Anarchist FAQ/Why do anarchists oppose the current system?/2

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B.2 Why are anarchists against the state?[edit | edit source]

As previously noted (see section B.1), anarchists oppose all forms of hierarchical authority. Historically, however, they have spent most of their time and energy opposing two main forms in particular. One is capitalism, the other, the state. These two forms of authority have a symbiotic relationship and cannot be easily separated:

"[T]he State . . . and Capitalism are facts and conceptions which we cannot separate from each other. In the course of history these institutions have developed, supporting and reinforcing each other. "They are connected with each other -- not as mere accidental co-incidences. They are linked together by the links of cause and effect."


In this section, in consequence, as well as explaining why anarchists oppose the state, we will necessarily have to analyse the relationship between it and capitalism.

So what is the state? As Malatesta put it, anarchists "have used the word State, and still do, to mean 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." [2]

He continues:

"For us, government [or the state] is made up of all the governors; and the governors . . . are those who have the power to make laws regulating inter-human relations and to see that they are carried out . . . [and] who have the power, to a greater or lesser degree, to make use of the social power, that is of the physical, intellectual and economic power of the whole community, in order to oblige everybody to carry out their wishes. And this power, in our opinion, constitutes the principle of government, of authority."


Kropotkin presented a similar analysis, arguing that the state "not only includes the existence of a power situated above society, but also of a territorial concentration as well as the concentration in the hands of a few of many functions in the life of societies . . . A whole mechanism of legislation and of policing has to be developed in order to subject some classes to the domination of others." [4] For Bakunin, all 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." [5] On this subject Murray Bookchin writes:

"Minimally, the State is a professional system of social coercion -- not merely a system of social administration as it is still naively regarded by the public and by many political theorists. The word 'professional' should be emphasised as much as the word 'coercion.' . . . It is only when coercion is institutionalised into a professional, systematic and organised form of social control -- that is, when people are plucked out of their everyday lives in a community and expected not only to 'administer' it but to do so with the backing of a monopoly of violence -- that we can properly speak of a State."


As Bookchin indicates, anarchists reject the idea that the state is the same as society or that any grouping of human beings living and organised together is a state. This confusion, as Kropotkin notes, explains why "anarchists are generally upbraided for wanting to 'destroy society' and of advocating a return to 'the permanent war of each against all.'" Such a position "overlook[s] the fact that Man lived in Societies for thousands of years before the State had been heard of" and that, consequently, the State "is only one of the forms assumed by society in the course of history." [7]

The state, therefore, is not just federations of individuals or peoples and so, as Malatesta stressed, cannot be used to describe a "human collectively gathered together in a particular territory and making up what is called a social unit irrespective of the way the way said collectivity are grouped or the state of relations between them." It cannot be "used simply as a synonym for society." [8] The state is a particular form of social organisation based on certain key attributes and so, we argue, "the word 'State' . . . should be reserved for those societies with the hierarchical system and centralisation." [9] As such, the state "is a historic, transitory institution, a temporary form of society" and one whose "utter extinction" is possible as the "State is not society." [10]

In summary, the state is a specific way in which human affairs are organised in a given area, a way marked by certain institutions which, in turn, have certain characteristics. This does not imply, however, that the state is a monolithic entity that has been the same from its birth to the present day. States vary in many ways, especially in their degree of authoritarianism, in the size and power of their bureaucracy and how they organise themselves. Thus we have monarchies, oligarchies, theocracies, party dictatorships and (more or less) democratic states. We have ancient states, with minimal bureaucracy, and modern ones, with enormous bureaucracy.

Moreover, anarchists argue that "the political regime . . . is always an expression of the economic regime which exists at the heart of society." This means that regardless of how the state changes, it "continues to be shaped by the economic system, of which it is always the expression and, at the same time, the consecration and the sustaining force." Needless to say, there is not always an exact match and sometimes "the political regime of a country finds itself lagging behind the economic changes that are taking place, and in that case it will abruptly be set aside and remodelled in a way appropriate to the economic regime that has been established." [11]

At other times, the state can change its form to protect the economic system it is an expression of. Thus we see democracies turn to dictatorships in the face of popular revolts and movements. The most obvious examples of Pinochet's Chile, Franco's Spain, Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany are all striking confirmations of Bakunin's comment that while "[n]o government could serve the economic interests of the bourgeoisie better than a republic," that class would "prefer . . . military dictatorship" if needed to crush "the revolts of the proletariat." [12]

However, as much as the state may change its form it still has certain characteristics which identify a social institution as a state. As such, we can say that, for anarchists, the state is marked by three things:

1) A "monopoly of violence" in a given territorial area;

2) This violence having a "professional," institutional nature; and

3) A hierarchical nature, centralisation of power and initiative into the hands of a few.

