Structural Violence and OWS

Nov 15, 2011 | 15 minutes read

Tags: structural violence, ows, occupy

I’ve been thinking about structural violence, especially as it relates to systems of human organization. This was prompted by David Graeber’s excellent 2006 essay “Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity,” (available here and elsewhere: in which he argues, among other things, that states tend to diffuse their monopoly on violence through bureaucratic abstractions. What I want to explore is the question of whether we can say that such bureaucratic abstractions in fact reduce the level of structural violence in a society or whether the total structural violence remains the same. Further, I am interested in whether the diffusion of violence has any effect on or is affected by the subversive acts available to participants in the system, and how well tolerated subversive acts might be, especially in light of the Occupy movement.

First let’s establish a bit of background. The violence theory is well-known, having been posited most famously by Max Weber. In Weber’s theory, a functioning state is defined as one that retains its monopoly on violence. We need dig very little to understand what this means. Primarily this violence manifests itself in the protection of property and the enforcement of contracts. Violence takes the form of deprivation of life or liberty (whether physical, social or economic). In Weber’s view, this violence is part of the natural order of human organization and therefore necessary to a functioning state and, by extension, a healthy society. Contrast this with, for instance, Yochai Benkler’s observations in The Penguin and the Leviathan, which suggest that cooperation is more common than selfish pursuit (that is, in any given situation, about 50% of the people involved will cooperate with one another while 30% will pursue their own self-interest; the same person will react differently in different situations).

Intuition holds that, in a system where a known and relatively fixed percentage of people will pursue their own self-interest (sometimes these are called cheaters; in deference to Bruce Schneier, let’s call all such persons cheaters) while a majority of people will or can be persuaded to cooperate, the system should be constructed in such a way that the harm any cheaters can do is minimized. This is accomplished through explicit laws and norming, with their various threats of punishment (imprisonment, ostracism, or heavy fines). These are obvious forms of violence. But note what this also says. Implicit in the act and expectation of cooperation is the same threat of violence, wherein those who do not cooperate or who do not cooperate properly are punished. Thus I am inclined to agree with Weber, though I hesitate to defend bureaucracies outright.

Now, if even cooperation carries threat of violence, how can we escape structural violence in our systems of organization? The short answer is that we can’t. The longer answer is that we could, but we would have to change some fundamental aspects of our humanity, perhaps something we can evolve eventually. The ultimate subversion of human organized systems, which, after all, flow from our social nature, is to maximize one’s non-participation in those systems. There are clear lessons from past instances of such subversive acts, however, and their major theme is that non-participation is rarely practicable without enticing great harm on oneself. If one were to reject all such human organized systems, rejecting even one’s own social nature, and somehow avoiding the violence inherent in those systems intended to keep one at least within the fringe, the only structure capable of exacting any sort of violence on the self is nature (in which case, suicide is the only way out; thanks, Ozzy). Natural violence doesn’t have the same sort of meaning behind it, though.

The violence of human systems of organization is an emergent property of that organization. Organically, it manifests in the collection of individuals into a family, tribe, and clan structure. Historically these have been largely patriarchal (many examples survive today), and the violence inherent in these systems was (and is) very visible, resting as it does on some authority figure (a patriarch, for instance). The formation of tribes and clans can be seen as a stimulus response where protection from outsiders and/or natural forces was necessary and desirable. Cooperation in this structure can literally mean the difference between life and death for the members of the family, tribe, or clan, and so strict enforcement of cooperative norming becomes a necessity to maintaining vitality. Pursuits of order only arise later, as these social structures eventually coagulate into more abstract structures.

As systems becomes larger, the anonymity of the participants relative to one another increases. This increasing facelessness requires a different stimulus response, but not less violence. The survival of individuals, families, and even clans is no longer the goal, but rather, it is the survival of the structure that takes on the greatest importance. This is achieved through order. By this point, all members of a society are assumed to be participants, willing or not and no matter how marginally. Simply existing in the system, even at its fringes, confers vast benefits over the costs of leaving the system entirely, though to a point, the closer one is to a full participatory status as is possible, the greater the benefits (subject, of course, to diminishing marginal utility).

Order is achieved through definition, classification, and schematization of things, primarily property. While clan structures are fully capable of exploiting these mechanisms, it is the modern state that has created a science of this kind of exploitation. One might even say that the modern state exists only to create this sort of order predicated on the arrangements of property. After all, the funding of the modern state rests on the state’s definition of property. It should be no surprise, then, that, arising along with the modern state, we see bureaucratic instruments that exist for the sole purpose of defining property, classifying it into value categories, and managing the amortization of its value extraction.

