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Social Movements and State Violence

From the Arab Spring to the international “Occupy Movement,” we have recently witnessed how state govenments clash with disgruntled citizens who are fed up with their lack of life chances for upward social mobility. In this post, David Mayeda examines how Max Weber’s theoretical positions on authority, power, and violence apply to the recent disturbances in and around London, England, and Davis, California.

Have you ever felt unfairly treated by a parent, boss, coach, or another authority figure? After being mistreated, did you feel like that authority figure shouldn’t be granted so much power over you? No doubt this is a situation most, if not all of us, have probably experienced a number of times in our lives. We can expand this social dynamic beyond the interpersonal level to understand broader social movements.

Max Weber, a founding figure in sociology, argued that authority is the use of power that is perceived as legitimate by the rest of society. Weber said that authority could be divided into three types: traditional, charismatic, and legal-rational. Previously my colleague discussed charismatic authority, but in this post I will focus on legal-rational authority, where authority is formally institutionalized.

This may occur in workplaces (a superior has authority over a subordinate), on sports teams (a coach has authority over athletes), in state governments (a politician can vote on laws impacting citizens), and in state roles (a police officer has authority over the average citizen). Legal-rational authority is accepted by the greater society (or at least the majority of it) because it has been formally built into the society’s political system.

On Friday police on the campus of University of California Davis were video taped using pepper spray at point blank range on protestors who were sitting on the ground. (see video, below):

In August Mark Duggan, a black Londoner, was fatally shot by a member of the municipal police. Once it was revealed that Duggan had not fired on the police, waves of protests and looting spread across the greater London area. A portion of the looting appeared to reflect selfish materialistic values. However, politically-driven protests were motivated by the belief that Duggan’s death symbolized the larger mistreatment of black residents’ by state police. Plus the government has recently been cutting social programs during the ongoing global recession.

In response to the disturbances, state police intervened, supported by Prime Minister David Cameron who asserted and intensified his legal-rational authority (see video, below):

Among other key statements Prime Minister Cameron says, “We will not allow a culture of fear to exist on our streets…. Whatever resources the police need, they will get. Whatever tactics the police feel they need to employ, they will have legal backing to do so. We will do whatever is necessary to restore law and order on our streets.” In short, to address the disturbances, police violence is granted further state support.

So what would Weber say about state-sanctioned violence like this? Using Weber’s theoretical framework, we can see how understandings of authority can be interpreted differently by different people and how those granted legal-rational authority may not always offer a balanced approach to state crises.

Weber coined the term “paradox of authority” to describe what happens when the state, who has the legal right to use violence on its citizens, uses violence to force its citizens to obey its authority. As a result of this over use of violence, the state loses its legitimacy. In other words, the state can use violence on its people up to the point where it is seen as abusive. Put even more simply, when the state kills a murderer all is well, but if the state kills anyone who questions the government they lose their legitimacy.

In both Davis and London, the state is losing its sense of legitimate authority when unleashing violence on political demonstrators. Now stuck in the paradox of authority, it is the state that becomes increasingly identified as oppressive and criminogenic, unfairly using its power to suppress public dissent. Returning to the earlier analogy, after using its power to enact violence, the state becomes the unfair parent, boss, or coach, who many say should not hold such extensive power. This social dynamic illustrates precisely why the state must provide for all its citizens’ concerns if it will also be granted the implicit right to inflict violence on them. Demonstrators in Davis and London clearly feel the state never provided fairly for them in the first place.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Do you perceive the use of pepper spray at UC Davis as legitimate? Is this a good example of the paradox of authority? Explain.
  2. What happens in the workplace when an employer or manager uses coercion (i.e. using force or threats) to control employees?
  3. Your teacher has legal-rational authority over you. Give some examples of things your teacher could do that are legal, but if they did them it would really make you question the legitimacy of their authority.
  4. When the state is questioned or when protestors disrupt parts of society how do you believe the state should respond? When is the use of violence justified and up to what point?