Monday, February 28, 2011

The state

Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in Nationalism and Culture:

All great periods of culture are periods of political decline. Whatever is great in a cultural sense is non-political, is even anti-political.

We can think of "the state," or the government, as politicians and their institutions; a professional class of "governors" who do the work of creating and enforcing the rules by which everyone else is expected to live. This is odd when you think about; why would one group within society be invested with the power to do this?

When I was growing up, the rationale given was that having professionals do the "political work" of society freed everyone else to "live their lives," so to speak. But we often notice that when people are obligated to act in a "political" capacity -- for example, to attend jury duty -- they are quick to defend the many obligations they have to their employer, unaccustomed as they are to deny these for any other purpose. "Living our lives" has come to take on a particular meaning in this respect!

Nietzsche puts "culture" in opposition to "politics" because where the former embodies the free creation of norms between people, the latter mandates them by force. What is "political" could be negotiated between people on their own terms; but without a specialized group "entrusted" with a monopoly of violence, such endeavors would merely be social, not political. This is what Nietzsche means when he says, "Whatever is great in a cultural sense is non-political, is even anti-political": the best things to come from human relations come freely, without one group presuming to set the terms for all others -- i.e. without power as an established principle; without "government" as an institution separate and distinct from the work of our everyday lives.

Anarchism has long recognized that what best makes a society democratic is not the "democratic credentials" of its ruling class -- not one political party that "better represents the people" than the rest -- but an end to the artificial machinery of "politics" altogether.

We can imagine life without government as entailing not the abolition of everything that government does -- like running schools or installing traffic lights -- but rather that the work of our everyday lives would change to include the many things that are now entrusted to permanent bureaucrats. But how can we take on extra responsibilities when we are already overworked as it is? The answer is: the structure of our work lives has to change. Our time would be devoted to producing what we want and need: part of the day would be devoted to the kind of economic work we do now, only its purpose would not be the enrichment of our bosses but the improvement of our communities; and the other part of the day would be comprised of relating to each other about what we want and how best to go about it. Such activity would then have the chance to develop as cultural practices amongst society as a whole.

We see that in a community of free individuals, what is "political" is superfluous; institutionalized power is only necessary when you want to preserve the rights of some against the needs of others. This is another important thing to know about the state: it has always attended the division of society into distinct and hostile classes. This is why anarchists have always identified the state as a necessary instrument of class rule.

It is important to reiterate the fact that what the state is shouldn't be conflated in every instance with what the state does. The fact that the state administers certain social programs or upholds certain laws is not proof that people wouldn't prefer similar services or "rules of the community" in a stateless society. The point is, it has to be determined what people want, and in some ways the state prevents this; but in other ways, people have forced the state to recognize what they want. So we mustn't confuse everything the state does with the underlying purpose for which it exists. Something that Marxists have been good to emphasize is the fact that the state is an important site of class conflict; for anarchists, the impulse to "smash the state" must take care not deny the importance of some things the state does which would need to be performed by communities in its absence.


Jack Crow said...

When Red Emma blended Bakunin, the Neetch and Marx - it worked.

You are in good company, with this post.

JRB said...

I have to acknowledge being influenced in this regard by a certain Mr. Crow.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Most excellent.

adamcrazypants said...

reminded me of Utah

Mark Twain said, "Those of you who are inclined to worry have the widest
selection in history." Why complain? Try to do something about it - you know,
it's [been] goin' on nine months now, since I decided that I was gonna declare
that I am a candidate for the presidency of the United States. Oh yes, I'm
going to run.

Shopped around for a party. Well, I looked at the Republicans. Decided
talking to a conservative is like talking to your refridgerator. You know, the
light goes on, the light goes off, it's not gonna do anything that isn't built
into it. But I'm gonna talk to a conservative any more than I talk to my damn
refridgerator. Working for the Democratic party, now, that's kind of like
rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

So I created my own party: it's called the Sloth and Indolence Party. I'm
running as an anarchist candidate in the best sense of that word. I've studied
the presidency carefully. I have seen that our best presidents were the do-
nothing presidents: Millard Fillmore, Warren G. Harding. When you have a
president who does things we are all in serious trouble. If he does anything
at all: if he gets up at night to go to the bathroom, somehow, mystically,
trouble will ensue.

I guarantee that if I am elected, I will take over the White House, hang out,
shoot pool, scratch my ass, and not do a damn thing.

Which is to say: if you want something done, don't come to me do it for you,
you gotta get together and figure out how to do it yourselves. Is that a deal?

Jim H. said...

You are most persuasive and engaging. More so than others taking the anarchist position.