Of these three aspects, the last one (its centralised, hierarchical nature) is the most important simply because the concentration of power into the hands of the few ensures a division of society into government and governed (which necessitates the creation of a professional body to enforce that division). Hence we find Bakunin arguing that "[w]ith the State there must go also . . . all organisation of social life from the top downward, via legislation and government." [13] In other words, "the people was not governing itself." [14]

This aspect implies the rest. In a state, all the people residing in an area are subject to the state, submitting themselves to the individuals who make up the institution of authority ruling that territory. To enforce the will of this few, they must have a monopoly of force within the territory. As the members of the state collectively monopolise political decision making power, they are a privileged body separated by its position and status from the rest of the population as a whole which means they cannot rely on them to enforce its will. This necessities a professional body of some kind to enforce their decisions, a separate police force or army rather than the people armed.

Given this, the division of society into rulers and ruled is the key to what constitutes a state. Without such a division, we would not need a monopoly of violence and so would simply have an association of equals, unmarked by power and hierarchy (such as exists in many stateless "primitive" tribes and will exist in a future anarchist society). And, it must be stressed, such a division exists even in democratic states as "with the state there is always a hierarchical and status difference between rulers and ruled. Even if it is a democracy, where we suppose those who rule today are not rulers tomorrow, there are still differences in status. In a democratic system, only a tiny minority will ever have the opportunity to rule and these are invariably drawn from the elite." [15]

Thus, the "essence of government" 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." [16] And so "despotism resides not so much in the form of the State or power as in the very principle of the State and political power." [17]

As the state is the delegation of power into the hands of the few, it is obviously based on hierarchy. This delegation of power results in the elected people becoming isolated from the mass of people who elected them and outside of their control (see section B.2.4). In addition, as those elected are given power over a host of different issues and told to decide upon them, a bureaucracy soon develops around them to aid in their decision-making and enforce those decisions once they have been reached. However, this bureaucracy, due to its control of information and its permanency, soon has more power than the elected officials. Therefore "a highly complex state machine . . . leads to the formation of a class especially concerned with state management, which, using its acquired experience, begins to deceive the rest for its personal advantage." [18] This means that those who serve the people's (so-called) servant have more power than those they serve, just as the politician has more power than those who elected him. All forms of state-like (i.e. hierarchical) organisations inevitably spawn a bureaucracy about them. This bureaucracy soon becomes the de facto focal point of power in the structure, regardless of the official rules.

This marginalisation and disempowerment of ordinary people (and so the empowerment of a bureaucracy) is the key reason for anarchist opposition to the state. Such an arrangement ensures that the individual is disempowered, subject to bureaucratic, authoritarian rule which reduces the person to an object or a number, not a unique individual with hopes, dreams, thoughts and feelings. As Proudhon forcefully argued:

"To be GOVERNED is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so . . . To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorised, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolised, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown it all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality."


Such is the nature of the state that any act, no matter how evil, becomes good if it helps forward the interests of the state and the minorities it protects. As Bakunin put it:

"The State . . . is the most flagrant, the most cynical, and the most complete negation of humanity. It shatters the universal solidarity of all men [and women] on the earth, and brings some of them into association only for the purpose of destroying, conquering, and enslaving all the rest . . .

"This flagrant negation of humanity which constitutes the very essence of the State is, from the standpoint of the State, its supreme duty and its greatest virtue . . . Thus, to offend, to oppress, to despoil, to plunder, to assassinate or enslave one's fellowman [or woman] is ordinarily regarded as a crime. In public life, on the other hand, from the standpoint of patriotism, when these things are done for the greater glory of the State, for the preservation or the extension of its power, it is all transformed into duty and virtue. And this virtue, this duty, are obligatory for each patriotic citizen; everyone if supposed to exercise them not against foreigners only but against one's own fellow citizens . . . whenever the welfare of the State demands it.

"This explains why, since the birth of the State, the world of politics has always been and continues to be the stage for unlimited rascality and brigandage . . . This explains why the entire history of ancient and modern states is merely a series of revolting crimes; why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries -- statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors -- if judged from the standpoint of simply morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labour or to the gallows. There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: 'for reasons of state.'"


Governments habitually lie to the people they claim to represent in order to justify wars, reductions (if not the destruction) of civil liberties and human rights, policies which benefit the few over the many, and other crimes. And if its subjects protest, the state will happily use whatever force deemed necessary to bring the rebels back in line (labelling such repression "law and order"). Such repression includes the use of death squads, the institutionalisation of torture, collective punishments, indefinite imprisonment, and other horrors at the worse extremes.

Little wonder the state usually spends so much time ensuring the (mis)education of its population—only by obscuring (when not hiding) its actual practises can it ensure the allegiance of those subject to it. The history of the state could be viewed as nothing more than the attempts of its subjects to control it and bind it to the standards people apply to themselves.

