Politics and Philosophy

Exploring Political Issues Through Philosophy

 

Political Violence

 

The Role of Violence in Politics

                                                                                   by

Richard Wu

 

 

1. Politics

 

2. The Politics of Legitimacy

 

3. What is Violence?

 

4. Politics and Institutional Violence

     a. Centralization

 

5. Fragmentation, a Suggestion

     a. Federalist Paper #10

     b. Factions as Economic Entities

                                                                                             

           

 

The Topic: Politics.  If I may repeat a hackneyed expression: ‘politics’ is the process that determines who gets what, how much of it they get, and when do they get it.  While this statement is an accurate description of politics as the distribution of available goods and services, it does not address the nature of the decision making, or the type of political structure that actualizes the decision making.  For that matter, the description does not even suggest that there is a formal political structure (i.e. government) at work in the process at all.  The word and concept of ‘government’ is absent from this description of politics for an excellent reason. ‘Government’ is the concrete expression of a particular mode of political relations.  ‘Government’ can and should be studied apart from politics. 

Even given the absence of an organized and relevant governing structure, a political determination will be made by some arm of the community.    From the head of a family, to direct democratic counsel, to a corporate CEO, political decisions are determined and followed up by instruction for others to act on the authorization. Here, the governing authorization appears inherent to the situation. And a point to be made here is that what may seem natural to a given political situation may be at odds with inherent themes of government. The former being ideologically fixed while the latter are concrete arrangements, historically determined, and therefore historically bound.

Historians often see governments becoming inconsistent with the current conditions controlling distribution of the social product.  A current governing apparatus might represent conditions existent over decades or even centuries prior to contemporary political relations, causing government policies to vacillate between decadence and morbidity, all with little or no bearing on current distribution.  Any established ‘government,’ and the ‘politics’ of the community it purports to govern, may have drifted apart, grown out of touch, and may be entirely separate or even antagonistic entities.  At the extreme end of this antagonism between government and politics there can develop a revolutionary situation exampled by the French Revolution. For the above reasons, in this study I will look upon government and politics as distinct analytical entities. 

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The determination of who gets what, how much, and when – i.e., politics – might only indirectly involve a governing super-structure. This governing superstructure, as such, may be an irrelevancy that is more of a distraction than a conduit for socio-economic analysis. This is particularly true in the current days of multi-national corporations. The determination of social distribution may often be made by a political cultural whose manipulations are out of sight behind some fitted ideology – an ideology that makes the division of goods and services appear casually routine and cloaked from even conventional understanding.  The community’s weltanschauung can make many transfers of goods and services effortless, commonplace and so routinized that they seem to be sown into the very fabric of life.  In this sense the political culture appears natural to the situation, while the government may only appear inherent, that is, a contrived structure that draws its sustenance from the natural situation. 

All deciding processes, rather natural or inherent, ultimately depend on the single, universal element of enactment.  No matter what the decision making process, the only consistent theme of politics is the fact of facilitation – that is, what determines the ability of the deciders to carry out the political decisions. For those affected by politics, how decisions are arrived at is less universally meaningful than the enactment of those decisions. For much of a population the impact of political enactment runs from harsh to violent.

All of this makes the formal study of governmental decision making less informative than would be a study of some less visible, underlying thread of consistency in the facilitation and delivery of those decisions.  Government, properly understood, may only represent an agency designed to obscure the political process underlying the actual delivery of social goods and services.  This obscuring role of government is an especially critical and informative analysis for understanding how the distribution is grossly unequal.

Looking from a different angle, government is the means of violence that is only suggested by the politics of any given culture.  Political determination rests on the supposition that the deciding agency possesses the governing power to actualize their decisions. It can be stated that any determining power authorizing distribution presupposes that this agency possesses an underlying monopoly of force necessary to press decisions into reality.  Ultimately, this type of actualization rests on the enactment, or the threat of enactment, of violence to gain compliance.  The distribution of the social product is not so much an independent process in and of itself as it is as extension of the organized and controlled application of force, qua violence.  This is a disagreeable but important way to look at the underlying support for political power, and the true meaning of government.

