Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 4)

I’m sorry it has taken so long to post this fourth installment, especially as it was already basically written up and all I had to do was tweak a couple things.  At the end of this segment, I would like to invite feedback from anyone who has been reading, so that any questions or objections can be taken into account before I proceed to the final segment–a Christian answer to coercion.

Now, having complexified our understanding of the economic realm, I’d like to turn to the political realm, which is often depicted as essentially coercive in all its operations, to see if a more complex account is necessary here as well.  The idea of the civil authority as the realm of “the sword” of course goes back at least to St. Paul, and has dominated much of the Western political tradition since.  Max Weber famously defined a nation-state as an entity which claims “a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a particular territory.”  Although I suggested above that the language of violence and the language of coercion are not exactly the same thing, it has been long been conventional (e.g., most notably in Marsilius of Padua and the whole tradition following from him) to describe the State’s role as essentially coercive.  While not wanting to deny the traditional identification of coercion as a modus operandi of the State, I do want to seriously question whether it is always, necesssarily, or even most often the modus operandi of the state.  Governments use coercion, yes, and the fact that they can legitimately resort to it in many different situations can often give a coercive flavoring to all their activities, and explains why this has often been viewed as their defining distinctive.  However, I want to suggest that it is not usually, and cannot long remain, their dominant tool, and that most of their activities most of the time depend on other motivations.

To see how ambiguous coercion is in reality, let’s look at an environment where coercive force seems to be clearly the norm–the military.  Now, soldiers in an army are required to obey, and discipline is rigorously enforced, often by severe punishment.  Soldiers are generally not permitted to simply choose whether or not to obey and fight, or to give up and go home–they are required to do their duty.  Desertion, particularly in wartime, is often punishable by death.  Now, this looks like coercion–fear of punishment and death is the motivation for obedience.  And that is an accurate account of how many armies have functioned at many times.  However, these are not generally the most effective armies (something the US, for instance, has recognized in their repudiation of the draft for all-volunteer armies). There are also armies whose chief motivation to fight is reward, whether the crude financial reward of the mercenary, or the desire for honor that has motivated countless soldiers throughout the ages, from Achilles to modern Marines.  Perhaps most powerful of all are armies that are motivated by love–love of country, love of commander (and the latter, being more personal and less abstract, is generally more effective than the former).  Hannibal is said to have accomplished the miracles he did becasue of the intense personal devotion which he inspired in his soldiers, which led them to follow him through any dangers.  Would we say that Hannibal’s soldiers were “coerced” to fight for him?  Well, in a technical sense perhaps, since he always could (and occasionally did) have deserters executed.  But this would not be an accurate psychological description of how most of his soldiers perceived it.  This example suggests, fascinatingly, that there is a subjective, not merely objective dimension to identifying coercion: Hannibal’s soldiers were not coerced until they thought they were. As long as they loved Hannibal and wanted to fight for him, coercion was not operative; but if they once stopped loving him and started fearing him, then all of a sudden, they were fighting only because they were coerced to do so, and if they tried to desert, that coercion became very real and active.  This may seem at first like a vapid truism–of course you’re not liable to punishment unless you disobey–but I think this actually has the potential to change our perceptions of coercion a great deal, as I shall explore in particular in the final segment.

The same principle operates of course at a national level.  Were the German people coerced to go to war in World War I and World War II?  By and large no.  Even though they were under very coercive regimes that would have acted swiftly and mercilessly against dissenters, this fact was not relevant for most of the German people, who went to war not out of fear of punishment, but out of eager love for the Fatherland.  Only later, as the war began to seem a burden, did fear take hold and coercion become prominent.  (Even if you disagree with this particular example, clearly there are many such examples that could be given.)  This sort of response is every smart nation-state’s dream.  There have of course always been the Pinochets of the world who felt that the creation of a constant climate of fear was the most effective way to ensure an obedient populace, but usually the cost of such a policy outweighs the benefits, and the loyalty thus coerced is short-lived and always looking for an out.  We lump Hitler and Stalin together in the same category, but forget a key difference: Stalin ruled almost entirely by fear, while Hitler, brutal as he was to minority dissidents,  recognized that ultimate success required that a solid majority of the German people served by love, either personal loyalty for him or for the Reich.  This is why Hitler’s armies were so much more effective than Stalin’s at the beginning.  In general, states recognize that they will not get very far if most of their people are motivated to go along with the policies only by fear–fear is not a very productive emotion, but is often downright paralyzing.  Most states thus seek to instill in their people a genuine love for the country and what it stands for, a sense that the proposed policies are objectively good and should be supported, and a conviction that they themselves will benefit therein.  When a small minority do not feel this way, they can be coerced to go along with everyone else, but as that small minority becomes bigger and coercion becomes the dominant element, it also becomes less and less feasible, and, once it reaches the point where a majority of people are obeying out of coercion, the situation is so unstable that it will generally not be able to last long.   

(A brief note about hate: hate is an emotion that often gets tangled up with love as its flip-side; because we love one thing, we start to hate its opposite; because we hate its opposite, we start to love the first thing more.  In the political sphere, and particularly when it comes to war, hate can become a very powerful emotion and motivation, and if it becomes more powerful than its corresponding love, the consequences are devastating.  Thus, although hate can be in the short-term a very productive motivation, in the long-run, it is the worst of all, just as love is, in the long-run, the best of all.) 

