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On the Footsteps of Forgotten Saints

Where I and my partner currently live in Wales we have a lot of saints. So many in fact, that it seems impossible to walk down a street without tripping over a chapel, shrine, hermit’s cell, a holy well or a place where a saint worked, knelt, prayed, cried, or was generally displaying mutant super-powers. A testament to this is the Isle of Bardsey a little way north of us – called “the Home of 20,000 Saints” because it’s dirt is so stuffed full of their relics. As you may already know, one of my hobbies is being an amateur history nerd – and I am constantly fascinated by this intersection between history and mythology.

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A State of Disrepair

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.

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.

 

You Statist!

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 ‘ismsCentrism, 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.

 

Life Otherwise

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?

 

 

 

Further Thoughts on October

So… the ‘Soviet’ was originally a left-positioned constituent collective, rising out of the various revolutionary groups, factory- and soldiers’ committees who took to the streets in February 1917. This was an important distinction from the Provisional Government of the Duma, which was already in place previously as (supposedly) a democratic power between the citizens and the Tsar, and seen as a predominantly bourgeoisie power – even if they were a lot ‘lefter’ than we would normally think of as bourgeoisie in current terms.

So far so good, right?

This is where things start to get really confusing. Thank Crom that Mr. Mieville is writing a historical fiction book [kinda] what with all the various committees, executives, assemblies and party names I’m trying to get my head around!

The Dual Power phase of the Revolution between the Soviet assemblies and the Duma lasted for all of eight or nine months in total. Infighting and factionalism abounded, all set to the terrifying and tragic heartbeat of the First World War; more soldiers being requested to join the front, which in turn inspired “defencist”, anti-war arguments from the Soviet, but also national cohesion from the more right-leaning sections of society. An impossible situation.

Things start to boil in June-July when Petrograd/St. Petersburg infantry units refuse to go to the war and begin to advocate for a second, more robust military revolution to oust the Duma.

 

The Role of the Military

This is an important turning point, not that I am a historian; but it highlights a problem between radicalism and governance. The army has always been a highly controversial and key player in many radical gestures: Egypt and the Arab Spring notably, but also recently Zimbabwe and the ousting of Mugabe. We can only surmise what might have happened in Syria if the military had come out in favor of the protestors at the start of the Syrian War, rather than stayed allied with Assad, for example.

But it is, we must never forget; undesirable. People with guns shooting people – how is that a radical gesture, given that it is what human civilization has been doing ever since they invented them? In the Arab Spring for example, the military “saviors” of the people soon conducted their own crackdowns against the radical protestors. Here in our case study of 1917, we have the Petrograd Machine Gunners shouting that they will take their guns to the streets. Eurgh.

 

Soviet Statism

There is a quote somewhere that goes something like “the seeds of Stalinism where there from the beginning” which is a bit of an understatement, since Stalin himself was there from the beginning, pumping out editorial pieces as he repositioned himself for ever greater influence. But the “authoritarian” tendancies weren’t just coming from ‘old Joe. When Finland and the Ukraine tried to secede in those early days [a pertient point for today, in the case of Ukraine] both the Soviet and the Duma disagreed with their self-determination.

In these later stages of the Dual Power phrase we see the Soviet congress trying to manage it’s own rapidly growing fault lines along the more moderate-leaning Menshavik’s and the more left-leaning Bolsheviks [we all know how that one played out]. As well as these ideological splits and put-downs, they all faced the problems of governing such a vast landmass.

Personally I think there is a link behind both of these things: the dependence on the military by radical groups, and the rise of authoritarianism. That link I would call a kind of statist/centist approach. The Soviet and the Duma were trying to control “Mother Russia” and to do so, they wanted the bullets to stop any other dude wanting to do the same.

The Soviet assemblies were indeed a devolved power structure, with just about every village, workplace, cultural grouping having their own soviet committee to voice their concerns – but something must have been going wrong with that apparatus. People were still starving in the streets after the Revolution, criminal gangs were rampant. Famine wasn’t very far away, communities were in melt down – I can’t help but think that the direction of radical change was skewed in favor of “The Big State” rather than grassroots radical change.

Sure, it’s easy to say all this now, and I’m only highlighting that eight-or-nine month gap during which time everyone must have been running around like headless chickens. However, here is my point: unless the living conditions are changed for the citizen, and unless they are empowered in very real ways – collectively produce food, produce energy, not be in housing debt, reduce the reliance on capital – then how are either the Soviet or the Duma improving things?

 

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