For the first dozen or so years of this century, and for some time before that, political violence on the home front was synonymous with jihadist terrorism masterminded by overseas organizations, or anti-capitalist street riots in the vicinity of G8 and other global leadership summits. Since then, the infamous polarization of national politics, which found a lightning-rod in the election of President Donald Trump, has given rise to some remarkably heated rhetoric. What has made it all the more remarkable is that it sometimes emanates from the ranks of journalists and even state officials who ordinarily, and as a matter of professional dignity, stand as far above the fray of factional violence as possible. Militants are exhorted to attack anyone they suspect of being a Nazi, and to protest members of the Trump administration. Populist commentators instruct their readers to buy guns, and the comments sections on news sites abound with vague but ominous references to armed insurgency against political and cultural elites. On all sides, norms of civility that previously checked partisan heat and kept the peace between factions are now rejected as so much naive baggage that weighs down the partisan in the race to victory.
This rhetoric has been accompanied by action. Police shootings of black suspects have ignited riots for the first time in a while. Various efforts to obstruct political events have occasioned all-out brawls in city streets. A number of incidents in the ongoing epidemic of public mass murders were unambiguously political in motivation; the recent cases of James Hodgkinson, Alek Minassian, and Robert Bowers speak for themselves here.
Much of the recent spate of commentary on these actions and the inflammatory surrounding rhetoric seems rather inflamed and impassioned itself. The term “civil war” gets thrown around a lot. The implicit image, alternately feared or hoped for, is one in which political disorders, such as protests, armed populist uprisings, or terrorism, uncontrollably escalate to apocalyptic proportions, leading to the catastrophic breakdown of state and society. Civil war appears, depending on one’s point of view, as something like a zombie apocalypse of the rabble, or a long-awaited revolutionary moment in which the oppressed take a stand against their tormentors.
Is this image realistic? No. The mere fact that it seems plausible for many to discern the possibility from partisan bluster and a scattered handful of incidents—even as the state remains as intact in its authority as ever—goes to show how far removed from reality the image is. Whatever the vulnerabilities of the modern liberal social order, inability to control the private use of violence isn’t one of them. On the contrary, a defining feature of liberalism is that the political organization and the culture of modern liberal society have historically worked together to control the use of violence with truly impressive efficiency.
These social controls see to it that anarchic outbreaks are episodic, self-limiting, and less formidable than they may seem when judged against high, zero-tolerance expectations—expectations which themselves comprise both a key component of the social technology for controlling violence and an indicator of social sentiment that discloses just how well that technology works. Indeed, it works so well that even radicals who advocate spontaneous violence don’t really tend to act on it—be they leftists who hold, with Slavoj Zizek, that “for the oppressed, violence is always legitimate,” or rightists who believe that armed citizens can legitimately overthrow unconstitutional governments.
Any society has to fix some criteria that define the legitimate exercise of physical violence and the prosecution of just wars. It must also distinguish the meting out of justice, and the enforcement of legitimate authority in general, from murder, assault, and robbery, and define who has the legitimate right to resort to force. A distinctive feature and foundational organizing principle of the modern liberal social order is that the legitimate use of force is aggressively monopolized by the state and denied to every other actor within the state’s jurisdictional reach except in cases of immediate self-defense.
This stands in contrast to a feudal past in which secular affairs were dominated by a military aristocracy and its martial culture of honor, and the political sovereignty of the king was defined by land ownership and superior force of arms, as opposed to a legal monopoly on their possession and use. The social structure was organized as a stratified hierarchy; male members of the peer group at most every level were permitted and expected to settle their own disputes and to use force according to diverse customary forms: private wars and feuds, judicial combats, duels, lower-class brawls, etc. Interpersonal violence was thus baked into the normal course of social life, and the by-product of tolerant social sensibilities towards violence was crime and homicide rates which were often shockingly high.
From the late Middle Ages onwards, this social order came to be fundamentally reorganized. This was in part due to the rise of cities and importance of the urban economy, and the concomitant rise of the commercial and artisan classes to ascendancy as the urban bourgeoisie (i.e. voting members of the city government). These classes make their livelihood by trade, finance, and manufacturing as opposed to bearing arms, and as such are much more pacific than a martial aristocracy. Even where these classes are still quite violent, commercial activity strongly incentivizes them to support the creation of safe market spaces, and also the rationalization of the legal system, so that disputes can be peacefully settled according to commercial and other civil law. The attainment of these goals is the first order of business wherever these classes are given the keys to the city.
Meanwhile, the sovereign power was transformed from a purely personal affair into a perpetual corporation, first in the form of the legal personification of the Crown as a “body politic” distinct from the physical person of the king, and ultimately, a republic modeled similarly to the corporate governance already in use by the cities. It is at this point that it becomes possible to conceive of the state as such, and to think of the state as a public power—that is to say, not merely the greatest, but the only legitimate power on a national territory.
