Erik Jones / Jun 2023
By now the story is as well known as it is confusing and enlightening. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favourite caterer (or cook), Yevgeny Prigozhin built a militia – called Wagner – to conduct irregular military operations on behalf of the Russian state. Then the Russian state began to rely on Prigozhin and Wagner to participate in regular military operations in Ukraine. Prigozhin accepted this role but quickly fell out with the leadership of the Russian military whom he openly criticized.
Prigozhin’s challenge could not remain unanswered indefinitely. The military leadership tried to reassert its authority and so Prigozhin rebelled and threatened to march on Moscow to take his complaints directly to Putin. Putin complained that such actions threatened to undermine the state. Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukaschenko intervened to negotiate for Wagner to stand down and Prigozhin to leave the country. Prigozhin agreed, although many of those who joined his Wagner militia are upset and feel betrayed.
The confusing part in this narrative is why any of this happened in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its many overlapping lines of authority, political rivalries, and personal conflicts. Newspapers (and social media) are full of speculation from experts on Russia politics and foreign policy, but only time will tell which of the many theories give us the best insights looking back or projecting forward.
The enlightening part is what this reveals about the fragility of any state’s ‘claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order’ – which is the famous quote from Max Weber’s Theory of Social and Economic Organization. The use of italics is Weber’s and not mine.
Prigozhin and Putin should remind us that we tend to remember Weber’s quote out of context. In doing so, we assume that any state has a monopoly over the legitimate use of physical violence. That is not at all what Weber meant.
The full sentence starts: ‘A compulsory political association with continuous organization (politischer Anstaltstrieb) will be called a state if and insofar as its administrative staff successfully upholds a claim ….’ You can fill in the rest. By implication, a compulsory political organization may be unsuccessful in asserting the legitimacy of its use of physical violence; worse, it may not be able to delegitimate the use of physical violence by other actors in society.
This possibility that the state will fail to make a successful claim to monopolize the legitimate use of physical violence is not limited to Russia. Just think about the many Americans who vilify what officers from the United States (U.S.) Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) did to the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; now think about the many Americans who celebrate those ‘patriots’ who assaulted the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Weber’s point is that a state’s claim to a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical violence has analytical value insofar as it is successful – and that success is what distinguishes that thing we call a ‘state’ from other compulsory political associations. Weber then goes on to point out that many groups in society use physical violence, they just do not have a monopoly over the use of physical violence and their use of physical violence is often not legitimate.
Putin allowed Prigozhin to create Wagner to use physical violence on behalf of the Russian state. Prigozhin directed Wagner to use physical violence without state authorization. In doing so, he did not show that the state lacked a monopoly over physical violence; that kind of monopoly is not something the Russian state, or anything we call a ‘state’, could ever claim to have. What Prigozhin showed is that the Russian state lacks a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical violence.
When Putin accepted a negotiated solution, he effectively conceded the point. Putin could have sent the army after Prigozhin and Wagner and so used physical violence to put down the rebellion, much like the U.S. FBI went to Waco. But Putin could not guarantee that violent suppression of Wagner would be regarded by the Russian people as legitimate. And if his attempt to suppress Wagner were unsuccessful, his efforts to retain control over the Russian government would be even more complicated than they are now.
This retelling of the story of Russia’s recent turmoil in Weberian terms does not shed much light on the political dynamics inside the country itself. Again, even the Russia experts are struggling to figure out what are the forces at work. What the Weberian telling does, however, is remind us of the ephemeral nature of that thing we call a ‘state’. The specific institutions that make up ‘a compulsory political association with continuous organization’ may be enduring. The military, the intelligence services, the police, the judiciary, can hold together for an extended period long after such institutions fail successfully to uphold the claim to a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical violence.
But something important gets lost when the claim to a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical violence fails to convince the people at whom (or to whom) it is made. That thing Weber says we can call a ‘state’ is different from other political associations for a reason. Without it, political organizations within a society stop cooperating with one-another, they begin pursuing their own notions of order, and, where necessary, they insist that their own use of physical violence is legitimate. The result is not anarchy, but it does hold the potential for an ever-escalating level of conflict.
The creation of the ‘state’ in the Weberian sense was essential to stop that pattern of escalation and so lies at the foundation of the modern world. In her brilliant book The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen, Linda Colley shows how modern written constitutions emerged as political technology alongside the globalization of violent conflict. Governments that were engaged in exhausting, global, hybrid warfare at the end of the 18th Century recruited militias to keep the peace and raised taxes to invest in the military. Quickly, however, the militias came to view the militarization of the state as excessive. And given their own para-military training and equipment, they were well-placed to resist.
In places as diverse as Corsica, the United States, and Haiti, the militias mobilized to use physical violence against the state – usually an imperial state – for what they claimed was its illegitimate expropriation of men and resources. At the same time, the leaders of these militias drafted novel written constitutions to set out a political order that they could use to make a more persuasive claim to monopolize the legitimate use of physical violence. In doing so, they harnessed considerable power while at the same time institutionalising self-restraint. The modern world of states that Weber studied – and which his often-celebrated quote describes – was born through this revolutionary activity.
What seems to be happening in Russia is a reversal of this process as the Weberian ‘state’ there loses its authority. Where that could lead is hard to guess, either for Russia or for world order. Many of the plausible scenarios are disconcerting.
The question we should be asking ourselves is whether what we are seeing in Russia is unique. Of course, that situation is unique insofar as it is Russia, which is not only a complicated place, but also one led by a government that is engaged in a brutal, unnecessary, unjustified, and unsuccessful military campaign in Ukraine. These factors make Russia more like the pre-modern revolutionary cases that Colley studies than most other places.
But the deeper point is not about Russia. It is that the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of physical violence is a fragile claim to make – both for those audiences, mostly on the left, who reject the claim that any use of physical violence is legitimate and those, mostly on the right, who reject that any compulsory political association should have a monopoly (and who insist that individuals or groups should be able to ‘stand their ground’).
In the West, we have been quick to worry about the crisis of liberal democracy. What the recent standoff Prigozhin and Putin suggests is that we might be facing a more fundamental crisis of the Weberian ‘state’. If that particular notion of the ‘state’ were to vanish in practice, the modern world as we understand it would disappear at the same time.