Monopoly Over Dematerialised Violence

Advances in technology have transformed our societal interactions in ways that challenge the state’s monopoly over violence. Today large tech companies (not governments) determine how our interactions take place. Which means that we need to rethink governance structures if the state is to continue to protect its citizens.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

In 1919, Max Weber delivered a lecture titled “Politics as a Vocation," in which he argued for the first time that the state has a monopoly over the use of physical force. He was looking for a way to justify the state’s use of force and chose to do so by elevating it to the level of a crucial feature of the social contract.

In those days, authority was manifest through tangible expressions of control—institutions like the police and military, and coercive constructs like laws and regulations. The state’s ability to wield this power came to be seen as essential to the maintenance of public order and necessary for the protection of its people.


Over a century has passed since Weber first presented this thesis in 1919. In that time, our world has so dramatically de-materialized that almost all our interactions today take place within the digital realm. Not only has this fundamentally changed the way individuals interact with each other, it has given rise to new behaviours, the establishment of new marketplaces, and the rise of new loci of political power. Given how significantly things have changed, it is probably worth evaluating whether or not Weber’s theory still holds true.

Today, our activities in the digital sphere are intermediated by technology platforms—social media applications, e-commerce sites and digital media services—all of which are owned by Big Tech companies. To access these platforms, we must give our consent to their terms of service. These agreements are the modern social contract—the new rules of the digital road that determine exactly what we can or cannot do online. The private players we enter into a social contract with have the power to constrain our interactions in new ways that represent a significant variation to the classic Weberian social contract.

New Forms of Violence

As much as the modern digital world has given rise to various benefits, it has also unleashed new forms of violence that can be perpetrated on people in ways that were simply not possible in 1919. Today, citizens need protection against a whole host of new crimes—cyberbullying, cyberstalking, doxxing, fake news and the like. To safeguard them, the state needs to deploy new forms of violence that are relevant to the digital age.

For instance, one of the more effective ways in which the spread of fake news can be curbed is by deploying algorithmic de-amplification—a process that aims to dampen the virality of an online post by adjusting the priority with which it surfaces in the platform’s feed. Other (blunter) interventions include outright censorship and the de-platforming of repeat offenders.

The state depends on private enterprises to deploy these new forms of digital violence in tackling those who violate their social contract. These businesses, today, are our last line of defence against the new harms of the digital world. All of which gives rise to an additional complication. As long as the state retained an exclusive monopoly over violence, it was possible for countries to exercise their monopoly over violence in slightly different ways—based on the political reality of each nation-state. Given that the social contract in a liberal democratic country differs from that in, say, a theocratic state, it could be enforced in slightly different ways in each of these different types of states.

New Social Contract

This, however, is not easy to do in the digital context. Technology companies take pains to ensure that their users agree to the same terms of service no matter where they access these services from. As a result, regardless of which country a user may reside in, there is no difference in the terms of the contract she signs. This means that so long as the activities of the individual do not offend the platform’s terms of service, it could resist orders issued by the state that call upon its management to inflict digital violence on the user in order to uphold the political values of the state.

Unlike the state, which is accountable to its citizens through a democratic process, private companies are only answerable to their shareholders, who end up imposing their own values on their actions. As a result, governments find that their ability to influence actions in the digital sphere ends up being constrained by the whims of corporate shareholders.

Today, the monopoly over violence stands dispersed across private networks in ways that elude the state’s ability to constrain. If we are looking to reinstate Weber’s philosophy of political control in the modern age, we will need to re-imagine our existing governance structures to adequately take into account the new realities of the digital world.

Protocols for Control

One way to give effect to this might be for governments to establish the protocols by which all digital services are to be delivered within their sovereign territory. This will allow them to retain control over essential elements of state power while still allowing private enterprises to build out additional services on top of these protocols, extending them as required in response to market demand. This will allow the state to retain enough control over digital activities for it to be able to enforce domestic legal obligations, while still letting society benefit from the innovation that only private enterprise can deliver.

To give effect to this approach, the state will need to engage more fully with technology and realize that it takes much more than a monopoly over violence to influence the digital sphere.