Weber and the State’s Territorial Monopoly on Legitimate Violence

Perhaps in order to talk about the state and violent dis/placement in relation to the police (as a state apparatus), it could be helpful to think for a moment about what the state is.

One scholar who is very often quoted regarding the state is Max Weber. In a lecture in the early twentieth century, Weber defined the state in relation to violence, saying that the state has a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” (2). The definition seems simple enough, but I’ll discuss it briefly in this post to highlight a few other important concepts. Perhaps I will be completely misinterpreting Weber, but if that’s a problem for you, maybe you can just think of this section as “my” definition of the state, using Weber’s words.

Before his comment about the monopoly on force, Weber first says that the state cannot be defined in terms of its “ends,” but only in terms of its means – in particular, the use of physical force (1-2). To me, Weber seems to be implying that the definition of the state is closely tied with its ‘performance,’ through violence. The state produces itself through the use of force; the institutionalized use of force is the “means” by which the state comes to exist, regardless of its “ends” (products, results, benefits, restrictions, oppressions, rights, liberties).
Weber continues:

“If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of ‘state’ would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be designated as ‘anarchy,’ in the specific sense of this word” (2).

A few things seem to stand out from this definition. Firstly, the “use of force” that Weber is referring to is specifically institutionalized violence. The state isn’t born through a spattering of unrelated fistfights. Rather, it is engendered through social institutions that use violence. Without this violence, there would be no state, because – again – the state comes to exist through the use of force. The “anarchy” that Weber refers to here, then, might be referred to as “statelessness,” and also “the absence of institutionalized violence” (but not necessarily the absence of violence per se).

Another thing to note here has to do with the way that Weber is defining violence. In this case, “violence” seems to be synonymous with “physical force.” In other words, Weber’s definition of violence is restricted to (what I would see as) only one type of violence. He is also not specific about what “physical force” is. Does this include only human-to-human violence? Would the destruction of physical things be considered a use of physical force? What if it’s the destruction of private property in a ‘liberal democracy’ where the state’s role is to protect private property? (Does this constitute ‘physical force’?) These questions are important to the discussion of protest ‘violence,’ since it would help us figure out whether ‘vandalism’ would be considered the use of physical force. …But let’s return to this later, and go back to Weber for now.

After his quote above where Weber says the state could not exist without violence, he seems (almost) to contradict himself for a moment:

Of course, force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state – nobody says that – but force is a means specific to the state. (2)

So, while the state is engendered through the performance of physical violence, it is not created only through this violence. Rather, the importance of violence in Weber’s definition is because the state is, theoretically, the only performer of organized, institutionalized violence. While the state has “means” other than violence, no other institution ‘should’ be using violent means (without the state’s ‘permission’) if the state is in control. And without parentheses: While the state has “means” other than violence, no other institution ‘should’ be using violent means.

And finally, we arrive at the part of Weber’s definition of the state that is so often quoted. The state is:

…a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. (2)

So, as I was implying in the previous paragraph, Weber seems to be saying that although violence isn’t the only means available to the state, the state (if ‘successful’ in enforcing and enacting its rule) is the only institution that can legitimately enact itself through the use of force. A ‘successful’ state means that the body of the state has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force; that is, only the state or institutions with the state’s ‘permission’ can use institutionalized violence.

And there’s one more thing. Weber’s definition also includes that the state’s self-enactment through violence occurs “within a given territory,” and he continues: “Note that the ‘territory’ is one of the characteristics of the state” (2). Though this sentence is not as often referred to, he seems to be stressing the territorial aspect, the spatial aspect of the state that has to do with borders and ‘places.’

In other words, Weber’s definition is particularly useful to my examination of police-related dis/placement violence in the 2013 protests in Brazil, since it considers both violence and space in relation to the state. If Weber’s definition is accurate, it means that police violence is not necessarily “wrong” (based on the model of the state), as long as it is part of the state’s “means” to provide the protections and benefits it is expected to. The state exists through the use of force in ‘its’ territory. Because the force is used within the state’s territory, it is ‘legitimate.’ And the state’s territory is bounded based on where it exerts its physical force, since this physical force is the means by which the state brings itself into existence.

I intentionally made things a bit confusing there, but what I’m implying is that, using Weber’s definition, we can analyze the state as a sort of dialectic (or polylectic?), where violence, space (territory), and legitimacy are mutually constitutive.

