State Violence

We propose a Berkeley working group on the nature of State Violence.  Since Weber, the concept of violence has been constitutive of the idea of statehood, insofar as the state is characterized by its claimed monopoly on the right to exercise violence.  We think of state violence typically as associated with the direct use of coercive, and frequently lethal, force in the context of law enforcement and military operations.  The ideal of the rule of law, central to the self-understanding of liberal democracy, takes as its first goal the control of state violence, channeling it through strict rules of engagement and limited by “necessity.”

Many observers, however, have come to think of violence in less manifest forms as deeply woven through practices and policies of even liberal democratic states.

State violence, in this broader sense, includes the many indirect ways in which state authorities preserve their power and discipline their subjects.  How a state allocates access to basic goods might be thought of as a form of violence, since denial of such access has comparable effects on human life.  Similarly, status hierarchies can be created and maintained by state authorities through various forms of labeling and categorization, with the effects of subordinating different classes of subjects; such activities might also be thought of as forms of “structural” political violence. 

Clearly, the notion of state violence, and the rhetorical force that comes with the word, is broad and contestable.  Indeed, the rhetorical success of a broad notion of violence stems from its indeterminacy, as well as from the ease with which analogical or extended forms of violence can be claimed and identified.  But that rhetorical expansiveness comes at an analytical price.  While a notion of violence restricted to immediate physical impact may be too narrow, the notion must have some contours and exclusions to do useful critical and explanatory work. 

A careful understanding of the contours of state violence is especially important to the project of “exiting violence,” which we understand as the goal of reducing or eliminating the states reliance on covert and over violence as a means of governance.  Such a goal depends upon understanding some forms of governance as non-violent.  Thus, we propose an analytical investigation of the idea of state violence, as a way of marking its territory and revealing alternative possibilities.  Our investigation will be both conceptual/philosophical and empirical, oriented around examining specific contexts of state violence, including criminal justice, the use of military force, and economic exclusion, reflecting the diversity of interests of the members of the project. 

In particular, we propose investigating the following questions, with a group of researchers drawn from both humanistic (theoretical) and social scientific traditions.  We anticipate work that is both narrowly collaborative (co-authored) and broadly collegial, reflecting cross-disciplinary exchanges.

-- What are the best frames, in political, social, and moral theory, for thinking about the nature of violence in general, and in its relation to the state?

-- What are the forms of violence engaged in by the state, or by individuals acting on behalf of the state?

-- Are forms of coercive hierarchy and oppression properly understood as forms of violence, structural or otherwise?  Are there non-physical forms of violence?

-- What is the basis on which state representatives (that is, soldiers and police) are entitled to use deadly force, domestically or internationally?  How is this basis related to a general idea of a permission to use lethal force in self-defense?

--How is state violence racially constructed and how does it shape racial formation?

--How do state actors from judges to police officers participate in and embody state violence through the criminal justice system and in other legal and extra-legal mechanisms?

---How is state violence in the US shaped by the markedly lower degree of monopoly over violence wielded by formal government as compared to other modern democracies?

-- How does violence (direct or structural) manifest itself within the criminal justice system?  Is violence essential to policing (can you have a police service rather than a police force)?  Is it essential to punishment (is punishment the equivalent of torture and thus unintelligible to the punished as Robert Cover thought, or can it be meaningful dialogic process as Anthony Duff has suggested)?

-- What forms of violence are used by destination states in order to control immigration, especially by refugees fleeing violence in home states?  What alternatives to violence exist as means of regulating and channeling large flows of refugees?

-- What alternatives to violence are there in classic state functions of domestic policing and international security?

-- What features of political institutions might reduce reliance on direct, overt violence?  What features might make it harder for structural violence (assuming that is a meaningful category) to hide within state institutions?

-- What have been the most effective ways for state subjects (citizens and residents) to induce a reduction in state violence?