Given the understanding of the above, I can begin to examine politics as a natural expression of force, which is to say, the graduated and controlled execution of violence.  This leaves open an important side-bar:  The question of an ‘inherent legitimacy’ of government as the custodian and articulator of political violence. 

The Claim: Legitimacy . At the heart of political decision-making one sees a relationship of social forces that will always attempt to gain peaceful compliance.  This peaceful compliance is facilitated through the recognition of “legitimate” authority.   If the political process is to avoid naked violence, then some belief in the legitimacy of the deciding authority must be in place.  I recognize that there are also moral issues here, but I will sidestep those in favor of a study concerning the material and ideological issues surrounding the relationship between violence, legitimacy and politics.  An analysis of the political process that emerges from decision making will find that legitimacy and violence function as the muscle and sinew of the facilitation. 

Allow me to state first what should be obvious: The authorization of a political decision necessarily implies the use of coercion.  To some degree or another, the political process will always employ coercion.  It should also be fully grasped that coercion is little more than the promise of violence.  The very nature of political decisions – enfranchising some, disenfranchising others – makes these considerations unavoidable.  In every legislative act, some win and some lose.

Let me now state that the first step in the coercive process is to disguise itself beneath the mantle of legitimacy; this is an ideological precondition for the avoidance of violence. Although I call this a first step a proper analysis insists on the inspection of a deeper issue: the question of antecedents.  That is, do force and coercion (i.e., government) flow from legitimacy, or does the legitimacy flow from force?  The question is one that is more than just idle curiosity, for the answer uncovers the fundamental infrastructure of all governmental expressions of politics.  It might also be asked, with somewhat more complexity, whether the answer to this question might be found in some dialectical relationship existent between force and legitimacy that springs from what appears to be their shared origins.  While the two questions are intertwined, it is best to treat them separately for reasons that will become apparent.

In this paper I will not take a soft approach.  The implications are too important for understanding the political process.  I will argue that force and legitimacy do not share a common origin. That is, the combination of legitimacy and coercion do not emerge from a desire to obey the Hobbesian Fundamental Law, that is, to seek peace, but rather the desire to escape the unstable and unpredictable coercion found in the war of all against all.  In so saying, it follows that the origin of legitimacy, and legitimate coercion, is not born of some voluntary political consent on the part of a population.  Instead, legitimacy is derived from the overwhelming need to escape an unpredictable state of force and violence. This is not standing Hobbes on his head, so much as it is rearranging his argument to make clear that government is only the lesser of political evils. The arrival of ‘legitimate’ violence is not a desire for peace so much as it is a case of swapping an unpredictable coercion for a more predictable form of coercion. This is a subtle but important shift.

Almost as a matter or routine, we have been taught that there is a deep and nearly sacred relationship between voluntarism and the consent of the governed.  We, in the Western culture, have some long-standing familiarity with John Locke’s assertion that “Government is not legitimate unless it is carried on with the consent of the governed.”  This interpretation of the relationship between the people and the state has grown into something of a mixed platitude-conundrum for the concept of ‘legitimate.’  How can I possibly conceive of my relationship with the governing structure of an ‘equalitarian democracy’ in the absence of ‘consent,’ that is to say, my voluntary consent?

If not voluntary, then how specifically is political consent derived from coercion, qua, violence?  The answer here is found in the latent fear we all feel when presented with a choice between compliance and disobedience to the dictates of the political landscape in which we find ourselves.  From mild anxiety and trepidation to anger and outright terror, these human sensations speak to us that our consent is not voluntary.  Indeed, we spend much of our lives avoiding even the appearance of non-compliance with the dictates of the governing structure.

Consider: First, recognize (as already discussed above) that government is an expression of politics (i.e., who gets what, how much, and when) and not the other way around.  So to substitute politics for government in Locke’s observation and restate that “Politics is not legitimate unless it is carried on with the consent of the governed” gives the expression an odd ring, a queer meaning difficult to decipher.  This is because ‘politics,’ properly understood, weighs in as a more universally absolute system of arbitration than ‘government.’  Politics is a concept less identified by contrived formalities and a concept more identified by transparently evoking feelings of coercive pressure brought about by circumstance rather than laws.  We feel less in control of political power than governmental power.