George Lakoff talks about the "Principle of Conservation of Government: If conservatives succeed in cutting government by the people for the public good, our lives will still be governed, but now by corporations. ..." Without some form of guarantee of human rights, don't the Kochs and the Cokes of the world win every time?

Brian M said...

I might agree somewhat with Jim H above but more will your view work in a metropolitan area of 7 million people? I just remain skeptical that things will work very well or efficiently. Sure...people will get by and things will muddle through, but I am not sure the life will be very "nice" in this stateless utopia. I envision...not Somalia...but maybe, Kinshasa or the favella towns outside major Latin American cities. Or...I imagine the garbage being collected, cheaply, and dumped by the side of the road a la Southern Italy (another place where the State is quite weak in many respects). Or... the racist's mythical South Central, witn weak central authority and plentiful competing gangs and local groups. It "works" I suppose, but not very justly or effectively.

I love your writing and you ask so many good questions...I just wonder about your solutions, especially in concentrated population centers with millions of people. And...I am not trying to be a concern troll in any way (LOL).

JRB said...

Brian M.:

One way to approach the issue is to ask, "How are cities run now?"

Are they run well by the standard of every individual; or only certain individuals, with large parts of the population struggling and underserved?

If communities of whatever size aren't meeting the minimum requirements of personal security and self-fulfillment for their inhabitants, what is the problem?

Abonilox said...

Really well done. Love the Nietzsche quote. I couldn't find from the link what the original source was...

JRB said...


Thanks! I fixed the link. The Nietzsche work is entitled "The Twilight of the Idols" -- footnote 3 on page 83.

And thanks for blogging. I just discovered your place.

Brian M said...

Thanks for the response jrb...but I still remain unconvinced. Sure...distribution of services in State-controlled cities varies widely. In a metropolitan area controlled by a wide melange of non-state actors, do you anticipate this as being different...or better? That's my struggle...because I don't believe muddling through always works more effectively. Tyranny exists in non-state forms, and I remain unconvinced that a unformated coalition of non State groups will be effective at the metropolitan scale.

Mutualism is interesting...but how scalable is it?

Jack Crow said...


Is it possible not to worry about scale? Sometimes I think that the arguments about scale are colonizations of our mental landscape. We think about size of community because most of us have had no other experience, and a decade of education which prepares us only really to understand "big" as "managed."

Very large polities (pre-Augustan Rome, Golden Horde, Imperial Russia) have operated on massive scale with little in the way of what we would treat as bureaucratic hierarchy.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

I'm a little confused or unclear as to what specifically guides those reservations of yours, Brian.

When Weirton Steel was "bought" (not a euphemism, but an oversimplification) by its employees, was it a huge freakin' disaster?

Not according to the residents of the Ohio Valley that I knew and talked to at the time.

Are you saying you can't imagine any conceivable way for things to work in a stateless society?

Are you saying the state must be controlled and then eliminated?

What are you saying?

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

PS: to clarify:

The point of referring to Weirton Steel was not to say that it was a huge long-term success -- it wasn't, as the Wiki page states, eventually it went bankrupt. But for those who participated in the ESOP and gained control over the company, it was a great thing -- while it lasted -- according to the locals. They didn't find it hard to transition to employee ownership.

Why it eventually failed is an interesting question but my memory of the situation suggests that the employees took over an already-dead company, made it work for a while, but eventually found the things that killed it before the ESOP were still with the company. Meaning, it might well have failed regardless, but they gave it a good shot.

It really depends on the will of the people, doesn't it? Downscale to the family unit, imagine mom, dad, two kids. Dad dies unexpectedly. Dad has been the breadwinner and "authority" in the family. Does his death mean the family now will fragment, fall apart? Or can mom & two kids adapt?

Any child who has lived through a parental divorce knows what I'm talking about, I think.

Brian M said...

Sure...human beings will of course adapt. That's what we do.

I'm not sure the adaptation will always be a positive thing.

I don;t know enoguh about Pre-Augustan Rome...but there was certainly a State of sorts...and a system of aristocrat-patron relationships that may function...sorta...but seems to me to be as coercive in its own way????

Plus, pre-Augustan Rome may have lacked a huge bureaucracy, but it also lacked modern sanitation and amenities that I, in my blighted state-loving soul, like to have. (LOL...just kidding).

jrb: I bring up scale because human cities are so huge and impose such externalities that without some kind of organized state to handle, for instance, water supply, or garbage, etc. As for private enterprise taking over...who organizes this? is that more just?

I am not trying to be a troll here. I'm just not convinced that coercive non state entities are a net improvement over states.

