To The Whetstone: On State Coercion and Oppression

K. J. O’Meara

It transpires that one of the greatest discourses in our era of paradox is between ‘The State’ and the potential for its underlying Oppression and/or Coercion. Without a doubt, the citizens of liberal-democratic states today enjoy the benefits of secular modernity. This includes a number of liberties citizens of other political systems are not always afforded, such as freedom of speech, political and civil rights, a division between the public and private spheres, dominance of the rule of law, and so on. Indeed, by a number of strictly positivist measures Finland, Sweden and Norway have been empirically found to be in a condition of total freedom; here in 2019 scoring the maximum a state can be awarded, with a one-hundred percent aggregate freedom rating.1 Truly, we must have entered an era defined by an “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism” in all its forms, whereby the actualisation of total freedom made manifest is as plain as the nose on one’s face.2

As much as this may be so, freedom always comes at a cost; it is not given but ascertained. The paradox however is that here the fee was some of the very liberties usually associated with our modernist understanding of ‘Freedom’. In this case, ‘Freedom’ can be loosely defined in the lyrics of ‘Loaded’, a song by Primal Scream, evoking a sense of interplay between action, personal will and external limitation: “we wanna be free, we wanna be free to do what we wanna do”. How contradictory it is however, that citizens of Liberal Democracies hold a number of freedoms, rights and liberties, and yet live simultaneously within a legalised nexus of mass surveillance the likes of which the Stasi could only have imagined in their wildest of phantasmic dreams. This is also before discussing even the prowess of social media providers, whose influence and data-harvesting slides through legal loopholes and committee-led critique like a draft through Swiss cheese. How paradoxical it is that some can praise a condition of freedom and love of liberty in one breath, and then forcefully impose the mass-eviction of protestors from common land in the name of ‘public health and safety’ with the next.3   Therefore, perhaps the truism characterising the era as one of manifest liberal freedom is not a truism at all – but rather just another blinkered understanding of the times.

This kind of political violence is, however, not limited to just a small number of case studies. Across the inky pages of the tabloid press, the airwaves of visual media and the silence of the void they leave untouched, there is a vast array of examples illustrating the hampering of individual freedom in our age of liberty. Off of the top of my head, a number of examples could be: the aggressive use of rubber bullets during the ‘Gilets jaunes’ protests in France, the violence against the Lakota at standing rock, the use of force in suspending the Catalan independence referendum, the fierce attempt to end the Euromaidan demonstrations in Ukraine, state-sponsored violence against the Kurds, and so the list extends.

Even without the paradox of freedom that we face in the contemporary era, history shows us that the use of violence by a state against its own citizens is, sadly, commonplace. One has to think only of the dictatorial regimes the twentieth century somehow became a partial exercise in forging, upholding and dismantling. From the ancient commentators of Polybius, Tacitus, and Thucydides to the common day, there has been a grand dialogue concerning the connection between the polis or ‘The State’ and its use of violence – by its own hand, against it, or even both.4 This final category is central to the paradox we see today and indeed all violence committed by a political body against those who constitute its matter – its citizens. It is no elephant in the room that political entities can, and occasionally do, employ violence against their own citizens, often understood and referred to as ‘State Coercion’ or ‘State Oppression’.

It is here that we come to the kernel of this piece. In order to judge such political violence and act effectively, it is imperative that we forge some understanding of the political phenomena unfolding in the world. In this case, the scope of this piece is not to address the extent to which state coercion or oppression is excusable, moral or unethical. Rather, my attempt is to provide some kind of grounds from which state coercion and oppression may be grasped conceptually. From here, after ascertaining some conceptual understanding, we can choose both individually and as a citizen body to either accept or resist – but this can only be the case after we make the bold and courageous decision to find some contingent grounds for understanding.

One of the greatest problems we face in the modern world is a self-imposed aptitude for conceptual confusion. In many ways, perhaps it has been forgotten that we use conceptualisations as shorthand for phenomena. As time has ticked on it appears that we have been using most of these conceptualisations in a very loose way, adding only to the fog of our misunderstanding. When we use terms loosely we make them a ‘conceptual umbrella’ under which we can put anything once connected to a phenomenon’s wider experience.5

Take ‘Totalitarianism’ for example. Totalitarianism is a concept signalling an exceptionally specific phenomenon with equally specific political conditions. In this manner, Totalitarianism is distinct from other systems such as ‘Tyranny’ or ‘Authoritarianism’, precisely because each conceptualisation is shorthand for some phenomenal specificity. Nevertheless, as all three of these phenomena share but a few core attributes, they seem to be increasingly reduced to an interchangeable condition in our discursive employment of these terms. This can only promote the extreme reductionism of the thoroughly unsatisfactory and vague notion that ‘you will just know a phenomenon when you see it’ or equally ‘what looks and smells like a particular phenomenon is that phenomenon’.6 Misunderstanding and misinterpretation of political phenomena are all that lie at the end of that particular path.