Both the church and the aristocracy, with whom purely personal rulers had to share power, were demoted to the status of “private” actors in equal standing with every other actor before a unitary state monopoly power. The aristocracy was disarmed and their private wars abolished; its members became officers in the armed forces of the Crown (which no longer had to source its supply of armed men from noble retainers) or took positions in the Crown’s increasingly extensive legal-administrative apparatus, and progressively became assimilated into the ranks of the commercial urban bourgeoisie.
The state monopoly on force was legitimated and reinforced by two complementary cultural developments.
One of these developments is the secular philosophical systematization and formalization of state power in the form of highly sophisticated theories of public law that culminated in the theory of social contract. In the course of explicitly formalizing the powers and practices of the nascent modern state, the social contract laid down the intellectual foundations of what became liberalism, and also provided an etiological myth of the origins of state and society that furnished convincing proof of the absolute necessity, desirability, and deterministic inevitability of state monopoly power.
Variants of these theories defined the right to use force as both a necessary and sufficient condition of sovereignty, and then posited a primordial “state of nature” in which all men, aboriginally created equal, lived with no social bonds between them, and each man was his own sovereign. Since all men act exclusively out of regard for their own self-preservation, and are more than willing to exercise their natural right to use force to dominate and destroy each other in pursuit of that end, the “state of nature” deteriorates into a state of war. This war concludes once all the individual combatants agree to constitute a public monopoly power and surrender their natural rights in exchange for protection from one another. This public power, in turn, is an impersonal corporation administered by a ruler, himself a public servant, who may use state-monopolized coercion only according to strict rules and procedures, and then only on behalf of the public interest; hence the liberal ideal of the rule of law.
This myth not only legitimates, but amplifies the state monopoly on force. Incidents of private violence, once seen as interwoven into the very fabric of social life, were forever after re-interpreted as terrifying omens of impending social breakdown and regression to the apocalyptic state of nature that can only be stopped by state crackdowns. This cycle of crackdowns, once set into motion, is hard to stop. Any manifestation of aggression no matter how trivial, even the mere presence of symbols and gestures associated with violence is liable to trigger moral panics that state functionaries are more than willing to exploit in the interest of inflating the power and reach of the state, with the result that more and more actual and symbolic manifestations of aggression are proscribed and suppressed in a demand-supply cycle.
All of this dovetails with the second cultural development, an ethical transformation that first took place in Christian religion, above all the Calvinist sects, and subsequently secularized and bequeathed to activists on the political left. These sects were products of the city and its pacified civilian population, and also of the growth of legalism. The same spirit of rationalistic legalism that found secular expression in the increasing preponderance of written and systematized civil laws and codes found religious expression in the effort to interpret ethical precepts of conduct as inclusively as possible, and force personal conduct to conform to those precepts as punctiliously as possible. The result was the appearance, by the 16th century, of Christian sects led by an elite of unrelentingly ferocious disciplinarians who, due to their immediate proximity to private life, were able to pick up at the limits of the reach of law and the state, and so contribute their fair share to the process of hammering the broad population into shape.
These sects, to be sure, didn’t care about the state as such, and in fact were pioneering advocates of modern revolutionary violence wherever they found themselves in the position of dissenters. What they did care about, though—and notwithstanding their own revolutionary proclivities—was their rigorous interpretation and enforcement of various passages in the Bible condemning private vengeance and interpersonal violence. This had the indispensably important effect of harmonizing, over the long run, the ethical ends of religion with the power interests of the state. As traditional religion waned, secularized “progressive” social activism inherited both the unrelenting proselytizing enthusiasm and radical intolerance for private violence of the dissenting Protestant tradition, and picked up the reins with diverse moral crusades and activist campaigns.
The net effect of this confluence of factors was that a precipitous drop in the homicide rate was well underway by the 17th century. The disarming of the nobility was followed up by a campaign waged by the state and religious activists against aristocratic dueling, and a broader long-run effort on the part of various moral crusaders to undermine the martial cult of honor and redefine masculinity along more domesticated lines.
The campaign against the duel initiated a yet-unfinished series of efforts by both the state and moral crusaders to suppress all the extra-judicial customs where quarrels were settled and order maintained without appeal to the state. Hence there were campaigns against increasingly smaller scales of violence. These ultimately targeted, to a point of near extinction, traditional gang rumbles and sports hooliganism, one-on-one fistfights in schoolyards, at bars, and on the scene of road accidents, brutal forms of physical bullying and hazing, and summary punishments in the form of judicious beat-downs administered, variously, in the home, at school, by cops on the street and sergeants in the army, and by the peer group. The experience of these things, whether on the giving or the receiving end (or both), used to define the experience of being male in all social classes well into living memory. Currently, the contents of video games and movies often comprise as much exposure to interpersonal violence as the average male is likely to get.