And consider: Second, is the outright reality that consent itself is clearly coerced.  One need not present the Hobbesian argument that governments are the result of individuals escaping the violent ‘laws’ of the state of nature by consenting to the coercive power of the Leviathan. Unable to escape coercion I merely opt for predictability over unpredictability.  While this is a tenable argument, a more immediate and less theoretical position is to go along with Rousseau: when I am born into a nation-state a contract is assumed. It is assumed that I ‘consent’ to its laws and the expectations of the governing community.  By virtue of living within the boundaries of a particular state I consent to be bound by all civil and criminal laws, be taxed, conscripted into the military, or whatever other adherences deemed proper by the existing political apparatus.  Am I therefore coerced by this assumed contract?  The answer to this question seems so obvious as to completely trivialize any suggestion of non-compliance.  Just consider the response of any political entity to a refusal to comply with its laws or directives, responses that would range from mild pressure to ruthless violence.

We realize that ‘consent’ in this case is merely a disguise for contractual entrapment, an ideological slight-of-hand that allows us to proceed with our everyday lives.  Yet the feelings and concerns of which we take note when contemplating disobedience make us fully aware that coercion and outright violence always lurks beneath the placid surface of consent.  It is not just an irony that violence is a most potent source of voluntary, political consent.  It is a ‘tell’ that booby-traps nearly all political ideologies.  The violence at the heart of consent must be camouflaged and hidden from view.

Of course, one can always argue that I am free to leave for another nation – to be bound by those laws.  So, unless I can separate myself completely from all political entities – a practical impossibility – it appears that I must make a choice between one type of coercion or another. This makes a sham of the freedom to shake political coercion completely.[i]

To be sure, such a position on force, as I have outlined it above, will cast the ideology of decision making processes in a difficult and uncomfortable light.  However, it will also lead to the resolution of some apparently intractable issues, such as when regime-change can be made ‘legitimate,’ or when democratically elected governments are ‘legitimately’ replaced by a military junta, or when dictatorship is legitimate and appropriate. The realization may be uncomfortable, but decisive.  I might also offer that such an analysis of the relationship between legitimacy and force will raise awareness regarding more common place situation-resolution – for example, consider such tricky situations as how ‘managed news’ and ‘political correctness’ can gain legitimacy, or lose it.  The answer here is uncovered once we recognize that “politically correct” information is guided by the characteristics of legitimacy and thus becomes “managed news.”  This is just another way of saying that “managed news” supports state coercion.  Of course this is obscured behind the same veil of ideology that hides political violence.

One last point is the question of obscurity. From the point at which the issue of force and violence arises a dialectic comes about that allows the origin of legitimacy to disappear into a rapidly developing ideological reconfiguration.  The dialectic itself is obscured, and with it the actual nature of the origins of legitimacy.  In other words, the dialectic is submerged beneath the idea of ‘legitimate force’ which bends the idea of force to the will of legitimacy. This in effect assumes legitimacy and mitigates nagging questions of origins.

            The Subject: What is violence ?  Given the above assertions concerning politics, violence and legitimacy, it is well to delve into the question of the nature of violence itself.  What exactly constitutes violence?  Disagreement on this question (“What is violence?”) cleaves apart not just political parties, but very often separates social reality from political process.  Vital for the question of an ‘ideology of legitimacy’ is the relationship between political reality and political process.          Both involve violence.

At first glance, ‘what is violence?’ seems a silly question.  After all, in a similar fashion in which we understand pornography, we all know violence when we see it – don’t we?  I witness violence enacted in books and on screen constantly.  Where human beings are looked upon, we consider violence to be the shooting, beating, trampling, stabbing, crushing, burning etc, of people by one or more other persons, or by what we typically refer to as natural occurrences. (To streamline the discussion I will, for a moment, place the very real category of ‘emotional violence’ on hold.)