In our deeply uneasy times, understanding and thinking about our collective condition requires the practice of de-mystifying our phenomenological grasp by sharpening our conceptual tools. In this light, some may contend that: “the moral and political philosopher who thinks that conceptual clarification does not require deep empirical investigation of the social world is not well enough informed to make judgements about the possibilities of human social life”.7 Without a doubt, this may be the case. A certain level of empiricism cannot be ignored, as to ignore the ontic (i.e. ‘that which is’) would be to equally neglect something of the phenomena we seek to understand – the occurrences themselves. However, this being said, to approach judgement without a sharp conceptual framework is to forego the capacity for judgement all together; it is to be a portrait-painter who arrives at the studio with mis-en-scene in place, one’s muse in position, a canvass balanced atop an easel and yet without brushes, a palette or paints. It is to forgo the capacity to think, understand, and in due course, to reflexively judge “right from wrong, beautiful from ugly”.8

As I have already stated above, it is beyond the scope of this piece to evaluate state coercion and oppression as immoral, justified, unethical, excusable or otherwise. The remainder of this piece will seek to sharpen our tools for grasping the phenomena of state coercion and oppression. Throughout the literature on the subject, ‘coercion’ and ‘oppression’ seem to have become interchangeable in their linguistic employment, taking for granted that they are in fact one and the same phenomena.9 In ‘Coercion, Space and the Modes of Human Domination’, Michael Weinstein explains this issue flawlessly:

“While instances of coercion overlap with instances of the other three modes of human domination, each mode of domination has a distinct core. When the meaning of coercion is extended to include the meanings of repression, suppression and oppression, important theoretical and practical distinctions are lost”.10

From here, although I will not shed any light on ‘repression’ or ‘suppression’, this piece will continue by re-conceptualising ‘Coercion’ and ‘Oppression’ so to recast the distinction between them – a distinction that is slowly fading into the mire alongside our stake in phenomenological understanding. Finally, I shall offer a few summative and concluding remarks at the close.


At the centre of modern political theory rests the enquiry into the activity and experience of  ‘The State’ at work, and for many defines the differentiation between Political Theory and other modes of political investigation.11 In this light, therefore, it would be considered bad etiquette not to ‘pass go’ without ‘The State’ in mind. For most commentators on the topic, The State as a political unit denotes a certain level of coercion in the name of its own interest inherently. In order to grasp this, we must place the spotlight on the thoughts of the sociologist Max Weber, who in his 1919 lecture ‘Politics as a Vocation’ argued that at the foundation of The State’s legitimacy was its intrinsic hold over the capacity to coerce its citizens. Here, he discloses this by declaring:

“Nowadays, we must say that the state is the form of human community that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory – and this idea of ‘territory’ is an essentially defining feature. For what is specific to the present is that all other an organisation or individuals can assert to use the right to use physical violence only insofar as the state permits them to do so”.12

Here, Weber stresses that The State is founded upon a sense of coercion, restricting citizens in their use of violence by acquiring a monopoly on it – permitting violence on its terms only.

A contemporary illustration exposing The State’s monopoly clearly, and is as such easily recognised, was The State’s retort to the unrest during the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In summary, the fractured divisions of White Supremacy, Neo-Conservatism and the ‘Alt-Right’ gathered in Charlottesville, protesting the removal of confederate monuments in response to the Charleston Church Massacre two years previously. The rally was met by a large number of ‘anti-fascist’ counter-demonstrators and quickly descended into violence. In the unprecedented outbreak of violence the response of The State was to disband the event by way of armoured officials and vehicles with ‘STATE POLICE’ emblazoned on every surface. Here, the official rhetoric exclaimed clearly that the use of violence had made the demonstrations an ‘unlawful assembly’. Through such an action, Weber’s assertion was clear to transparent view. The State did not permit the use of violence by its citizens, overtly declaring it outside the boundaries of acceptable action and as such illegal – removing individuals from the site of the event by force.

The limitation of the capacity for individual violence by official means of bureaucratisation, institutional imposition and, ultimately, force, does not originate with Weber however, but is associated with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Simply put, Hobbes argued in his ‘Leviathan’ that in order to save ourselves from the ‘State of Nature’ (a condition of total liberty – a “War of everyone against everyone”- founded on our equal propensity to kill one another, and where life is “Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short”)  we must surrender our liberty to a ‘common power’ and obey in return for protection from our murderous passions.13  Hobbes saw this forceful surrendering of liberty to a sovereign body as the greatest of necessities by the logic of the ‘common good’. Here, he argued that the fear of our natural capacity to murder one another: “disposeth a man to anticipate, or to seek aid by society: for there is no way by which a man can secure his life and liberty”, as after all, for Hobbes, the greatest of common goods is the first and fundamental ‘Law of Nature’ – “That every man ought to endeavour Peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it”.14

In this sense, at its conceptual foundation, The State limits our individual capacity to enact violence by its own force for some apparent ‘common ends’, and it is this limitation which presents itself as a coercion. In a Libertarian or Anarchist manner therefore, The State can be judged as a strictly coercive body, where coercion appears to be the restriction and limitation of an individual’s natural condition of absolute liberty.15  The formulation of a ‘Social Contract’, as citizens surrendering liberty to a central body, exhibits this the first impression of coercion – the forceful application of restriction to some common ends.

