The meaning of ‘State’: different sorts of anarchy

I’ve sometimes found that people writing in established traditions quite rarely attempt precise definitions of that tradition’s central ideas.  Even rarer are admissions that people aren’t entirely sure how to define those central ideas. I think this is understandable (or rather, I understand it) – it seems natural to suppose that “a convincing account must have been offered and agreed on by now, right?”

One example is ‘state’. “Anarchists oppose the state”: they don’t think any state can liberate us, they think an ideal society would not have a state. Non-anarchist communists agree about the latter, but disagree about the former. But what is a ‘state’? It’s quite easy to give a pointing-type explanation: the state is the government, the legislature, the judiciary, the courts, the police, the army, the civil service, traffic wardens, etc. But examples don’t equal definition  – especially when we’re dealing with hypotheticals like a “state-less society”.

Of course, definitions can be found quite easily – just look in a dictionary. But what we tend to find in dictionaries is that, firstly, tricky words get defined in terms of other tricky words. Doing a bit of googledefine-ing, I found a cluster including ‘government’, ‘state’, ‘authority’ and ‘sovereignty’, all to some extent defined in terms of each other. And secondly, there tend to be a cluster of different short phrases that get used in different dictionaries, with different identifications of what’s crucial. So again, that’s not very helpful for thinking about what things count as a ‘state-less society’.

So: what is a state, and correspondingly what is anarchy? To be honest, I’m not totally sure. There are a number of different attributes of states, and negating different ones produces different understandings of anarchy.

For a start, a state is “subjectively universal”: it is, at least in theory, consciously considering the impact of things on society as a whole. Trade unions, families, and theatre companies don’t do this: they focus on a small range of things, e.g. wages and conditions in one particular industry. Although non-state groups may at times look at things from an ‘overall’ point of view, that’s not integral to their activities. This might be described by saying that the state is a ‘public’ body, not a ‘private’ one.

This attribute of states is, I think, definitely not one that most anarchists would want to simply abolish. To the best of my understanding, there is a tendency in anarcho-capitalism to go this route: to understand anarchy as meaning, in some sense, that only private organisations would exist, and that the general affairs of society will be sorted out ‘by accident’, through the workings of the market. But the historical main trend of anarchism, which I would identify with, is completely the opposite. This historical main trend, which has been, in a word, ‘socialist’, definitely wants anarchy to have ‘subjectively universal’, ‘public’, elements – indeed, it would be hard to support ‘collective property” without doing so. Anarchy will replace the state with something else that takes over (some of) its tasks. To take a specific example, some states currently provides free healthcare, rather than leaving people to rely on private medical firms. Abolishing the state would not mean a ‘free market’ for healthcare, but rather that a different sort of organisation takes over the task of ensuring universal access.

So that’s one thing that isn’t the answer. Another ‘red herring’, in my view, is the state’s ‘centralised’ nature. Now this is another word with multiple meanings, but I’m talking specifically in a geographical sense. The Russian state makes central decisions that then affect all the vastness of Russia. There is, I think, a strand of anarchist thinking, not to mention a large chunk of non-anarchist impressions of anarchism, that sees ‘anarchy’ as meaning that power is ‘decentralised’ and all the different parts of Russia (possibly all the way down to village level) become more separate and order their own affairs independently of one another.

I think this is also a mistake, both in being wrong and in not being what anarchism has most often been about. It is my belief that in the sort of anarchy that would emerge from the modern world, people would be every bit as connected with each other as before, and there would be just as many bodies making ‘large scale’ decisions (perhaps not ‘just as many’ – but a substantial number). This is because a lot of things are best handled on large scales: trade, environmental regulation, travel, mutual protection. After all, many of the earliest self-labelled anarchists were members of the International Working Men’s Association, and enthusiastically backed the call “workers of the world, unite!” So that’s something else that I think isn’t the answer.