An obvious example: a robber walks into a convenience store and plunders the cash drawer, then shoots and kills the store clerk.  Is there any doubt that violence has occurred?  A second: a young girl is run over and killed in a city cross-walk.  This is also a violent act.  And finally: consider a doctor in a life-and-death situation.  A doctor accomplishes an emergency tracheotomy on a suffocating woman.  There is pain and physical trauma in the doctor’s actions, is there not?  All of these actions, from the robber’s to the doctor’s, bear some of the earmarks of a violent act.  Yet at the same time I am compelled to recognize a difference in the acts.  All three acts are violent acts, per se, yet it is ‘obvious’ that when the actions are compared the situations reveal not just a quantitative difference, but a qualitative difference.  Although the acts are violent, they are each colored by ‘intent’.  While I recognize that there are other ‘differences’ between violent acts, the culpability of the perpetrator of the violence – and hence the real force of the act – hinges on intent.  

It is difficult to imagine that a trigger is pulled by accident.  Of course it might be claimed that the robber’s gun discharged accidentally, but that claim can be dismissed as the death dealing action was part of a larger system of decision making that few people, would fail to recognize. The robber intended to take money, and even if the killing of the clerk was a secondary (perhaps unintended) consequence of the primary action, the principle intent overwhelms the secondary and ‘unintended’ violent action; Anglo-Saxon law reflects this understanding in the prosecution of capital crimes.

The driver of the auto that runs down the child might not have been a transgressor of a larger moral issue, e.g., fleeing a crime.  For example, suppose the child leaped unexpectedly into the path of the auto and the unintended death seemingly beyond the control of the driver.  In this case it is difficult find the automobile driver ‘guilty’ in the same manner that I would find the robber.  The driver is guiltless due to lack of intent.  I might even call this an ‘accident.’[ii]  We might also consider that the driver was being distracted by an electronic gadget (e.g., radio, cell phone, GPS, etc.).  In this case the violence was an unintentional byproduct of an unrelated act.  These are not the same types of “accidents,” but neither are they intended to cause violence.  Unfortunately, the result is still a violent death of the child. Violence has still occurred regardless of intent. 

The doctor’s actions, while inflicting pain and physical damage, are certainly intended to promote a higher cause, i.e., the furtherance of a human life.  The doctor, in committing the violence, is carrying out his sworn obligation, a duty, if you will. The doctor’s actions are intended for a good purpose, regardless of appearances.  I am forced to recognize, however, that the doctor’s effort on behalf of the woman does appear to be a violent act, with intent being the overriding, ameliorating element.

Either consciously or unconsciously, I factor the notion of intent into all these actions.  Because of intent I tend to graduate the culpability of the actors in the violence. I am guided in deciding guilt or innocence by my understanding of the intent of the purveyor of the violent act.  However, a key factor in this study is that violence in all these cases has occurred regardless of intent and culpability.  There may be no guilty party associated with many brands of violence, but violence has occurred nonetheless.

For a moment, allow me to get even closer to the point by putting ‘intent’ completely aside in order to focus on violent acts, per se.  All three of the above described actions, regardless of intent or outcome, have certain things in common.  Violence toward humans inflicts some degree of pain and some manner of physical damage.  I would argue that unless we drift off into some ultra-metaphysical realm, where action takes on spiritual trappings, violence must have at least these two elements in common, that is, a degree of pain and damage.  However, this raises some interesting issues.  For example, what if I were to blunder outside in the midst of a tornado and get swept away to my death.  Has violence occurred?  Or suppose that on a hiking trip in the high desert of New Mexico I become lost.  I spend days wandering about in search of water and eventually die of dehydration. What if, in playing a round of golf, I am struck by lightening?  Again, the question arises: has violence occurred?  We are not accustomed to thinking of violence in quite these terms, yet it seems that even in the absence of human action, (save the possibility of that provoked by my own careless or stupidity) that a violent act can play out in the absence of direct human instigation.  Other factors than those caused by direct and conscious human decisions can cause violence to human beings.

There remains only one item to discuss, and that would be emotional damage and emotional pain that above I put on hold.  The entire area of emotional violence is murky.  Subjectivity plays such a crucial role in establishing emotional pain and suffering that it is better for this paper to avoid it.  I am not suggesting that such things do not exist, or cannot be devastating to the people involved, but only that by their internal nature they are difficult to establish and assess.  For the sake of a manageable thesis I am offering emotional violence recognition without direct treatment.