Hobbes and Weber fall into a mutual construction of explanation in this case. Hobbes illuminates ‘the limitation’ and ‘imposition’ with an added emphasis on the ‘ends’, defined by him negatively by what it is not – a fall from grace to the state of nature. Weber, on the other hand, elucidates the ‘use of force’ that is central to The State’s existence and the reproduction of these very conditions of The State’s being. Together, they compliment one another to shine a light on the intrinsically coercive origins of The State’s existence.

Through Hobbes and Weber, we can see that ‘The State’ is inherently coercive by its restriction of individual liberty to some desired ends of a peaceful ‘common good’. In this manner, it would be only right to declare that an entity whose inception and institutional origins stem from a foundation of forceful limitation and taxing of liberty, cannot suddenly become a non-coercive entity.16 At its conceptual heart, every state is founded on some violence in order to enforce its power as a sovereign and legitimate entity.

To expect this violence to dissolve into nothingness is asking for a leopard to change more than its spots, but its very existential condition as a mammal. Whatever the advantages of The State could be, specifically in protecting us from ourselves, its coercive tendency rests on the foundation of its monopoly of force in order to ascertain obedience, as Hobbes stresses. In this vein, “unless the coercer eventually sets up a regime that obtains obedience by adding some positive benefits, his regime must appear to the subjects as having no more claim on their obedience than a grizzly bear that has them up at tree”, and as such, “Only coercion can change enough individual calculations of net interest so as to stabilize the system”.17 What does this conceptually reveal to us about coercion however?

The answer, it seems, rests in the dynamic between forced ‘restraint’ and ‘obedience’ for some apparent common interest. This interrelation is what The State exhibitions when, for example, it forcefully disbands public displays of violence as ‘unlawful’, or demonstrations as ‘breaching safety codes’, and so on. Beneath the surface, The State re-affirms its own sovereignty, demanding by force our obedience so it can provide the necessary protection it was created to uphold. By these means, as Christian Bay explicitly connects the dots, coercion as the physical use of force implies:

“The application of sanctions sufficiently strong enough to make the individual abandon a course of action or inaction dictated by his own strong and enduring motives and wishes”.18

What Bay adds to the dialogue is the notion of ‘abandonment’. In this sense, coercion is not simply the restriction of liberty, but the swaying of action one way or another by force. In the example of the Charlottesville demonstrations above, The State applied restrictions forcefully, and through these means imposed obedience by swaying activists of all political stripes to abandon a course of action – in this case, violent demonstration. Bay alludes also to the enforced abandonment of ‘inaction’. A clear illustration of this is conscription or ‘national service’. Here, citizens are required by legal declaration to serve in the armed forced or face prosecution. This amounts to punishment by The State for disobedience through inaction, and consequently,  acts as a wider deterrent against the potential undesired inactivity of citizens.

Interestingly, all of the above share one quality, namely, The State’s forceful hold over the political conditions within a given a territory  – or quite literally – its hold over ‘the state of things’. In light of this, maintaining ‘the state of things’ becomes the primary activity of The State itself, and this predominantly requires the deterrence of dissent. Coercion as such includes within its conceptual boundaries the ends of deterring dissent by forcing obedience through a myriad of routes. As Hannah Arendt projects in her essay ‘On Violence’, “Men can be ‘manipulated’ through physical coercion, torture or starvation, and their opinions can be arbitrarily formed”.19 In order to provide what is in the interest of the common good, The State must not only forcefully restrict our liberties to implement obedience, but must reproduce this condition of obedience at every juncture in the name of the same common-good.

In this sense, ‘manipulation’, as Arendt puts it, are the means which provide a constantly re-invigorated obedience to The State, on both material and ideal terms. As a citizen body, as a ‘Body Politic’, we are forcefully manipulated into upholding the monopoly of violence that The State clutches by remaining obedient to this same very entity. In short, this presents us with our second impression of coercion – the forceful application of manipulative restriction against citizens for some common ends.

Leading from this, although the notion of ‘Power’ is an equally, if not more, convoluted concept (becoming increasingly interchangeable with every other shorthand for some form of domination with each day that passes), Stephen Lukes’ conceptualisation of ‘Power’ can add to our investigation into coercion and the national interest. Here, he states that:

A may exercise power over B by getting him to do what he does not want to do, but he also exercises power over him by influencing, shaping or determining his very wants. Indeed is not the supreme exercise of power to get another or others to have the same desires you want them to have – that is, to secure their compliance by controlling their thoughts and desires?”.20

Essentially, Lukes adds to our conversation on coercion by stressing the violent but non-physical dimension to The State’s manipulative capacity to remain sovereign. Lukes signals the fact that coercion may be imperceptible to external observers and, with this, unperceived by the very individuals upon whom force is exercised for their compliance. Coercion remains violent through its instrumental and mute character in demanding the coerced yield to the potentially harmful utility of the implements one possess; thereby not appealing to the public realm of appearances where speech, debate and persuasion open up the potentiality of truly political action.21 This explains to a certain extent why rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons and batons are often complimented by legislation to restrict protests, industrial action and student activism. These restrictions add to the manipulative capacity of The State to remain sovereign and in control of its citizens’ liberty.

