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The democratization of violence



Situations of violence, conflict are usually approached as an aberration, an exception of normality, therefore, understanding normality as a peaceful environment. In fact, the conflict studies or peace studies are created in order to try to understand this “exceptional situation”. Rebel groups, violent protests, riots, repressions, daily violence, are part of everyday normality. Therefore, through a relational approach the aim is to provide another understanding and analysis of violence and democracy as interrelated, not as separate dynamics.

What is democracy?

Democracy is a type of political system that encompasses several different models of democratic governments. Consequently, I start by the general etymological definition that was provided by the Council of Europe, understanding democracy as a way of governing which depends on the will of the people. Therefore, systems in which one person rules ignoring the interest of the majority such as autocracy, dictatorship of oligarchies cannot be defined as democracies. Nonetheless, democracy should not even be "rule of the majority", if that implies that the interests of minorities are completely neglected. Then, the theoretical definition of a democracy is a government on behalf of all the people, according to their "will".

Democracy: conflictual politics vs consensual approach

On this matter, I would like to point out a very interesting approach to democracy provided by Mouffe (2005) in the “On the political '' article. Her approach to democracy is conflictual politics, not consensual building. She understands democracy as a game in which the opponent wants to win the political battle, rather than wanting to come into consensus. When distinguishing the political from politics, Mouffe understands the former as the dimension of antagonism, a constitutive part of human societies, while the latter, is understood as the “set of practices and institutions through which an order is created, organizing human coexistence in the context of conflictuality provided by the political” (Mouffe, 2005:9). Consequently, democracy seen as conflictual relations, includes the legitimate existence of an adversary that not necessarily has to be eliminated through violence (lies the distinction between antagonism and agonism). Rather, this conflictual dynamics driven by an agonistic perspective is recognising that exists as an opponent, giving democracy a possibility of a radical change, the possibility of battling hegemonic tendencies (consensus) by having other options that can be radically different. Therefore, being radical is not necessarily bad: it is the real possibility of a change, of a contestation of the hegemonic tendency. Politics itself gives the possibility of a revolutionary change by creating something new out of the old. in order to adapt to the new demands of a constantly changing society.

It has to be noted that when defining antagonism and agonism, Mouffe understands identities (political, social etc.) as not fixed but as a process of an ongoing identification, with certain causes as a group, what helps people mobilize; in other words, identifying yourself as an opposition to something else. In this line, antagonism is when you identify a threat that has to be eliminated because it is not recognized as legitimate. In that sense, democracy transforms antagonism into agonism, leading to the acceptance of enduring conflict, but wherein the legitimacy of the adversary is acknowledged, that without this legitimacy, ongoing antagonism which can finally only result in the physical elimination of the enemy.

In contrast, consensual approach[1]regarding democracies, tends to take for granted that humans interact in a rational choice behavior in politics, but forgets to acknowledge that humans are driven by passions and emotions. which play a fundamental role in the whole political realm: democratic politics are driven by passions and conflictual debates are about emotions, passions, rage and frustrations. Finally, this approach rather than creating conditions for an harmonized society, creates antagonism and violence that an agnostic perspective would have prevented, by giving a legitimate expression and recognition of the existent differences, and giving them a place to be discussed and expressed rather than being ignored by a consensus that in the end follows and hegemonic tendency of avoiding a possible radical change.

Violent democracies: Latin America

Many times, nowadays, the consensus democracy has resulted in parties focusing on fulfilling the neoliberal demands of an occidental type of democracy rather than trying to cover the societal demands. Not realized promises and neoliberal policies resulting in increasing inequalities have led to increasing mobilisations across the globe. Arias, in his article gives a clear example of that: the gas war in 2003, in Bolivia, in which the efforts to fulfill the neoliberal prescription for natural-resources exportations ended up with soldiers killing unarmed protesters. In democracies in which the state is unable to cover the needs and demands of the society, and falls into this consensual dynamics, violence emerges despite the existence of democratic elections. It emerges as a logical response to an hegemonic discourse that forgets about society and gives the possibility of a radical change with the promise of fulfilling the demands of the society.

Something similar happened in Spain, a former and recognised democracy, where in October 2017 violence occured in the streets of Catalonia since civilians protested against the state for not listening to their demands and not allowing a peaceful referendum. In that circumstance, the violent riots that started  on October 1st ended up with a total of 893 injured people. Similarly, in 2011 also Cote d’Ivoire saw a lot of violence in the streets due to a political crisis followed by an outbreak of a civil war in which civilians protested against the corruptions of the government, claiming it was no longer able to provide security to its citizens, then the society organized hand in hand with rebels and haunting groups to provide themselves the services that the state could not and o try to give a radical change to the corrupt government (Förster, 2015). Even in the USA, with the death of George Floyd, the Black lives matter movements and violent riots all across the country, protesting and claiming a political change, tougher penalties for racist acts, and controls of police personnel.

These examples have proven that violence and democracy are not necessarily opposite. In fact, if the existence of violence were a major indicator of democratic failure, few countries could be considered democratic. However, what these examples show is that we need a strong refocus of our agendas towards analysis, containment and prevention of any type of violence (be it comprised in social movements, directed at the state or else), for this last aspect should be inherent to the functioning of a democratic state.


Arendt, H. (1969) A Special Supplement. Reflections on Violence, The New York Review of Books

Arias, D. and Goldstein, D. (2010) Violent Democracies in Latin America, Duke University Press (Chapter 1: Introduction)

Council of Europe. (2022). Democracy. [Online] Retrieved from:

Fanon, F. (1963), The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press. (Preface + Chapter 1: On Violence).

Förster, T. (2015). Dialogue Direct:Rebel Governance and Civil Order in Northern Côte d’Ivoire. In A. Arjona, N. Kasfir, & Z. Mampilly (Eds.), Rebel Governance in Civil War (pp. 203-225). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781316182468.010

Lijphart, A., Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms & Performance in Thirty-six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-300-07893-5

Mouffe, C. (2005) On the Political, Routledge (One: Introduction + Two: Politics and the Political)

Volk, C. (2021) On a radical democratic theory of political protest: potentials and shortcomings, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 24:4, 437-459, DOI: 10.1080/13698230.2018.1555684

[1] For more information of consensual democracies read: read Lijphart, A., Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms & Performance in Thirty-six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-300-07893-5

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