Such behaviour is not surprising, given that Anarchists see the state, with its vast scope and control of deadly force, as the "ultimate" hierarchical structure, suffering from all the negative characteristics associated with authority described in the last section. "Any loical and straightforward theory of the State," argued Bakunin, "is essentially founded upon the principle of authority, that is the eminently theological, metaphysical, and political idea that the masses, always incapable of governing themselves, must at all times submit to the beneficent yoke of a wisdom and a justice imposed upon them, in some way or other, from above." [21] Such a system of authority cannot help being centralised, hierarchical and bureaucratic in nature. And because of its centralised, hierarchical, and bureaucratic nature, the state becomes a great weight over society, restricting its growth and development and making popular control impossible. As Bakunin put it:

"the so-called general interests of society supposedly represented by the State . . . [are] in reality . . . the general and permanent negation of the positive interests of the regions, communes, and associations, and a vast number of individuals subordinated to the State . . . [in which] all the best aspirations, all the living forces of a country, are sanctimoniously immolated and interred."


That is by no means the end of it. As well as its obvious hierarchical form, anarchists object to the state for another, equally important, reason. This is its role as a defender of the economically dominant class in society against the rest of it (i.e. from the working class). This means, under the current system, the capitalists "need the state to legalise their methods of robbery, to protect the capitalist system." [23] The state, as we discuss in section B.2.1, is the defender of private property (see section B.3 for a discussion of what anarchists mean by that term and how it differs from individual possessions).

This means that in capitalist states the mechanisms of state domination are controlled by and for a corporate elite (and hence the large corporations are often considered to belong to a wider "state-complex"). Indeed, as we discuss in more depth in section F.8, the "State has been, and still is, the main pillar and the creator, direct and indirect, of Capitalism and its powers over the masses." [24] Section B.2.3 indicates how this is domination is achieved in a representative democracy.

However this does not mean anarchists think that the state is purely an instrument of economic class rule. As Malatesta argued, while "a special class (government) which, provided with the necessary means of repression, exists to legalise and protect the owning class from the demands of the workers . . . it uses the powers at its disposal to create privileges for itself and to subject, if it can, the owning class itself as well." [25] Thus the state has interests of its own, distinct from and sometimes in opposition to the economic ruling elite. This means that both state and capitalism needs to be abolished, for the former is as much a distinct (and oppressive and exploitative) class as the former. This aspects of the state is discussed in section B.2.6.

As part of its role as defender of capitalism, the state is involved in not only in political domination but also in economic domination. This domination can take different forms, varying from simply maintaining capitalist property rights to actually owning workplaces and exploiting labour directly. Thus every state intervenes in the economy in some manner. While this is usually to favour the economically dominant, it can also occur try and mitigate the anti-social nature of the capitalist market and regulate its worse abuses. We discuss this aspect of the state in section B.2.2.

Needless to say, the characteristics which mark a state did not develop by chance. As we discuss in section H.3.7, anarchists have an evolutionary perspective on the state. This means that it has a hierarchical nature in order to facilitate the execution of its role, its function. As sections B.2.4 and B.2.5 indicate, the centralisation that marks a state is required to secure elite rule and was deliberately and actively created to do so. This means that states, by their very nature, are top-down institutions which centralise power into a few hands and, as a consequence, a state "with its traditions, its hierarchy, and its narrow nationalism" can "not be utilised as an instrument of emancipation." [26] It is for this reason that 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.

Finally, we must point out that anarchists, while stressing what states have in common, do recognise that some forms of the state are better than others. Democracies, for example, tend to be less oppressive than dictatorships or monarchies. As such it would be false to conclude that anarchists, "in criticising the democratic government we thereby show our preference for the monarchy. We are firmly convinced that the most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy." [27] However, this does not change the nature or role of the state. Indeed, what liberties we have are not dependent on the goodwill of the state but rather the result of people standing against it and exercising their autonomy. Left to itself, the state would soon turn the liberties and rights it says it defends into dead-laws—things that look good in print but not practised in real life.

So in the rest of this section we will discuss the state, its role, its impact on a society's freedom and who benefits from its existence. Kropotkin's classic essay, The State: It's Historic Role is recommended for further reading on this subject. Harold Barclay's The State is a good overview of the origins of the state, how it has changed over the millenniums and the nature of the modern state.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 94
  2. Anarchy, p. 17
  3. Op. Cit., p. 19
  4. The State: Its Historic Role, p. 10
  5. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 211
  6. Remaking Society, p. 66
  7. Op. Cit., p. 10
  8. Op. Cit., p. 17
  9. Peter Kropotkin, Ethics, p. 317f
  10. Bakunin, Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 151
  11. Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 118
  12. Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 417
  13. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 242
  14. Kropotkin, Op. Cit., p. 120
  15. Harold Barclay, The State, pp. 23-4
  16. Voltairine de Cleyre, The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, p. 27 and p. 26
  17. Bakunin, Op. Cit., p. 211
  18. Kropotkin, Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution, p. 61
  19. General Idea of the Revolution, p. 294
  20. Bakunin on Anarchism, pp. 133-4
  21. Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 142
  22. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 207
  23. Berkman, What is Anarchism?, p. 16
  24. Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 97
  25. Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 183
  26. Kropotkon, Evolution and Environment, p. 78
  27. Bakunin, Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 144