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The Value of Violence

The Value of Violence

by Benjamin Ginsberg

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This provocative thesis calls violence the driving force not just of war, but of politics and even social stability.

     Though violence is commonly deplored, political scientist Ginsberg argues that in many ways it is indispensable, unavoidable, and valuable. 

     Ginsberg sees


This provocative thesis calls violence the driving force not just of war, but of politics and even social stability.

     Though violence is commonly deplored, political scientist Ginsberg argues that in many ways it is indispensable, unavoidable, and valuable. 

     Ginsberg sees violence manifested in society in many ways. "Law-preserving violence" (using Walter Benjamin's phrase) is the chief means by which society preserves social order. Behind the security of a stable society are the blunt instruments of the police, prisons, and the power of the bureaucratic state to coerce and manipulate.

     Ginsberg also discusses violence as a tool of social change, whether used in outright revolution or as a means of reform in public protests or the threat of insurrection. He notes that even groups committed to nonviolent tactics rely on the violent reactions of their opponents to achieve their ends. And to avoid the threat of unrest, modern states resort to social welfare systems (a prudent use of the carrot instead of the stick). 

      Emphasizing the unavoidability of violence to create major change, Ginsberg points out that few today would trade our current situation for the alternative had our forefathers not resorted to the violence of the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
State violence is often seen as “the continuation of politics by other means”—to apply Clausewitz’s famous observation on war. In his latest book, Johns Hopkins political scientist Ginsberg (The Fall of the Faculty) takes the contrary view, suggesting that violence is “the driving force of politics.” In six essays, Ginsberg analyzes such topics as “bureaucracy and violence” and how Cold War–era America became a nation marked more by warfare than welfare. He illustrates how the use of force can legitimate the state and examines the mechanization and depersonalization of warfare, noting that the Air Force now trains more drone operators than pilots. However, despite the book’s original and exciting premise, it contains a number of stylistic and methodological flaws: for example, Ginsberg’s use of the term “violence,” which he never defines, is so elastic that it includes wrongful prosecutions by overzealous federal bureaucrats. Ginsberg’s penultimate chapter on “Morality and Violence” is marked by an antigovernment bias, and it includes the questionable claim that “even democratic governments generally have few moral qualms about shedding the blood of disobedient citizens.” Agent: Claire Gerus, Claire Gerus Literary Agency. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"The most insightful recent book on the relationship between politics and violence in American domestic and foreign affairs.”
Martin Shefter, professor of government, Cornell University

"Very informative, thought-provoking, and interesting.... A great beginning for students, teachers, and almost anyone who values critical thinking and seeks greater understanding of the role of violence in our world.”
Portland Book Review

“Well-researched and well-written, and it will definitely make you think. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in politics or the structures of power.”
San Francisco Book Review

“Ginsberg shows that the modern world is the product of violence and the threat of violence, both of which shape our daily lives. A model of careful analysis, this fascinating book makes us think about human conflict in new ways. Ginsberg uses a wealth of engrossing examples to show not only where violence has led us but also what it means and how we can keep it under control.”
David Satter, author of It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway

“Ginsberg’s new study is important, whether or not you agree with it. It shines a searchlight on aspects of politics that mainstream approaches typically gloss over. It is also a pleasure to read, showing his characteristic combination of lucidity and insight.”
Thomas Ferguson, professor of political science, University of Massachusetts, Boston; senior fellow, Roosevelt Institute

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 Benjamin Ginsberg
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ISBN: 978-1-61614-832-4




Recent events such as the Boston Marathon bombing remind us that violence is brutal and terrible. Yet, while we may shrink from violence we should not shrink from attempting to analyze and understand violence. A capacity for violence has always been an important facet of human nature. Humans, and perhaps their pre-human ancestors as well, have engaged in murder and mayhem, as individuals and in groups, for hundreds of thousands of years. And, at least since the advent of recorded history, violence and politics have been intimately related. States practice violence against internal and external foes. Political dissidents engage in violence against states. Competing political forces inflict violence upon one another. Writing in 1924, Winston Churchill declared—and not without reason—that "the story of the human race is war."

