Anarchist Resistance against State and Authority: A Perspective
Note: This write-up is entirely paraphrased from the 19,488-word long sub-section on Why are anarchists against the state? — under the section of Why do anarchists oppose the current system?— from An Anarchist FAQ, prepared by the Anarchist FAQ Editorial Collective consisting of Iain McKay, Gary Elkin, Dave Neal and Ed Boraas. The original text, first published in June 2009, is sourced from the Anarchist Library. Read the complete text of the publication at http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/the-anarchist-faq-editorial-collective-an-anarchist-faq.
|All the images in this post have been sourced from Random Anarchist Shit|
While the popular understanding of anarchism is of a violent, anti-State movement, anarchism is a much more subtle and nuanced tradition then a simple opposition to government power. Anarchists oppose the idea that power and domination are necessary for society, and instead advocate more co-operative, anti-hierarchical forms of social, political and economic organisation.
— Susan Brown, The Politics of Individualism: Liberalism, Liberal Feminism and Anarchism
The most fundamental responsibility of anarchists is the opposition of any kind of authority. We can see the primary elements of authority in capitalism and the state. As Kropotkin wrote in Evolution and Environment that: ‘They [state and capitalism] are connected with each other—not as mere accidental co-incidences. They are linked together by the links of cause and effect’.
Consequently, we will deal on why anarchists oppose the state by analysing the relationship between these two elements. To begin with, what is a state? Malatesta published a pamphlet in 1891, in which he defined the state as:
the sum total of the political, legislative, judiciary, military and financial institutions through which the management of their own affairs, the control over their personal behaviour, the responsibility for their personal safety, are taken away from the people and entrusted to others who, by usurpation or delegation, are vested with the power to make laws for everything and everybody, and to oblige the people to observe them, if need be, by the use of collective force.
According to Bakunin, all the states are:
in essence, only machines governing the masses from above, through . . . a privileged minority, allegedly knowing the genuine interests of the people better than the people themselves.
When statists equate anarchism with disorder and destruction, they ‘overlook the fact that man lived in societies for thousands of years before the State had been heard of’ (Kropotkin) and that the state ‘is a historic, transitory institution, a temporary form of society’ (Bakunin).
To sum up, a state is a system of organising human affairs by establishing assumed beneficial institutions. Its kind is varying in size, form and style, for instance we can cite the cases evident from democracies, dictatorships, monarchies, theocracies and so on. In ancient states there was minimum bureaucracy but in contemporary states, it is just the opposite. All along a state is what its economic system is or how this system changes.
So, the state can alter its form to protect the economic system in which it is an expression of. In this context it is not surprise that even democracies would turn to dictatorships as evident from Pinochet’s Chile, Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. Regardless of its variation there are a few characteristics of a state:
i. A monopoly of violence in a given territorial area;
ii. This violence having a professional, institutional nature; and
iii. A hierarchical nature, centralisation of power and initiative into the hands of a few.
Out of the three elements, the last one is the most crucial—it ensures the concentration of power into the hands of the few and a division of society into government and governed, which necessitates the creation of a professional body to enforce that division. Further, the people are a subject to the state and submit themselves to the selected few. These few individuals comprise the institution of authority in a hierarchy and their group enjoys the monopoly of violence. Thus we also have the bureaucracy, police and army as a product out of this equation.
It follows that, the ‘essence of government’, according to Voltairine de Cleyre (1866–1912) is that, ‘it is a thing apart, developing its own interests’ and so is ‘an institution existing for its own sake, preying upon the people, and teaching them whatever will tend to keep it secure in its seat.’
This marginalisation of the masses, while empowering the bureaucracy and other agents of authority like the police, is the main reason why anarchists oppose the state. This form of brazen disregard for humanity is, in the perspective of the state, its supreme duty and its greatest virtue. On the other hand, the ideals of patriotism and nationalism accentuate the preservation and the extension of its power. In fact, these ideals only reflect the interests of the elite, not those who make up a nation.
