Force, Power and Consent

Arnold Kling quotes Murray Edelman:

Force signals weakness in politics, as rape does in sex.

I’m less interested in the sex analogy; I question the assumption. To me, it depends on who is using the force, why, and in what circumstances. A government using force on its own citizens is normally weakness, because it means that its soft power was insufficient to deter. Perhaps this was the only kind of political force that occurred to Edelman’s imagination.

But there are other kinds of political force. For example, the paramilitary violence of the SA showed the strength of the Nazi party. Far from showing them as weak, it showed they were a challenge to the Weimar Republic’s monopoly of force. However, once Hitler took power, the street violence of the SA would have indeed been a sign of weakness, which is why he crushed it.

And then there is the use of force against those who could not be expected to comply. The Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, or the terror of the Khmer Rouge, these were not shows of weakness. They were shows of pure strength, of having the power and the will to subjugate utterly. “Soft power,” ultimately, is a bluff, and you have to be prepared for your bluff to be called. This is why the West cannot pacify Afghanistan – because they are determined to do so by consent. That is not how you pacify a hostile country – you have to break their will to resist first. If instead you try to conciliate those you are trying to pacify, they quickly realise that you will reward rebellion. And no, I am not suggesting that we go the Hiroshima route on Helmand, I’m suggesting we withdraw.

I’d also add that using force is not the only way you signal weakness in politics. Another way, far more common in the West, is to use the law – for example, a US President shows weakness when he uses his veto. But politics is not a source of power in itself, it is a game played on top of the true sources of power – money, law, force, popular support, etc. Using them directly may make your politics look weak in Murray Edelman’s terms, but sometimes it might be worth it.


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