It might seem repetitive, but I need to make it clear that any event that results in physical damage and pain is symptomatic of violence, regardless of intend or mitigating factors such as miscalculation, natural disasters, or outright stupidity. This brings me to the point: the consideration of politics and violence. It seems obvious that in whatever manner the social-product is divided amongst the member of a social order, some are going to be damaged by the division, as the distribution is never equal.

The Problem: Politics and Institutional Violence.  There at least three issues to be dealt with in any treatment of the relationship between violence and politics.

First, is the issue that politics, as the process for determining the distribution of social products, can be counted on to make certain rulings that will discriminate between social groups or factions. The discrimination advances the needs of one group and puts aside, ignores, or suppresses the needs of other groups.  There are moral considerations here, but the fairness of the discrimination is beside the immediate point of this project. What I am after here is not what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the distribution, but the integration and magnitude of the force used in the process of distributive discrimination. Political decisions will ultimately result in favor for some, and pain, discomfort, or injury for others.  This study is about a political process that is intrinsically violence in its distributive discrimination.  This kind of violence is inherent in political decision making and is formally institutionalized in governments.

It seems clear that the sheer effectiveness of discriminatory rulings depends on the amount of pressure the structural manifestations (i.e., government) of the political process can bring on bear on the group(s) involved.  At the top of this chain of coercion is the notion of ‘legitimacy,’ found to a greater or lesser degree in all governments.  At the bottom of the chain lies the governmental authority to bring naked violence into full swing.  Naturally, these are uncomfortable considerations.  We prefer to rely on the governmental rituals that disguise the coercion and violence (e.g., in the form of legislation, courts, etc.), rituals that mute or hide the uglier fact of naked violence. But ultimately, there seems no way around this recognition.  When the light of analysis is cast we can see that the violence institutionalized in governmental coercion is inherent in the process of social distribution.

A second issue now arises that insists on an examination of the intent of political goals, per se, as misdirected behind the governmental process.  The issue will present the reality that not only is the governmental processes violent, but so are the political goals. This is not the usual perspective – in fact the governmental process is often mistaken for the political goal. The confusion is often the foundation for the mistaken assumption that the governmental process prevents political violence.  This achieves easy support because the governmental process spirits the precise intent of political goals behind a system of negotiation that seems to preclude political violence. The violence is hidden behind the governmental process that misdirects our understanding of political intent.  For instance, the governmental process: to balance the budget, is the misdirect for the political intent: to cut health and welfare costs for the poor.  Politically this is violence against one segment of the social order for the benefit of another segment.  Another example: the governmental process: to reduce unemployment, is the misdirect for the political intent: lower the minimum wage. Politically, this is a wealth distribution to one group by sacrificing another.  These common paradigms are harshly presented, and never in the governmental arena would the presentation be made so blunt, but the point is made.  The political intent is typically screened behind the governmental process

All political decisions involve dispersion. Recall that just as in the examples of violence cited above, the actual governmental process is beside the point, the pain and suffering in distribution are real, and institutionalized.  For example, a whole host of apparently unrelated political decisions are involved in creating homelessness – from government decisions regarding interest rates to control inflation, to government decisions to cancel contracts for infrastructure building, or government assistance to the needy and government sponsored public shelters – with each decision intended for what appears be a good and just purpose, the ultimate achievement is institutionalized homelessness.  Of course, the institutional goals can be made to appear stripped of any inherent violence in their character, or the deciders utterly guiltless of bad intent.  Usually one point of the process is to claim that the decision forestalls violence and thus comes to sanitize any violence found buried within the goals themselves.  If decisions are made that ultimately make as a goal, for certain groups, limited access to education, health facilities, nutrition, housing, etc., then some degree of violence has occurred. 

A third issue comes about when I consider that there is a strong dynamic in the political process for centralization.  This centralizing process limits access and thus institutionalizes alienation and disenfranchisement.  Institutionalized alienation and disenfranchisement bring their own considerable weight to the issue of violence.  Centralization allows for limited input by divergent groups, facilitates ease in capturing the deciding apparatus, and overwhelms and absorbs of the weaker by the stronger (i.e., more violent) elements at work in the process.  All this centralization facilitates the natural political process of violence in discriminatory distribution. 

