The state monopoly on violence: in theory​ and practice

The state monopoly on violence is a theory which is extremely applicable to society and political situation today, and it can be analysed as a key feature of capitalism. Many theorists and sociologists have contributed to the development of the theory and it has changed and evolved over many years. I want to explain the foundations and development of the theory, but also use it and apply it to how it exists today.

It could be argued the theory of the state monopoly on violence stems from the social contract, a theory that comes from the 1500s and 1600s and was developed and altered by theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Immanuel Kant. The idea of the social contract suggests that the people must consent to sacrifice some of their freedoms to the state in order to receive protection and rights. Although I would use the theory of the state monopoly of violence negatively against the state in our world now, the social contract theory can be used to justify the position of the state as it allows a laying down of arms amongst the people and submission to the state. The theory suggests that the right to use force would be concentrated in the hands of the state; therefore each man would not have to be constantly worried about his safety.

The first contract theory was developed by Thomas Hobbes who believe that by nature, human life was anarchic and self-interested, which led to the creation of a state to maintain order and create regulations so life was no longer a war to survive against each other. However, he also recognised the anarchic nature of the state due to the fact that the state will also act in self-interest.

John Locke used the theory to satisfy his concern for individuals freedom to coercion, and his use of the social contract theory supports the idea that the state is a necessary evil. He disagreed with Hobbes however and believed that the nature of humans would lead to a state being willingly formed by the people to create a “neutral judge”, as he called it, to seek betterment and more freedom for people. Locke was against the idea of violence in general, as he focussed his theory on individual rights and freedom, and the fact that someone using violence against someone else would violate this. He, therefore, argues for a limited state, justified only on grounds of protecting rights.

The monopoly on violence is a modern concept which applies to public law and can be applied to many current day scenarios. However, it must be recognised that the theory evolved from the social contract and can be traced back to Thomas Hobbes 1651 book “Leviathan”, but become a fully formed concept in 1919 when brought about by Max Weber, in his book “Politics as a vocation”. Weber describes the state as any organisation that holds the exclusive right to use, threaten, or authorise physical force against residents of its territory, and the right to this force must be brought about by a process of legitimisation. It is widely accepted that this theory is a defining characteristic of the nature of our society today. It is important to note that the theory does not suggest that only the state can use violence, but only the state has the power to legitimise their violence.

People struggle to make the connection to violence when it is a state policy – most would not consider it violent for the state to deny free access to healthcare for a dying poor person, however, if you think about the reality of it, it is barbaric violence. However, when a rioter smashes a window of a shop, it is condemned widely as violent and nonsensical. One of these actions threatens a life and one is a minor attack on private property – which is the real violence?

The state can grant another actor the right to use violence without losing its monopoly, as long as it remains the only source of the right to use violence and that it maintains the capacity to enforce this monopoly, for example in the case of a police force. Because a police force serves the state, the state can grant them inclusivity to the monopoly on violence. The police and the military are the state’s main instruments of legitimate violence, and that can be applied in the modern day. In imperialist states, it could be argued that Weber’s notion that territory is necessary because it defines the scope of the state’s authority, is disregarded. Weber noted that the use of force is acceptable, but only in the jurisdiction specified by the state’s lands. Since then, it is clear that certain nations have developed more powerfully than others and infringe upon their scope of authority. I will return to this later and discuss how the monopoly of violence may exist more unopposed for imperialist states.


The USA has an inherent issue with the racist structure of their police force. Any socialist should be anti-police with regards to a capitalist state because, under capitalism, the police force are servants of the oppressive state and serve to protect private property as opposed to protect and improve people’s lives. However, the issue runs deeper in the US than most countries as the police force has an extremely obvious and barbaric systematic issue of racism. Unsurprisingly, the legal system also seems to be very good at defending the police system and those abusing their power. In most cases, where black people have been targeted, abused, or murdered by police with strong evidence, the police will get off with light or no punishment. Philando castle, Sandra Black and Eric Garner are just a few notable cases out of the hundreds of black deaths at the hands of police brutality every year. Somehow, this continues, and the legal system alongside the white supremacist government fail to address the issue. The police system acts as a puppet for the state in this scenario to carry out their violence, which is then legitimised under the guise of “authority”. Retaliation, however, carried out by movements such as BLM, is condemned and met with further violence. The monopoly on violence allows the USA to maintain an oppressive and exploitative state.