Academic discussions of the relationship between violence and politics fall into three main schools. Some authors see violence as instrumentally related to politics. Hobbes, for example, viewed violence as a rational means by which individuals sought to achieve such political goals as territory, safety, and glory. In a similar vein, Clausewitz famously referred to war as the continuation of politics by other means. A second group of authors views violence as typically resulting from political failures and miscalculations. The title of an influential paper on the origins of the American Civil War by historian James Randall, "The Blundering Generation," exemplifies this idea. A third group, most recently exemplified by psychologist Steven Pinker, views violence as a form of pathological behavior that is, perhaps, diminishing in frequency with the onward march of civilization. Some proponents of this perspective have even declared that violence is essentially a public health problem.

Whatever their differences of emphasis, each of these perspectives assigns violence a subordinate role in political life—a secondary means of achieving political goals, a result of political miscalculations, an expression of political pathology, and so forth. There is, as Hannah Arendt once noted, an alternative view that assigns violence a superordinate role in politics. This perspective is implied by Mao Zedong's well-known aphorism that political power "grows out of the barrel of a gun." For Mao, violence is the driving force in the political arena while more peaceful forms of political engagement serve to fill in the details or, perhaps, merely to offer post-hoc justifications for the outcomes of violent struggles. Chairman Mao essentially turns Clausewitz on his head by characterizing politics as a sequel or even epiphenomenon of violent struggles—a continuation of violence by other means. Unfortunately, Mao seemed to have an inordinate fondness for mayhem and bloodshed. He did, after all, suggest that the quality of a revolutionary should be judged by the number of people he or she had killed. Yet, our revulsion at the Chairman's practices should not blind us to the accuracy of his observation. Violence and the threat of violence are, in fact, the most potent forces in political life.

It is, to be sure, often averred that problems can never truly be solved by the use of force. Violence, the saying goes, is not the answer. This adage certainly appeals to our moral sensibilities. But whether or not violence is the answer presumably depends upon the question being asked. For better or worse, it is violence that usually provides the most definitive answers to three of the major questions of political life—statehood, territoriality, and power. Violent struggle, in the form of war, revolution, civil war, terrorism, and the like, more than any other immediate factor, determines what states will exist and their relative power, what territories they will occupy, and which groups will and will not exercise power within them.

In the case of statehood, there are occasional circumstances under which a state may be built by and endure mainly through peaceful means. These are, however, the rather rare exceptions. As Charles Tilly has observed, most of today's regimes are the survivors or descendants of a thousand-year-long culling process in which those states capable of creating and sustaining powerful military forces prevailed, while those that could not or would not fight were conquered or absorbed by others. Similarly, when it comes to control of territory, virtually every square inch on the planet is currently occupied by groups that forcibly dispossessed—sometimes exterminated—the land's previous claimants. Thus far, at least, the meek have not inherited very much of the earth. Indeed, the West's global dominance for most of the past millennium is as much a function of its capacity for violence as any other factor.

In some instances, of course, those deprived of their land raise serious objections and moral questions. Ongoing land disputes are particularly manifest in today's Middle East, where the Israelis are accused of pursuing an ongoing policy of stealing Arab land. Indeed, it is often asserted by Palestinians and by other Arabs and their left-liberal supporters in the West that the very existence of the State of Israel represents an illegitimate theft of Arab land. The creation of the State of Israel is seen in these quarters as a supreme tragedy or catastrophe (al nakba in Arabic). Certainly, one can make this argument. Indeed, Arabs and Jews and possibly others, as well, have historic, religious, and legal land claims in the Middle East that merit attention. Yet, Jewish assertions of rightful ownership of the land of Israel do not seem any more or less lacking in legitimacy than any other contemporary territorial claims. It hardly needs to be said that the United States occupies millions of square miles of territory stolen from the Native Americans as well as land taken by force from the Mexicans whose Spanish forebears had previously stolen it from Native Americans. The ancestors of the modern-day Europeans stole their land too. But since these land thefts occurred long ago, the rightful ownership of Western European territory is only occasionally contested these days. In the case of America, the original land owners were largely exterminated by the European settlers and, so, are not in a position to press their claims with much vigor.