Centralization. Political power demands an exclusive monopoly on violence that is both made possible, and is aggravated by increased centralization. It follows that monopoly grows with an exclusiveness made available by that centralization.  This centralizing feature seems to be inherent in the nature of the political process, but it is not necessarily natural to it.  Inherent in political struggle is the favor of circumstance.  Historical circumstances inherently show favor to one faction over another, making possible the growth of one faction at the expense of another. Of course, skill and manipulation of the circumstance on the part of the political players is key to the monopolistic growth.

For example, what I mean is this: the formation and centralization of the Soviet Union was to a great extent favored by historical circumstance.  WWI and the threat of counter revolution (which was over by 1921) presented the leadership of the Bolshevik revolution with historical circumstances that made monopolistic centralization possible. For a time, the violence of the counter-revolution and the fear of encirclement kept the widely diverse republics under the central authority of the Kremlin. Inherent in this process was that fear of the unpredictable elements of both internal and external violence.  This centralization was, and was to remain for nearly a century, a forced union of the republics. This was not a natural inclination toward centralization.  At the first loosening of the grip of centralization the governmental structure fell apart.  The diversity of the Soviet Republics led to a seemingly natural decentralization based along historical and cultural lines. 

On the other hand, the unification of Germany in the late 19th century sprang from the increasing power of Prussia and was not directly forced upon the German states, although it must be noted that the overall historical situation was skillfully manipulated by Prussia, and in particular, Bismarck.  Following the circumstances presented by the defeat of Napoleon and the centralizing forces of German industrialization, the later war against the Danes (1864), followed closely by the war against the Austrians (1866) and finally the war against the French (1870-71), demonstrated that only the Prussians possessed the power to lead a united Germany against foreign foes.  In a sense, through manipulation of circumstance, Prussia presented the German states with a fiat accompli. Where the internal liberal and democratic efforts at German unification failed in 1848, industrialization and trade, and above all, the external contests of arms, succeeded in a kind of natural centralization by 1871.  Here, as opposed to Soviet centralization, the common factors of culture and language greatly facilitated the political realization of German unification.  The centralization was both intrinsic to the historical circumstances and natural to the situation.

Why and how do these tendencies work out so that centralization occurs?  Loosely speaking, the key motivation seems to be a desire for stability – to avoid the unpredictability of forces beyond control of the individual, or organizations – that seems to rest beneath the shelter of a centralized authority.  Again, this conjures images of Hobbes, but again I must insist that this is not an overt desire for peace, per se.  We, as individuals, or as cases of larger political groupings suggested above, desire predictability rather than peace, and will accept a concomitant coercive state to avoid some unpredictable coercive situation and the violence it implies.  The state, as a representative of certain factions that may not operate in the highest interests of the general population, and may be downright violent in bringing about these interests, but at least the coercive state promise principles that are predictable – or in the softer vernacular, dependable.

I’ve already mentioned large scale situations above, but on a somewhat smaller scale: in a country such as the United States there are fifty states, each of which may have different traffic laws, some of them quite obscure, and this is very confusing to people traveling coast to coast.  There arises a natural desire for uniform traffic codes so that the unwary motorist can avoid feelings of being openly extorted by an alien entity. Feelings of being preyed upon are strongly related to feelings of alienation.  The police agency maybe entirely correct in the traffic enforcement, yet the size and remoteness of the central authority almost guarantees a sense of victimization.

There are many examples of the desire for uniformity found in a central authority. Centralizing enhances predictability, but there are also dangers.  The obvious danger is that the more remote the centralized power the greater is the tendency to obfuscate the true nature of factional interests.  Centralization is the road to remoteness and alienation which can only enhance the institutionalizing of political violence.

