Arms, Violence, and the State A Historical Perspective

Governments today seek to monopolize violence and to control the ability of people to defend themselves, their families, and their communities. In doing so, governments present themselves not only as representatives and protectors of their people, but also as the necessary end of the historical process. These views can be contested, not only by appealing to empirical and philosophical aspects of the modern situation, but also by looking at the march of time. Both involve challenging the arrogant claims of the state to power and legitimacy.

History reveals the degree to which states increasingly became the expression of organized violence. This owed much to the ambition of governments to monopolize the use of such violence, at the expense of a range of groups, from private individuals to stateless pirates and mercenaries. Indeed, the monopolization of violence became a definition of statehood, as a functional understanding of rulership replaced the traditional legitimist understanding in the 19th and 20th centuries. Governments today prefer to rely on other definitions, especially those summed up in the term "democracy," but part of the brutal truth is that states and governments are defined by power, the quest for power, and the denial of power to others.

Yet this monopolization of violence is relatively recent, and in no way an inevitable aspect of state organization. In the 19th century, military entrepreneurship—mercenary...

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