George Walford: Editorial (64)

South Africa, Afghanistan, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and even once-mighty Russia; the states have been taking a pounding. In our more optimistic or pessimistic moments (according to ideology) we may even find ourselves contemplating the end of the institution.

Orthodox anarchists tell us that our troubles come from the state. Get rid of it, with the capitalism it supports, and people will happily relax into a natural way of living, producing only what they need. The anarcho-capitalists (aka Libertarians) also hold the state responsible for our troubles. Get rid of it; then capitalism and the market will forge ahead, bringing all of us more goods than ever before.

Strong as the modern state may seem, when any substantial part of the people turn hostile it loses much of its power. This has happened repeatedly in recent decades, but nowhere has the effective opposition come from an anarchist movement (of either type), and nowhere has it brought freedom to either the people or the market. New and worse interferences have replaced the old, with the only solution the return of the state. Weakening of the state, by itself, does not bring an advance to a new and better way of life; rather a regression towards something like feudalism, with larger numbers of smaller and more combative power-centres.

War, oppression, violence and extortion all appeared before the state had been invented. This institution, with its claim to a monopoly of social force, is less a cause of these practices than an instrument, partly effective, for restraining them. When it weakens they start to return, sometimes as spreading corruption and small-scale violence, sometimes as skirmishes, or even full-scale battles, between factions divided on ethnic or other grounds. The anarchists (of both types) and the liberals, socialists and communists too, find themselves worse off. They lose the degree of security, and of freedom to operate, that they enjoyed under the firmly-established state. (The Bolsheviks, never secure, treated their dissidents more harshly than the Tsars ever did).

Are we then committed to the state as it is? Before sinking back in resignation, let us think for a moment just how it is. Accepting, in substance if not in every detail, the charges its opponents bring against it, we have to add another feature. Although the state cannot be abolished, or greatly weakened, without consequences most of us find unacceptable, it can be pushed around.

The state cannot maintain itself against the general body of the people, or impose its will upon them by force. It relies upon consensus and has to do whatever is required to maintain that condition. (Democracy is the formal recognition of this, a way of avoiding any need for repeated demonstrations of it). The Roman state did not provide the plebs with bread and circuses out of the goodness of its heart and the British state did not put an end to slavery, the ten-hour working day, the exploitation of children or the Poll Tax out of kindness for the victims. The state has no feelings, it goes where pushed, and the power to push goes mainly by numbers. Nearly always, the largest single group remains indifferent, adapting itself to things as they are, and this means that an overall majority of the electorate is seldom required to shift the state. In all the British instances named, an active minority (though a large one) carried the day.

If people, groups or movements want the state to behave differently, it is up to them to arouse the needed support. When the South African liberals and black activists, working under the conditions imposed by Apartheid, can bring their state to heel, the citizens of the Western democracies are not likely to have much trouble. This, of course, provided the people, or some large, active, part of them, do want to alter the way the state behaves. They have not yet indicated such a desire.

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from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.