It is a staple of much of
postmodern political theory to posit the state as an “assemblage.” That is, the
state itself is not static, it is an equilibrium between contending factions,
bureaucracies, and stakeholding organizations. In the ideal-type scenario, they
achieve a way of dividing labor and consolidating power in such a way that the
ability to wage political violence is consolidated in responsibility and
unified in the interests it serves.
Of course, life is not always that easy. As Corey Robin provocatively pointed out, our theories of national security are Hobbesian, but our states rarely live up to the best aspects of his theories. Assemblages do not always capture a truly “national” interest and fall sway to faction, whether bureaucratic, regional, ideological or social in cleavage:
To cite just one example: it is a well known fact that African Americans have suffered as much from the American state’s unwillingness to protect them from basic threats to their lives and liberties as they have from the willingness of white Americans to threaten those lives and liberties. Throughout much of US history, as legal scholar Randall Kennedy has shown, the state has deemed the threat to the physical safety of African Americans to be an unremarkable danger and the protection of African Americans an unworthy focus of its attentions.
… At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers an public emergency, worthy of federal military protection.
Indeed, the ability of the U.S. to retain control over the South
always butted against a broad front of resistance that ranged from political
opposition through rapidly “redeemed” formal institutions in Virginia to the
highly paramilitarized environs of Louisiana. To the North and border states,
the most essential and broadly accepted objective of the war was preserving the
Union. Abolition was, among other things, an instrument towards that end. A
broader program of equality was unnecessary or even abhorrent to those who
merely sought to destroy the slaveholding South because it imperiled the country’s
In a previous post, I noted how Reconstruction-era tolerance of anti-black violence shared some characteristics with Libya’s relatively laissez faire approach towards militias that were desecrating Sufi shrines, Western graveyards, and harassing, attacking, and then killing diplomats. The messy process of state-building could make room, or at least time, for this, but not for trying to bring to heel well-armed and organized militias with strong ideological objections to Libya’s nominal civil authorities. Libya’s new government limped along, not much a Mogadishu on the Mediterranean, nor one, even in moments of triumph, effective in Hobbesian terms. While Libyan militias and militants intervene in political processes, they do not, for the most part, appear to seek regime change, but rather to augment their political clout within the bounds of the new system through violence and intimidation.
Similarly, in American Reconstruction, paramilitary groups neither themselves seized governments (although similar paramilitary groups did throw a coup in Wilmington, NC in 1898) nor created a real counter-state, but provided a specific political class with the means to win control of existing institutions - state and local governments - without attempting to recapitulate the goals or overall method of the original rebellion.
While many Redeemer militias
acted as the conservative wing of the Democratic party, these ought be
considered distinct from the groups which were insurgents from the start of the
war. Bushwhacker militias, such as the James-Younger Gang, went from
participants in the civil wars within the civil war in the border states and
West to criminal organizations which used attitudinal affinities to bolster
their strength. Notably, in the case of the James-Younger Gang, another
non-state entity, the Pinkertons, joined in a manhunt operation. Silas Woodson,
the Democratic Missouri governor, secured pay to contract detectives, and tried
(but failed) to fund a militia to assist in the hunt. As Robin pointed out,
government responses varied with reference to the political interests. Federal,
state, local, and private forces would continue to intervene in issues of outlawry
and labor strife, but conceded, in ugly compromise, rights for blacks and
patronage networks (the position of Postmaster General, for example) to their
If we take up Tilly’s model of state-building as organized crime, we note most criminal organizations cannot kill off every single competitor. Legitimate actors and trust networks integrate into the criminal enterprise, and even with rivals, cutting deals is often more appealing than cutting throats. In state-building, too, cooperating with illegal, extralegal, and paramilitary groups lends advantages to fruitless or premature pursuit of total primacy. For many political communities, non-state groups provide instruments of governance by other means.
As the Reconstruction example shows, paramilitarism, though obviously antithetical to democratic values, is complementary to democratic systems. In Colombia’s bloody internal conflict, paramilitaries became significant players in the Colombian democratic system, bolstering the candidacies of friendly politicians with funds and coercive influence. As Giustozzi notes in his excellent book, The Art of Coercion, irregular groups often provide highly beneficial roles, particularly when options for bureaucratization and institutionalization of a professional army are limited. Indeed, in some cases a weak bureaucratized, centralized army may be insufficient or an inferior alternative for local and regional elites who prefer decentralized security provision accountable to their interests and persistent at a local level. Of course, tolerance of and cooperation with these forces allowed counterinsurgents to engage in assassination, massacres, and enrich local elites. Yet the point remains that irregular groups, within limits, provide a force multiplier to state prerogatives. Ceding autonomy and some authority to paramilitary groups such as the AUC And Los PEPES empowers extralegal or illegal entities the state prefers to negotiate and collaborate with to destroy ones it considers more threatening.
In Brazil, too, the rolling back traditional drug trafficking organizations relied not simply on special tactics units and community policing, but tacit or explicit sanctioning of paramilitary units occupying and extracting rents from neighborhoods. Indeed, the very political pressures that encouraged the Brazilian government to crack down on drug trafficking organizations with state force created power vacuums for militia groups to expand their reach within cities such as Rio de Janeiro. In all of the aforementioned cases, paramilitary groups have exploited cleavages in the interests of political assemblages, providing a tool to advance interests of actors participating within the state without breaking the state itself – and, indeed, feeding off the cooperation of state institutions. Indeed, if, as Javier Osorio notes in his excellently titled dissertation, “Hobbes on Drugs,” weaker criminal actors have incentives to step up violence against groups targeted by security services, emergent non-state actors have strong structural incentives to muscle in on the state’s foes, providing an unscrupulous government an opportunity to cut a deal.
Particularly as the U.S. and other countries turn towards SFA and FID to offset its diminishing will and capacity to take the lead in counterinsurgency operations overseas, and as states such as Syria the dynamics of paramilitarism ought register highly in importance for policymakers and academics alike. Although paramilitary groups are of most interest in instances of state failure and civil war, to dismiss them as mere warlordism ignores how paramilitarism may grow in prevalence even during periods of democratization and state consolidation. Similarly, without recognizing when and how elites will seek to decentralize the state’s use of force, attempts to build partner state capacity or engage in security-sector reform will likely fall flat. Finally, examining paramilitarism shines a light on the state as more than a mere set of institutions and bureaucracies, but as an assembly of actors with political interests that do not always overlap, nor see bureaucratization and institutionalization as the most natural or efficient manner of bolstering state capacity or instituting control. Not only do paramilitaries illuminate an ugly side of state behavior, but they also help reveal why successful states and elite coalitions, though they may be failed Hobbesians, remain so persistent despite their flaws.