Stephenson's The Silver Age was one interesting vision...but not one I necessarily found real appealing in the end.

JRB said...

Brian M.:

The fundamental issue isn't "what form of social organization" is appropriate for one community vs. another, but whether such choices come from the community itself or are decreed by a specialized class which rules over it. Omit "the state" and you omit the prospects for this specialized class from social life, and nothing else.

So rather than have a mayor and city council who guide policy according to the preferences of "property against the majority," you might have mass assemblies or neighborhood meetings where all voices can be heard -- instead of shut out -- who then elect delegates to carry out their decisions, not make decisions for them. This would be a normal part of the life of the community.

Questions of large scale administration are completely valid, which is why anarchists insist that everyone have a role in answering them, not just certain people.

You are right that tyranny exists in non-state forms, but this doesn't justify tyranny in its political form; nor does it imply that the latter is somehow an antidote to the former. On the contrary, the two can happily coexist. Individuals and communities should be given the maximum advantage in confronting tyranny of every kind, which means having the time and freedom to address them; something which does not happen in a life filled with toil and insecurity at the direction of others.

JRB said...

PS. Your questions and skepticism are great.

Brian M said...

I guess where my skepticism still comes into play is that better run States are often better at ameliorating non-State coercion and perhaps better at providing broad public services. Public sewers built under bureaucratic control are objectively better than dumping the night soil into the gutters. There is a net benefit for society... a member of a despised minority, I am not too positive on being at the mercy of community lynch assemblies. Especially if said community assemblies are they often will religious fervor. for every mayor enforcing property over all you have a community council of elders requiring a young girl to be raped because her brother was seen comporting with a girl of the wrong traditional caste.

I'm a gloomy gus, though. With a personal interest in the matter as I am a dread....LOCAL BUREAUCRAT LOL.

Plus, Jack Crow has a fascinating essay over at his site that posits that the ameliorating influences of which I speak are beign eliminated in favor of raw control. Definitely food for thought. more positive spin may be fading away. :)

I'm curious how many government isos hang out at your site (LOL)

Brian M said...

PS. I also want to express again my appreciation for your site and your writing. You make me think. As the American project lurches into a particularly toxic phase, it's good to read alternative analysis, other ways of looking at things...even or especially when you ask questions!

Jack Crow said...


I think those ameliorating functions have to be understood economically. The welfare state was a constructed response to the decline of "rural america," the explosion of industrial agriculture and the concentration of oil dependent populations in large urban environments.

"People" were hungry and pissed, and the plutocrats needed them less hungry and less pissed so they'd take jobs, stay at work, have kids and make the plutocrats wealthier. Welfare staved off a very red revolution, or chaos.

But, by "people", I don't mean black people, Mexicans, domestic women, Indians or Asian coolie labor.

Welfare deliberately excluded black folks, aliens and migrants, so that it could be sold to the plutocrats and Senators of the South. Instead, blacks and migrants got a prison system, Jim Crow and legal buttressing of sharecropping, transferred to the factory.

Only after the threat of black people becoming pissed people became a reality did the welfare state get expanded to include them proactively, but too little and too late (and always coded with racist appeals to contain "welfare queens" and "thugs").

So, that what I think has always defined these communities, vis a vis the state, has been a twin set of oppressions - the first being naked violence and incarceration, the second the more subtle but publicly symbolic infantilization of colored people as perpetual dependents (regardless of the facts on the ground).

This works especially well to divide The People (and this still mostly means Europeans) from the Dependent Others (and this of course first and foremost means blacks) by assigning to the one membership in the middle and laboring classes, and to the other the role of leech upon labor and taxpayers.

I'm not saying that's the deliberated purpose of the ameliorating functions, but it's how it works practically. Only those who "pay in" are considered worthy of receiving the benefits, and only European Americans (and very lately, Asians from the Pacific Rim) get treated as productive contributors.

Everyone else* - especially those with legitimate gripes and uneasy membership in a larger hostile culture - is a sign of decay, corruption and a failure of the system.

* - I'm curious how this would apply to gay people, who are both mistreated by the state and used as a signifier of its liberal benevolence - but I have no experience as such, and am loathe to speculate without some evidence...

JRB said...


If I am printerlogically skilled enough, I would like to print out this comment as a handy pocket summary of US history, to be deployed on the job and elsewhere.

Brian M.:

You ask good questions. I hope we will be able to address some of these concerns soon.

Jack Crow said...

Of course, JRB. And thank you.

Enron said...

That book by Rocker is consistently under-read and ingnored

Enron said...