A paradoxical by-product of the gradual decline of these once-universal forms of violence, which were governed by more or less strict rules designed to minimize fatality between the participants and harm to non-participants, has been the rise of exceptional and wholly anomic incidents of violence designed to maximize fatalities. Hence the infamous phenomena of drive-by shootings and mass murders, which have had the effect of masking the overall decline in social violence both statistically and in media coverage. This is an unintended consequence of an otherwise highly effective regime of social control that suppresses most violence at the ironic cost of rendering the miniscule remainder that much more deadly. Violence becomes something that knows no rules, since there are none, only a global taboo that once transgressed opens an uncontrolled floodgate.
We can see the master structural constraint on the growth potential of political violence, which is that it is categorically unlawful and perceived by cultural consensus to be as immoral as it is illegal. The state, on the one hand, has from the historical outset held that any form of private violence, to say nothing of political violence, represents a challenge to state authority. Furthermore, the state has at its disposal not only a fearsome apparatus of monopolized legitimate force, but an extremely effective apparatus of crime prevention, detection, and punishment, which can and will come down hard on violent offenders in a way that the offenders cannot possibly resist.
In the case of political offenders, this crackdown can and would assume the form of outright suspension of legality and military deployment at home and abroad in efforts that go far beyond ordinary criminal justice.
The population at large has had the capacity for violence trained out of most of its members from early childhood by agencies of socialization which operate under the premise that violence is abhorrent, and that the ideal outcome of socialization for both sexes is an individual with the sensibilities of a middle-class white woman. Where students were once expected to settle schoolyard disputes on their own, and even the teachers, to say nothing of the student body, would punish a tattle-tale for breaking rank, today they are constantly exhorted to turn to authority figures for help as the first and final resort, and go on to do just that throughout the life course. Those who resist this socialization end up segregated from the social mainstream early on and diverted into the criminal-justice system and ultimately, prison, with civil disabilities and surveillance imposed as conditions of release.
Hence the keynote theme of this analysis: the growth potential for street-level political violence is structurally constrained by a recruitment pool for violent militants that is already small and getting smaller, and further compromised by social factors that whittle it down the closer we get to violent political extremism.
First and foremost among these limiting factors on the size of the recruitment pool, and where it concerns the left in particular, is something that takes us back to the pre-history of the left in the dissenting Protestant sects of early modernity. These sects were marked by a tension between their revolutionary attitudes on one hand and their pursuit of stringently enforced public order, as well as minimized private violence on the other. This tendency was exacerbated insofar as everybody in these highly egalitarian sects could be their own priest and was thus wont to affect priestly piety. Such piety entailed that members of the priestly class, in those communities where pacifism prevailed, disdained to bear arms. Hence the radical Protestant sects could just as easily embrace absolute pacifism as advocate the violent overthrow of tyrants—something that has also been true for their secular successors, with their characteristic opposition to war, conscription, and militarism, support for strict gun control, etc., alongside varying commitments to radical activism or social revolution.
The personnel who staff the institutional left tend to be disproportionately drawn from the ranks of various intelligentsia who, as the priestly class did under traditional religion, regard personally bearing arms as distasteful. On top of that, a growing number are women, often of bourgeois class backgrounds, further minimizing the possibilities for re-emergence of the organized private violence characteristic of male-dominated social groups.
These groups of people, already unwilling as a matter of principle to personally resort to violence and/or radically unsuited for the job, are also economically disincentivized against it—especially in the wake of the professionalization of social-movement activism and its transformation into a fully-fledged industry that provides employment opportunities and is also a gateway to highly paid or powerful positions in both the for-profit sector and the state.
Many members of this decidedly genteel political management class may like to think of themselves as a corps of revolutionary Jacobins, but they aren’t, and they no longer have access to a vast ready-made potential army of unionized proletarian sans-culottes to fight their battles for them. The moribund state of the labor movement has left the working classes absolutely disorganized in political terms. These classes have also become atomized and disorganized as well—present rates of family breakdown, drug abuse, and suicide are tell-tale red flags here—which further compromises their potential for mobilization. This fact also hamstrings potential for mobilizing violence from the right, which, since it has substantial working-class support, might otherwise be in a better position to make good on its constant, over-the-top boasts of eventually producing a mass insurgency.
On the face of it, the right would seem to have an additional leg up in that they tend to nominally embrace martial values more continuous with those of the military, rather than those of the urban centers where force is seen as a social deficiency. The armed forces are a standing bulwark of right-wing support in exactly the same way that the educational system is a bulwark of left-wing support. Not only do they not disdain to bear arms personally but, with their cult of the Second Amendment, consider it a bedrock civic right. However, any potential for mobilizing insurgent violence from their side is hamstrung by transformations in martial values which make the modern soldier as different from the traditional warrior as modern intellectuals are from traditional priests.
