Feb 13, 2009

when vigilantism spurs governmental reform

In a previous article related to the March/April vigilantism resolution, I described the relationship between vigilantism and legitimate state activity as "symbiotic." Just as symbiotic relationships in nature can drive evolution, so can vigilantism create the impetus for government reform.

Suzette Heald, writing in an article titled "State, Law, and Vigilantism in Northern Tanzania," found in the April 2006 edition of African Affairs, describes the history and impact of the sungusungu. She explains:
From the early 1980s onwards in central Tanzania, Sukuma and Nyamwesi villagers villagers began to organize their own form of collective policing which became known throughout Tanzania as sungusungu. Over time, these groups, which initially by-passed the official agents of state, far from being rejected, have become an integral part of the administrative structures of vast areas of rural Tanzania.
Debaters running up against Weber-based cases will be interested in Heald's analysis of the heterogeneity of modern sovereignty.
Conventionally, the state is seen after Weber as having a monopoly on the use of legitimate force. This assumes that the state is a unified entity, a single Leviathan. But modern democratic states are anything but monolithic: they have multiple specialized institutions, claiming different kinds of legitimacy as recognized from both within and without.
It is precisely this lack of unanimity that not only allowed the sungusungu to flourish, but provided them with greater legitimacy.
If the political and administrative arm of the government supported these groups - and continues to do so - it was quite otherwise with the police and the judiciary. Clearly, the actions of sungusungu groups constituted a 'taking of the law into their own hands' and were in any event outside the law, challenging the powers the judiciary took as its own, of arrest, trial, and punishment. They directly undercut the very rationale of the official agents of the law. More cynically, it could be said... that both police and judiciary found not only their role pre-empted but also the graft which accompanied it. They acted swiftly in attempts to suppress these groups through prosecutions. In the process, they demonstrated only further to the ordinary populace, that they were not the enemies of crime but in league with it.
All this is to say that, in the Affirmative view, there are two primary reasons why "the government has failed to enforce the law." One is a lack of capability; a second is corruption. Either can justify vigilantism.

And, as Heald argues, in the long term, vigilantism can spur government reform. In Tanzanzia, the sungusungu
... have altered the nature of state power at the local level and initiated long-term reforms. The sungusungu have come to operate in a distinctive space; co-opting government and, in turn, co-opted by it. Communities have taken back power, developed their own policing capacity and, in so doing, effectively re-invented themselves. With reformatory agendas, they have evolved new normative structures and modes of co-operation and organization which both actually and potentially have far-reaching consequences for economic and social welfare. A new vision of community responsibility is heralded and held out as an ideal. In the same way, perhaps, they have reformed and reclaimed the state, with the administration demonstrating an increasing responsiveness to the priorities of local communities and allowing them a greater degree of autonomy in the management of their own affairs.
When taken in the context of the resolution--justifying the practice only when the government has failed to enforce the law--vigilantism does not have to lead inexorably to lawlessness. Rather, it can help restore and strengthen the legitimacy of the state.


okiedebater said...

Just for some humor on the LD topic, check out this Onion article:

"Bush Lifts Ban On Vigilantism"


Melissa said...


I ran across that article during my research! I actually thought it was legit at first and was ready to use parts ... until I read the article. Haha :)

Eutopia1994 said...

Hi Jim,

So...how would the negative counter this? Since in my NEG case I said "stay away from vigilantism and reform government and flawed laws"...It's been a huge thorn in my side as to HOW government could be "fixed". If I just leave it at "fix the government!", I can see the affirmative in my nightmares slashing my argument to pieces. Reforming the government is no easy matter anywhere, I'm sure you'd agree...Could you explain these, please?

Jim Anderson said...

Government reform, in the classic social contract tradition, is justified in many circumstances: protests and public pressure (like the Orange Revolution), holding elections, even violent revolutions, provided that the aim is the establishment of a legitimate government. At any rate, the debate isn't about what's easy, but what's justifiable.

There's always the possibility of international intervention, too, in the case where the government is in danger of collapse.

Eutopia1994 said...


I'm not sure how that might work into the negative...If I just say that we must resort to (positive) governmental reform in place of vigilantism, is it OK? Wouldn't I have to explain more on what "governmental reform" really is (since there is really no "perfect law") and in what way it would be made possible for the people of the society?

Jim Anderson said...

I don't think you should *have* to give a laundry list of legitimate reform methods, but it might help convince a judge who differs. So it'd probably be smart to brainstorm a list based on what I've suggested.

Anonymous said...

this is exactly what my aff case is about. Are there any more articles you know of on this idea?

Queenie S. Amaranto said...

Good day:)

We have a debate in class so I was hoping to ask for help in conceptualizing my arguments. The motion is "Vigilantism is justified when the government fails to enforce the law" I am assigned to defend the affirmative side. Its hard tom make out arguments because the opposite side will use morality to counter attack everything I will say.
If you have time please email me at tazziebaby_highschool@yahoo.com