Why does the political philosophy of Charles Tilly matter today?
Charles Tilly wrote that “governments organize and, wherever possible, monopolize violence.” It is the monopoly on violence that gives the state its authority. This doesn’t mean that the state has “legitimacy” in the sense of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the regime in power. Indeed, the monopoly on violence does not say anything per se about the character of the government. Thus, democracies and dictatorships can both hold “monopolies on violence,” and that does not speak to the character of the regimes themselves. As Tilly explains, “Governments stand out from other organizations by their tendency to monopolize the concentrated means of violence. The distinction between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ force, makes no difference to the fact.”
In his essay on “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” Tilly provocatively asserts the following:
To the extent that the threats against which a given government protects its citizens are imaginary or are consequences of its own activities, the government has organized a protection racket. Since governments themselves commonly stimulate, or even fabricate threats of external war and since the repressive and extractive activities of governments often constitute the largest current threats to the livelihoods of their own citizens, many governments operate in the same way as racketeers.
There is a lot to pull from this one passage. First, let’s consider that the date this piece was published was 1985. Tilly was writing in a post-Vietnam era, and one in which Cold War politics and policy dominated foreign policy discussions. One must consider that the widespread distrust of U.S. policy in Vietnam influenced much of this type of scholarship. This is not to take away from Tilly’s point. The very revival of his thinking and scholarship suggests something interesting about our current era of geopolitics to include escalated tensions between China and Russia as well as chaos in Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and tensions with Iran.
What I find relevant to today’s domestic politics has to do with the issue of supposed “lone wolf terrorist” attacks. Whether some of these attacks should be considered terrorism is an interesting debate with significant ramifications if indeed they are acts of terrorism. Nevertheless, these attacks present an interesting moment of reflection on Tilly’s point. Is it possible that non-state actors with no immediate ties to a terrorist group can create a situation in which U.S. foreign policy would be increasingly belligerent toward foreign threats both real and imagined? The implications of which could mean a resurgence of troops to Iraq or troops deployed to Syria. The decision to deploy troops to Syria and Iraq might make sense for many strategic reasons. However, the reason I find Tilly’s analysis fascinating is due in part to the fact that another “lone wolf” mass murder might be the tipping point for the state to shore up the political capital to deploy more troops. Thus, the state would be playing politics instead of waging effective strategy. These types of policy decisions are based on reactive politics rather than proactive strategy.
How is this relevant to Tilly? The supposed “lone wolf” terrorist might not have any connection to any of the groups that we are fighting in Iraq or Syria (although a group like ISIS might claim credit for them). In this case we see a clear instance in which the state manufactures an enemy where one doesn’t exist. While the existence of ISIS and the reality of mass shootings are both equally horrendous, the state may draw a connection between the two for the sake of military financing and deployments abroad. This speaks directly to Tilly’s point, and is a clear instance of the ways in which states “monopolize violence.”
If one is concerned with my conclusions, understand that I do not think ISIS or mass shootings are issues to be ignored or not taken seriously. However, it is important to be honest about the threats we face. Honesty and trust in government depends on knowing that our elected leaders can distinguish between threats as they exist, and not fabricate them for the sake of politics.
The most disastrous example of this occurred when the U.S. made the case that there was a connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam’s regime. There was none. But, the U.S. made the case as justification for war in Iraq. Thus, then Secretary of State Colin Powell made the speech to the U.N. that propelled the reputation of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would later go on to form Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which wreaked havoc on that country for years, and whose influence is still causing havoc today.
Returning to Tilly, we see clear examples in modern times in which the state monopolizes violence by promoting enemies. It is important to understand that this doesn’t just apply to the state and its powers to wage war. There are jeremiads in all levels of government bureaucracy and in bureaucracies in general. There are people in business and in the corporate world who pander to fear and uncertainty to sell goods and services. In the world of defense appropriations, weapons are developed based on perceived future threats. The U.S. takes the lead in developing the most cutting edge technology to keep ahead of other nations. Other nations acquire U.S. technology or steal U.S. plans, and new technologies are developed. The justification remains that the U.S. needs to stay ahead or someone else will catch up, and then what… The end of America as we know it? Am I suggesting that we abandon weapons testing and development? Hardly. But, I am suggesting we abandon military procurement as the driver of both national strategy and by default military strategy. I am also advocating that we abandon inventing threats and creating enemies to drive military campaigns without a clear strategy. We’ve been down that road before, and it isn’t pretty.
My entire focus of effort is on sound national strategy. My entire reason for studying military affairs, economics, psychology, politics, etc… is to fully appreciate and understand war and strategy. Moreover, I find there is a significant lack of scholarship in military studies outside of the military establishment. There is also a concentration of military scholarship that exists within the military that is more accessible to higher ranking officers, but less so to average military personnel. I am focused on bridging these various knowledge gaps.
To make a final point on my reading of Tilly, I conclude that strategy should not be based on politics. Strategy should be based on forward planning for what we want the world to look like in the future. It is remarkable to think that one individual could spark a war through a shooting. But, it is not outside the realm of possibility. Indeed, World War I was sparked by a terrorist assassination.
Link to Charles Tilly article.
Additional Essay: “Causes of War, Peace, and Deterrence“