A Suggestion: Fragmentation. It is absurd to take the position that people will stop distributing social products.  Politics is the way in which human beings have chosen to live their lives. The argument I have presented makes it clear that politics is both intrinsically and inherently violent, and further that violence becomes increasingly abstract and institutionalized with political centralization.  If we can all agree that violence is not an attractive feature of human relations then the question becomes how is politics, qua violence, to be mitigated?  How is it possible to control institutional violence, minimize it, which is another way of staying, control and minimize the harsher aspects of politics?

In as much as politics, as distributor of social produce, cannot be done away with, how can the process be amended so as to limits it’s more violent aspects.  I am going to suggest an old remedy. I will call it fragmentation. It has been called other things at other times.  To make the my suggestion plausible, and quickly available to analysis, I will sketch it as a derivation of the argument presented by James Madison in his now famous Federalist Paper #10. 

Federalist #10. Broadly speaking, Madison takes the position in  Federalist  #10 that (1) among human organizations, politics is a given, and (2) that a goal of political organization should be to limit the ability of factions to co-opt the governing apparatus and thus advance that particular faction’s agenda in a way that would oppose the well-being of everyone else. Madison argues that there are two ways to control factions.  First, eliminate the cause of factions, and second, control the effects of factions.  Madison dismisses the first (that is, causing everyone’s self-interest to be identical) as impractical.  Madison is left with controlling the effects.  There are two things about Madison’s overall position to note. 

First, Madison is fearful of a majority of factions.  And he generally ignores minority factions as rendered moot where popular sovereignty is the rule.

Second, Madison takes two positions regarding the establishment of factions.  The first is an argument for elites to define and refine the popular conception of self-interest.  In Madison’s perception people are generally ignorant of what is in their best interests and elites are necessary to protect and advance the self-interest of the general population.  The second is Madison’s supposition that the more factions there are in existence the less chance there is of a few combining into a majority to capture the helm of government.  It is this last that I want to focus on, with some passing discussion on what Madison dismisses, that is, minority factions.

Clearly, one result of an increase in the number of minority factions is that a great number of competing groups will tend to slow down the political process.  This has been noted often enough.[iii]  It has also been remarked that slowing down the process can frustrate the popular will and possibly the common good.[iv]  This ‘slowing down of the process’ is a correct assumption, and possibly a thought in the back of Madison’s mind.  Increased number of factions would certainly make amassing a majority of factions very difficult, and without a functioning majority the oppression of the minority would not be possible.  It should be reminded that the particular minority Madison was out to protect was found in that very elite he saw as protecting the self-interest of the general population.

Regarding minority factions, we might consider these factions to be small democracies, where, as Madison points out, the majority of this minority can take over the faction and run its agenda through the faction.  This is plausible enough.  However what seems to go unstated here is the fact that rule by majority is also the essence of democracy.  This is a sort of take-it-or-leave it situation.  It is well known by scholars that Madison was afraid of direct democracy, as were most of the elite thinkers in the 18th century (or any century?).  Madison, among others, was attempting to shape and blunt the force of direct democracy. 

The question arises: is Madison correct; is this democratic situation oppressive?  Clearly from the point of view of many minorities it is.  But unlike the nation state, the individual dissatisfied with the small faction’s agenda is presumable free move between small factions until they locate a faction with an agenda better suited to their talents and desires. In this case, the smaller the factions the easier it should be to move between them. It should also be pointed out that the smaller the faction the greater the probability of the individual grasping his or her relationship and self-interest to the faction’s internal structure and external manifestations.

We tend to think of factions as overtly political and something of an abstraction.  They need be neither.  Factions can represent demographic entities. This situation exists now, but on a very large scale, large enough so that the individual can well feel helpless to figure his or her role vis-à-vis the entity, or how the entity impacts personal situations and other entities. These entities are the nation, the region, the city.  I am suggesting a scale much, much smaller, a scale more in keeping with a practical grasp of the individual.  This could be a demographic entity as small as a city block.  Factions can also be occupational, as regional sections of school teachers, or fire fighters, or bakers and candle stick makers. If human beings control the entity it can be democratized, and democratized on any scale, but the smaller the scale the better equipped is the individual to regard and understand personal relationships and responsibilities.