These transformations are the corollary of the state monopoly on violence, in that this very monopoly is organized and put into practical effect through the institution of a disciplined national army subordinate under civil authority. The soldiers of this army are armed and supplied by the state; their position thus has a lot more in common, even in the highest ranks of officers, with that of traditional conscripts than with warrior aristocrats who own and command independent military means. In particular, they are duty-bound to render unconditional obedience to their civilian Commander-in-Chief. Their sense of martial honor is adjusted accordingly and makes them take that duty extremely seriously and fulfill it willingly, because it is bound up with patriotism.
By contrast, the aristocrat’s sense of honor, which is entirely centred around himself and not duty to state and country, rules out unconditional obedience from outset—since the aristocrat, in his own eyes, is a sovereign in his own right who has entered into an agreement with another sovereign, and just like any sovereign reserves the right to judge the legitimate extent of the obligations he assumes, and whether or not the other party is living up to his.
Thus the modern right, while it clearly inherits the cultural patrimony of military tradition, inherits it in the modified form of the sensibilities proper to the soldiers and armed civilians of a republic of legal equals. There can be no titular aristocracy, but only citizens with a selfless sense of unconditional fidelity to their patria and its laws approximating the religious—sensibilities vividly expressed in the old right-wing slogan, “my country, right or wrong.” The fact that the martial honor of the political right is invested in unconditional civil obedience in this way no doubt helps explain why the right in the U.S. has never simply ousted its political opponents by force.
That being said, all republics have a variable level of chronic strife that sometimes breaks out into violence, the modern liberal democracy not excepted. A state governed by many is one that splits into parties and factions that vie for supremacy.
As in competitive team sports, at least some of the side-taking action in the politics of any republic—no matter how well-ordered—takes place off the official playing field and spills over into the streets.
Let’s have a detailed look at the major types of this disorder.
Since the 1990s, the far-left has organized huge street protests held in the vicinity of various international political leadership summits. Invariably, a black bloc, a group tactic used by revolutionary leftists, shows up at these protests. The bloc plays its part in the wider protest strategy by physically attacking police officers and destroying “capitalist” property, i.e. vandalizing storefronts and burning cars. The summits themselves are hyper-securitized so as to rule out the possibility of the bloc doing harm to officials inside, and most of the non-bloc protesters are peaceful. Militants associated with the bloc and/or the subculture of revolutionary political extremism that surrounds it have, from 2013, helped foment and politicize riots in the wake of police shootings of black suspects. These riots have resulted in serious incidents of building arson and looting. Save for the incidence of arson, neither of these types of disorder have proven any worse than traditional sports riots, and they pale in comparison to the LA riots of 1992 and other race riots earlier in the 20th century.
The years since 2015 have seen highly-publicized street brawls between Trump supporters or, alternately, various groups aligning themselves with the alt-right, and members of the far-left. These brawls represent the historical continuity of two long-run traditions of American political violence: street-level violence between supporters of the two federal parties, usually during an election campaign, some of it instigated by party leadership; and brawls between various iterations of the Ku Klux Klan, or various home-grown imitations of European fascist movements, and their many enemies including members of the radical left.
The latter tradition was revitalized in the 1980-90s in subcultural discord between various sets within the punk-rock scene, which started over trifling differences in matters of taste in dress and music and became politicized. Extremist politics served both as components of various gang names and as colors and markers of wider subcultural affiliation and identity. There were skinheads, self-consciously working class and populist-oriented, whose populism sorted itself out along lines originally drawn by music and haircuts into socialists and communists on one side and various Neo-Nazis on the other.
These factions organized themselves into various gangs, some of them with chapters nationwide and even internationally (such as the far-left SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) and Neo-Nazi Hammerskins gangs), and formed for the purpose of beating the living daylights out of their opponents in fights that represented some of the last vestiges of traditional gang violence. The leftist skins found themselves in common cause with their old enemies, punk rockers, whose own politics had overwhelmingly tended to anarchism. Hence the roots of the contemporary antifa, whose colors—the red flag of communism and the black flag of anarchy flying side by side—pointedly symbolize the unity of two factions that previously despised one another.
The skinhead crews were populated by fearsome tough guys who lived for violence. At the same time, homicide was decidedly exceptional, notwithstanding that some of these groups were rather heavily armed; and several of these murders pertained to non-political criminal activity and other affairs of the street and prison. Again, most of their antics were just traditional gang fights, and there were many punks and skinheads who were more interested in their respective subcultures than in regularly having fights. After all, most people aren’t. There just wasn’t a very big recruitment pool for these gangs, and that pool tended to be co-extensive with the pool of white criminals. Indeed, many of the Nazi-themed groups were just regular street-level criminal organizations for whites who couldn’t get into outlaw motorcycle clubs. Nazi and white power symbols affirmed their identity as criminal deviants (just as they had for motorcycle clubs in the 1960s and punk rockers in the 1970s) and above all, their identity and unity as white criminals in an underworld in which racial loyalties still counted for a lot, especially in the world behind bars.
