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Is The Modern State Inherently Oppressive And Violent Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3159 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The state as a concept has been central to the historical analysis of government and can be defined as ‘a complex institution claiming sovereignty for itself as the supreme political authority within a defined territory.’ The state institution has European origins and is historically relatively recent, which Dunleavy remarks is an ‘ineluctable feature of modernity.’ [2] Since the 1848 European revolutions the state as a result of nationalism has become increasingly more democratic representing the people and providing security. Nationalist movements despite being an integral part of the state-building process were/are notoriously aggressive, and in the French 1848 revolution peaceful protests turned violent. The state has what Weber calls a ‘monopoly on violence,’ which even in democratic society means the state can legitimately be coercive, oppressive and violent. [3] 

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In order to explore the extent to which a state is coercive, oppressive and violent it is important to discuss the nature of the progression from coercion to violence. State coercion has negative connotations and can be defined as forced involuntary action, that citizens are obliged to do something they would not choose to such as taxation. Associated with coercion is the concept of state oppression, which refers to the state using its political authority to limit the freedom of its citizens. Following on from this violence can be defined as a forceful intentional action that causes physical injury or harm. Violence, oppression and coercion are associated with power, both hard power; forced direct power and soft power; influential more indirect power. This essay views the concepts of violence, oppression and coercion as stages of state domination, where coercion is the primary level, and can lead to oppression which can then lead to violence. Although it should be noted that historians ‘do not agree exactly what constitutes violence.’ [4] 

The concepts of violence, oppression and coercion are linked to internal and external national warfare, as well as the concepts of a nation and nationalism which directly correlates to the state as an institution. This is because the state governs the nations where a nation refers to a cultural and ethnic grouping of people within a specific territory. Hall links the idea of a state to that of a nation commenting that ‘stateness’ has been an aspiration for every nation.’ [5] The aim to achieve a nation arguably owes its existence to nationalist movements, and nationalism can be seen as a social movement with an ideology that aims to achieve a nation-state. Breuilly emphasises the connection between a nation and nationalism commenting that ‘nationalism is inconceivable without the state.’ [6] These concepts will be examined to show how the state can use the conception of a nation-state and the move of nationalism in a coercive, oppressive and violent manner. Although the origin of the state as an institution can be seen as far back as the Roman Empire, this evaluation of the state will focus on state formation from the eighteenth and nineteenth century onwards in order to contextualise examples in a European context. The main topics this paper will address in are, the history of the state, the modern state in Germany post World War One and the nature of the colonial state in India, in order to determine the extent to which the state is inherently coercive, oppressive and violent.

The historical foundation of the idea of a state goes back as far as Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) which described need for absolutism and sovereignty because the state of nature was prone to war. According to Hobbes the state as an institution needed to enforce a hierarchical system that gave the state absolute authority in order to maintain stability and relative peace. For Hobbes every individual seeks ‘firstly competition; secondly diffidence; thirdly glory,’ and therefore conflict is inevitable and rational. [7] The fact that the state represents a nation and reflects this human nature means that the state also seeks power and self-preservation which can manifest itself in a coercive and potentially violent manner.’ [8] Hobbes points out that states ‘seek not peace but war,’ which explains why the history of state formation is intrinsically linked to the development of warfare, weaponry innovation, new military technology and the establishment of a standing in army in the sixteenth century. In order to fund war, monarchs like Louis XIV were motivated to organise small communities into larger groups, to allow for the efficient collection of taxes. The idea of a sovereign state was then consolidated during the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) forming what is known as the Westphalian state system. Corresponding to this explanation of the origins of the state Tilly describes war as ‘the greatest state building activity,’ [9] and his argument is that the state and warfare have a cyclical relationship in that states have been arguably created through war; and warfare is also initiated by states. Tilly goes on to explain that it was through warfare that a state gained their legitimate authority, because warfare was portrayed as a necessary means to protect citizens from external threats, which justified taxation. Thus it can be argued that because the state has its origins in warfare, coercion that can materialise into violence is part of the state’s inherent nature.

