The legitimacy of a brute

In explaining those he calls ‘functionalists’, that is, those from whom I derive my conception of functionalist conservatives, Gerhard Lenski explains that it’s a lot less hassle for rulers to rule by persuading their subjects to accept their rule as ‘legitimate.’[1] The (physical) coercion otherwise required, though intrinsic to the state,[2] might generally be thought to cyclically require ever greater amounts of force to sustain, as resentment leads to further rebellion.

The loss of state legitimacy can be seen in many recent events, like the Arab Spring, in which a series of governments in the Middle East and North Africa fell or faced serious challenges. At this writing, Arab Spring continues to reverberate, notably in Syria, Egypt, and Libya. In this context, I am reluctant to omit Bahrain, though I have heard far less about the uprising there since Saudi Arabia sent troops (or, depending on your point of reference, invaded) to restore a particular notion of order.[3]

The example of Bahrain illustrates that neighboring political elites may perceive that they, too, have an interest in preserving the status quo. Hence, for instance, the problematic alliance between Kurds and Iran in resistance to the Islamic State, which has overrun massive portions of Syria and Iraq, in which Iran worries that an independent Kurdistan might also accrue territory currently claimed by Iran.[4] Iraq’s neighbors are concerned that its central government has, arguably, lost legitimacy among Sunnis, with policies that favor Shi’ites, and had already lost it with the Kurds, creating an opening for the organization that now has declared a caliphate it calls the Islamic State. The possibility that Iraq might break up, last noticed during the U.S. occupation, has reappeared.[5]

The emphasis on preserving existing territorial arrangements, that is, when elites are not squabbling over them amongst themselves,[6] exposes the lie of legitimacy, that states and their political arrangements exist for the benefit of the ruled. Even Lenski, though arguing that, on the whole, the people benefit from these arrangements, acknowledged a balance: Clearly, the rulers are in it for themselves, and the people’s welfare is of secondary concern and then only as a means of ensuring domestic tranquility that protects the rulers’ positions.[7]

So it is a very curious thing that, more and more, recently, we are seeing rulers express ever less concern about legitimacy. Consider these words from an unnamed U.S. military official reacting to Israel’s shelling of a Gaza neighborhood:

“Listen, we know what it’s like to kill civilians in war,” said the senior U.S. officer. “Hell, we even put it on the front pages. We call it collateral damage. We absolutely try to minimize it, because we know it turns people against you. Killing civilians is a sure prescription for defeat.”[8]

Yes, the military officials were concerned about the proportionality of a brutal assault:

“It’s not mowing the lawn,” [a senior U.S. officer, not necessarily the same one as above] added, referring to a popular IDF term for periodic military operations against Hamas in Gaza. “It’s removing the topsoil.”[9]

But they are also concerned excessive brutality increases popular support for the enemy, because such brutality decreases the brute’s legitimacy and increases that of the brute’s opponent. Now, consider this passage from a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation report on a militarized police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of Michael Brown:

It’s important to distinguish between the military and police, justice experts say, and look at why it matters that the line between the two is blurring.

“The military mission is to find the enemy force and destroy it,” said [Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute]. “They’re not thinking about the constitutional rights of the people on the other side of the battlefield.”[10]

Now here’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan:

We looked intimidating, but all of our vehicles and equipment had a clear purpose for combat against enemy forces. So why is this same gear being used on our city streets?[11]

Here’s another account, this time in the Guardian:

Police clearing the main drag of Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, also arrested two reporters, including one from the Washington Post. Marty Baron, its editor, condemned the arrest as “an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news”. The Huffington Post, whose reporter was also detained, said the journalists were subjected to “militant aggression” and treated as “enemy combatants”. A camera crew from al-Jazeera America said they were shot by rubber bullets.[12]

And an op-ed in the Guardian:

What is happening in Ferguson is exactly what opponents of the rise in military-style policing across America have long feared: when the feds arm white local cops with weapons of war and their superiors encourage them not to just play dress-up but to use their new war toys, it is inevitable that ordinary citizens – especially citizens of color – will get treated as the enemy. As we’ve seen in Ferguson, when military might comes to Main Street, “hands-up, don’t shoot” quickly turns into a quasi-declaration of war on a grieving community.[13]

The words enemy, military, and war, but especially enemy, all waged against the civilian population, keep showing up in this coverage of events in Ferguson.[14] And their use against the people of Ferguson signifies an abject lack of concern about, as that unnamed military official put it, “turn[ing] people against you.”[15] Which is to say that this is not just war, but total war, war waged with the concept that one’s opponent does not deserve and should not be permitted to exist,[16] because the dead cannot resist.