The main difference between the Israelis and other contemporary land owners might seem to be that Israel has only existed as a state for a few decades. Israel, moreover, unlike the United States and others, failed to launch a sustained campaign of annihilation against the previous land owners who therefore remain quite able to vocally and violently assert their irredentist claims. Should Israel, however, deserve relegation to the status of a pariah for having been insufficiently murderous? Those nations currently occupying lands whose previous inhabitants they exterminated might seem more blameworthy than those who did not pursue a genocidal program. The point here is not to absolve Israel from reproach but is, rather, to point to the many moral ambiguities surrounding questions of land ownership. The fact of the matter, however unfortunate it may seem, is that territory "belongs" to whatever group is able to seize and hold it.

In the case of power, within every state the composition of the ruling class, if not always the identity of the particular rulers, is generally shaped by the use or threat of what Walter Benjamin called law-making violence. The availability of elections and the correlative peaceful modes of leadership selection that have become common in some parts of the world over the past two centuries does not contravene this last point. Barack Obama, America's first black president, was chosen at the polls. The possibility, however, that a black person could become a member of America's social and political elite was established through sometimes violent and often disruptive protest four decades earlier—to say nothing of the bloody war fifteen decades earlier that freed black people from chattel slavery.

Generally speaking, electoral politics is an arena in which success requires substantial economic, institutional, educational, and organizational resources. Consequently, elections in the Western world are usually fought among competing factions of the bourgeoisie—a social stratum whose power was established in a series of violent struggles that began in Europe in the seventeenth century. Electoral outcomes reflect more than they affect this stratum's power in Western society. Some awareness of the limits of electoral politics seems to underlie the economic protests that developed throughout Western Europe and the United States in 2011. One young Spanish protestor quoted in the American media said, "Our parents are grateful because they're voting. We're the first generation to say that voting is worthless." We shall return to elections in chapter 6.

In the United States over the past two centuries those elected to high political office have mainly been individuals drawn from the middle and upper classes. For new groups, social and economic mobility have generally preceded electoral success. And, if by some chance, significant discrepancies do emerge between electoral results and the actual distribution of power in society, the verdict of the polls is likely to be challenged, often by forcible means. In the United States, for example, such a situation manifested itself in the South during the late 1860s and early 1870s when black electoral success was negated by white-organized paramilitary forces.

Once the basic questions of statehood, territoriality, and power are answered, subsidiary matters might be addressed without a resort to force. But whether some form of peaceful political discourse is likely to emerge in the aftermath of a violent struggle depends in no small measure upon the decisiveness of the struggle's outcome. Decisiveness refers to the relationships among the winners and losers that emerge in the wake of a violent political conflict. An outcome is most decisive when a more or less unitary actor, such as an organized political party, nation-state, revolutionary army, or similar entity—say, the Bolsheviks or Chinese Communist Party—achieves a complete and clear-cut victory over its foes. Decisiveness is reduced when the nominal losers retain the ability to renew hostilities at some future date, or when victory is shared by a loosely knit alliance or coalition whose members' relationships to one another have as yet to be determined.

Generally speaking, more decisive outcomes bring a more certain end to violence but often also lead to the construction of hegemonic national or international regimes. Lack of decisiveness, on the other hand, may leave the road open to continuing or recurrent violence but can also pave the way for the emergence of polyarchical politics and a more liberal national or international order. If the losing parties to a violent conflict are not decisively defeated they may seek to avenge their defeat months, years, or even decades later. Those who are not able to defeat their foes decisively must be prepared to develop programs and policies designed to win the support of their defeated but still dangerous enemies if they wish to avert further hostilities. Thus, in 1066 the Normans defeated the Saxons but were not able to completely destroy the latter's military capabilities. Accordingly, Norman rulers were compelled to incorporate elements of the Saxon nobility into the ruling class and military, and to promote intermarriage and assimilation. Unable to defeat their adversaries more decisively, the Normans found it necessary to rule them more graciously. In a similar vein, though the Bulgarian Empire was conquered by the Byzantines in 1018, the Bulgarian nobility retained significant military strength. Accordingly, Byzantine emperor Basil II allowed Bulgarian nobles to retain their local powers and incorporated them into the Byzantine aristocracy. This policy was successful in preventing revolts, and its reversal after Basil's death sparked a series of rebellions by the selfsame noble families and the eventual overthrow of Byzantine rule.