In the UK, the recent tragedy of the burning of the Grenfell Tower, a social housing tower in Kensington has been a cause of controversy and anger. The building, which housed more than 500 residents, burned to the ground, soon after unsafe, flammable cladding was added to the outside of the building and many others to make the building appear less of an eyesore for the rich and luxurious Kensington housing with a view of Grenfell. The government have since been carrying out safety tests on similar blocks, outrageously every single one has failed. This event is a clear example of social cleansing and the whole scandal is blatant and disgusting violence on behalf of the government and state, in the name of capitalism. There are many issues and faults of the government that have been highlighted since the tragedy. The tower had only one fire exit, no sprinklers, inadequate fire alarms, and gas pipes next to the fire exit. While this may not seem like a direct example of state violence, in essence, the failure to provide safe housing for poor people which catering to the petty needs of the rich, is state violence. The state is to blame for these deaths and ultimately will face little opposition as they have legitimised their use of violence, to the point where people fail to make the link between their murderous policies and violence. It has now been a month since the event and already, much of the anger has died down and attention has been turned elsewhere. Ironically, the angry backlash from local residents caused another stir as they turned violent and stormed into the Kensington town hall demanding answers. While no one can disagree that this is a fair ask, their actions were questioned and condemned, because of course, the monopoly on violence deems the violent actions of the people as illegitimate.

Currently one of the biggest criticisms of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, from the public is his supposed support of terrorism and extremism. Corbyn has been accused of supporting the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah and this has been used to create the nonsensical terrorist sympathiser claims. Many don’t know the cause behind or the origins of these groups but the fear mongering media and government cause people to jump on the bandwagon. This has lead to a popular opinion where Corbyn is accused of being dangerous and violent, people are outraged at how he can show support for supposed terrorist organisations, without truly understanding the motive behind the actions of said groups. However, the UK has a history of arms deals with the extremist state of Saudi Arabia who use the weapons we provide to attack Yemen and murder innocents. Under Theresa May’s leadership, this has not changed, as the Tory government continue to show us how they value profit over lives, every single time. The governments of US and Britain also condemn the actions of ISIS and fuel hysteria which create an aggressive retaliation against the Muslim communities, meanwhile, they directly fund groups and governments who support ISIS. Furthermore, the somewhat barbaric regime of the West that continues to terrorise countries such as Syria and Iraq does not only help ISIS to prosper but what makes them any worse than us? The biggest terrorist organisation in the world to ever exist is the USA, they have dictated the world under imperial rule and spread fear, hatred and aggression throughout, in the name of power and greed.

Linking back to the theory, the USA has captured the authority to legitimise their own violence. While the state is not a democratic one so it does not perfectly fit with John Locke’s theory, we can still use Locke’s idea of the state as a “neutral judge” to explain how the US attempts to appear. While it is clearly not the case, this is the way that the US tries to justify their imperialism. If they can portray themselves as a global peacekeeper, they can justify their imperialistic actions and get away with it. Their usual strategy is to demonise a particular leader, destabilise the region, blame the leader then make a profit from it. We have seen it in Libya with the dehumanisation and vilification of Gaddafi before the revolutionary leader was murdered by the US, which allowed ISIS to enter Libya and the region was destabilised. It is currently happening again, and working, as most people believe Syrian leader Bashar Assad is a dictator who is murdering his own people. This is the image that the US has painted and it allows them to excuse their illegal and murderous actions in Syria, as a war on Assad. Assad is, in fact, a democratically elected and popular leader amongst the people. Ironically, the USA manage to uphold their “neutral judge” image as people often assume that the west is democratic and “civil”. A quick delve into current affairs and history proves otherwise if you can get past the western propaganda.

This leads on to how the monopoly of violence theory may apply differently today than when first put forward, from the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke. To apply the theory of the state monopoly of violence into today’s world on a political scale, I think it may be appropriate to tweak it and suggest that the states particularly of the West, have an overpowering and all-encompassing monopoly on violence. This is intrinsically linked to the imperialistic power of these states and the bully tactics they use to dominate the world. The way the US, backed by the UK, destabilises countries in the global south and across the world is the greatest crime of modern times. I have briefly explained how it has happened in Syria and Libya, and its worth noting that if it was not for the resilience and anti-imperialistic nature of the DPRK it would’ve happened there too by now.


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