Factions as economic entities. The mention above of occupations as entities points out those political factions need not be limited to types of lobby groups such as PETA, Neighborhood Watch, or The Hoover Institute.  Political factions could also be economic entities.  If politics is the process of who gets what, how much, and when, then at least one obvious place to properly establish democratic factions is where the social product begins its journey. Madison understood perfectly well that the most durable source of factions is the unequal distribution of property.  As already discussed, the politics of unequal distribution operates through concrete government entities in distorted and disguised ways – ways that conform to the ideological expectations of the society.  This always leads to misunderstanding, bickering, strife, and ultimately some degree of institutional violence.  Openly politicizing these economic factions, for the sake of transparency and to allow them less distorted operation, would seem a good place to start. 

It is certainly possible to democratize small to medium size productive enterprises.   This would create the types of democracies that Madison knew would present the possibility of capture by the majority – that is, become democratic entitlements. This would also mitigate Madison’s ‘fear’ about the common individual not having a clear grasp of their self-interest. Working within the enterprise, who but the producers would be better acquainted with the inner working, demands and expectation of keeping the enterprise productively moving forward for the betterment of the majority within the faction as economic entity?

The possibilities seem endless. Economic, democratic entities can be formed of consumer groups; for example, a faction or union of local auto-insured, to a faction of local mortgage holders.  In the these cases the auto-insured would control the business of insuring themselves, and the mortgage holders would control the business of their own mortgage companies, the only conditions would be on size of the entity and that it was local, something facilitating every participants understanding. No entity should be so big as to be beyond the range of the individual to understand his or her relationship to the other members of the faction and to the whole.  This moves democratic control forward and presents a barrier to top down coercion, a coercion in the interests of the few at the very top of the chain.

Would such fragmentation end politics as institutional violence?  Or would it completely end politics as coercion?  No, to both questions, but fragmentation would make centralization much more difficult, which in turn would reduce the level of violence augmented by the alienation inherent in centralization.  And ‘yes,’ democratic majority in the smaller group would become oppressive to the minority within the group. But need it be pointed out again that majoritarianism is a central principle of democratic rule. Then too, the oppressed minority would be free to move to other groups, or for that matter, form a separate group of its own.

Economic factionalism has the added benefit that it promotes cooperation.  As opposed to centralization where cooperation could be coerced, small entities would find outwardly directed coercion difficult if not impossible.  The overall consideration here that that while small, democratically run factions would potentially be coercive against their own members, small entities would also make more difficult any translation of factional politics into institutional or naked violence against the social order.  The coordination of the decision-making leading to overt violence would be less abstract and in democratically run entities require greater overall voluntary participation.

Practical concerns:  In this paper practical implementation of alternative political designs is not the focus.  This paper was designed as a study of politics as violence. The suggestion above of fragmenting the social order into wide spread, democratic factions is intended to present a counterpoint to the current structural situation.  So one might well ask: how would anything massive, like dam building, highway construction, or flood control, ever be accomplished? The answer is that large scale enterprises will be accomplished through factional common interest, and cooperation rather than coercion.  This study is a description of an intolerable situation, that being politics as violence.  The suggestion of fragmentation is only meant to demonstrate that there is always an exit to social situations that seem intolerable.  We only need the imagination.

As a matter of praxis, I must recognize that the full implementation of ‘fragmentation’ would be a difficult matter. Democratizing enterprises such as insurance companies present obstacles just as formidable as democratizing nations.  Being formidable alone should not stop us, but encourage us to recognize that we are presented with yet another possibility in the struggling toward democratic ends. The idea of fragmentation I have presented here, I hope, is greeted in the spirit of possibility and trust in human imagination to find a way out of politics as violence.



[i] One can always argue that I can exit the situation by ending my existence.  While this is correct, I leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

[ii] Rather there is any such thing as a ‘accident’ I will put aside for the moment.  The important thing to note here that regardless of any other consideration, violence has occurred.

[iii] For example, see Garry Wills, Explaining America, Penguin Books, (New York, 1982)

[iv] For an elucidation of this one might look into the dispute between C. Wright Mills and Robert Dahl in the early 1960s.  While disagreeing strongly on the details, both agree that manipulation of faction has lead to the frustration of the popular will.

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