If we consider it on the terms of morality and human justice, all the agents/representatives of the state would have been imprisoned for ‘a hundred, a thousand times’ for the crimes they have committed in the name of the state. Its main agency, the government’s sole claim of representing the people is the reason why and how they would justify war, reductions (if not the destruction) of civil liberties and human rights, policies that benefit the few over the many, and other crimes. If the subjects resist, the state will use whatever means it has and as we have noted, it enjoys the monopoly over the use of violence (Paraphrasing note: Refer to the massive militarisation of the Indian province of Manipur. For ease of consideration, replace capitalists with contractors.). It will also justify any of this crime as a form of controlling ‘law and order’. Even democracy, as a whole, is merely a façade to hoodwink the people that they rule themselves.
Anarchists also oppose the state because it plays the role of a defender for the economically dominant class, both of which are the elites or the ‘selected few’ who are as well oppressive and exploitative. Alternatively, in capitalist states the mechanisms of state domination are controlled by and for corporate elites. Anarchists also have an evolutionary perspective that the state, which survives on centralisation of power and elite rule, was deliberately and actively created to do so. These are also the reasons why anarchists aim to create a new form of social organisation and life, a decentralised one based on decision making from the bottom-up and the elimination of hierarchy.
Before going to the next section, please refer to Peter Kropotkin’s classic essay, The State: Its Historic Role and Harold Barclay’s The State (a review).
Function of the State
The main function of the state is to maintain the status quo of the existing social relationships and their sources within a given society through centralised power and a monopoly of violence. It can even do without physical force—all it has to do is to deny its subjects the means of life and reduce them to a state of surrender. The state is the extractive apparatus of society’s parasites. It represents the people who own or control the wealth and oppresses the people who create the wealth. The defence of capitalist property rights is most clearly visible from the concept of private property and its protection.
When it comes to law, the state has shaped it to a ‘two-fold character’. According to Kropotkin, while its ‘origin is the desire of the ruling class to give permanence to customs imposed by themselves for their own advantage’, it also passes into law ‘customs useful to society, customs which have no need of law to insure respect’—unlike those ‘other customs useful only to rulers, injurious to the mass of the people, and maintained only by the fear of punishment’. For that matter, a majority of crime is motivated by poverty and alienation due to state-supported exploitation and also by the desensitisation to violence created by the state’s own violent methods. Ironically, a state rationalises its existence by referring to the social evils it itself helps to create either directly or indirectly.
For anarchists—without the state and its sponsorship for crime—decentralised, voluntary community associations can deal compassionately and not punitively with the few incorrigibly violent people who might remain. (Paraphrasing note: Besides crimes, there is also a phenomenon like state terrorism, which is prevalent in the insurgency-torn areas of Northeast India and Maoist Red Corridor of the central and eastern parts of the country.)
Essentially, a state utilises the coercive mechanisms by which capitalism and the authority relations associated with private property are sustained. Long ago, Adam Smith had made the observation in The Wealth of Nation about this role of the state—to protect capitalism and the property, power and authority of the property owner. Precisely, a state is a system that allows the ruling class to rule! At a certain global level, we can also see the IMFs and World Banks, in which nations are represented by trade ministers, finance ministers and central bank governors who arbitrate ‘the concerns of the business community’.
On this matter, Stiglitz writes: ‘. . .policies of the international economic institutions are all too often closely aligned with the commercial and financial interests of those in the advanced industrial countries.’
Funnily, a state is also obliged to protect its elites against those from the other states.
Subsidiary Functions of the State
If we ask whether the state has additional functions, then the answer is a clear ‘yes’. The state is an instrument to maintain class rule but the road does not end there. No state has ever left its activities at that bare minimum. In addition to its primary role as a defender of the elites and ruling class, the state has several subsidiary functions, out of which we will focus on two of them:
i. to boost the interests of the ruling elite either nationally or internationally beyond just defending their property and
ii. to protect society against the negative effects of the capitalist market
This is visible in various forms of intervention, such as subsidies, tax breaks, non-bid government contracts, protective tariffs to old, inefficient, industries, giving actual monopolies to certain firms or individuals, bailouts of corporations judged by state bureaucrats as too important to let fail, and so on. In Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs, Chomsky wrote that the key role of the state within capitalism ‘is essentially to socialise risk and cost, and to privatise power and profit’.
