Okay, so it seems that this humble writers’ marginalia [paraphernalia, more like; maybe even ephemera while we’re at it] has turned into a theory blog. Whoops. Maybe someone will offer me that grad funding if I keep on waffling…
What Even Am State-ness?
It occurs to me that I throw a lot of terms around with all the abandon of autumn mulch, and some people may take offense at how liberally I sprinkle them. So here we go with one of the terms which I think requires a little more clarity.
Statism, statist, state-supporter, is a pejorative usually found in anarchic writings. It’s used to indicate the authoritarian power structures that can hide in plain sight, in the architecture of the bureaucracy itself. That is an important point, but we’ll get to that…
Let’s start at the top: A “state” then, is shorthand for nation-state, as described along Westphalian lines (that every nation-state has supreme sovereignty over its territories). The “state” as a structure is the final arbiter of law and order, rights and punishments, health and welfare, defense, economy and so on. A state can be representative, democratic, or anywhere along the sliding scale to despotic and totalitarian.
Care should be taken to note that we are talking about state, not society, or culture – although as we will see – there is a lot of symbiotic overlap, right? In reality all three terms bleed into each other; the state encourages societal categories, society can be a product of culture… But for our analysis we are just considering the bureaucracy of the state apparatus, not the sociological groupings within, or the ideologies/customs/beliefs of the various cultures.
In the last blog post we talked about how the Soviet started to take a more “statist” approach during the Dual Power phase of 1917. Why is this a bad move? The anarch critique of the state comprises of 4 key ‘isms: Centrism, Reductionism, Quietism, & Authoritarianism.
Centrism is the notion that for the state to function, it necessarily seeks to reduce complexity and centralize all local, regional, or any other sort of power to the core law-makers, policy chiefs, monarchs, what have you. This is as much an organic process as it might be a motivated one, as it is easier for the state to gather power to one place, person, or building than it is to listen to the demands of all of its citizens. Why is Centrism a bad thing – sounds like a great way to save on dead-tree paper, right?
Well… one of the problems is that centralization of power leads to the creation of elites. Like moths to a flame, it draws the power-hungry to itself, and, because it is self-maintaining it creates “cultures” of power-brokers. Just think about the Westminster Bubble, and the fact that most of the highest-ranking parliamentarians have overwhelmingly come from an Eton-Oxbridge-Public School system. In the later years of the Soviet Party (TM) we see all opposition to “the Party” as a central authority being disallowed. Centrism also directly leads to the next problem:
Reductionism. I think of this as a kind of coded-in-the-mainframe ignorance; as soon as the state makes a decree, then there will be exceptions to that rule – life is nothing if not complex and changeable, right? But the central authority of the state has to either ignore the detail of lives for it to be effective on a grand scale… Or it has to legislate every possible minutiae. All states try to do a bit of both, to varying degrees of success. This may seem like a philosophical point but it has real ramifications: in the UK we are seeing families penniless and at risk of homelessness over Christmas because of the role-out of Universal Credit – the situations of their lives has to fit that state schema.
Reductionism becomes even worse when we consider the metrics which a state uses to measure itself: functionalist GDP, economic health, crime figures, burden of disease, population growth; statistics, categories, and more statistics, rather than the life-stories of citizens; or the things we might think are important: happiness, kinship, recognition, environmental security, peace.
In short, reductionism is a factor that stifles the “life-otherwise” of a person.
Quietism is perhaps the anarch’s most keenly felt criticism of statism. It is the essential letting-go of personal involvement and responsibility in our own lives (and the wider world) to let the apparatus of the state “sort it out”. People starving in Africa? State aid. Homeless dude in the town centre? State aid. Old people freezing alone in their homes over winter? State aid. Don’t get involved with that challenging situation ~ that is what the state is for, right?
This criticism is important because it differentiates the anarch from say, the capitalism of Ayn Rand [shivers]. The anarch seeks to overcome the despair and hand-washing of the “powerless citizen” and instead advocates a robust ethic of personal responsibility and solidarity with ones fellows. Who is going to look after each other? We are.
Authoritarianism. This is where the state can become ever more forceful – even draconian – in its influence it has over a citizen’s life, relying on the fact that at the end of the day, the state has assumed the absolute moral, legal, and physical authority.
In the final analysis, all of the four ‘isms above leads to the disempowerment and disillusion of the individual. Their life-choices might become more limited, and their dreams more stunted than they otherwise could be. This “otherwise” is an important point: what is your real life, the anarch might ask. Is it your profession? The fact that you are a mother, a father, a good friend? How many people do we know who might say something like “I am a painter, but I’m working at the 7/11 while I pay off my debts.”
These ‘isms are why an anarch opposes ‘statist’ moves, and instead encourages more direct change at that grassroots level, encouraging that “otherwise life” of the individual to blossom.
Obviously, there is a lot of room for maneuver in this debate, and real life is always a balancing act of emphasis. There are lots of different versions of- and alternatives to- the way that a state is organized. But the anarch critique still has value for us today I think: it asks us to examine where power comes from, who is holding it, and what ‘real’ power would look like. Is power devolved and directed downward, or up?