The state rests its power on a monopoly of violence. Indeed, in the final analysis a state is nothing but a monopoly of violence. Even when a state does good things, like tax to provide healthcare, it ultimately depends on its ability to employ violence to enforce the collection of the tax. Arrest and imprisonment is, absolutely, violence. We may not recognise it as violence, but if you try to resist arrest and imprisonment you will quickly see that it is violence. Whether or not blows are struck or arms twisted to get someone there, or they go quietly under threat, confining somebody behind concrete and steel is violence.
I use the case of tax evasion and healthcare to show that I am merely analysing that the state rests on violence deliberately. I am not claiming that the violence of the state is a bad thing in itself. I just want you to recognise that the state rests on violence. Try not paying your taxes for a few years, and try refusing to be arrested and go to court. You will, ultimately, encounter real violence on your person.
John Pilger gave a harrowing account of the everyday application of state violence at the Free the Truth meeting at which I spoke last week. Here is an extract from his speech describing his visit to Julian Assange:
I joined a queue of sad, anxious people, mostly poor women and children, and grandmothers. At the first desk, I was fingerprinted, if that is still the word for biometric testing.
“Both hands, press down!” I was told. A file on me appeared on the screen.
I could now cross to the main gate, which is set in the walls of the prison. The last time I was at Belmarsh to see Julian, it was raining hard. My umbrella wasn’t allowed beyond the visitors centre. I had the choice of getting drenched, or running like hell. Grandmothers have the same choice.
At the second desk, an official behind the wire, said, “What’s that?”
“My watch,” I replied guiltily.
“Take it back,” she said.
So I ran back through the rain, returning just in time to be biometrically tested again. This was followed by a full body scan and a full body search. Soles of feet; mouth open.
At each stop, our silent, obedient group shuffled into what is known as a sealed space, squeezed behind a yellow line. Pity the claustrophobic; one woman squeezed her eyes shut.
We were then ordered into another holding area, again with iron doors shutting loudly in front of us and behind us.
“Stand behind the yellow line!” said a disembodied voice.
Another electronic door slid partly open; we hesitated wisely. It shuddered and shut and opened again. Another holding area, another desk, another chorus of, “Show your finger!”
Then we were in a long room with squares on the floor where we were told to stand, one at a time. Two men with sniffer dogs arrived and worked us, front and back.
The dogs sniffed our arses and slobbered on my hand. Then more doors opened, with a new order to “hold out your wrist!”
A laser branding was our ticket into a large room, where the prisoners sat waiting in silence, opposite empty chairs. On the far side of the room was Julian, wearing a yellow arm band over his prison clothes.
As a remand prisoner he is entitled to wear his own clothes, but when the thugs dragged him out of the Ecuadorean embassy last April, they prevented him bringing a small bag of belongings. His clothes would follow, they said, but like his reading glasses, they were mysteriously lost.
For 22 hours a day, Julian is confined in “healthcare”. It’s not really a prison hospital, but a place where he can be isolated, medicated and spied on. They spy on him every 30 minutes: eyes through the door. They would call this “suicide watch”.
In the adjoining cells are convicted murderers, and further along is a mentally ill man who screams through the night. “This is my One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” he said.
When we greet each other, I can feel his ribs. His arm has no muscle. He has lost perhaps 10 to 15 kilos since April. When I first saw him here in May, what was most shocking was how much older he looked.
We chat with his hand over his mouth so as not to be overheard. There are cameras above us. In the Ecuadorean embassy, we used to chat by writing notes to each other and shielding them from the cameras above us. Wherever Big Brother is, he is clearly frightened.
On the walls are happy-clappy slogans exhorting the prisoners to “keep on keeping on” and “be happy, be hopeful and laugh often”.
The only exercise he has is on a small bitumen patch, overlooked by high walls with more happy-clappy advice to enjoy ‘the blades of grass beneath your feet’. There is no grass.
He is still denied a laptop and software with which to prepare his case against extradition. He still cannot call his American lawyer, or his family in Australia.
The incessant pettiness of Belmarsh sticks to you like sweat.
You can see John give the speech here:
Assange’s “crime”, of course, is to reveal the illegal use of force by the state in Iraq and Afghanistan. That the state feels the need to employ such violence against somebody who has never practised violence, is a striking illustration that violence constitutes the very fabric of the state.
Just as we are not conditioned to recognise the violence of the state as violence, we do not always recognise resistance to the state as violence. If you bodily blockade a road, a tube station or a building with the intention to prevent somebody else from physically passing through that space, that is an act of physical force, of violence. It may be a low level of violence, but violence it is. Extinction Rebellion represents a challenge to the state’s claim to monopolise violence, which is why the Metropolitan Police – a major instrument of state domestic violence – were so anxious to declare the activity illegal on a wide scale.
