A State is the organization which has the monopoly of the use of violence. There are two major forms of this. One is against other states, which we call war. The other is the organized violence against its citizens practiced by almost all States. There is the symbolic kind, the fascist architecture, thought control through propaganda, giant parades and nationalist music. There is also the development of penal and legal institutions which often divides up the population into the free and the imprisoned.
In relation to imprisonment by the State, it is worth remembering that this punishment has varied over time. In most traditional civilizations it was too expensive to keep people locked up for 23 hours a day in a cell. So they were punished in other ways; mutilated, sent to the galleys, put in tread-mills, sent to plantations and labour camps. Some were enslaved. Only affluent civilizations have been able to imprison large numbers of their citizens or to keep hundreds waiting on death row. That the Americans can afford to keep one in every 200 of their citizens in prison suggests a very rich and, some would say, unimaginative and cruel society.
Given the wealth and attitudes in many modern States, there is a tendency for prison populations to grow rapidly as time passes. It is less bother to lock people away than to try to deal with either the roots of crime or to rehabilitate. So the British prison population inexorably creeps upwards and the profits of the increasingly privatized prison service grow. The reputation of politicians who are ‘tough on crime’ is enhanced.
The waste of human potential and the basic unfairness of creating an environment of hopeless degradation and then blaming the criminals, is ignored. The State tends to become a prison machine. It can easily become a surveillance State, its public places filled with closed-circuit cameras, its wealthy private citizens living in guarded and walled estates, its police increasingly heavily armed. To fight violence, violence of a slightly different kind is used.
So we end up with the grim fact that like all species on earth, humans are necessarily violent. They cannot survive without predating on nature and on each other. Some religions such as Buddhism and some sects such as the Quakers exhort their followers to renounce all violence and live in peace. This is a worthy ideal. Yet the moment we breath or walk we destroy other creatures.
It is all a matter of degree and of intentions. Quakers, or members of the Jain religion (who wish to avoid causing all suffering, even to small insects), try to avoid inflicting pain. They are clearly different from those who deliberately practice violence. Next time you eat some meat or kill a slug, it is worth considering what you are doing and whether it can be called violence.