Sometimes the state and the capitalists do clash over their motives and aspirations; however, this conflict does not change the role of the state as the property owners’ policeman. The reason is not hard to understand: the state can be considered as a means for settling upper-class disputes over what to do to keep the system going. Just scratch a bit more and we can see capitalism is not and has never been a ‘natural’ development in society while it is not surprising that more and more state intervention is required to keep it going.
State intervention does provide positive benefits for those subject to the elite although this may be just a side-effect. This brings us to the other kind of state intervention: the attempts by society, by means of the state, to protect itself against the eroding effects of the capitalist market system. Capitalism is an inherently anti-social system. By trying to treat labour (people) and land (the environment) as commodities, it has to break down communities and weaken eco-systems. This cannot but harm those subject to it and, as a consequence, leads to pressure on a government to intervene to mitigate the most damaging effects of unrestrained capitalism.
On one hand, the historical movement of the market, a movement that has not inherent limit and that therefore threatens society’s very existence is a reality. On the other, a society has the natural propensity to defend itself, and therefore to create institutions for its protection. If we blend these two factors, with a desire for justice and equality, it will result in a lethal cocktail including the most terrible excesses of the state in order to keep up the momentum of that system.
In this context, social struggle is the dynamic for understanding many, if not all, of the subsidiary functions acquired by the state over the years. Reforms may modify the functioning of capitalism but they can never threaten its basis for reasons we have seen above and will see more later. This is not to dismiss all attempts at reform as irrelevant. It simply means recognising that we need to rely on our own strength and organisations to improve our circumstances.
Ruling Class and Its Remote Control
The ruling class and its control of the state go a long way back in history. The ‘dominating’ narratives had been apparent in (i) feudalism, in which the land was owned by the feudal lords who exploited the peasantry directly and (ii) absolutism, in which monarchs bring the feudal lords under their power but not before bringing a centralised state system, which the raising bourgeoisie, in turn, took as the model for their state.
According to philosophers like John Locke, the working masses were considered to be an object of state policy rather than part of the body of people (property owners) who nominated the government. The state acts like a joint-stock company in which the owning class were the shareholders who nominated the board of directors and the mass of the population were the workers, who had no say in decision making and merely allowed to follow orders.
Even allegedly ‘democratic’ capitalist states are in effect dictatorships of the proletariats with the three barriers of wealth, bureaucracy and capital. The political history of the modern world can be summarised by the rise of capitalist power, the emergence, due to popular movements, of representative democracy and the continued success of the former to undermine and control the latter.
The wealth barrier is the most obvious from, say, election campaigns. It takes money to run for office. To get the fund, wealthy contributors need to be ‘discovered’ and wooed, and simultaneously convinced that that their interests will be actively looked after. For instance, to raise $1 million you need to either persuade 50 millionaires to give you $20,000 or 20,000 people to fork out $50. Given that for the elite, $20,000 is pocket money and it is hardly surprising that politicians aim for winning over the few, not ‘the’ many. Similarly with corporations and big business, it is far easier and more efficient in time and energy to concentrate on the wealthy few. Precisely, whoever pays the piper calls the tune. To fill in the few missing pieces, politicians also have directorships in companies, interests in companies, shares, land and other forms of property income and so forth.
Alternatively, politicians and capitalists go hand in hand. Wealth selects them, funds them and gives them jobs and income when in office and once they finally leave politics, they are often given directorships and other jobs in the business world. Little wonder, then, that the capitalist class, aided by thousands of lobbyists, maintains control of the state.