I might summarize and interpret Weber’s passage in the following way: The state cannot exist without embodying itself through institutionalized violence; the ‘legitimacy’ of this institutionalized violence is based in space and territory and control; and thus the ‘legitimacy’ of the state’s existence is performed spatially through enforcement violence that also establishes a control over violence.

(By “enforcement violence that also establishes a control over violence,” I am repeating the idea that the state uses violence in order to establish its ‘legitimate’ monopoly on violence.)

Weber state monopoly on violence within a given territory

In the diagram above, I have made one of the infinite possible representations of Weber’s statement that the state “claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

You will see that I managed to link every concept to every other concept with affects in both directions. While I have, of course, made decisions and selections in constructing the diagram, perhaps it could be a useful tool for discussion.

A verbal interpretation of the diagram could also be helpful. For example, if we were talking about the relationship of “territory” to other concepts, I could say that the state, and thus its use of institutionalized violence as well as its legitimacy, is bounded by the “given territory” that Weber mentions. Meanwhile, the legitimacy of the state justifies its occupation of the territory, while its violence “regulates” and enforces the borders of that territory. (All I’ve done in this paragraph is verbally describe the arrows related to “Territory” in the diagram.)

The most interesting part of the diagram  is the way in which it is asymmetrical — namely, in the two grey “monopolizes” (the state “monopolizes” territory and legitimacy) as opposed to the black arrow indicating that the state “performs” institutionalized violence. The reason I have made “monopolizes” a grey color with a dotted line is because (at least, based on what I understand of what Weber understands) the state doesn’t directly “monopolize” territory or legitimacy of violence; rather, it is through the mechanism of institutionalized violence that the state claims and enforces its territory (which bounds its violence and its legitimacy) and its legitimacy (which justifies its violence and its territory). In this understanding, the state’s legitimate regulation/occupation of space is enacted through violence.

(Note that there are many other relationships I could have written rather than “monopolize,” such as “requires,” “claims,” “is constituted by,” etc… I didn’t put those because, in this diagram, the arrows tend to represent the direction of specific “active” influences. Also, I’m mostly restricting the diagram to an interpretation of his specific quote about the monopoly of the legitimate use of force.)


Using the terminology I established in the post about dis/placement, one thing we might conclude from the diagram above is that the state emplaces its legitimacy through the use of institutionalized violence. And, as I argued in the post about dis/placement, any emplacement is also the displacement of something or someone. Thus, based on Weber’s assertion that the state cannot exist without the means of violence, I will conclude that the state comes to exist through a legitimate monopoly on violent dis/placement. The state, and its ‘legitimate’ possession of a territory, is defined by dis/placement through the use of physical force.

(Yes. Theoretical. Logical, but theoretical. Abstract. Not necessarily connected with specific realities. Intellectually stimulating without necessarily representing anything “real.” Still… it seems reasonable, right? …I guess we’ll find out when I look at specific protest events in more detail.)


There is an important caveat here, which is Weber’s statement I discussed previously saying that force is not the only “means” of the state, nor is it “normal” for the state to use force. Thus, in his framework, it would be incorrect to assert that the state only claims its territory and enforces legitimacy through the mechanism of institutionalized violence. However, the diagram above should still be helpful for understanding specifically some of the (theoretical) relationships between the concepts I’m discussing. While the state may have other means of enacting territory and legitimacy aside from violence, maybe it is enough to say that violence is a means by which legitimacy and territory may be enacted.


Now, about ‘democracy’…

In a ‘democratic’ state, we might say that the state’s legitimacy originates in ‘the people.’ It is citizens’ willingness to support a state that produces its legitimacy… It is a majority consensus that, theoretically, forms the basis for the existence of the democratic state. I could go look up some authors like John Locke and others, but it’s not so important here, and they’re cited enough as it is. (So is Weber, incidentally, but since I’m already citing him, I don’t really need to go do all the others, too, do I?)

But where does the willingness to support the state come from? It might be because of the benefits produced by the state, such as social services. Maybe it’s because of the state’s regulation of private property. Maybe citizens’ support even comes from the state’s monopoly on violence, where citizens support the state’s monopoly on the use of force (and thus legitimate it) so that they (the citizens) are (theoretically) not subject to unregulated violence from other institutions. (In theory for example, the state would use its monopoly on violence to prevent a particular business or agency from regulating the behavior of its employees through the use of physical force.)