What else are we to make of recurring personal property taxes, for instance? In many U.S. states, as elsewhere in the world, taxes levied against the value of a property form a significant portion of that state’s revenue. A non-trivial amount of that revenue in turn provides funding for the very agency that assesses properties and levies and collects the taxes. And how does the agency “know” what a particular piece of property is worth? It defines what property is, either explicitly (as spelled out in a law, statute, or a constitution), or it inherits it from some other authority, be it common law, a higher constitution, or some body of international law. Once property is defined, eligible objects are classified according to value categories so that some value can be extracted from them. And how does the agency “know” what percentage of value to extract? This it also defines. From these definitions and classifications, a modern state may extract enough value from its participants’ property to fund itself. No matter your personal stance on taxes, it should be quite obvious that one of the most important functions of a government in the modern state is to perpetuate itself through revenue collection.

But what does this shift from family, tribal, and clan structures mean in terms of the amount of structural violence in the system? It means, for one thing, that the violence is diffused throughout the system. When a group of people outsources the defense of its property (or loses it by force) to a state, that group also gives up (or loses) the right to define its property in ways that are meaningful to it, prioritizing instead the state’s definition. Once the state has defined a property, it can only be un-defined or redefined by the state, barring that state’s demise (usually by conquest from within or without). Therefore the state’s monopoly on violence is crucial to its ability to perpetuate itself as a structure. The effect of diffusion is that violence becomes less and less visible, except at the boundaries of the bureaucracy. It may even change forms. I include here conceptions of violence, such as social and economic violence, that go beyond the usual physical definitions. These are convenient classifications, but they themselves are still underscored by physical violence.

To get a sense of this diffusion, all we need to do is examine the points of public interaction with any bureaucracy. The most obvious of these are licensing/permit/certification bodies and membership verification or gatekeeping mechanisms. In the case of licensing/permit/certification bodies, some group, presumably practitioners of the activity to be licensed or persons with some intimate knowledge of said activity, confer licenses or permits to conduct that activity. States have licenses and permits for all sorts of things, from practicing medicine to building a house. Where in the bureaucracy these reside varies. Medical licenses are issued on a national basis in the United States, whereas teaching certificates are issued by individual US states, and building permits are often issued by cities or counties. All of these are ways of defining particular aspects of property. In the case of doctors and teachers, the licenses and certificates define the labor output of practitioners as property from which some value (licensing fees, among other things) can be extracted. To be fair, many of the fees associated with licensing mechanisms exist to fund only the certification, examination, and inspection activities of those bodies, but the fact remains that the structures themselves are maintained by the fees they collect.

What happens when one without a license conducts an activity for which a license is required? In some cases, unlicensed activity invokes criminal statutes and therefore can result in deprivation of physical liberty. In some of these criminal cases as well as most civil cases, the penalty is a fine, which is deprivation of economic liberty, and this is ultimately backed up by threat of physical force.

A similar threat of physical violence exists at the more familiar nexus of system participants and walled space. It is at this point where some functionary serves as gatekeeper. Any place that checks identification passes, verifies membership, or otherwise determines one’s right (according to whatever credentialing body) to access the space exists at this nexus. The limits of a bureaucracy’s tolerance for subversive activity crystallizes here in this one singular point. If the gatekeeper makes a determination, for whatever reason, that a person seeking access to the space beyond has no right to access that space, any insistence to the contrary that bypasses official channels and mechanisms for redress are likely to be met with forcible removal at the least, and possible detention.

Thus have we coded our violence into the very bureaucracies that arise organically from the aggregate of human organization systems. Because this structural violence is highly diffuse, it is largely invisible to most participants unless they wittingly or unwittingly step outside the forms imposed by the various bureaucracies. For those who make a habit of staying in bounds, the violence inflicted is minimal, invisible, and consists largely of deflection (that is, when a gatekeeper says you shall not pass, you tend to accept that pronouncement and either abandon the request or continue moving through official channels). But just because the degree of noticeable violence on any one individual is small, that does not mean that the total structural violence in the system has in any way decreased. I very much doubt it has significantly increased, however. My guess is that it remains static, changing only the forms it manifests.