Expanding on Lukes’ theory, in her work Barbara Copinska reformulates the traditional understanding of coercion to include this non-physical manipulation:

“In order to incorporate these reflections, I propose a new tentative definition of state coercion as a state’s rhetorics, actions, and institutional or legal arrangements compelling individuals within its jurisdiction to act in desirable ways or restraining them from diverging from the established way of living, without their necessarily being aware of it”.22

Going one-step further than Lukes, Copinska asks why it is that The State aims at manipulation in order to ascertain obedience and compliance beyond the ends of some ‘common good’. The past thought on coercion seemed to grossly overlook this crucial aspect. Here, Copinska taps into a ‘divergence from the established way of living’ as the impetus guiding manipulation. Following an increasingly critical perspective, this impression of coercion emphasises the role of The State in upholding all forms of the Status-quo. Primarily, this involves restricting the capacity for genuine epistemic change by reproducing the conditions of The State’s political necessity and its citizen’s conscious or unconscious dependence on this condition.23

In this way, by its own action The State reproduces a desired form of obedience through both physical and non-physical force. The best illustration in the ‘Western World’ of precisely this is the idea of ‘Anti-Americanism’. A conservative rhetoric often employed by those in support of the status-quo in the United States of America, Anti-Americanism is a charge against those individuals, groups or actions which defame or run counter to the principles, values or policies of the American state. In this manner, critics and demonstrators who are openly vocal against The State are themselves tarnished with the label of being anti-American, coercing others consciously or not into obeying in the desired behaviour. On this, the famous critic of US Policy, Noam Chomsky, contends:

“In such pronouncements, the term anti-American and its variants (‘hating-America’ and the like) are regularly employed to defame critics of state policy who may admire and respect the country, its culture, and its achievements, indeed think it is the greatest place on earth. Nevertheless, they ‘hate America’ and are ‘anti-American’ on the tacit assumption that the society and its people are to be identified with state power”.24

‘Identification’ is as a tacit obedient, but an obedient of a desired type. Through such action and rhetoric, The State apparatus and institutions are upheld. This reproduces its very hold over legitimate force and its restriction on liberty, jeopardising any potential deviation from the ‘safe haven’ of what we know provides the desired ends of peace from our mutual passions. Obedience thus becomes not only to surrender some of one’s liberty to restrain the body politic from a return to the state of nature, but to comply in reproducing these very same conditions.

 This presents us with our third and final impression of coercion – the application of  manipulative restriction against citizens for (a) some common ends and (b) to limit divergence from this established formula, be it through the imposition of physical violence or otherwise.

I would like to stress therefore that, ultimately, Coercion centres itself on a plain of restriction. This begins with the implicit violence and limitation of liberties at the conceptual origin of The State, and by virtue of this, extending these restrictions to include non-physical manipulation of citizens to these same ends, but also to limit any potential divergence from this established modus operandi.  Through this final extension, we are able to witness the source of the conflation between Coercion and Oppression. In order to elucidate this claim, we must now centre our focus on conceptualising Oppression, permitting the clear distinction between the two concepts to be made overt.


Unlike the explicit logic of restriction guiding coercion, oppression however is directed by an ulterior rationale. In the history of Modern Political Theory, oppression was brought to the fore through the discourse concerning the relationship between property rights and The State. Famously declaring that “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau touched on precisely this in his early writings.25 Arguably, Rousseau’s grasp of oppression is still widely the basis of our own understanding. In short, Rousseau thought of oppression as the enforced conditions of enslavement and domination, where one person is forced somehow to do the work of two, if not more. There is another half of the equation for Rousseau however, as with oppression comes the willingness to be oppressed for some apparent reward. As he argues:

“Citizens allow themselves to be oppressed only insofar as they are driven by blind ambition; and looking more below than above them, domination becomes more dear to them than independence, and they consent to wear chains in order to be able to give them in turn to others…inequality spreads easily among ambitious and cowardly souls always ready to run the risks of fortune and, almost indifferently, to dominate or serve, according to whether it becomes favourable or unfavourable to them”.26

Inequality, as associated to the asymmetric collection of wealth and property, therefore in Rousseau’s terms, leads citizens to perform their role in consenting to oppression. By this strength, in the dialogue between our desire for wealth and our performativity to these ends, the body politic masochistically desires, consents to and resists oppression. This formula, Rousseau goes on to state, becomes a concrete staple of our civic association as “it derives its force and growth from the development of our faculties and the progress of the human mind, and eventually becomes stable and legitimate through the establishment of property and laws”.27

Rousseau’s conceptualisation of oppression as the both active and passive enslavement of citizens forms the foundation of how oppression tends to be understood in the wider ether. Of course, in many ways, it was Rousseau’s grasp of oppression as the relation between inequality and property which influenced the work of Karl Marx, who extended this relationship to the overarching systemic role of production in society. Although Marx did not create the notion of class, and his own wider typology of socio-economic classes is dubious at best, in his own word, he proved: “that the existence of class is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production”.28  It is through this development, also known as the ‘Materialist conception of History’, that the ‘ruling’ class of the epoch oppresses another with and through the overarching mode of production defining the times. 

