TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Understanding Our Violence

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Yonathan Listik looks Norbert Elias’s “Civilization and Violence: On the State Monopoly of Physical Violence and its Infringements,” from Telos 54 (Winter 1982).

Norbert Elias’s argument in “Civilization and Violence: On the State Monopoly of Physical Violence and its Infringements” is especially helpful for understanding the developments of terrorism, and it also applies to contemporary phenomena such as the war on drugs. He contends that placing the monopoly of violence in the hands of the state comes from a desire of harmonization. The assumption is that stability depends on an imposed self-discipline. That is, the state represents the interests of the collective and should provide for it. This is very enlightening considering the assumptions in the “war on drugs.”

The first and perhaps most important lesson he provides concerning violence is that “[t]error and horror hardly appear in such societies without a long social process of disintegration. All too often the naked act of violence as a group goal, with or without governmental legitimation, is analyzed with the help of short-term static explanations. That may make sense, if one is not really seeking explanation but only attempting to establish guilt. For it is easy to see barbarity and de-civilization as the expression of personal decision” (150). The essential lesson to be taken here is the idea that violence should be seen as a social process and not as simple natural aggressiveness.

Elias perhaps chooses the most violent and psychotic scenario in order to show that even in this situation there is a rationale behind it. He shows that the rise of Hitler has social roots that are not always clear. The underlying argument is that the same reasons present then are still present in his time as in his example of the extremely ironic violent activities by the peace movements. This logic can also be seen today in some parts of society.

An extremely disillusioned population that does not see its representative in the state is bound to enter a vicious cycle. Every action toward change is unsuccessful reinforcing the disillusion. Aggressiveness rises, generating even more aggressive responses. The idea is that more often than not these terrorist groups are weaker and less organized then the state-controlled responses. So the cycle pushes them deeper in marginalization. His example of the free corps may be the exception at first glance. But on a deeper analysis, their success might be associated with two causes. First, they were originally the state official violence management, so they had the skills that others groups might lack. Second, their success, in the end, was deeply conditioned by change of discourse from the original nobility based toward a global Germanic appeal in Hitler’s rise to power. Still their campaign at the Baltic proved that in the end the state showed itself to be stronger.

The issues present in drug dealing often have a similar structure. These are mostly marginal communities (blacks in North America or the trench town population in South America) that are not represented by the state or do not see in it a safeguard. The users and even the dealers originally did not make use of violence to ensure their business. With time the state started applying violence toward them. This pushed them into making use of violent measures in response. One of the central issues today is perhaps the fact that this war has gone so far that even non-violence from drug users is treated with violence by the state.

Elias’s phrase is especially relevant because he calls on us to understand the deep issues of marginalization that create the acts of violence and the complete abstraction from state law. It would be easy to take the example of a drug user who, despite receiving a comprehensive treatment, still engages in violence in order to satisfy his desire. This would turn into precisely the guilt game that Elias described, instead of taking the deep meaning of his actions into consideration. We would be pretending that his original marginalized situation had no involvement in his actions and that it is his natural instinct for violence, triggered by his dependency, that created the issue. In Elias’s own words: “it is not aggressiveness that triggers conflicts but conflicts that trigger aggressiveness. Our habits of thought generate the expectation that everything we seek to explain about people can be explained in terms of isolated individuals. It is evidently hard to adjust thinking and thus also the explanatory expectation on the basis of how people are interconnected in groups, i.e., on the basis of social structures. Conflicts are aspects of social structures” (134–35).

Elias’s theory is very illuminating for two reasons. It provides us with a more ethical posture. Small conflicts may be resolved without violence and therefore without escalating into a more complicated situation. This causes it to be more effective too. Since the situation does not escalate, the need to investments in law enforcement decreases.

Read the full version of Norbert Elias’s “Civilization and Violence: On the State Monopoly of Physical Violence and its Infringements,” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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