The cross : How, according to political philosophy, can the state counter violence?
Celine Spector : This is the main question facing the state: managing to channel violence. Modern political philosophy indeed considers that violence is originary. Some think, like Hobbes, that it is inherent in human nature; others, following the example of Montesquieu or Rousseau, that it appears as soon as men live in society. But all of them make it the primary concern of the State. To appease it, it is necessary to create adequate institutions which do not renew violence.
Today, we have to find a way out of the crisis that goes through intermediary bodies. Montesquieu is one of its most fervent defenders because he sees in it a double rampart, which allows the people to express their demands and, conversely, the monarch to negotiate and rationalize his will. By removing their authority from intermediate bodies, Emmanuel Macron finds himself in the situation of certain absolute monarchs of the Ancien Régime, facing the people. And it is extremely dangerous.
To appease violence, the State must also renounce the handling of fear according to Montesquieu…
C. S. : All of Montesquieu’s work consists in thinking of despotism, a violent regime, from the top of the pyramid to the base, which uses intimidation, threats, sanctions and physical punishments to govern. The dominant passion in despotic States is thus fear, which must govern the governed so that they respect what serves them as laws, that is to say the arbitrary orders of the Prince.
Conversely, political freedom is defined as a peace of mind linked to the feeling that everyone has of their security. Montesquieu is thus very sensitive to what a citizen feels within a state. He wants a state where citizens know that they cannot be arrested, intimidated overnight by the collusion of the executive, legislative and judicial powers.
How does Montesquieu think about the specific question of the violence that the State can demonstrate?
C. S. : The big problem for him is that the instrument for protecting rights, the state, does not turn into an instrument of oppression. It is therefore necessary to think about the balance of institutions in such a way that despotic drift cannot take place. According to Montesquieu, the tendency to abuse power always exists, whatever the good intentions of those who govern. Only institutional arrangements can ensure that power stops power.
What is legitimate violence?
C. S. : Montesquieu never refers to it for his part. It is the sociologist Max Weber who states this formula: “The State has the monopoly of legitimate violence”, which of course does not mean that the State can use violence without control, but that public force, backed by law, can only be used legitimately by those who hold public authority.
This was not the case in feudal-type monarchies, for example, where the great lords could have small armies and use force in their service or in the service of the monarch.
How can a power legitimately manage a violent minority?
C. S. : It is a question of maintaining order. But let’s be clear, the use of violence is always a failure. There can be a necessary and legitimate use of public force, which is not violence if it is “necessary and proportionate”. It only turns into violence if it is disproportionate, if it aims to frighten or break the will.
Do these elements of political philosophy shed light on the current situation?
C. S. : The art of governing, dear to Montesquieu or Rousseau, has disappeared, and that seems serious to me. Even the monarchy knew that politics was not just a science but an art. One cannot pass great laws without taking an interest in the particular circumstances and in the spirit of the people. Montesquieu is a great thinker of the reform, carried out in a non-despotic way, that is to say without shocking the ways of thinking, feeling and acting of peoples, which depends on their geography, their history, their economy, their religion…
This is what seems lost today, with this idea of a universal recipe that would work independently of the historical situation, of the spirit of the nation to which we are speaking. The art of governing is, on the contrary, the art of playing with beliefs and passions, such as anger, resentment, fear, hatred or love. This is what power forgets today when it is surprised that the people do not hear the voice of reason.
Is it partly this forgetting that produces violence?
C. S. : I don’t believe it produces violence. This exists in certain parts of society in a more or less strong way, according to the degree of inequality which reigns there and its feeling of decline or ascent. But politics can “pour oil on the fire” and thus maintain, feed and radicalize this violence. If one addresses one’s people as children who have not understood the lesson or individuals with bad will, one stirs up one’s violence through denial of recognition and social contempt. This is what part of the population feels today.
Can the explanation of violence as a response to prior violence justify it?
C. S. : This is not a justification, but an explanation. Deciphering the mechanisms does not mean justifying the conflagrations. But it is very clear that to freeze in an end of inadmissibility is to hysterize the passions opposite.
The videos currently circulating create outrage which itself can lead to violence, including among people who did not initially feel anger or resentment.
Can climate anxiety also generate violent acts?
C. S. : There may indeed exist a millenarian radicalization, linked to the collapse of the world to come, to the absolute urgency and the weakness of political responses. The ecological crisis will lead us to much more unpopular measures than this pension reform. It is therefore imperative to address the French as adult and rational citizens, who know how to use their understanding and decide without supervision. That is to say, to take up the watchword of the philosophy of the Enlightenment.
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