Although a problematic text to reference, widely and incompetently over-utilised as a reductionist summary of Marx’s entire body of thought, I think ‘The Communist Manifesto’ displays the Marxian understanding of oppression in succinct terms. Here Marx and Engels argue:

 “Hitherto, every form of society has been based, as we have already seen, on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes. But in order to oppress a class, certain conditions must be assured to it under which it can, at least, continue its slavish existence. The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the commune, just as the petty bourgeois, under the yoke of feudal absolutism, managed to develop into a bourgeois. The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society”.29

Thus, Marx too conceptualises oppression as a form of enslavement, but rather in class essentialist terms.30 As the class of labourers, and as such the creative element in society, the proletariat are forced to sell their labour for a wage in order to reproduce the very conditions of their own subsistence. The Capitalist mode of production is defined by this relationship between those who labour to produces commodities for exchange (The Proletariat), and those who own not only the means to create, but also the outcome of production itself – purchasing the very labour out from underneath the being of the labourer themselves (The Bourgeoisie). This is a condition of enslavement, for Marx, precisely as the forces and relations of production are upheld by the political, legal and cultural structures which sit atop the mode of production. Therefore, his ‘Theory of the State’ is brought to the fore with his allegory of ‘Base’ and ‘Superstructure’:

“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”.31

By this framework, the role of The State in the Capitalist mode of production is to reproduce the conditions of proletarian enslavement to the relations and forces governing this very same mode of production. ‘Enslavement’ is the term precisely because in this condition, as Marx tells us, ‘men’ are ‘independent of their will’, and it is The State which upholds this formula.

Even grander than this, the Proletariat are oppressed precisely due to the fact that the systemic apparatus force them to commodify their labour, and then as a result, become ‘Alienated’ from it, in a handful of ways, and from the capacities which define their being as human, at least on Marx’s terms. In this moment, the very activity of labouring belongs by the Bourgeoisie through their laws of exchange, paying a wage for labour in return. This mutates the proletariat’s activity of labouring into an ‘unfree’ one. In his ‘Economic Manuscripts’, Marx writes:

“Consider further the above sentence that the relationship of man to himself first becomes objective and real to him through his relationship to other men. So if he relates to the product of his labour, his objectified labour, as to an object that is alien, hostile, powerful, and independent of him, this relationship implies that another man is the alien, hostile, powerful, and independent master of this object. If he relates to his own activity as to something unfree, it is a relationship to an activity that is under the domination, oppression, and yoke of another man”.32

This is the epitome of the modern understanding underpinning oppression, as an enslavement in which an individual or subject, in this case the proletarian subject for Marx, is unable to escape the conditions they are forced to inhabit and are upheld by The State through physical or non-physical force. This is our first image of oppression – the enslavement of individuals and the maintenance of the conditions of enslavement.

An illustration of this would be the way in which any wage labourer is perpetually forced by the hegemony of the socio-economic system to sell their labour for a wage in order to subsist. In the same vein, such oppression includes the enslavement of a subject politically, upholding some form of hegemonic control. This would include the subjugation of minorities as excluded from the political sphere, without rights or suffrage. In this manner, the violence exercised by The State against The Suffragettes, for example, was not simple coercion, but violence to keep Women in their established position within the perceived structure of society – i.e. as lesser beings than men. This is beyond coercion, beyond violence of mere restriction, but violence to subdue, and it precisely this that makes such action oppression.

This being said however, perhaps this first image of oppression, as enslavement, is not encompassing enough to account for the myriad of forms oppression takes. In her work on the concept, Ann E. Cudd provides an increasingly positivist and detailed analytical account of ‘oppression’. Here she conceptualises it in a four-fold manner, stressing:

“Oppression names an objective social phenomenon which is characterised by:

1. The harm condition: individuals are harmed by institutional practices (e.g. rules, laws, expectations, stereotypes, rituals, behavioural norms).

2. The group condition: Individuals suffer harm in (1) because of their membership (or perceived membership) in a social group.

3. The privilege condition: there is another social group that benefits from the institutional practice in (1).

4. The coercion condition: there is unjustified coercion or force that brings about the harm”.33

Cudd, here, goes on to discuss each condition in turn, forging a criteria by which to explain the phenomena of oppression itself. The operation of this conceptualisation was to turn the normative debate in an analytical and empiricist direction. The merits of this account are that it goes farther than that of Marx or Rousseau in a positivist manner; here, contending oppression is more than a mere forced enslavement of condition, but is infact a number of conditions that come together and can be analysed holistically, as a single whole. Accordingly, Cudd provided the capacity to eradicate from our intellectual toolbox those theories which: “fail the tests posed by the criteria or comes up short in comparison with other social scientific explanations”.34 This permits us to pin to the phenomena in the public sphere all those state actions which meet this criteria as oppression. So, perhaps through this positivist lens we have found our final image of oppression.