In the preceding sections, we got a glimpse of the edges of the state’s abstraction of violence a la its bureaucracies. If you aren’t moving through the official channels created for whatever purpose you seek to exercise, then you are potentially committing a subversive act. At this point it’s appropriate to enumerate some of the behaviors expected of participants in a modern state. One of the first is establishment of identification. Identification schemes have different purposes depending on who is administering them, but they all have the same effects: create a trail of documents registering someone as a participant of the state and potentially conferring some benefit. We get birth certificates and social security cards when we are born in the US, and later, we get a state-issued identification, usually conferring the right to drive. If we are in a particular minority, we also get a nationally issued passport. Immigrants, if they are here through legal mechanisms, receive identification papers to that extent. Some identification pieces are required and some are not.

Lest you think the states get to have all the fun, economic participation is another expected behavior. The cycle of earning and consuming begins early (and would begin earlier if it weren’t for child labor laws). Along with this, participants are expected to rely on banking and financial institutions like credit card companies to extend their consumption of goods and services. Participation in this system depends largely on purchasing power (money) and demand, which can be manufactured by clever marketing by both corporations and state actors. In the United States, full economic participation means securing shelter, transportation, food, and a range of goods and services. For many, it means owning a house and at least one car and buying into the current version of Americanness. All of this economic activity, it should be noted, especially that which moves through banks and financial institutions, generates considerable revenue (in taxes and profit) for the bureaucracies, both public and private, to perpetuate themselves.

Now that we’ve seen some of the expected behaviors, we can look at what acts of subversion are allowable in a system. Where it is convenient to do so, and where one has the money or influence, almost all bureaucratic processes can be subverted or bypassed. However, these channels exist implicitly and are in fact part of the structure itself. If one seeks to bypass these channels or subvert them without the requisite influence or money, one can expect to be detained. Thus, acts which seek to collapse bureaucratic processes are subversive in and of themselves and are not tolerated in the slightest. But that’s hardly surprising, is it?

One of the curious facts about life in a modern state is the expectation of participating in its economic system. Any single act which reduces an individual’s participation level in the economic system is subversive, but tolerated insofar is it represents a mere reduction. Such acts within the US that are tolerated include purchasing a car and driving it longer than the auto-makers think is desirable; buying a less expensive house than one can technically afford; paying cash or otherwise refusing to build credit. These are tolerable because they still afford the state and its economic actors the ability to extract some value out of a person’s economic activity, even at a reduced rate.

The most subversive acts are those in which participants become active non-participants in one or more economic activities. Choosing to walk or bicycle instead of buying a car or even using mass transportation is a subversive act, especially in cities that are unfriendly to pedestrians (no sidewalks) or bicyclists (tolerated on the roads, but barely, and never welcomed with bike lanes). The act of rejecting the expected modes of transportation threatens auto-makers and their suppliers as well as the multi-billion dollar a year behemoth that is is the oil industry. Embracing the Maker culture, where you make your own things instead of buying what is marketed to you, is a subversive act. Giving things away instead of charging “fair market value” for them is a subversive act.

Individually, most of these are tolerated acts. Even collectively, some of these have come to be tolerated, but only insofar as they create opportunities for other kinds of economic participation; this, in fact, is something that capitalism is exceptionally good at: subsuming popular movements and reselling them to their participants. (Witness the rise of Facebook and Google and countless others building platforms on the free labor of their users, while using those same users as billboards for advertisers.) Active non-participation in the established economic system is possible in degrees without invoking the wrath of the system and subject to increased participation in other areas. But when that non-participation becomes a collective and systematized action, it poses a threat to established interests. No system tolerates this for very long.

And so the inevitable outcome of the Occupy movement, resting as it does on the rejection of the status quo, will be a fierce and violent reaction by the state. It is no secret that many of the spaces occupied by the protesters are privately owned (due in part to the state’s willingness to privatize those ostensibly public spaces); those that aren’t privately owned are subjected to very strict public gathering ordinances and municipal codes. Deviation from these, even on First Amendment grounds, invites a violent response by the state. By attacking the moneyed establishment via protest and the threat of large-scale non-participation (for instance, Bank Transfer Day and the Occupy Foreclosures movement), the Occupy movement has managed to provoke those state impulses which are prone to violent action first and foremost and inquiry later. It has, in short, reached the limits of what this society will tolerate. (I’ll note here that this previous paragraph was informed by the seemingly coordinated Occupy evictions around the country, some of which played out yesterday and some of which played out today. So I am aware of the context in which this will be published.)

If there is any systematic way to predict what level of subversion a system will tolerate, I am not aware of it. Presumably it can be estimated, and there are plenty of examples that can help inform the inquiry. In many cases, the systems simply broke before the state violence significantly materialized (Egypt) and in others, the state violence is growing (Syria). What will we see in the US?