By effectively disempowering the masses and centralising power into the hands of the few which make up the government, the very nature of the state ensures that it remains under elite control. This is why, from the start, the capitalist class has favoured centralisation. We will discuss this in the next two sections.
Centralisation, Emancipation and the Illusion of Participation
Democracy is not as simple as its definition of a system that is for, by and of the people. It’s a myth that ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’ when we know that the god itself does not exist. Consider this: if people can choose their ruler, then logically, they also have the ability to do without one. To cut it short, in any system of centralised power the common people have little say in what affects them and, as a result, their freedom is extremely limited.
In essence, when people are proclaimed to be sovereign in a democratic state, in reality they alienate their power and hand over control of their affairs to a small minority that has the least concern for them. It also follows that, as Kropotkin observed in Words of a Rebel, liberty is merely an opportunity of picking a ruler at regular intervals. Given that politicians can do what they like for four or five years once elected, it is clear that popular control via the ballot box is hardly effective or even meaningful. The only consolation is that democratic governments tend to be less oppressive than other forms.
Harold Barclay puts it succinctly that: ‘Parliamentary democracies are essentially oligarchies in which the populace is led to believe that it delegates all its authority to members of parliament to do as they think best.’
The nature of centralisation places power into the hands of the few. Representative democracy is based on this delegation of power, with voters electing others to govern them. Unsurprisingly, centralism negates democracy, for political decision-making is given over to professional politicians in remote capitals. Lacking local autonomy, people are isolated from each other (atomised) by having no political forum where they can come together to discuss, debate and decide among themselves the issues they consider important. Elections are not based on natural, decentralised groupings and thus cease to be relevant. The individual is just another ‘voter’ in the mass, a political ‘constituent’ and nothing more.
No wonder then, isolated people are no threat to the powers that be. The process of marginalising the people is the key control mechanism in the state in particular and authoritarian organisations in general. Besides the economic pressures from elites, governments also face pressures within the state itself due to the bureaucracy that comes with centralism. There is a difference between the state and government. The state is the permanent collection of institutions that have entrenched power structures and interests. The government is made up of various politicians.
Bakunin maintained that: ‘Liberty can be valid only when popular control of the state is valid. On the contrary, where such control is fictitious, this freedom of the people likewise becomes a mere fiction’.
Beneficiaries of Centralisation
If centralisation is such a curse, why does it exist? The answer is obvious: it benefits certain section that represents a state. To put it bluntly, centralisation directly benefits those at the top, because it shelters them from those who are below, allowing the latter to be controlled and governed more effectively. Centralism also fosters a symbiotic relationship between capital and the state or between the business class and the state. Therefore, it is in the direct interests of bureaucrats and politicians to support such a system.
We have seen earlier how, by centralising power in the hands of representatives and so creating a state bureaucracy, ordinary people are disempowered and thus less likely to interfere with the interests of the wealthy. We can also say that the purpose of centralisation is to take power away from the mass of the people and give it to the wealthy. To make these points clear we can refer to the American and French revolutions, which demonstrated processes by which the wealthy would centralise power into their own hands while the working-class people or the majority were excluded from the decision-making process and subject to the laws and the power of a few.
Centralisation benefits the minority class whose representatives have that power to make decisions. This was the rationale for the centralisation of power in every revolution. Whether it was the American, French or Russian, the centralisation of power was the means to exclude the many from participating in the decisions that affected them and their communities.
In contemporary world, state centralisation and expansion have gone hand in glove with rapid industrialisation and the growth of business. State centralisation makes it easier for business to control government, ensuring that it remains their puppet and influences the political processes. Moreover, with the growth of transnational corporations and global finance markets, the bounds of the nation-state have been made economically redundant. As companies have expanded into multinationals, so the pressure has mounted for states to follow suit and rationalise their markets across ‘nations’ by creating multi-state agreements and unions.