Another characteristic of the state is that it is violent. It claims a monopoly on legitimate violence, and it uses the threat of violence to enforce obedience to its laws. Here things get tricky. I think that it is correct to understand anarchism as wishing to abolish ‘coercion’ as an everyday way for society to work, where ‘coercion’ is defined as something like ‘producing obedience by the threat of force’. And there has been a strand of completely ‘pacifist’ anarchism, often represented by religious figures like Mohandas Gandhi or Leo Tolstoy, which completely rejects violence.

But of course, the bulk of anarchist tradition has not been remotely pacifist. The tradition of assassinating heads of state has largely died out (probably a good thing), but most anarchists have still been willing, either in principle or, often, in reality, to throw molotovs and fight against the state. And it would be ridiculous to think that after a grand anarchist victory, the emergent society would refuse to use force against warlords or bomb-planters or people trying to get into their ex-girlfriend’s house to stab her.

So if anarchy doesn’t mean non-violence, how is it different from state violence? I would suggest something like the following: anarchy means violence used only in response to violence. An anarchic society will fight in self-defence, and to restrain or control the violence of its own members – but it will not use force (arrest, imprisonment, deportation) to make people follow social rules or abide by economic arrangements. If you want to shoot up heroin, if you want to ride the train without ‘paying for it’, if you want to take a sandwich off the shelf and eat it, if you want to enter or leave whatever country, if you want to work or not work or work in a way that people don’t pay you for, then that is your right. Nobody will force you not to.

It will obviously be hard to define exactly what counts as ‘violence’. I think the concept would have to be expanded substantially – it would include things like invading someone’s private spaces (so you can have someone chucked out of your bedroom when you want to sleep), and I think it would include things that clearly and directly threatened physical harm to others, like poisoning a water source or burning the only supply of food. But I think the basic idea makes sense: social and economic structures are freely consented to, not ‘enforced’. They may still be encouraged or strengthened by differential incentives: if you do socially useful things, people will provide you with handy services, whereas if you do socially inconvenient or annoying things, people may refuse to help you with stuff. There might be multiple alternative ‘societies’ even inhabiting the same settlement, regulating themselves differently, with individuals ‘seceding’ from one and joining another whenever they want.

This has two consequences. Firstly, it limits what social and economic arrangements can work, because if they produce people who are severely badly off, then those people will just stop abiding by them. At the moment, large numbers of people are supremely screwed by our economy, the various beggars, slum dwellers, unemployed refugees and whatnot of the world. The state’s coercive nature allows it to force these people to keep respecting the property rights of everyone else, and thus keeps that destructive system going.

Secondly, it seems to give anarchic societies the same sorts of ‘rights’ as normal people. To restrain the violent, to defend oneself against attack, to stop someone poisoning a water source: these seem like the kind of things that any individual would be justified in using force to acheive, regardless of what their society was like. That is: If I decide that a certain distribution of resources would be most efficient, and you disagree, I would be ‘wronging’ you if I took a club and beat you until you agreed to follow my plans. But if I find you physically assaulting me or someone else, I’m not ‘wronging’ you if I use physical force to stop you. The state does both of these things, while anarchic society does only the latter.

This I think is one of the best ways of understanding the state-anarchy distinction. A state claims rights qualitatively different from those of a regular person. It claims that it can beat you to the floor, kidnap you, and lock you in cage if you eat things it tells you not to eat, ride things it tells you not to ride, download things it tells you not to download. In anarchy, no-one does this: society as a whole claims only the same rights as a group of regular people. Like a regular person, it might be (a lot) less helpful if you do what it doesn’t want you to, but unless you use force against it, it won’t use force against you.

This may not be the only defining characteristic of a state. There are, I think, some structural issues to consider around the theme of democracy and how far the state is ‘separate from’ and ‘independent of’ the rest of society – anarchy, I tend to think, would be supremely ‘democratic’ and ‘participatory’ in its decision-making. But this post is already worryingly long, so I’ll stop here. I think the issue of coercion is the most important, most crucial feature distinguishing a state from the various institutions of an anarchic society, and I think that centralisation (in at least one sense) and ‘public-mindedness’ are both red herrings – or rather, they’re issues in some people’s view of anarchy, but not mine and not that of the historical mainstream of anarchism. Hopefully this makes the precise content of ‘state-less-ness’ a bit clearer.

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