20 November 2011

War made the state, and the state university made war

Conor comments on the situation at UC-Davis, in which police dispatched by the University's chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, tear-gassed peaceful demonstrators.

You can see the video here: As the authors at the Edge of the American West comment, what is most chilling is that the campus police officer "looks utterly nonchalant, for all the world as if he were hosing aphids off a rose bush. The scene bespeaks a lack of basic human empathy, an utter intolerance for dissent, or perhaps both."

Conor argues that this shows that we should not believe that institutions ameliorate violence:

None of that means, of course, that police brutality is excusable in the context of positive liberal laws like ours. We can certainly expect and demand better, even if we understand—with Hobbes—that such violence is always lurking.

Indeed, this sort of incident actually shows why Hobbes’ prescriptions don’t match his critique. Humans are just as violent when they take the reins of power. We are every bit as dangerous when wearing a police uniform as when we are outside a community of laws.

In the universe of American political thought, I would argue that there are two responses to this. The first, catalogued ably recently by Radley Balko, is the view that Conor is wrong: that we are much more dangerous when in uniform than when we are individuals. And the twentieth century supports this view quite well. Without uniforms, and the vast organizations they represent, there is no possibility of a Holocaust, of a Great Leap Forward, of a Hiroshima.

I do not imply a moral equivalence among the regimes responsible for those acts. But it is both trivially true that they could not have taken place without states (no individual or voluntary collective could carry out such mobilizations of resources) and more profoundly true that we cannot debate the moral equivalence of such acts without ascribing agency and intentionality to institutions (the "United States" launching a nuclear attack on "Japan" is more than just a shorthand for referring to the actions of certain crew members of a certain plane dropping a certain bomb on a certain town; it is also reflective of how our analytic categories constrain and permit judgment). In any case, however, it is clear that the resources of violence available to individuals within institutions are vastly, astronomically, greater than the resources for violence available to individuals outside of institutions.

The second response to Conor is to take the first response as granted and to ask why some massive institutions (Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia) are far more coercive than other massive institutions (Canada, Norway). And this is important, because the answer suggests why we find relatively modest applications of force by campus police officers against students far more shocking (or, maybe, just as shocking) as the routine application of coercion by "real" police officers elsewhere. After all, at least part of this story has to do with something that Hobbes never considered fully, and that is the issue of legitimacy--of the right to rule in the sense that Weber defined the term.

It is not the actual fact of violence that should concern us. It is the illegitimacy of that coercion. And illegitimate use of force must be met with both moral condemnation and actual signals of disapproval from the community.

Thus, it is less productive for us to discuss the general tendencies to violence of the Hobbesian state, and far more productive for us to call for the obvious: that the Regents of the University of California, Davis campus, should fire Linda P.B. Katehi, Chief of Campus Police Annette Spicuzza, and Lieutenant John Pike of the UC-Davis Campus Police immediately, for cause, and without a severance package.

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