But even with a democratic legitimacy, the state, as conceived by Weber, enacts itself through physical force. “If the state is to exist,” he says, “the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be” (2). Does this mean that the state ceases to exist if the ‘dominated’ cease to obey? If the state exists through the use of institutionalized violence, what does it mean when the ‘dominated’ cease to obey, yet the state continues to enact itself through violence? (What happens when citizens rebel against a democratic state, removing the ‘legitimacy’ of its violence, yet the state continues to embody itself through this violence? Is it a tension between ‘anarchy’ (as defined by Weber in the sense of no-state-ness) and an illegitimate state? If options exist other than institutionalized violence, would these options therefore be away from the model of the state, to the degree that the state cannot exist without its monopoly on legitimate violence?

These are questions that Weber may answer in some form in his lecture/essay that follows the first few pages I analyzed. However, since that lecture is rather abstract and about a specific vision of “politics” that I don’t find useful, let’s finish off with this commentary and move on to analyzing other tests.


Now that I’ve explained some of my interpretations of Weber’s text, some questions arise in relation to dis/placement violence in Brazil.

The first question is one that I have already mentioned. What exactly does Weber mean by “physical force”? The answer to this question seems like it would be fundamental to defining “the state,” since Weber’s definition of the state is based on its enactment through the use of physical force. Is “physical force” a reference to force against humans? Against “private” property? Against individuals, communities?  If he is referring specifically to institutionalized force, would we include things that are not physical force per se but have definite, tangible physical effects, such as a segregation policy that “forces” people to occupy (or leave) space based on a strict set of guidelines?

The next question that arose for me when I read over Weber’s text is: What happens when the idea of “violence” is expandedbeyond the idea of “physical force”? What about things like “institutional violence,” where the organization and hierarchy of an institution does harm to particular individuals? What about violence enacted through words and communication, such as the hateful labeling of certain groups, verbal assault, exclusionary language? Does the have a monopoly on the legitimate use of those? (No, right?) But what about things that are closer to physical force but might not qualify? What about the threat of physical force… does the state have the monopoly on this too? (Yes? Then, do threats outside the state’s permissions constitute threats to the state’s control, even if they’re not threats directly to the state?)

Another question, and perhaps the most important one, is: How, if at all, is Weber’s text relevant to a study of state-related dis/placement in the 2013 protests in Brazil? Why should the definition of a state, explained in an abstract way in a different context without specific and concrete evidence, be relevant at all to something that’s been happening in the last 12+ months in a different context with different people and different webs of meaning? Why should a guy giving a lecture in the early 20th century have anything to say about some protests in the early 21st?

A good question… one that I won’t even try to answer. I’ll just say… his ideas are food for thought, but I take them as a way of thinking rather than a reflection on reality.

Still, Weber’s definition is fairly useful for this discussion, since it offers one perspective that connects the state and the use of physical force (such as the police) with an idea of “legitimacy.” It could interface in fairly interesting ways with Habermas’ idea of the bourgeois public sphere. (See my post about this.) The public sphere, as conceived by Habermas, is a sphere that mediates between private persons and the state. This sphere cannot exist in the presence of coercion, since it is based on controlled rational discussion (the formation of “public opinion” through the means of “publicness”). But what if, as Weber is saying, the state cannot exist except through the means of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a territory? Does this mean the force of the state cannot be legitimately used on those private persons who would participate in the public sphere, since that would constitute a form of violent coercion? If that is the case, who could be subject to the “legitimate” use of physical force within a state?

…and yes, this is where politics can come in. Just as Habermas does not explicitly discuss the exclusivity of the public sphere in his chapter (though it’s possible he goes into more detail about it in his book), Weber doesn’t discuss the “legitimacy” of physical force in his short passage that is so often quoted. I wonder if the “legitimate use of violence” is based on a “public opinion” formed by a privileged bourgeois in a liberal individualistic democracy, thus predicating the legitimacy of violence upon the accumulation of “private property” and “wealth”…

Yes, it’s all very theoretical and probably ultimately useless. I’m also certain that Weber’s text is part of a dense network of academic discussions, and I’m sure there are many texts and authors who critique and interpret him much better than I have. But actually, Weber is only secondary to violent dis/placement in Brazil… let’s just use him when he’s useful, and let him go elsewhere when he’s not.

…Moving on…


Weber, Max. Politics as a Vocation. Trans. H. H. Gerth and c. Wright Mills. Philadelphia: Fortress Press,1965. Facet Books. Social Ethics Series. Print.


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