Noam Chomsky has elaborated that the G7, the IMF, the World Bank and so forth are a ‘de facto world government’, and ‘the institutions of the transnational state largely serv[ing] other masters [than the people], as state power typically does; in this case the rising transnational corporations in the domains of finance and other services, manufacturing, media and communications’.
However, none of this means that capitalists desire state centralisation for everything. Often, particularly for social issues, relative decentralisation is often preferred, in, say, power being given to local bureaucrats, in order to increase business control over them. By devolving control to local areas, the power which large corporations, investment firms and the likes have over the local government increases proportionally. In addition, even middle-sized enterprise can join in and influence, constrain or directly control local policies and set one workforce against another. Private power can ensure that ‘freedom’ is safe, but by ‘freedom’, we mean their freedom.
The State: An Independent Power Within Society?
Yes, the state can be an independent power within a society. Given the power of the state machinery, it would be hard to believe that it could always be simply a tool for the economically dominant minority in a society. And given its structure and powers, it can use them to further its own interests. Indeed, in some circumstances it can be the ruling class itself.
However, in normal times the state is, as always, a tool of the capitalist class. It must be stressed here that they are always in an agreement. Top politicians, for example, are part of the ruling elite, but they are in competition with other parts of the very system. In addition, different sectors of the capitalist class are competing against each other for profits, political influence, privileges, etc. This means that different sections of the ruling class will cluster around different parties, depending on their interests, and these parties will seek to gain power to further those interests. This may bring them into conflict with other sections of the capitalist class. The state is the means by which these conflicts can be resolved.
Given this role of the state—to ensure the best conditions for capital as a whole—it can and does work against the interests of certain parts of the capitalist class. To carry out this function the state needs to be above individual capitalists or companies. This gives the state the appearance of being a neutral social institution and can fool people into thinking that it represents the interests of society as a whole. Yet this neutrality, with regards to individual capitalist companies, exists only as an expression of its role as an instrument of capital in general.
So the state can act independently of the ruling elite and, potentially, act against their interests. As part of its role is to mediate between individual capitalists/corporations, it needs sufficient power to tame them and this requires the state to have some independence from the class whose interests it, in general, defends. In other words, the state bureaucracy is itself directly an oppressor and can exist independently of an economically dominant class—even more so because the state has (class) interests of its own.
If on one hand, the state’s role is to protect the capitalists’ or its own interest, on the other it represses the individual and the working class. As Kropotkin noted: It is ‘a society for mutual insurance between the landlord, the military commander, the judge, the priest, and later on the capitalist, in order to support such other’s authority over the people and for exploiting the poverty of the masses and getting rich themselves’.
The level of exploitation is tentative but one thing is sure, however. The state is not a suitable tool for securing the emancipation of the oppressed.
A Few Suggested Reading on the Topic
• Barclay, Harold, The State, Freedom Press, London, 2003
• Berkman, Alexander, What is Anarchism?, AK Press, Edinburgh/London/Oakland, 2003
• Brown, L. Susan, The Politics of Individualism: Liberalism, Liberal Feminism and Anarchism, Black Rose, Montreal/New York, 1993
• Chomsky, Noam, Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs, Pluto Press, London, 2000
• Malatesta, Errico, Anarchy, Freedom Press, London, 2001
• Stiglitz, Joseph, Globalisation and its Discontents, Penguin Books, London, 2002
• The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, A.J. Brigati (Ed.), AK Press, Oakland/Edinburgh, 2004.
• The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, G.P. Maximov (Ed.), The Free Press, New York, 1953
• Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel (eds.), The New Press, New York, 2002
• Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, Arthur Lehning (Ed.), Jonathan Cape, London, 1973
• Kropotkin, Peter, Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings, Roger N. Baldwin (Ed.), Dover Press, New York, 2002
More Anarchy on this Blog
• The Anarchist Way of Life
• An Anarchist Manifesto
• Anarchism: A Brief Timeline
• 1/2 No Borders, No Nations, Just People
• 2/2 No Borders, No Nations, Just People
• The Accidental Anarchist