capacity to enforce sovereign authority by coercing obedience and forcing people to remain subject to that authority. (If people can avoid obedience by moving away, seceding, or deciding that society’s rules no longer apply to them, then none of these elements can be satisfied.)
      (4a) This capacity can manifest in a variety of ways, and is not limited to the mere ability to use physical force. Such power comes primarily from a shared sense that the sovereign authority is legitimate, and is exercised legitimately. In such a circumstance, when the government is perceived to be doing right, people generally feel that obedience is the right thing to do, and do not need to be persuaded at the point of a sword. Apart from policing of criminals, the use of force tends only to be required when people stop feeling that the government is legitimate.
      (4b) There is no requirement that only the state has the authority to use physical force. As explained above, there is no need to require a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

      One can see shades of the Weberian definition here, only it has been stripped of the aspects that are not generally true for all states. For the purposes of this paper, these four elements appear well-suited to an investigation into state formation during the High Middle Ages.

      It will be these elements, then—Shared Identity, Institutional Authority, Supreme Authority, and Power to Compel—that we will be looking for as we examine the events of the Albigensian Crusade and their consequences in French political organization.

      -=-=-=-=-

      Still awake? Lord, you should see my notes for all of the stuff that goes in this comic. You could sink a battleship with it all. It’s easy to write an essay that nobody will read; the hardest thing I’ve ever done is try to put pages’ worth of thought into a physical space of a few square centimeters in a comic panel. As I write this right now, I’m trying to condense into a single page entire notebooks of notes that I’d then scrunched into a minature outline that’s still over 8,000 words.

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