Thursday, February 20, 2014

Handbook for Democracy: Force

This essay is an entry in the Handbook for Democracy, a catalog of power techniques used by elites to exercise control and undermine the democratic self-government of the people.

The most obvious and fundamental technique to exercise power is, of course, naked, physical force. Force - the direct use of violence, or the threat to do so - is the most basic way of controlling people, and many other power techniques use it or are backed up by it, directly or indirectly. Indeed for some people, freedom is defined simply as the absence of physical coercion, i.e. the use of brute force. Force has been used to control people in every large society, and it remains widespread in the modern world. It exists in institutionalized forms such as military and police forces, as well as in small-scale forms such as domestic violence and bullying. 

Both the organized and unorganized forms of force run through and underlie daily life in the modern world. For example, modern, technological economies that run on petroleum have needed military intervention in unstable oil-rich states to maintain their energy supplies. As another example, hidden, small-scale violence in the home and the office has always been a key part in maintaining sexism.

Some might observe that there are also economic forms of violence, such as causing people to starve, or depriving them of income so they are threatened with starving, but in this essay I am talking about direct violence, not indirect. Those violent techniques are distinct enough to be dealt with in detail elsewhere in the handbook.

The use of force tends to undermine democracy because control of it is inevitably unequal. Democracy requires that citizens treat each other substantially as equals. But some people are always more powerful than others: some are stronger than others, have access to better weapons, lead larger, more disciplined, or more effective organizations of force, are at the top rather than the bottom of hierarchies, or otherwise have access to greater force. Those who control more force are susceptible to the temptation to use it to control other people – which is the opposite of democracy, which means the control of people over themselves, collectively.