The population of violent criminals within the white population in America is small and getting smaller, as is the population of otherwise law-abiding people who are willing to fight. This puts a ceiling on just how severe the recent epidemic of political brawling can get.
First, in infamous high-profile cases like Charlottesville, the organizers of both sides bused in militants from across the country and even Canada and still only managed to bring in what looked like a few hundred militants on either side into the melee. The violent far-right in particular has seen its recruitment pool seriously drained. The skinhead subculture has become moribund since the turn of the century.
The alt-right, just a few years ago on the brink of exploding into a mass movement, has tanked almost completely in the wake of Charlottesville, with most of the former coalition categorically disavowing street violence. Members of the Proud Boys, who have chapters across the U.S. and in Canada, have gotten into conspicuous and highly-publicized fights with antifa and its supporters, but vigorously insist that they are a legitimate civil-society association and scrupulously law abiding, resorting to blows only in case of immediate self-defense.
Second, the potential for growth is limited not just by the quantity, but the quality of the militants. Film footage of various antifa disturbances reveals the presence, alongside the old-school tough guys (many of whom have obviously been around since the 1990s or even earlier, and aren’t getting any younger) of a considerably less formidable-looking bunch. Much of this younger cohort stems from a university-educated demographic which has likely had far less exposure to real personal violence. Unlike those who came from social groups already accustomed to such methods, much of their activism has likely targeted corporate or academic institutions which are extremely risk-averse and will cave to pressure in order to avoid controversy.
Thus, the prospects in the white population for disturbances on a scale large enough to seriously threaten the social peace seem minimal.
Antifa and other far-left organizations have, to an extent, turned to historically disadvantaged black and Latino populations to bolster their numbers—for example, with efforts like Black Lives Matter. But this potential gain is clawed back to the extent that the black and Latino populations in the U.S. are still a smaller proportion than the white population. Additionally, just like any population which has been historically degraded and disenfranchised, these populations predictably show lower levels of politicization—something aggravated by the presence of cultures of poverty in which day-to-day concerns do not leave much room for wider preoccupations.
Politicized riots have, in the past, proven themselves to bear a fearsome potential for wreaking havoc, but both radicals and political elites waste their time attempting to foment them. These disturbances tend to be highly localized and require a local flashpoint such as a police-shooting to activate them—something that neither radicals, nor elite actors will likely be in any position to provide, seeing as how they would have to produce several such flashpoints at once to provoke a nationwide crisis. Even if they could, such riots are too mercurial to be of much use in the political long-game. Most participants are unpoliticized looters and rowdies, and soon go home to enjoy their loot or when they grow bored with breaking things. In any case, in a fully-fledged national emergency, the sight of the army in full deployment would likely have a sobering effect on rioters that the civilian police cannot induce.
For all these reasons, then, the problem of street-level brawls, tumults, and mob actions is unlikely to grow into anything all that much worse than it is already.
However, those predicting violence are quick to point to the American culture of an armed citizenry. There are a lot of guns in private hands in America. The Second Amendment of the Constitution recognizes a “right of the People to keep and bear arms.” We hear from advocates about how the original intent was to ensure that the popular masses would have the tools they need to overthrow a tyrannical government. This rhetoric can be quite incendiary, even menacing, as familiar confrontational slogans such as “come and take them,” and the vague but ominous threats of imminent popular insurrection in the comments section of most any right-leaning news outlet, go to show.
At the same time, American gun owners are a scrupulously law-abiding bunch. In the American political and ideological landscape, support for the right to bear arms has been synonymous with support for patriotism, law and order, and the police and military, and with fierce opposition to crime, and social disorder. To be a law-abiding citizen today means to exhaustively abjure all private violence except in cases of immediate self-defense against an attacker.
It is highly suggestive in this respect that militias such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters had an openly armed presence in the thick of Ferguson and Charlottesville. That no shots were fired on either side goes to show that, when push comes to shove, militants on both sides are still more peaceful than they may seem.
The scattered American citizen militias that initially emerged in the late 1980s, although characterized by fear and loathing of centralizing authority and apocalyptic beliefs, nonetheless have a proven track record of offering to assist in various law enforcement and emergency management efforts. There have been isolated but conspicuous incidents in which militia members defied state authority to the point where there were fatal shootings and standoffs, such as that of the Posse Comitatus in the 1980s and the Montana Freemen in the 1990s.
However, these organizations were influenced by separatist religious beliefs and/or involved in extensive criminal activity, raising the question of whether or not they are best thought of as cults or criminal gangs, as opposed to citizen militias per se. In this century, the deadliest confrontation between armed militiamen and the state was an incident in 2016 when some armed Three Percenters and others occupied a federal government building in a protest action; although federal agents fatally shot one militant, the militants did not respond in kind, and the whole thing ultimately amounted to nothing more than an ordinary protest sit-in with guns.