That is the kind of war I have accused Israelis of waging in the Gaza Strip,[17] apparently with some justification.[18] And while the police in Ferguson had to exercise some restraint—employing so-called ‘non-lethal’ rounds—there are reports that a police vehicle ran over a memorial erected by Michael Brown’s mother at the site of his slaying and that a police officer allowed his dog to urinate on that memorial.[19]

Throughout the conflict in Ferguson, certain police tactics clearly helped escalate the long-simmering tensions in a city with a majority black population and mostly white power structure. One state official told me that people in the community saw the way Brown’s body was handled as a deliberate act of intimidation, echoing the slavery era, “when somebody was beaten or lynched and they made everybody come out and watch.” With regard to the Ferguson police force, this official added: “They have an ‘us against them’ attitude, and they care nothing at all about the people who pay their salaries and that they have sworn to serve and protect.”[20]

I will not be nearly so polite about this as the Mother Jones reporter whom I have just quoted and who sought to explain these police actions as a lack of training for an extraordinary situation aggravated by scattered looting and spiced by police militarization. Because there is absolutely no excuse for letting a police dog urinate on a memorial. There is absolutely no excuse for running over that memorial on a closed street.[21] These are the actions of people who hold the community in utter contempt, who view other human beings as not merely subhuman but as non-sentient.

And where I previously had high hopes for Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who had been appointed by the governor to take command of the police response to the protests,[22] it seems to have taken very little time for his socialization among the police to have taken hold, as police returned to their inexcusably violent tactics the very next night.[23]

It is important not to view the incidents in Gaza and in Ferguson as isolated. That would be to make a mistake of the kind that views atrocities such as those at Abu Ghraib as the work of “a few bad apples” rather than as systemic.[24] The attacks in Gaza are only the latest in a series of crimes committed against the Palestinian people. The murder of Mike Brown was only the latest by police against Blacks. The violence waged against the protests in Ferguson is only the latest in a series of incidents dating to the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, to the counterculture movements of the 1960s, and to labor movements many decades before.

These instances belie Lenski’s argument that elites seek to preserve their position through propaganda to establish and maintain their legitimacy.[25] The most that can be said of this is that the elites do not try very hard, that they seem rather anxious indeed to enact the physical coercion that Weber explained as defining sovereignty: “Ultimately,” he wrote, “one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force.”[26]

Which is to say that the “law and order” of our society is not that of a peaceful society at all, but rather that of a gloved fist.