Nevertheless however, Cudd falls into the trap of conceptualising oppression by only what can be sensed empirically, taking no account of the existential effects of the phenomenon on the oppressed subject. As much as I hold a respect for the ventures of Cudd, and indeed all strictly social-scientific analysis, here Cudd’s  analysis embodies a danger, one which can be expressed as such:

“The danger is that these theories are not only plausible, because they take their evidence from actually discernable present trends, but that, because of their inner consistency, they have a hypnotic effect; they put to sleep our common sense, which is nothing else but our mental organ for perceiving, understanding, and dealing with reality and factuality”.35

In this case, the ‘reality and factuality’ of the matter, as Arendt puts it, is the non-physical harm imposed on a subject when they are the target of state-oppression, overlooked by Cudd as a non-discernable aspect of the phenomenon.

So, the question becomes how not to commit the same oversight. How do we include the strictly existential features of oppression into our first image? Enslavement, and the perpetuation of this condition, implies primarily the exclusion of the oppressed from the public sphere. ‘Enslavement’ is connected to exclusion, as through exclusion from the public sphere, individuals are unable to change the conditions in which they are forced to live. The State oppresses to uphold the status-quo of domination – eliminating ‘undesirables’ from the political realm itself, be it through physical violence and persecution, or non-physical violence and domination by legislation and social rhetoric.

This is the site of the conflation between coercion and oppression. As we saw in the last section, an increasingly forgotten aspect of coercion is the force exerted by The State in order to restrict divergence from the established formula of things. Oppression equally restricts divergence, but is founded on a plane of restricting some as opposed to all, and herein lays the difference between the two. State Coercion is to restrict divergence from the statist paradigm – State Oppression is to uphold the domination of a given peoples or subject precisely because of their subjectivity. To uphold and reproduce the status-quo is central to both concepts. State Coercion stems from the necessity of The State to uphold and reproduce its legitimacy founded on the monopoly of violence – exercising this violence in its own name. Be that as it may, State Oppression stems not from the use of force or restriction to reproduce legitimacy, but to keep in a disadvantaged position a certain group of peoples and alongside this, the conditions of such disadvantage.

Nevertheless, let us return to the existential effects of exclusion. To be oppressed is to be part of the downtrodden, a member of the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ as Frantz Fanon once stated.36 To keep an identity downtrodden is, in the final analysis, to restrict their very being. To be oppressed is to be no more than the antonym of ‘the elect’. Irrespective of whatever the logic is justifying oppression, to oppress is to restrict the being of an individual, and in this, all that they could become. I think a brisk stroll into the etymology of the term oppression can reveal something of this.

As a linguistic signifier, the word ‘oppression has a rich history. Before employment as part of the English language, ‘Opression’ rested within the French linguistic toolkit as a term indicating the cruel or unjust use of force. Essentially, this demystifies no more than it fogs, signifying what we already know about the phenomenon. This requires us to go one-step further into the linguistic past. The French term holds its origins, without surprise, in a Latin phrase – ‘oppressionem’ (‘oppressio’ in the nominative). This is the noun of action from the past-participle stem of ‘opprimere’ – the assimilated form of ‘ob-’ and ‘-premere’. Individually, ‘ob-’ implies ‘against’, and ‘-premere’ ‘to press down’. Thus, we can see that at the etymological foundation of oppression rests opprimere – signifying the forceful pressing down against something or someone.

By utilising this brief etymological endeavour, we can see that the archaeology of the signifier reveals to us that to oppress is to press down – to subdue and therefore  keep stationary. It is in this vein I propose that the conceptualisation of oppression as a mere enslavement ignores this very aspect of its phenomenon. To be oppressed is not just to be enslaved, excluded and restricted by The State, but it is to have denied the potentiality of some Being.

This means that the very basis of subjectivation – the process of how an individual formulates and becomes a subject – is not just restricted, but locked into place.37 Oppression denies the capacity for the subject to transform, to appear differently in the eyes of the political community and ones-self. In this instance, the subject is locked into no more than what The State permits it to be. Here, a subject is deprived of potentiality, and innately with this, the capacity to begin something new. It is due to this ‘pressing down’ that oppressed subjects are not granted the very human capacities of a) appearing in public, due to their formal exclusion, but also b) engaging with the potentiality to change how one’s very being is mediated by others. This leads me to assert that at the centre of ‘oppression’ is not just simply ‘enslavement’, but enslavement via what I call the quelling of motion. I use the phrase ‘quelling of motion’, as by ‘pressing down’ one holds that which is subdued as motionless, static and unable to undertake kinesis.

