Monopoly on violence

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A monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force (also commonly but controversially known, in abbreviated form, as a monopoly on violence; from the German: Gewaltmonopol des Staates, "Violence-Monopoly of the State") is the conception of the state as expounded by sociologist Max Weber in his essay Politics as a Vocation (1919). According to Weber, a state is any "human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory."[1] In other words, Weber describes the state as any organization that succeeds in holding the exclusive right to use, threaten to use, or authorize others to use direct physical violence against members of its territorial domain. This notion has figured prominently in philosophy of law and political philosophy in the twentieth century, and is a basic premise in anarchist schools of thought.

Weber defines the state as a community successfully claiming authority on legitimate use of physical force over a given territory; territory was also deemed by Weber to be a prerequisite feature of a state. Such a monopoly, according to Weber, must occur via a process of legitimation.

According to Raymond Aron, international relations are characterized by the absence of the legitimate use of force in the relationship between states.[2]

Max Weber's theory[edit]

Max Weber wrote in Politics as a Vocation that a necessary condition of statehood is the retention of such a monopoly. His expanded definition was that something is "a 'state' if and insofar as its administrative staff successfully upholds a claim on the 'monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force' (German: das Monopol legitimen physischen Zwanges) in the enforcement of its order."[3] [4]

According to Weber, the state is the source of legitimate physical force. The police and the military are its main instruments, but this does not mean that only public force can be used: private force (as in private security) can be used too, as long as it has legitimacy derived from the state.

Weber applied several caveats to this basic principle:

  • Weber intended his statement as an observation, stating that it has not always been the case that the connection between the state and the use of physical force has been so close. He uses the examples of feudalism, where private warfare was permitted under certain conditions, and of Church courts, which had sole jurisdiction over some types of offenses, especially heresy (from the religion in question) and sexual offenses (thus the nickname "bawdy courts"). Regardless, the state is wherever this "right" or perceived legitimacy to authorize violence has been centralized.
  • The state delegates or permits the actual application of physical coercion to certain groups or individuals; however, this does not mean that it must be the state alone actually carrying out all the violence. Weber's theory is not taken to mean that only the government uses physical coercion, but that the individuals and organizations that can legitimize coercion or adjudicate on its legitimacy are precisely those authorized to do so by the state. So, for example, the law might permit individuals to use physical force in defense of self or property, but in this case, as in the example of private security above, the ability to use force has been granted by the state, and only by the state. This is why the term "monopoly" is used.

Obsolence of theory based on recent wars[edit]

Weber's conception has recently been reviewed in light of the rise in wars involving non-state actors. Recent examples include the Iraq War, Arab Spring, and Syrian Civil War. In these cases, a clear victor with a monopoly on violence has not emerged. One critic argues that "A characteristic of recent wars is a disruption or loss of the state monopoly of violence, as it can neither be adequately exercised nor can the rule of law be maintained. According to numerous scholars we have apparently entered an era of new wars. They are often called internal, intra-state, local or regional, civil wars, low-intensity conflicts etc. and it is uncontested that the majority of these conflicts during the last few decades have not been inter- but intra-state wars". [5] Likwise, a U.S. Army War College study notes that "In an increasingly multipolar world, rapid advances in technology and globalization have dangerously empowered nonstate actors who compete for legitimacy with states and undercut long-held constructs of national autonomy and sovereignty." The study ties the concept of a state monopoly on violence to Westphalian sovereignty. [6] However, arguing within the confines of Weber's definition, such societies, at the present time, could perhaps be understood as being "stateless" or as merely undergoing a transition phase with regard to the state.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Daniel Warner (1991). An ethic of responsibility in international relations. Lynne Rienner Publishers. pp. 9–10. ISBN 9781555872663. Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  2. ^ Raymond Aron. Paix et guerre entre les nations, Paris 1962; English: Peace and War, 1966. New edition 2003.
  3. ^ Parsons, Talcott (1964). The Theory Of Social And Economic Organization. Simon and Schuster. p. 154. ISBN 0684836408. 
  4. ^ Weber, Max. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1921). p. 29
  5. ^ Wulf, Herbert W (2007). The bumpy road to re-establish a monopoly of violence. London: Study Group on Europe’s Security Capabilities, London School of Economics. 
  6. ^ Phillips, P. Michael (US Army LTC) (Summer 2009). "Deconstructing Our Dark Age Future". Parameters (U.S. Army War College).