To make sense of the paradoxical aspects of private gun ownership in America, we need to set aside platitudes and misconceptions of both sides of the gun control and militia debates and develop clear ideas on the meaning and significance of the right to arms in light of its history. The right to arms is not some kind of loophole or exception to the state monopoly on violence, but from the start a key component of the latter’s very mechanism.
The Second Amendment traces its pedigree to the Assizes of Arms of 12th c. England, which required every free male to arm himself and swear an oath to bear his arms on behalf of the Crown. This created a unitary national armed force directly under central state control. This reduced the state’s dependence on powerful nobles to supply it with armed men and paved the way for the private retinue armies of the nobility to be abolished. The state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its territory was thus secured. To these ends, it was forbidden for any lord to disarm an inferior who had sworn to bear arms in the service of the Crown. Hence the birth of the individual right to arms, which right is simultaneously an obligation of loyalty and service to the state.
By the 17th century, the liberal state as we know it today was taking shape. Parliament, the forerunner of Congress in the U.S., had come to think of itself as the rightful supreme legislative authority of the country, leading to bitter protracted conflict with the Crown. During this time the champions of parliament came under the influence of republican political theory, above all Machiavelli, which taught that the right and the responsibility for the defense of a republic rests exclusively with each voting citizen, and that bearing arms is the highest form of civic participation and indispensable for the upkeep of the overall spirit of civic participation in the citizenry.
The parliamentarians adopted these ideas at the time that the traditional militia was falling into disuse and being replaced with the modern professional army—something the parliamentarians feared would enable the Crown to seize absolute power for itself. At the same time, there was no serious question of keeping the militia as the primary defense force of the country at a time where increasing commercialization was leaving people increasingly indifferent to militia duty.
Ultimately, the constitutional settlement of these issues reached between Parliament and Crown provided that standing professional armies could not be kept in peacetime without consent of Parliament, and that loyal subjects had the right to own weapons as allowed by law. The framers of the American Constitution subsequently adopted this principle in the Second Amendment, designed to assure the people that the need for a standing national armed force did not imply disarmament of the civilian population at large—something that would be considered poor constitutional form in a republic, even if the actual exercise of this right of civic participation never extended much further than owning a gun for personal use.
The right to bear arms, contra various facile views expressed on both sides of the gun control debate, is no vindication of “insurrectionism,” but on the contrary a sophisticated social technology for mitigating insurrectionist tendencies. Even militias who invoke insurrectionist rhetoric tend not to act on it, and if anything, do the opposite and volunteer as auxiliaries in various security and emergency-management efforts. The largest gun-rights advocacy group in the U.S., the National Rifle Association, originally received its charter and mandate from the state itself to promote civilian marksmanship for the end of furnishing better potential soldiers for the state. Today, it is extensively involved in training law-enforcement personnel. Support for gun rights in general has for many years been associated in the American public mind with unconditional support for the police and military and for national war efforts, harsh criminal pains, etc.—in short, the very apparatus of state-monopolized physical violence.
The militias, to be sure, while implicitly or explicitly public-spirited do indeed fear and distrust the central state, the executive branch above all; in this we can discern their ideological ancestry in the defense of the privileges of parliament and the rights of the subject against encroachments of the Crown during the long 17th century. They may indeed become insurgent in the wake of what they perceive to be an egregious abuse of federal authority—but on the other hand, it bears repeating that the recent occupation of the federal installation in Oregon, motivated by what the militants perceived to be a grave injustice on the part of the Bureau of Land Management against several ranchers, amounted to just another sit-in of the type that has been a standard peaceful protest tactic since the 1960s.
In any case, the potential for any insurgency to go national is severely hamstrung by the fact that, as of right now, militias are few and far between, and the overwhelming majority of gun owners in America are politically disorganized to a point approximating the absolute. Even if one such group went insurgent, it would not be in coordination with the others, and would likely find itself opposed by them.
The individuals who make up this unincorporated mass are in no organizational position to make good on whatever threats of mass insurrection they may make, no matter how many guns they own. The idea of “We the People” rising up as one in arms is nothing more than a populist fantasy and wish-fulfillment belief—one that discloses the specific wish for plebiscitary forms of political participation in which the common man can have the voice denied him by aloof or hostile elites. This wish is presently being fulfilled in the form of the recent populist turn in normal electoral-party politics that has already won itself a presidency, and done so peacefully. It thus seems unlikely that, barring armed incursions into their homes, most armed populists will ever fire a shot in anger unless organized under public authority and instructed to do so.
This leaves terrorism, considered broadly in terms of politically-motivated attempts at assassination or property destruction which are carried out unpredictably and according to plans formulated and hatched more or less in secret.
What terrorism lacks in terms of ability to do objective damage on any large scale is made up for by its ability to inflict psychological trauma on the pacified civilians of modern liberal democracies. A corollary of their pacification is that they tend to display an almost morbid generalized fear of physical danger, especially when it is unpredictable, and above all when it involves violence. These dangers, when they materialize, arouse epidemics of anxiety that wildly exaggerate both the extent of the danger and the likelihood of its occurrence, often to apocalyptic proportions—a phenomenon exacerbated by news media and other actors looking to exploit these fears for profit or some other end.