Simply put, to oppress is to limit what a subject as a Being can become – limiting their potential to no more than what they are already understood to be. This is enslavement precisely as the oppressed are kept in an existential cage, forcefully excluded from the capacity to engage with the public sphere, and with this, their potential to become a recognised subject on their own terms. Three hundred years ago, slaves were oppressed because they were permitted no more of a subjective being by The State than of any other commodified tool or object – and treated as such. Two hundred years ago, women were oppressed because they were permitted no more of a subjective being by The State than of any other piece of their husband or father’s property – and treated as such. One hundred years ago, members of the LGBTQ+ community were oppressed because they were permitted no more of a subjective being by The State than that of a pathological abomination – and treated as such. These are all illustrations of how individuals can be oppressed by The State, be it physically or not. All three exemplify oppression as enslavement via the quelling of motion, as The State restricting not only the capacity of some to act and appear in the political realm, but their capacity to ascertain a subject beyond The State’s own rhetorical understanding of their existence.

Therefore, this is our final image of oppression – the enslavement of a subject and the maintenance of the conditions of enslavement through the ‘quelling of motion’.


The violence that states employ against their own citizens, as we have seen, is no new phenomenon in our collective history. States have coerced and States have oppressed long before these phenomena befell discussion. We began this discussion by establishing how State Coercion and State Oppression have become conflated terms within this discourse; used as interchangeable signifiers to denote the same phenomena of State violence against its own citizens. The danger with such a conflation is that it confuses more than it clarifies, limiting our capabilities to think about the phenomenon and so to understand and engage with it.

Our efforts in the previous two sections brought to the fore what distinguishes State Coercion and State Oppression. After an attempt to discern the kernel of each concept in turn, our final conceptualisations were found to be as follows:

Coercion is the application of manipulative restriction against citizens for (a) some common ends and (b) to limit divergence from this established formula, be it through the imposition of physical violence or otherwise.

Oppression is the enslavement of a subject and the maintenance of the conditions of enslavement through the ‘quelling of motion’

In this, we can see that coercion centres itself on a plateau of restriction in the name of the statist paradigm, be it through physical or non-physical violence. Here, citizens are restricted in order to reach some common ends. Essentially, these common ends are to avert the failure of The State, and as such, the descent into the anarchy described in the Hobbesian state of nature. In order to prevent such a collapse, this restriction upholds ‘The State’ as an established and effective means for achieving such an ends. State Coercion is therefore dripping with the fear of what could be, in the worst possible scenario. It is this fear guiding coercion as a means to upholding ‘The State’ as a legitimate political and civil association, which we can see through Weber’s analysis has been the case from the inception of this association itself.

The underlying conceptual core of State Oppression, however, rests with enslavement and the ‘quelling of motion’. Through some logic, violence becomes the instrument to achieve some ends of exclusion, even eradicating entire sections of society in the name of some cause. The apex of this came to be in the twentieth century, when through the logic of ideology, states committed and endorsed the most horrendous crimes for some greater ends, greater than that of state survival or the prevention of a collapse into the state of nature. Through oppression, individuals are excluded and reduced to an existential restriction, unable to become anything more than an existence without a subject, where one cannot define oneself on one’s own terms. In Nazi Germany for example, the Jewish subject was reduced to a non-human object, as defined by the rhetoric of The State and the ideology it purported, rending an entire section of society as sub-human. This is oppression in its purest incarnation– to lock into place the very being of an individual, suppressing their capacity to be anything more than what official and social rhetoric associates with their subject. Both Coercion and Oppression entail some form of restriction, and here is the cause of conflation. Nevertheless, State Oppression restricts beyond that of a mere limitation of liberty, but restricts on an existential plane – attacking the individual at their very Being.

We began this investigation with the intent to sharpen our conceptual understanding of State Coercion and Oppression, awakening our grasp from its blunted slumber. For too long we have tried to understand our paradoxical times with conflated or outdated tools. Times and events move swiftly through the currents of paradox. Now, with our declared freedom rest also are our chains. This is but one of the paradoxes we now experience as citizens on a daily basis. The grounds we used in the past to navigate these tricky slopes have become a quagmire, and although this exploration is certainly no attempt to make the quicksand traversable, it might have brought some part of it into focus. If we lose the necessity of understanding to think, it will not be mere focus required, but by that point, perhaps a faith that our feet will touch the bottom will be our only hope. And I, for one, am not prepared to rest our collective condition on hope alone. Therefore, in order to understand and judge the violence some are forced to endure by their own political associations every moment they draw breath, we must cry louder than before – ‘To the whetstone!’.



1 Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2019, Washington DC 2019 , p. 16. See also: Freedom House, ‘Freedom in the World Countries’,, ntries-world-freedom-2019 (Accessed 9th February 2019). 

2 Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16, 1989, pp. 3-18, p.3.

3 Laura Trevelyan, ‘Occupy Wall Street: New York Police Clear Zuccotti Park’, BBC News, 15th November 2011, (Accessed 9th February 2019).

4 Polybius, The Histories, Oxford 2010; Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, London 1973. During the ‘Melain Dialogue’, Thucydides composes arguably the first statement of the long history of political realism, namely: “The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must” in: Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, London 1972, p. 402.

5 Hannah Arendt ‘Lecture on ‘Power and Violence’, December 11th 1968, com/watch?v =EMUae5HXgOQ (Accessed 12th February 2019).