Interestingly, since the frightful outpourings of nationalistic fervour that came to a head in World War II, many politicians have concluded that love of country (with its accompanying propensity to hate) is perhaps too volatile an emotion, and though they still summon it up on occasion when poll numbers are really low and they need a war to energize the people, they have generally resorted to the more stable motivation of reward.  Modern states have therefore become remarkably like large corporations, resorting above all to marketing their policies to their citizens, something increasingly necessary in an increasingly democratic system.  We carelessly talk about how the government can do whatever they want, and can just coerce people to pay for public healthcare.  But clearly, if it were that simple, Obama, Pelosi, et. al. would not have exerted such enormous efforts trying to persuade the American people that the healthcare reform was a good idea.  As it is, months and years were spent marketing the idea that healthcare reform was something for which citizens should willingly vote and willingly devote their tax dollars, in expectation that they would be getting more for their money than under existing healthcare arrangements.  Governments are now in the business of using the media to convince their citizens that they have a serious unfulfilled need or want, that existing suppliers of that need are insufficient–offering poor quality, a bad value for money, etc.–and that the government is best suited to supply that need.  They boast of their excellent track record of success, of the higher literacy rates and GDP growth that their schemes have produced, and use this as a basis to convince their citizens that these schemes are worth continued financial support and customer loyalty.  The goal is to produce taxpayers who are by and large willing to support the schemes with their tax dollars.  Of course, “willing to support” does not mean that they’re exceptionally eager to to part with a portion of their paycheck, anymore than voluntarily buying gas means that you don’t grumble at the pump over the astronomical sums you are forking over.  But it means that on balance you are convinced that you’re getting more for these tax dollars than you would if you spent them elsewhere.  If you aren’t convinced, then you try to oppose the legislation and get it overturned.   

Now, needless to say, most folks in America nowadays are not convinced that they’re getting a good value for money for their tax dollars.  They are not willing customers.  And so coercion enters the equation…more and more people feel like they are being coerced to pay their taxes.  I am far from denying that this is the case.  However, it is important to note that I speak of coercion entering the equation–it is not an inevitable part of it.  There have been and are plenty of times when most citizens willingly pay their taxes, or willingly pay a large part of them (approving of what they’re going to).  There have been and are times when citizens have felt that when their representatives act, they are genuinely acting as a community, tackling a problem together, and when this is the case, they are not being coerced to obey their government, even if coercion is always theoretically an option.  Coercion only becomes operative when they begin to think of their obedience in terms of coercion.  Now this tends to happen, indeed perhaps inevitably happens, in more centralized governments, where the decision-making processes become impersonal, bureaucratized, and completely out of touch with real citizens and communities.  In such environments, skepticism and mistrust flourish, both because there generally is greater corruption, and because, even when there isn’t, it is simply harder for citizens to understand clearly why certain decisions are being made.  Policies become inefficient, so it is hard to see the reward, and as they seem arbitrary it becomes impossible to feel love, unless a war is declared, artificially generating love by means of hate This is certainly the case in America today, and so I expect the sense of unwillingness and coercion to grow.  And, as governments cannot long function effectively when they have to rely increasingly on coercion, I’m afraid that the situation may become increasingly unstable in America in coming years.

In any case, I think we have seen enough to establish that coercion does not necessarily characterize the political sphere, any more that freedom from coercion necessarily characterizes the economic sphere.  The similarities, indeed, are remarkable in today’s world.  In both economics and politics, we have very large institutional actors with enormous resources that both dedicate to persuading individuals that they they are providing important and valuable goods and services that those individuals should support with their money and loyalty.  If more positive motivations fail, both are prepared to resort to more or less subtle forms of fear or manipulation to persuade people whose rational perceptions leave them skeptical of the value of the service, or else to use their weight to maneuver so that there are no other viable options in the marketplace, and people support their product because they can’t imagine alternatives.  The remaining differences, while significant, tend (in modern Western democracies at least) to be differences of degree, rather than absolute differences.  

In making this argument, we have seen that there is a striking subjective component to coercion–it isn’t at all merely a matter of what others outside of you do to your or intend to do to you, but how you view them and how you respond, and that coercion as such tends to become effective only in the absence of love.  This suggests that ethics–in particular Christian ethics–may have a great deal to say about how we should act in the face of potential coercion, economic or political.  I shall try to develop some of these ethical answers in the final segment.

3 thoughts on “Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 4)

  1. This is a very interesting post. You're drawing parallels between the actions of the corporations and of governments, since both are trying to shape our desires. Once a government needs to reach for the sword to achieve this goal, its days may well be numbered. The role of political imagination and affection is crucial here. Do I see myself as part of some greater whole? A member in some body corporate? What are the things that create and sustain such a perception?(voluntarily buying gas means that you don’t grumble at the pump over the astronomical sums you are forking overNot sure which country you're talking about, but if you're speaking to a significantly US audience, it's important to remember that you guys have ridiculously cheap petrol (yes, even over the last few years), to the point of significant market distortion. But perhaps that is a discussion for another day)


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Yes, this is something I'm really interested in unpacking more. Cavanaugh in his first two books drew attention to the ways in which the nation-state compels us to imagine it and imagine ourselves within it, in increasingly totalitarian ways. I have no dispute with that, but with the rhetoric of American conservatives today, I'm interested in trying to make sense of the other side–what it is that makes people start imagining themselves out of their nations and their governments. Regarding gas buying, yes, we have ridiculously cheap petrol, relatively speaking, but we drive ridiculously inefficient cars on ridiculously long roads, so we still end up paying astronomical sums at the pump. 😉


  3. Albert

    This is true and helpful, although it may highlight how people not only object to coercion, but the structural potential for coercion as well and then use the term "coercion" as a heuristic. Sloppy language, but I think there is some validity to the concern about the potential for coercion as well.


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