Decisiveness is also lessened when success in a violent struggle is achieved by a coalition or loosely affiliated set of forces rather than a single entity. Victory won by a coalition may be decisive vis-à-vis the losers but is often followed by disputes among the winners that can produce a renewed threat of violence. The coalition that won a decisive victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the Second World War, for example, soon split into hostile camps that faced one another in a protracted and occasionally violent "Cold War." If they wish to avoid internecine disputes, winning coalitions must usually construct institutions and develop rules for peaceful conflict resolution. If the winning coalition involves nations, these arrangements may take the form of complex treaty agreements or super-national organizations like the League of Nations or the United Nations. If the successful coalition consists of groups or entities within a nation, the erstwhile coalition partners may endeavor to develop a constitutional power-sharing arrangement. In the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, for example, members of the victorious coalition of thirteen states agreed to the Articles of Confederation and, later, the Constitution to provide for the discussion of common issues and the peaceful resolution of problems.

Neither the League of Nations nor the United Nations, nor for that matter the Articles of Confederation and Constitution proved fully effective in preventing the emergence of conflicts among their various members and signatories. There can be little doubt that a decisive resolution of violent national or international conflict offers a surer path to peace than an indecisive conclusion. However, while a decisive end to violent struggle is more certain to yield peace, an indecisive conclusion opens the way for politics. Though it may sometimes recede into the background, the use or threat of violence never truly disappears from governance and politics. Every government routinely employs coercion against those who challenge its power, and most will respond quite forcefully to internal as well as external threats to their autonomy or territorial integrity.

Since many political issues have at least potential implications for the balance of political power within or between states, the threat of violence can lie just beneath the surface of even the most peaceful political discussion. In 2010, for example, the prosaic issue of health care reform seemed, albeit rather obliquely, to raise questions about the relative influence of competing social forces in the U.S. This soon brought intimations if not actual threats of violence by and against foes of the Obama administration's plans as well as ruminations by some politicians about the legalities of state secession from the Union. Should a mundane discussion come to have more direct implications for a nation's territorial integrity or the distribution of power in society, the latent possibility of violence can quickly become manifest. Thomas Jefferson was shocked in 1820 when what had appeared to be a routine debate over the admission of new states suddenly threatened to bring about the violent dissolution of the Union when the issue was seen to have major implications for the balance of power between Northern and Southern elites. It was a "fire bell in the night," Jefferson famously declared. Four decades later, when the fire bell rang again, the national government expended 600,000 lives to crush the South's effort to secede.

The political importance of violence derives mainly from four factors. First is the dominance usually manifested by violence over other forms of political action. Second is the agenda-setting power of violence. Third is the destructive and politically transformative power of violence. Fourth is the capacity of violence to serve as a catalyst for political mobilization. Taken together, these attributes of violent political action explain why the gun barrel is, indeed, such an important source of political power.


As to the first of these factors, dominance, political forces willing and able to employ violence to achieve their goals will generally best their less bellicose adversaries, overturning the results of elections, negating the actions of parliamentary bodies, riding roughshod over peaceful expressions of political opinion, and so forth. Indeed, the mere threat of violence is often enough to instill fear in and compel acquiescence on the part of those unwilling or unable to forcefully defend themselves. Violent groups can usually be defeated only by adversaries able to block their use of mayhem or to employ superior force against them. Those who cannot or will not make use of violence seldom achieve their goals over the opposition of those who are not similarly constrained. As Machiavelli observed, things have seldom turned out well for unarmed prophets.

Excerpted from THE VALUE OF VIOLENCE by BENJAMIN GINSBERG. Copyright © 2013 Benjamin Ginsberg. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Benjamin Ginsberg (Potomac, MD) is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of more than twenty books, including How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Jewish Passivity in the Face of Nazism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013); The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011); Do the Jews Have a Future in America?(Verbis, 2010); and Political Science as Public Philosophy, co-edited with Gwendolyn Mink (W.W. Norton, 2010).

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