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Monopolies of Violence? A Theory of Civil Conflict and Statebuilding

Alexei Abrahams - Postdoctoral Scholar, Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance
Brandon Merrell - PhD candidate, U.C. San Diego

Researchers of counterinsurgency, civil conflict, and statebuilding commonly assume that a Weberian "monopoly on violence" is desirable. However, we know from other settings that monopolies facilitate extractive behavior. If monopolists are predatory, why are third-party statebuilders so eager to eliminate coercive challengers to government control? We argue that this habit stems from a misreading of government capacity in successful states. Although stable governments sometimes appear to hold a monopoly on force, their behaviors are constrained by latent coercive competitors who emerge only when monopolists overstep: overly extractive government policies can provoke the rise of insurgents, while negligent governments create vacuums that political entrepreneurs quickly fill. We present a formal model of this dynamic that yields several important implications. First, although civil violence is costly in both human and economic terms, the latent threat of insurgency can both promote economic growth and discourage predatory government behavior. Second, external parties who are sympathetic to the plight of civilians living under abusive rule should help insurgents secure political and economic concessions but should refrain from directly abetting revolution, as post-revolution monopolists are apt to impose a new series of extractive policies. Finally, the risk of civil violence can decline as insurgent movements become more institutionalized because governments who are better informed about the credibility and capabilities of their opponents are also better able to identify and implement peaceful settlements.

Scheduled for presentation at the 2018 APSA Annual Meeting.