Max Weber writing in the early twentieth century marveled about the advantages that modern societies have over the earlier societies. One of the things Weber remarked about was the “stable peacefulness” that are found in large areas of the country protected by the police. No longer when you, your brother, or your sister were assaulted did you need, or want, to take matters into your own hands and seek your own revenge on behalf of your clan and its gods to whom you were tied to by blood oaths of loyalty.
In modern society, few of us take such oaths. Instead we go through our day not worrying about assault, trusting in the power of the police to pacify society, and maintain the “absolute and stable peacefulness.” This is why I can walk and ride my bike all over town, and not really worry about being robbed, assaulted, or murdered. But behind this order is the fact that some people, the police, do take oaths, and are willing to intervene even violently in order to preserve the peace. In Weber’s words, the police have the monopoly over the use of legitimated force in a given jurisdiction. Or as Weber wrote using some complicated words:
But of all the purely political factors [that are important], particularly enduring is the growing need for order and protection (“police”) in societies that increasingly become accustomed to absolute and stable peacefulness. The growing need for order and protection was a continuous process, moving from the solely sacral or conciliatory influences, to the blood feud where rights and security for the individual members of the clan were tied to oaths and responsibility for seeking revenge, to today’s situation when police officials become “God’s representatives on earth.” (p,95 in Weber’s Rationalism, 2015, tr. by Dagmar Waters and Tony Waters)
It’s that last line “God’s representatives on earth” that cause me to pause. Weber is saying that in the modern world, the authority of the police becomes sacred, and is assumed to be the guarantor of an absolute and stable peacefulness; and that in fact many invest it with a religious-like authority. And to a large extent, this is what we have. But to have this happen, the police are given every benefit of the doubt in confrontations with civilians, such as the recent cases in the United States in places like Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and elsewhere in recent months. In such a context, grand juries, police, prosecutors, and others search for reason why “God’s representatives on earth” are acting correctly, because to do otherwise, is to sub-consciously perceived as a threat to God, and therefore the peaceful order many of us take for granted.
Now, what would the police you know think of such a view? The police I’ve known are a jaded lot, who have no pretensions to be anything close to God. But indeed, they are well-aware of the oath they have sworn on behalf of society, and desire very much that their presence and authority be respected. Are such pseudo-religious rituals still important to the maintenance of modern society? What would a society look like, in which the police were not asked to take such oaths, and assumed to be like the rest of us?