Ultimately civil resistance represents a denial of the state’s right to enforce its monopoly of violence. The Hong Kong protests represent a striking demonstration of the fact that rejecting the state’s monopoly of violence can entail marching without permission, occupying a space, blockading and ultimately replying to bullets with firebombs, and that these actions are a continuum. It is the initial rejection of the state’s power over your body which is the decision point.
Just as I used the example of tax evasion and healthcare to demonstrate that the state’s use of violence is not always bad, I use the example of Extinction Rebellion to demonstrate that the assertion of physical force, against the state’s claim to monopoly of it, is not always bad either.
We are moving into an era of politics where the foundations of consent which underpin western states are becoming less stable. The massive growth in wealth inequality has led to an alienation of large sections of the population from the political system. The political economy works within a framework which is entirely an artificial construct of states, and ultimately is imposed by the states’ monopoly of force. For the last four decades, that framework has been deliberately fine-tuned to enable the massive accumulation of wealth by a very small minority and to reduce the access to share of economic resource by the broad mass of the people.
The inevitable consequence is widespread economic discontent and a resultant loss of respect for the political class. The political class are tasked with the management of the state apparatus, and popular discontent is easily personalised – it concentrates on the visible people rather than the institutions. But if the extraordinary wealth imbalance of society continues to worsen, it is only a matter of time before that discontent undermines respect for political institutions. In the UK, once it becomes plain that leaving the EU has not improved the lot of those whose socio-economic standing has been radically undercut, the discontent will switch to other institutions of government.
In Scotland, we shall have an early test of the state’s right to the monopoly of force if the Westminster government insists on attempting to block a new referendum on Independence, against the will of the Scottish people. In Catalonia, the use of violence against those simply trying to vote in a referendum was truly shocking.
This has been followed up by the extreme state violence of vicious jail sentences against the leaders of the entirely nonviolent Catalan independence movement. As I stated we do not always recognise state violence. But locking you up in a small cell for years is a worse act of violence on your body even than the shocking but comparatively brief treatment of the woman voter in the photo. It is a case of chronic or acute state violence.
Where the use of violence by a state is fundamentally unjust, there is every moral right to employ violence against the state. Whether or not to do so becomes a tactical, not a moral, question. There is a great deal of evidence that non-violent protest, or protest using the real but low levels of physical force employed by Extinction Rebellion, can be in the long term the most effective. But opinions differ legitimately. Gandhi took one view, and Nelson Mandela another. The media has sanitised the image of Mandela, but it is worth remembering that he was jailed not for non-violent protest, but for taking up violent resistance to white rule, in which I would say he was entirely justified at the time.
To date, the Catalan people and their leaders appear firmly wedded to the tactic of non-violence. That is their choice and their right, and I support them in that choice. But having suffered so much violence, and with no democratic route available for their right of self-determination, the Catalans have the moral right, should they so choose, to resist, by violence, the violence of the Spanish state. I should however clarify that does not extend to indiscriminate attack on entirely innocent people, which in my view is not a moral choice.
All of which of course has obvious implications should a Westminster government seek to block the Scottish people from expressing their inalienable right of self-determination following the election. Which fascinating subject I shall return to once again in January. Be assured meantime I am not presently close to advocating a tactic of violence in Scotland. But nor will I ever say the Scottish people do not ultimately have that right if denied democratic self-expression. To say otherwise would be to renounce the Declaration of Arbroath, a founding document of European political thought.
As western states face popular discontent and are losing consent of the governed, one of the state’s reactions is to free up its use of force. Conservative election promises to give members of the UK armed forces effective immunity from prosecution for war crimes or for illegal use of force, should be seen in this light. So also, of course, should the use of agents not primarily employed by the state to impose extreme violence on behalf of the state. The enforcers of the vicious system John Pilger encountered were employed by Serco, G4S or a similar group, to remove the state one step from any control upon their actions (and of course to allow yet more private profit to the wealthy). Similar contractors regularly visit strong violence on immigrants selected for deportation. The ultimate expression of this was the disgusting employment by the British and American governments of mercenary forces, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, to deploy brutal and uncontrolled violence on the local population.
The pettiness of the election campaign, its failure to address fundamental issues due to the ability of the mainstream media to determine and manipulate the political agenda, has led me to think about the nature of the state at a much more basic level. I do not claim we are beyond the early stages of a breakdown in social consent to be ruled; and I expect the immediate response of the system will be a lurch towards right wing authoritarianism, which ultimately will make the system still less stable.
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