On appearances, terrorism seems to offer violent extremists in liberal democracies an elegant solution to the problem of limits to the size of the extremist recruitment pool imposed by pacific civilian sensibilities. On the one hand, the tactic requires only a relative handful of militants to be carried out; and on the other hand, the tactic is effective, since it preys on the very violence-averse mass sensibilities that limit the size of the recruitment pool to begin with. In this respect, terrorism seems to exploit a failure mode of the social control of violence in liberal societies.
What is the risk?
A clue to the answer from past experience is that terrorism, although available as a tactic for a long time, has been an aberration in the developed liberal democracies, no matter how extreme the positions of various dissident movements may otherwise have been. The Weather Underground, which at the height of political radicalism and violence in the late 1960s-early 70s crossed over from rioting to terrorism, never succeeded in starting the “prairie fire” of imitators they had hoped for; and neither did the Neo-Nazis who appeared later on, with their parallel idea of “leaderless resistance.” These concepts disclose the inability and unwillingness of their proponents to organize in any truly systematic, disciplined, and sustained way. Hence the decidedly sporadic and episodic character of political terror in the West, carried out by groups which often have only a single cell and carry out a few attacks before disbanding or being caught, with their actions inspiring intense public loathing and disavowal by other militants and fellow travelers.
The chief exception to the rule has been the ethnic-territorial separatist terror groups, such as the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ), the Irish Republican Army, or Basque Homeland and Freedom, all to varying degrees highly organized with many cells, sustained in operation for years, and enjoying substantial public support. Almost all of these groups have since either been smashed by the state or voluntarily disarmed. The FLQ in Canada, the country that sociologically resembles the U.S. most closely, was the first such group to go under. Later efforts to revive the brand fizzled out into disorganized episodes of serial vandalism even during a protracted and bitter period of constitutional crisis that saw the Canadian federation teeter on the brink of political dissolution.
The effective disappearance (or non-appearance) of organized terrorism has gone hand-in-hand with the rise, above all in the U.S., of dramatic attempted or successful assassinations or indiscriminate public mass-murders committed by individuals usually acting alone: mad bombers such as Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, and too many public shooters and vehicle murderers to cite by name.
These individuals typically have a reputation for anti-social tendencies, often leave behind a manifesto or other evidence of radical political convictions and motivations of some sort, and sometimes have degrees of peripheral involvement with some political community, but act on their own initiative. These lone-wolf attacks comprise a form of terrorism and can’t be dismissed as so many senseless criminal acts committed by demented loners—but nor do they qualify as political action in the conventional sense of social action carried out collectively.
What all this points to are cultural sensibilities that increasingly place private resort to lethal violence, and terrorism in particular, so far beyond the pale of conscionable political action as to make it the province of individuals so anomic and anti-social as to be incapable of collective action, lacking either the desire or the wherewithal in social skills, and in any case not numerous enough, to connect with like-minded others and get organized.
Very few people will take to terrorism under present conditions. When they do, it must assume the character of an incontrovertibly and self-consciously deranged and depraved war against society and humanity in general fought by career criminals who radicalize in the demi-monde in and around prison, or wholly asocial and self-radicalized lone wolves—a prophecy already fulfilled in the now-familiar figures of disgruntled school shooters and guys who drive vans into pedestrians. These attacks arguably represent the final form of domestic terrorism, as private violence is increasingly pushed far into the margins of social life.
The sensationalist publicity and moral panics that attend these incidents overshadows how rare they are. There can be no doubt that the decline of religious and family ties and values, and the corresponding increase in social isolation, alienation, and anomie, together with the demise of quasi-legitimate forms of interpersonal violence has inflated the incidence of these occurrences. But again, the growth potential is self-limiting in that political violence has truly fearsome growth potential to the extent that it is a form of social action carried out by people who are normal and don’t see themselves as sociopathic misanthropes, but on the contrary are motivated by heroic altruism—a quality that the anomic, alienated, and maladjusted loner lacks by definition.
Most well-socialized people will answer the call of duty and take lives while exposing their own when instructed to do so by legitimate superiors; a varying number will take it upon themselves to fight as irregulars in such a cause when it appears lost but not hopelessly so; but infinitesimally few will resort to what their own laws and morals define as murder, and least of all to murder of a degree far more heinous than those that occur in the course of ordinary gangland disputes and romantic triangles. The last point applies no matter the extent of alienation and anomie. Alienation and anomie are only relative risk factors for what, in absolute terms, is among the rarest of rare aberrations even in these populations, indeed even in the subsets of criminal offenders within them.