  1. [1]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  2. [2]Max Weber, “What is Politics?” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 114-116.
  3. [3]Ethan Bronner and Michael Slackman, “Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain to Help Put Down Unrest,” New York Times, March 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/middleeast/15bahrain.html
  4. [4]Mohsen Milani, “This is What Détente Looks Like: The United States and Iran Join Forces Against ISIS,” Foreign Affairs, August 27, 2014, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141937/mohsen-milani/this-is-what-detente-looks-like
  5. [5]Mustapha Ajbaili, “Maliki’s sectarian policy backfires in dramatic style,” Al Arabiya, June 12, 2014, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2014/06/12/Maliki-s-sectarian-policy-backfires-in-dramatic-style.html; Zack Beauchamp, “Al-Qaeda kicked this group out for being too vicious. On Tuesday, they conquered Iraq’s second-largest city,” Vox, June 11, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/6/11/5800188/who-is-isis-how-they-conquered-mosul; Steven A. Cook, “A Requiem for Iraq,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 17, 2014, http://blogs.cfr.org/cook/2014/06/17/a-requiem-for-iraq/; Fred Kaplan, “If jihadists control Iraq, blame Nouri al-Maliki, not the United States,” Slate, June 11, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/war_stories/2014/06/mosul_s_collapse_is_nouri_al_maliki_s_fault_iraq_s_prime_minister_failed.2.html; Marc Lynch, “How can the U.S. help Maliki when Maliki’s the problem?” Washington Post, June 12, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/06/12/iraq-trapped-between-isis-and-maliki/; Robin Wright, “A Third Iraq War?” New Yorker, June 18, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2014/06/a-third-iraq-war.html
  6. [6]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works’,” March 15, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2012/03/15/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/; David Benfell, “Humans Without Borders: A Paradox,” October 15, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/10/15/humans-without-borders-a-paradox/
  7. [7]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  8. [8]Mark Perry, “Why Israel’s bombardment of Gaza neighborhood left US officers ‘stunned’,” Al Jazeera, August 27, 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/26/israel-bombing-stunsusofficers.html
  9. [9]Mark Perry, “Why Israel’s bombardment of Gaza neighborhood left US officers ‘stunned’,” Al Jazeera, August 27, 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/26/israel-bombing-stunsusofficers.html
  10. [10]Amber Hildebrandt, “Michael Brown shooting: The police’s military-like response to Missouri riots,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, August 14, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/michael-brown-shooting-the-police-s-military-like-response-to-missouri-riots-1.2735588
  11. [11]Paul Szoldra, “This Is The Terrifying Result Of The Militarization Of Police,” Business Insider, August 12, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/police-militarization-ferguson-2014-8
  12. [12]Jon Swaine, “Michael Brown protests in Ferguson met with rubber bullets and teargas,” Guardian, August 14, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/14/ferguson-police-teargas-rubber-bullets-michael-brown
  13. [13]Sadhbh Walshe, “Ferguson is what happens when white suburban cops get weapons of war,” Guardian, August 14, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/14/ferguson-cops-military-weapons-michael-brown-shooting-protests
  14. [14]see also Max Fisher, “If police in Ferguson treat journalists like this, imagine how they treat residents,” Vox, August 18, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/8/18/6043247/ferguson-police-media-harassment; Glenn Greenwald, “The Militarization of U.S. Police: Finally Dragged Into the Light by the Horrors of Ferguson,” Intercept, August 14, 2014, https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/08/14/militarization-u-s-police-dragged-light-horrors-ferguson/; Will Wright, “Military policing and jackboots in Ferguson – an America with a paramilitary police culture,” Grio, August 14, 2014, http://thegrio.com/2014/08/14/military-policing-ferguson/
  15. [15]Mark Perry, “Why Israel’s bombardment of Gaza neighborhood left US officers ‘stunned’,” Al Jazeera, August 27, 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/26/israel-bombing-stunsusofficers.html
  16. [16]Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time (Louisiana State University, 1964; Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995).
  17. [17]David Benfell, “Two wrongs do not make a right: The case for ending Israel,” Not Housebroken, August 3, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=6557
  18. [18]Mark Perry, “Why Israel’s bombardment of Gaza neighborhood left US officers ‘stunned’,” Al Jazeera, August 27, 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/26/israel-bombing-stunsusofficers.html
  19. [19]Mark Follman, “Michael Brown’s Mom Laid Flowers Where He Was Shot—and Police Crushed Them,” Mother Jones, August 27, 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/ferguson-st-louis-police-tactics-dogs-michael-brown
  20. [20]Mark Follman, “Michael Brown’s Mom Laid Flowers Where He Was Shot—and Police Crushed Them,” Mother Jones, August 27, 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/ferguson-st-louis-police-tactics-dogs-michael-brown
  21. [21]Mark Follman, “Michael Brown’s Mom Laid Flowers Where He Was Shot—and Police Crushed Them,” Mother Jones, August 27, 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/ferguson-st-louis-police-tactics-dogs-michael-brown
  22. [22]David Benfell, “It’s so much easier to wave a Confederate flag,” Not Housebroken, August 15, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=6588
  23. [23]Alan Blinder and Tanzina Vega, “Missouri Governor to Deploy National Guard to Ferguson,” New York Times, August 18, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/19/us/ferguson-missouri-protests.html; Max Fisher, “If police in Ferguson treat journalists like this, imagine how they treat residents,” Vox, August 18, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/8/18/6043247/ferguson-police-media-harassment; German Lopez, “CNN’s Jake Tapper on the police in Ferguson: ‘This doesn’t make any sense’,” Vox, August 18, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/8/18/6043763/cnns-jake-tapper-on-the-police-in-ferguson-this-doesnt-make-any-sense; German Lopez, “Cop to Ferguson protesters: ‘I will fucking kill you… Go fuck yourself’,” Vox, August 20, 2014, http://www.vox.com/xpress/2014/8/20/6050073/watch-a-cop-in-ferguson-aim-a-gun-at-people-and-threaten-to-kill-them; Catherine Thompson, “Three More Journalists Detained In Ferguson,” Talking Points Memo, August 18, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/police-threaten-reporters-in-ferguson-mace; Jonathan Turley, “Ferguson Officer Suspended After Captured On Video Pointing Weapon At Protesters and Threatening To Kill Them,” August 22, 2014, http://jonathanturley.org/2014/08/22/ferguson-officer-suspended-after-captured-on-video-pointing-weapon-as-protesters-and-threatening-to-kill-them/; Tanzina Vega, Timothy Williams, and Erik Eckholm, “Emotions Flare in Missouri Amid Police Statements,” New York Times, August 15, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/16/us/darren-wilson-identified-as-officer-in-fatal-shooting-in-ferguson-missouri.html; Tim Walker, “Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy report shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head,” Independent, August 18, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/michael-brown-shooting-chaos-erupts-on-the-streets-of-ferguson-after-autopsy-report-shows-teenager-was-shot-six-times–twice-in-the-head-9675118.html
  24. [24]Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008).
  25. [25]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  26. [26]Max Weber, “What Is Politics?” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 114.

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