The International Government of Legitimate Violence. Interview with Sylvain Antichan & Cyril Magnon-pujo

Gouvernement_Inter_Violence_Legitime_Photo by Shutterstock

What is the current situation of the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence? The authors of the four contributions gathered in issue 93 of Critique Internationale (July-September 2021), entitled “Le gouvernement international de la violence légitime” describe, on the basis of thorough empirical surveys, certain policies that not only implement but also prevent violence: the fight against the financing of crime and terrorism, the death penalty in the United States, the war in Afghanistan, and post-conflict policies. Anthony Amicelle, Nicolas Fischer, Julien Pomarède and Sandrine Lefranc examine the relationships, both collusive and colliding, that link the different social spaces that contribute to the governance of this legitimate violence. Interview with the two editors of this special issue, Sylvain Antichan and Cyril Magnon-pujo.

Reflecting today on the international government of violence leads us to question the situation of the monopoly on the use of legitimate physical force attributed to the state. For the past twenty years, various theories in International Relations have proposed an analysis of contemporary forms of organised violence that are supposed to challenge this monopoly of the state. Can you outline them?

One of the starting points of our reflection is the literature devoted to contemporary transformations of war. To take up the typology proposed by Siniša Malešević, at least three approaches in International Relations aim to think about these transformations: the perspective of the decline of violence, which insists on the restructuring of the international system under the aegis of international organisations; the theories of the new wars, which emphasise the current weakening of states; and finally, the approach of technology as an actor, which attributes a driving role to the instruments used to implement violence. Despite their differences, these approaches have in common that they are based on the hypothesis of a reconfiguration of the role and place of states in the international system.

However, these approaches largely ignore the contributions of political sociology and the sociology of the international, especially works devoted to thinking about contemporary reconfigurations of the state and its interactions with other actors. This could well be a weakness of this literature. The special issue we have edited therefore proposes a sociological and empirical approach to policies regarding the implementation and prevention of violence. Compared to work undertaken in the early 2000s analysing the emergence of forms of “security governance” that led various public and private actors to collaborate in the production of public policies, this perspective is more attentive to the complex articulations of agents, and their respective sectors, who contribute de facto to the production of organised violence. For example, by examining challenges to the death penalty in the United States, Nicolas Fischer’s article shows that actors as different as pharmaceutical companies, commercial courts, and health regulation authorities are all involved in the implementation of legitimate violence.

You also point out that the challenges to the Westphalian model of an international space composed of sovereign and monopolistic states are not recent. Based on a rereading of Weber, and following in the footsteps of Foucault and Bourdieu in particular, how does political sociology contribute to rethinking the perimeter and the role of the state in the political control of violence?

Prison window Photo by ShutterstockPolitical sociology has long been addressing the state as a concept, an institution, and a policy producer. Analyses of social differentiation and intersectoral relations in the national space are thus long-standing and advanced, whereas it was not until the 1990s that the notions of monopoly and state sovereignty were challenged in International Relations. However, by de-exceptionalising the study of international phenomena, we realise that a reading in terms of social spaces—and not simply of actors—is relevant for understanding policies relating to the management of violence. This reading allows us to focus on their interactions, without ignoring the effects of the rationales that are specific to each of these spaces, i.e. the “structural effects”.

On this point, reading Serge Gruzinski's work, La pensée métisse, although far from the subjects we are dealing with, made a strong impression on us. According to Gruzinski, when we identify a form of hybridisation, blurring, or crossbreeding, we are quick to postulate that this state of vagueness succeeds a more coherent, more unitary state, and give in to the illusion of a passage from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, from the singular to the plural, from order to disorder. It seems to us that the ways of thinking about contemporary transformations of the state are still often trapped in such a representation. Michel Dobry, for his part, has often noted a form of intellectualist bias in the scientific literature, which leads to the perception that increasing vagueness is a factor of dysfunction and disorder, whereas only clarity and determination produce efficiency. In his view, this position leads to ignoring the practical effectiveness of the indeterminacy of categories. This is what Julien Pomarède shows, for example, in his article on NATO’s strategies in the war in Afghanistan. Here, the vagueness of the strategic doctrine is what allows not only the member states to maintain a minimal compromise between them but also the legitimisation of the radicalisation of military action.

For us, these readings reveal a certain discomfort with regard to a whole body of literature that claims that there is an increasing blurring of the boundaries in policies related to the implementation or prevention of violence (between private and public actors, between crime and war, etc.). However, if we reread Max Weber with such concerns in mind, we realise that his statement is less univocal than what has been retained. The classic definition of the state that he proposes in Politik als Beruf is, in fact, supplemented by a second, less often quoted sentence: “What is specific to our present age is that all other groups and persons are granted the right to violence only insofar as the state tolerates it on their part: the state becomes the sole source of the ‘right’ to violence”. Thus, Weber does not only insist on the dynamics of the concentration and centralisation of power; he also invites us to examine the relations between actors, or better, between social spaces that may have given rise to this monopoly on violence—in a form that needs to be specified—at one time or another. This is the path that we propose to explore empirically in this issue.

So it would therefore be assumed that the monopoly on legitimate violence attributed to the state has been more of a construction than an invariant, and that sovereign power has recomposed rather than imposed the field of its regal prerogatives according to the multiple actors in the varied social spaces with which it has interacted. What are the characteristics of these new configurations where public and private logics intertwine?

Algorithme Photo by ShutterstockThe question is whether there are stable patterns that can be observed in all the fields concerned. The elements drawn from the various empirical surveys presented in this special issue of Critique Internationale make it possible to identify several trends. The first relates to the circulation and reappropriation of knowledge and practices between the interacting sectors. The second is the observation that these interactions, these relationships of collision and collusion, lead more to the structural differentiation of these spaces than to their de-differentiation, even though the agents can play on this apparent blurring of boundaries. In this issue, Anthony Amicelle shows that it is impossible to understand the implementation of client surveillance algorithms by banks without taking into account the structural differentiation of our societies. The third trend relates to the weight of this belief in the monopolistic position attributed to the state, a position which, while being questioned in the context of these exchanges, is nonetheless decisive in the positioning of agents.

Finally, there is still the question of determining the specificity of the state's position within these diverse and complex configurations. How do the four contributions you have selected for this issue contribute to showing how, in these new practices and new organisations of power, the state is (re)shaped, redefined, and consolidated?

Once thought to be an exclusive actor, then on the verge of disappearing, the state is now being redefined through these processes of constructing policies for the implementation and prevention of violence. Because the state is caught up in complex configurations, its role— whether it is to fight terrorism, wage war, execute its convicts, or make peace—depends in part on the interactions between the social spaces involved, interactions over which it does not have total control. But the state is never denied, whatever the field, as the four contributions in this issue of Critique Internationale show. In Sandrine Lefranc’s article on the structuring of an international arena around “positive peace”, the state appears to be an unavoidable absentee. In this case, as in those of the other policies studied in this special issue, agents from other sectors often define themselves in relation to the state, or rather in relation to what they imagine to be the state’s position. The result is that, paradoxically, the state can be consolidated through processes in which its role is not necessarily central. The practical effect of this fiction of the monopoly on legitimate physical coercion thus seems to be in full play, even though the reality of this monopoly remains untraceable.

Interview by Catherine Burucoa, CERI.

Access the issue (on Cairn)
Access the journal's website

Photo copyright: Shutterstock

Back to top