Thus the potential ace in the hole that terror presents to violent extremists, namely that it doesn’t require a lot of people to do a lot of damage—is offset in that the very social vulnerabilities terror seems well-positioned to exploit also whittle down the population of terrorists to a few dozen or so socially and politically impotent lone wolves.
Yet another Achilles’ heel of terrorism is that the very anxieties terror preys upon comprise a key component of the social technology that legitimates the state monopoly on force to begin with, and amplify it in that popular panics over terror are always met with demands for crackdowns that the state is always more than willing to supply, since they give state officials the pretext they need to justify inflating the powers and size of the enforcement apparatus. Such terror as occurs thus unintentionally ends up functionally incorporated into the state’s own mechanism and serving the ends of state power as opposed to undermining it.
The recent public discussions of political violence that inspired this article represent this process at work in yet another iteration of its characteristic cycle. The perception of brawls and riots, militia activities, and terror-type attacks as representing a Hobbesian state of nature that lurks beneath, and threatens to volcanically erupt over a thin top-layer of civilization, as opposed to exceptional and self-limiting phenomena, has already (and predictably so) been accompanied by demands for state crackdowns. Whether or not these reforms are desirable is besides the point, which is that the perceptions that serve as their legitimating pretext just don’t stand up to close scrutiny, and should be regarded with decided skepticism.
The implicit optimism of this analysis for the strength of the liberal system in controlling violence may seem odd in a post-liberal thought space. But a literature that strives towards a positive post-liberal synthesis, as opposed to purely negative and one-sidedly critical polemics and Jeremiads, has to acknowledge and grapple with what liberalism does well in the very course of striving to improve on it.
That said, nothing in the foregoing should be interpreted as vindicating triumphalist liberal boasts that the rule of law has somehow abolished violence as such or soon will—a claim recently made by Steven Pinker. Violence is a sociological constant, in the strong sense of a necessary condition of existence of any human society; it cannot even be imagined away from social relations, since it is one of their constitutive elements. No ethical precept no matter how high-sounding could ever amount to anything more than a matter of ephemeral personal taste unless given universal content as a general rule of conduct obligatory for all, in a word, as law—something that just can’t be done without enforcement power which nearly always is backed ultimately by physical violence.
The rule of law does not abolish violence but is itself the formal organizing principle of a terrifying machinery of state-monopolized physical violence—one with far greater destructive capacity than anything in human history hitherto, and that exists strictly as the flip side of the relative ouster of violence from everyday civilian life.
State monopolization of force under law does not rule out catastrophic civil disorder and war, but shifts the battleground from the street to the palace of law itself—that is to say, to the legislature, the courts, and other apparatuses of the state empowered to make and interpret the law, and exercise violence lawfully. This violence is much more potentially fearsome than anything street-level mobs, brigands, and gunmen could muster precisely to the extent that it is exercised, not in defiance of the law, but in the very name of the law, by elites who legitimately command terrible means of organized violence.
Civic thought in America has prophesied the Republic’s demise in either the total collapse of the state and regression to a Hobbesian state of nature where each man fends for himself against every other, or in an out-of-control Executive branch doing away with Congress and the law, seizing absolute political power for itself, and delivering We the People into slavery. These prophecies have not yet come to pass, and there is no sound reason to think they ever will.
There is, however, a third prospect, one that does not neatly fit on either side of the anarchy/tyranny binary: namely that one faction, having seized control of the apparatus of state-monopolized coercion, will turn it upon and unleash it against their opposition to either exterminate the latter or reduce its supporters to a new serf class.
This could be met with resistance. Not on the part of a spontaneous and unorganized swarm of individual gun owners, community resistance cells, or terrorists, but by a faction of elites in control of enough logistical capacity to be able to mount a serious threat to the mainline government. They may have the support of breakaway factions of the military, of foreign powers, or of several states more friendly to the demographics being targeted. This is what civil war would actually look like. But there are many other structural conditions needed for this to happen, which may make proper civil war unlikely.
In the absence of organized civil war, the terrifying scenario of one democratic faction using the machinery of state to attempt to exterminate or otherwise neutralize the other, need not take the familiar acute form of jackboots and gulags. It could be a much slower frog-boiling type of affair, where the dominant faction, or even both factions, use the parts of government they control to harass, neutralize, and degrade the supporters of their opposition. See for example the social effects of the drug war, mass incarceration, the opioid epidemic, politicization of tech media infrastructure, and disruption of communities by migration flows, which are all at least partially used as semi-conscious political tactics. We can expect use of these tactics to increase with increasing polarization and declining commitment to notions of political decency.
That aside, the strengths of the liberal system in controlling violence, and the long term effect on the social norms and expectations of people living under liberalism, form a strong structural constraint on non-state political violence. We have many things to worry about, but mob violence or anarchy in the streets in all probability just isn’t one of them.
Contra the old anarchy/tyranny binary, the greatest danger Americans face today stems neither from each other, nor the state as such. It stems from the partisan allegiances we have adopted as a surrogate for meaningfully human ties.