As well a historical understanding of the state’s nature the liberalism, Marxism and realism highlight the theoretical understanding of the nature of the state. The liberal viewpoint views the state as a necessary institution that represents the people and maintains peace and the political and economic stability of a nation. However it can be said that despite liberal normative intentions the state can also be seen as inherently coercive. This is because in order to maintain unity and peace it controls the lives of citizens which Nagengast argues is ‘unavoidable and necessary.’ [10] The Marxist interpretation of the state is that it is an oppressive institution that promotes division by favouring bourgeois interests and exploiting the working class. Breuilly agrees noting that the state is the ‘institutionalisation of class and interest group conflict.’ [11] In contrast to the liberal and Marxist views of the state, the realist perspective regards the state as the most important legitimate political authority. Realists see the state as self-maximising and in agreement with Hobbes Wolfgang observes that ‘a nation wants power more than anything else.’ [12] It is the pursuit of power that facilitates the nation-state’s coercive character, because power induces coercion. The liberal, Marxist and realist portrayal of the nature of the state all highlight the functional importance of the state, however they also recognise the coercive nature of the state, seeking control and power and causing division. Thus it can be argued that from a theoretical perspective the state is inherently coercive and has the potential to be oppressive and violent. Hall supports this point explaining that one of the key features of the state is ‘the means of violence and coercion.’ [13] 

The theoretical explanations of the modern democratic state are found in the Enlightenment which questioned absolute monarchy and laid the foundations for democracy. In the nineteenth century the democratic state was intended to be accountable to the people, however accountability does not prevent the state from being coercive, oppressive or violent and the Germany state is a good illustration of this. At the beginning of the twentieth century after Germany’s defeat in World War in (1918) the German economy was extremely weak, and this was worsened by very high reparation payments to the Allies. The result was a political and economic crisis that allowed Adolf Hitler to become chancellor in 1933. The realist perspective would see Nazi Germany’s pursuit of power in an anarchic international environment as the result of competition, which Hobbes views as the state of nature that forces states to actively ensure their survival. In this respect the state system accommodated the legitimate election of Hitler a dictator who accumulated power in the name of nationalism.

The Nazi government committed genocide during World War Two, a clearly violent act that lead to the death of over six million Jews. Thus even democracy does not limit the state’s means to be violent. Mann discusses the violent nature of the modern democratic state explaining that democratic nation-states’ seek national unity in the form of homogeneity. However homogeneity becomes associated with an ethnic-nationalism that is exclusive and can lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Mann comments that ‘democracy has always carried with it the possibility that the majority might tyrannize minorities.’ [14] In line with Mann argument about the violent nature of the modern democratic state, it can be said that the state as an institution has the capacity to be violent. Although the state has the potential to be violent, it would be incorrect to assume that every state is inherently violent. However the state does have the means to be oppressive, and under the Nazi regime, fascist policies oppressed Jews and other minorities, who were forcibly sent to concentration camps. Nazi ideology can be described as totalitarian and reveals the fact that the state had/has sufficient political power that in the wrong hands could lead to significant oppression. Hall sustains this argument observing that ‘power has its own attractions, and is capable of being abused.’ [15] 

However to see the state as inherently oppressive would also paint an inaccurate picture of the innate nature of the state. The state as well as being potentially violent and oppressive has a coercive character that was also displayed in Germany after 1918. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 ‘institutional coercion dominated,’ the combination of his charisma and the state system allowed nationalism to be manipulated. [16] It is important to take into account the fact that there is an inseparable overlap between structure (state) and agency and there continues to be a debate as whether the agent (Hitler) or the structure causes state coercion, oppression and violence. It appears that in Germany during this period the state’s violent nature did not always manifest itself because the extent, to which a state is oppressive, is dependent on the agent. However it can be maintained that the state is inherently coercive, with the capacity to be oppressive and violent. This is because the state structure does not limit an individual’s ability to be oppressive and violent, but facilitates coercion.