6 Anthony Richards, Conceptualizing Terrorism, Oxford 2015, p. 16.

7 Ann E. Cudd, ‘How to Explain Oppression: Criteria of Adequacy for Normative Explanatory Theories’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 35(1), 2005, pp. 20-49, p. 26.

8 Hannah Arendt, ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’, in Jerome Kohn, ed., Responsibility and Judgement, New York, 2003, pp. 159-189.

9 For Example: Andrew Kernohan, Liberalism, Equality, and Cultural Oppression, Cambridge 1998; Will G. Pansters Violence, Coercion and State-Making in Twentieth-Century Mexico: The Other Half of The Centaur, Stanford, CA 2012; Karl de Schweinitz, ‘Economic Growth, Coercion and Freedom’, World Politics, 9(2), 1957, pp. 166-192.

10 Michael A. Weinstein,  ‘Coercion, Space, and the Modes of Human Domination’, in J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman, ed., Coercion,  Piscataway, NJ 1972, pp. 63-80, p. 72.

11 “’Political Theory’ is a phrase that in general requires no explanation. It is used here to denote speculation about the state, which is its traditional meaning from Plato onwards”, taken from: Martin Wight, “Why is there no International Theory?”, in Martin Wight and Herbert Butterfield, ed., Diplomatic Investigations, Cambridge, MA 1968, pp. 17-35, p. 17.

12 Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”, in David Owen and Tracy B. Strong, ed., The Vocation Lectures: “Science as a Vocation” “Politics as a Vocation”, Indianapolis, IN 2004, pp. 32-94, p. 33. 

13 Charles Tilly, ‘War Making and State Making as Organized Crime’, in Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, ed., Bringing the State Back In, Cambridge, 1985, pp. 161-191.

14 E.A. Goerner and Walter J Thompson, ‘Politics and Coercion’, Political Theory, 24(4), 1996, pp. 620-626.

15 Christian Bay, The Structure of Freedom, New York 1965, p. 93. 

16 Hannah Arendt, On Violence, New York 1970, p. 28.

17 Stephen Lukes, Power: A Radical View, Houndmills 2005, p. 27.  

18 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago, IL 1998; Hannah Arendt, On Violence, New York 1970.

19 Barbara Copinska, ‘Free from State Violence or Free to Comply? A Revised Typology of Coercion and Repression in Liberal Democracies’ , Democratic Theory, 3(1), 2016, pp. 32-51, p. 40.

20 For more information, through an increasingly Marxist perspective, see: Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, On Ideology, London 2008, pp. 1-60.

21 Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, New York 2004, p. 45.

22 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, London 1968, p. 49.

23 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Basic Political Writings, Indianapolis, IN 1987, p. 77.

24 Ibid, p. 81.

25 Karl Marx, Selected Writings, David McClellan, ed., Oxford 2000, pp. 371-372.

26 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, London 2002, pp. 232-233.

27 These terms include Marx’s curious existential metaphysics of labour, whereby production and creativity are the uttermost essential basis of being human; this adding to the increasingly modern notion of Homo Faber by viewing ‘man’ as a labouring animal before all else, as Animal Laborans. For more information see: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago, IL 1998, pp. 79-96.

28 Karl Marx, Selected Writings, David McClellan, ed., Oxford 2000, p. 425. 

29 Ibid, p. 92.

30 Ann E. Cudd, ‘How to Explain Oppression: Criteria of Adequacy for Normative Explanatory Theories’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 35(1), 2005, pp. 20-49.

31 Ibid, p. 48.

32 Hannah Arendt, On Violence,  New York 1970,  p. 7. As far as a critique of ‘Scientism’ in the political sphere is concerned, there are a number of works I could recommend, but the most influential for myself has been: Hedley Bull, ‘International Theory: A Case for the Classical Approach’, World Politics, 18(3), 1966, pp. 361-377.

33 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of The Earth, New York 2007.

34 For more information on ‘Subjectivation’, see: Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume II – The Use of Pleasure, New York 1985, pp. 29-32; Andreas Oberprantacher and Andrei Siclodi, ed., Subjectivation In Political Theory and Contemporary Practices, London 2016.

35 Hannah Arendt, On Violence,  New York 1970,  p. 7. As far as a critique of ‘Scientism’ in the political sphere is concerned, there are a number of works I could recommend, but the most influential for myself has been: Hedley Bull, ‘International Theory: A Case for the Classical Approach’, World Politics, 18(3), 1966, pp. 361-377.

36 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of The Earth, New York 2007.

37 For more information on ‘Subjectivation’, see: Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume II – The Use of Pleasure, New York 1985, pp. 29-32; Andreas Oberprantacher and Andrei Siclodi, ed., Subjectivation In Political Theory and Contemporary Practices, London 2016.

Published by K.J.O'Meara

K.J.O'Meara (Ba, MLitt) is an independent British political theorist whose academic interests include: The English School of International Relations, Arendtian Political Thought, Political Hermeneutics, Biopolitics and Critical Film Theory.

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