Out of the Barrel of a Gun

Politics: the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, esp those relationships involving authority or power

Mao Zedong said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

He was right. He and I have some pretty major philosophical differences but on that he was absolutely right.

The barrel of a gun is not the only place political power comes from, of course. Political power, in the sense that it is influence over social animals like people, also comes from things like persuasion, reason, love, or guilt. I know women who run their extended families with an iron hand almost exclusively through the power of guilt. Persuasion, guilt, and firepower are all on the same influence continuum, though at different spots.

Mao, of course, was speaking in the context of revolution. But the political power of the gun is just as relevant and just as inherent in our American society today. Let me walk through a simple example:

  1. Citizen is speeding.
  2. Cop pulls in behind citizen and flashes his lights.
  3. Citizen does not pull over. Citizen is in a hurry and can’t be bothered.
  4. Cop follows citizen for a while and finally calls other cops over the radio.
  5. Other cops appear and flash their lights too, perhaps yell at citizen from their windows.
  6. Citizen still does not pull over. He is, after all, an important man and in a hurry. Perhaps he is on his cell phone.
  7. Cops become very serious but choose not to PIT citizen.
  8. Citizen arrives at his destination and gets out of his car to go inside.
  9. Cops tell the citizen to stop.
  10. Citizen is still in a hurry and ignores the cops.
  11. Cops grab citizen.
  12. Citizen asks the cops what they want.
  13. Cops tell the citizen he was speeding and resisting arrest. Citizen must come with them so they can ‘throw the book’ at him.
  14. Citizen tells the cops he doesn’t wish to go with them and turns back toward his destination.
  15. Cops grab citizen and try to put cuffs on him.
  16. Citizen still does not wish to be detained and pulls away. He overpowers cop and frees himself.
  17. Cops pull guns and order citizen to get on the ground.
  18. Citizen does not wish to get on the ground but realizes that the cops have deadly force at their disposal.
    Now, at this point I could end the example. The political power is growing out of the barrel of the gun. However…
  19. Citizen does not wish to get on the ground and instead tries to walk to his destination.
  20. Cop grabs him again but this time citizen wrestles with cop and suceeds in taking his gun.
  21. Cop dives away from citizen, in fear of his life because citizen too now has deadly force at his disposal.
  22. Cops shoot citizen dead and call it a righteous kill.


And it would, in my opinion, be a righteous kill. Citizen was stupid and dangerous. Notice though, that he did nothing more nefarious than refuse to allow the government to influence him. He ignored the government’s authority.  This little cycle I have enumerated can begin anywhere a citizen disobeys the law but it always ends at the same place unless the citizen at some point previous to being shot dead capitulates to the government’s authority.

Paying your taxes, obeying the speed limit, filing the proper permit, paying fines… You must do what the government tells you or the government will  eventually shoot you dead.

That fact changes the world not a whit. It has been like that from the beginning. We simply choose not to be aware of it most of the time. Once we become aware of it though, it should probably change our thinking.

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