This essay is an entry in the Handbook for Democracy, a catalog of power techniques used by elites to exercise control and undermine the democratic self-government of the people.
The most obvious and fundamental technique to exercise power is, of course, naked, physical force. Force – the direct use of violence, or the threat to do so – is the most basic way of controlling people, and many other power techniques use it or are backed up by it, directly or indirectly. Indeed for some people, freedom is defined simply as the absence of physical coercion, i.e. the use of brute force. Force has been used to control people in every large society, and it remains widespread in the modern world. It exists in institutionalized forms such as military and police forces, as well as in small-scale forms such as domestic violence and bullying.
Both the organized and unorganized forms of force run through and underlie daily life in the modern world. For example, modern, technological economies that run on petroleum have needed military intervention in unstable oil-rich states to maintain their energy supplies. As another example, hidden, small-scale violence in the home and the office has always been a key part in maintaining sexism.
Some might observe that there are also economic forms of violence, such as causing people to starve, or depriving them of income so they are threatened with starving, but in this essay I am talking about direct violence, not indirect. Those violent techniques are distinct enough to be dealt with in detail elsewhere in the handbook.
The use of force tends to undermine democracy because control of it is inevitably unequal. Democracy requires that citizens treat each other substantially as equals. But some people are always more powerful than others: some are stronger than others, have access to better weapons, lead larger, more disciplined, or more effective organizations of force, are at the top rather than the bottom of hierarchies, or otherwise have access to greater force. Those who control more force are susceptible to the temptation to use it to control other people – which is the opposite of democracy, which means the control of people over themselves, collectively.
While violence remains a technique of control in modern political societies, no set of rulers can sustain regular control of people for long only with the use of force, because it is too clumsy and crude a technique. It is inefficient, often imprecise, difficult to keep concealed, and can provoke a backlash. Repeated, sustained violence beats a people down and therefore may undermine other elite goals such as developing a high level of economic production. Furthermore, violence may be distasteful to those elites who are not sociopaths but who retain a degree of normal human empathy. Therefore ruling classes have always developed and applied other power techniques as well, which it is the purpose of the rest of this Handbook to discuss.
While today’s rulers and ruling institutions have many sophisticated techniques of control, they are still willing to use force when they believe that they can get away with it, when they believe it would be effective, and when it would not conflict with other goals. Consider how the Occupy Wall Street encampments were finally brought to an end. While that spontaneous movement initially attracted large numbers of participants, the elite used several power techniques to first weaken and then end the demonstrations. The movement was ridiculed as lazy and naive in the mainstream media and thus marginalized; Othering was used to make the protesters appear to be unpatriotic, antisocial, and alien; protestor access to material resources (such as food) was hindered; police pressure was first applied sporadically and gradually; and then, when these techniques had weakened support for Occupy Wall Street in public opinion, and reduced the number of protesters, force was used in the form of a police crackdown to disburse the remaining holdouts.
Sometimes naked force makes it harder to control people rather than easier. When the grip is tightened too much rebellion or revolution can result because people can recognize direct force for what it is, can easily attribute responsibility for its implementation, and are willing to resist it when it becomes intolerable. This is especially true when the people are used to some degree of freedom and force is used suddenly and harshly, in contrast with their usual freedom. If the use of force is ramped up gradually, over a long time, then submission by the people is more likely. But if force is applied suddenly, without warning, and particularly if it is brutal, it is more likely to result in resistance than in capitulation.
How should the demos oppose and counter naked force when it is used as a power technique against them? Traditional liberal democracy advocates first the rule of law (equally applied) to prevent small-scale force, and secondly institutional divisions and controls to prevent abuse of organized force. As James Madison said, “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Institutional controls over the use of force include the rule of law, checking and balancing of government institutions, government monopoly over use of force (reducing the danger of private armies and, to some extent, police forces), a separation of military and police forces, civilian control of the military, accountability of police forces to elected officials, and other modern institutional developments that help to ward off excessive institutionalized, organized used of force. Some of these forcible institutions themselves, such as the justice system, must of course be used to protect private citizens from the small-scale daily use of force in the form of bullying, domestic violence, etc. Thus not all uses of force are illegitimate: it is necessary to protect human and civil rights and to enforce laws legitimately made by the people to exercise force, but it must be done through the courts and legal system. But force loses its legitimately when used by a minority elite to oppress the people.
When this occurs, when checks and balances have failed, then revolution is justified to oppose force – and this has long been a part of traditional liberal democratic theory too (see John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government). When naked force is used and abused by rulers and elites against the people, then street protest, guerrilla warfare, and ultimately revolution are justified counter-techniques. At the time of this writing, protesters and the government of Ukraine are fighting it out in the streets of Kiev as the people of that country resist the increasingly forcible and authoritarian rule of Viktor Yanukovych.
This legitimacy of revolution is important to remember. In our mostly peaceful, comfortable, convenient, bourgeois world, the possibility of revolution is something that is rarely seriously considered. This is as it should be. But when governments do resort to the illegitimate, unjust, and undemocratic use of naked force, revolution is, and should be, an acceptable, legitimate technique to defend or advance democracy.