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The Westphalian state system of modern states was not limited to Europe. It was exported to the colonies, forming colonial state institutions that were dependent on the metropolis. Colonial states were formed through the European progression to formalised rule, motivated by the “civilising mission” where Europeans influenced by social Darwinism, believed that they were bringing civilisation and progress to barbaric people. The shift and maintenance of formalised rule involved political, military and diplomatic intervention and this was true of India when the British Raj was established. In 1857 the nationalist rebellion by Indian soldiers challenged the British East India Company’s supremacy and the British response was to put down the mutiny forcefully and violently. [17] In this case the British colonial state was able to enforce its rule, legitimately according to Britain, despite not having the consent of the governed and it can be said that clearly the colonial state had a violent nature. Giddens supports this point observing that ‘the use of force in the process of governing,’ was often necessary. [18] Although the colonial state can be said to have a violent nature, violence was not necessarily an overt feature of every colonial state and is therefore not intrinsically part of the state as an institution.

In India oppression was debatably more a feature of colonial rule than violence, in that because the British saw themselves as superior, colonial citizens or ‘subjects’ as they were known, were not given equal rights. For example, the British colonial authorities seized Indian land with no regard for the Indian population, causing a famine at the end of the nineteenth century. [19] Another example of colonial oppression was at the beginning of World War Two, when Lord Linlithgow declared war on Germany on behalf of India without any consultation. This can be seen as both oppressive and violent because it reduced the autonomy of Indians and effectively lead the Indian Army to their death. With regard to India the colonial state can be said to facilitate oppression, limiting the freedom of Indian citizens. Graeme links the oppressive nature of the modern state to the colonial state pointing out that ‘the western state form was spread across the globe in a carry bag of imperialism.’ [20] 

Although the colonial state often manifested the oppressive and violent nature of the state, it would be presumptuous to assume that the colonial state was inherently violent and oppressive. Instead the India example illustrates how the colonial state is inherently coercive founded by force. In India before British rule was formalised in 1853 The British East India Company pioneered negotiations with local leaders such as Mir Jafar. These negotiations resulted in Jafar’s betrayal of the Nawab dynasty and marked the beginning of colonialism in the Indian provinces. Here the foundations of the Indian colonial institution were built upon the partnership between Jafar and British forces which can be viewed as coercive serving only the interest of Jafar and the British. The Marxist world systems theory highlights the inherently coercive nature of the colonial state serving the British core and exploiting the Indian Periphery. Giddens agrees that the state is inherently coercive and explains that coercion was ‘the medium of government.’ [21] Thus it can be argued that the Indian colonial state manifested the exported inherently coercive nature of the modern state allowing the state to be oppressive and violent.

In conclusion this essay has argued that the state is inherently coercive and has the potential and capacity to be oppressive and violent. The history of the modern state of the nineteenth century onwards has illustrated how, through nationalist movements, coercion is an integral part of the state system. Hay sustains this conclusion commenting that ‘in these initial stages of its development the state was largely despotic and coercive.’ [22] The German and Indian examples have shown how in both the European and colonial context the state maintains its’ innate coercive and forceful character. Although the agency structure debate arguably demonstrates the fact that the manifestation of violence and oppression is largely dependent on who is in power, it can be maintained that every state because it is based on the same Westphalian state system has the power and potential to be coercive, oppressive and violent. However it is important to take into consideration the fact that a state’s coercive nature does not mean that violence and oppression are inevitable. Mazower highlights an important point observing that ‘we need not to write off the violent state but to understand better what it does and how it behaves.’ [23] In agreement Hall notes that the state is a ‘necessary instrument,’ that despite being inherently coercive is a pivotal aspect of historical analysis of warfare, nationalism and the nation. [24] 


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