The State is Incapable of Submissiveness

A topic of abiding interest to me is the analogy between the individual person and society, and its limits. We habitually speak of collectives, especially states, as acting, perceiving, desiring, etc, in the same sort of language that we speak of human individuals as doing. Clearly there is some practical use and validity in such a turn of phrase – but equally clearly, we cannot expect a state to precisely mirror an individual. What then, are the precise and detailed differences?

I’ve argued before that one difference is that states are liable to be megalomanic (i.e. pathologically concerned with power) in proportion as they are hierarchical, since the desires of the more powerful will exert a greater influence on collective decision-making (in its most extreme form, a theoretical absolute and total autocracy would act out the particular psychology and desires of its autocrat), and those who have won themselves most power tend to be those with most interest in power.

But I now want to offer up a related observation: states are incapable of submissive desires.

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Hegel, the Family, the Market, and the State

I’ve been reading a lot recently about Hegel’s political thought, and one aspect in particular provoked me to comment, namely his division of social life into three ‘moments’: the family, the market, and the state.

(‘Moment’ is a quasi-technical term in Hegel drawn from its usage in physics. The moments of something are the constituent elements which compose it but which, unlike mere ‘parts’ cannot be separated from each other except by a simplifying abstraction but rather determine what each other are)

The three sorts of social life could be roughly characterised as ‘particular altruism’ (I care about my family members for their own sake, but this applies only to a contingent few people, not to all people), ‘universal egoism’ (in a market, although I respect the rights of each other person, I use them simply as means to my own satisfaction), and ‘universal altruism’ (in considering a state policy I concern myself with the common good of all other citizens, for its own sake).

Why is this worth remarking on? Isn’t it just an obvious little list? But what Hegel wants to say with this three-fold distinction is that the three are all different and all equally basic – none can be derived from or understood in terms of the others.

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Anarchism and al-Qaeda

I’m not at all an expert on Islamism, but by my limited understanding, al-Qaeda, insofar as they base themselves on the writings of Sayyid Qutb, are in a certain sense anarchists.

In a converse sense, however, they are the precise opposites of anarchists. How so?

(note that this is specifically al-Qaeda, in whatever sense it exists, that I’m speaking of, not any of the more successful and mainstream groups like Hamas or the Iranian government)

Anarchism could be defined either more broadly, as, 1, “opposition to authority and hierarchy in general”, or more narrowly, as, 2, “rejection of states” (compare socialism as “support for economic equality” vs. “rejection of private property”).

The typical anarchist would accept point 1., and therefore accept point 2. on that basis. What (at least one reading of) al-Qaeda’s ideology does is to invert this: they vigourously reject 1., and therefore accept 2. on that basis.

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Iranian Racist Accuses Israel of Racism: Western Racists Outraged

This isn’t really a post about racism, as much as one about the idea of an ‘artificial’ state. According to the Iranian state, Israel is “an artificial creation of the West”. It is an alien entity with no right to exist in Arab land.

Now this is, in a sense, true. Israel was created by a sort of ‘artifice’. But it applies equally to Iran and every other state in the region.

What would be a viable criterion of ‘artifice’ vs. ‘nature’ in the formation of political set-ups? As in many areas, we have to move away from external impressions, judgements of naturalness that come from looking at the region and feeling something – that it is ‘natural’ for Christians to live there but not Buddhists, Arabs but not Turks, theocracies but not secular dictatorships, etc. Everyone can give a different judgement of that, we would never be finished.

An objective criterion of artificial/natural would have to come from the experiences of the people involved. And I can think of no better criterion than violent/voluntary change. A political change that results from people doing what they themselves want to do is a natural change, while one that results from people being compelled to do what they don’t want to do by the threat or reality of violence is artificial. Do we not often speak of sudden unexpected events as ‘violent’?

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Machiavelli for Anarchists, Part 3 – Public and Private, Contracts of the Powerful and the Powerless

Machiavelli says in several places that it is important, in order to stay in power, that a ruler avoid being hated – and what this means in practice is quite unequivocal:

“It is perfectly possible to be feared without incurring hatred…if he refrains from laying hands on the property of his citizens and subjects, and on their women.”

Let’s consider what this means. One way to read it, a reading which has a certain ‘liberal’ flavour, is as saying ‘let people keep their own private, extra-political lives intact, and they will be content’. That is, it might be seen as recommending that the political realm be held back from interference in the ‘private’ sphere.

But this has a number of problems.

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Machiavelli for Anarchists, Part 2 – Tyranny, Republicanism, and the End of Radical Politics

Following on from Part 1 of this series, I want to suggest that Machiavelli’s work can be seen as grounded in a concern with the vigour and health of the republic, defined in a specific way. The way I want to use the word ‘republic’ here is centred around the idea of a collective agent: the political group conceived by analogy with the individual person, so that terms like ‘vigour’ and ‘health’ can be applied to it.

The key feature of persons that I want to consider is their goals and desires. Let us suppose that we have no problem with speaking of the interest or goals of a single individual. What then are the interests or goals of the group?

Well, the first notion to define is the simplest, what I’ll call the collective interest: which is simply the sum of the interests of all the individual members added together. But that will be diffuse and often contradictory, and so won’t produce much of the unity in action that characterises a person.

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Machiavelli for Anarchists, Part 1

Readers may be wondering what happened to the planned final post on Trotsky’s “Terrorism and Communism”. It was meant to be a consideration of the issue of methods, of how a revolutionary but non-state force could establish stability and security without employing the methods of their enemies.

But I never quite got much in the way of clarity on the issue, so I’ve decided that the intelligent thing to do is to throw something else on the compost-pile in the hope of cross-germination. The thing is question is Machiavelli, who famously wrote in very hard-headed terms about how to get and acquire power, and whose writings (if I recall correctly) were much studied by many revolutionaries. So this is the first of what will hopefully be a few posts containing random reflections touched off by reading “The Prince” and “The Discourses”.

I should note, by the way, that it’s not like I’m some kind of enthusiast for civil war. There are very few things worse than civil war. Nor do I think civil war necessarily inevitable in the transition to anarchist communism. I do consider ‘revolution’ inevitable, by which I mean, a struggle, in which the holders of power lose power against their will. But that could take any number of forms, which would call for any number of strategies.

The reason the issue of civil war concerns me is that it is in a sense the worst-case scenario, and hence the most appropriate ‘test’ for an ideology or body of thought: when events have led up to a situation such as that in Russia, or Spain, or Germany, in the inter-war period, and a certain territory is contested by two implacably opposed forces, neither of which can permit the other to win, and both of whom have supporters everywhere – then all the easy answers become hardest. And so I feel drawn to consider the issue of how an anarchist communist (feminist anti-racist vegan etc.) force in such a situation should proceed.

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