Since Thomas More first published his book ‘Utopia’ in 1516, people have used the word ‘utopia’ to mean an ideal society where all the problems of real societies magically disappear. From Proudhon to Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman, DeCleyre, Stirner, Ba Jin, Newton, and LeGuin; left-libertarian writers throughout history have devoted at least as much ink to visions of better possible worlds as they have to the ills of this one. Along those lines, I’d like to lay out some of my ideas for what an ideal society might look like.
First though, we have to talk about some of the social institutions that are commonly taken for granted, but which are actually deeply problematic. The first among these is the State – an institution that has its origins with the Treaty of Westpalia in 1648, but has since become so hegemonic that many people assume it must have always existed and that nothing else can exist. In reality, States, and nation-states in particular, are very recent inventions. In fact, the history of the State and the rise of capitalism and corporations is deeply intertwined. That history could fill many books so I won’t get too deep into it here, but it’s worth at least examining what the State is.
Let’s talk about the State
First thing is that we’re not talking about US States like California, Michigan, New York, etc; we’re talking about Nation-states like the US, Germany, China, etc. The classic definition of a state dates to Max Weber, who defined it as a social institution that has a “monopoly of the legitimate use of force” within a specific area.
Feudal systems were not States because multiple actors – from the nobility to the church to others – could use force and have it be considered legitimate. The same goes for the Romans, Phoenicians, and other classical empires. Westphalia changed all of that by defining – via a treaty between the Catholic Church and the various western powers – that from that point on the sovereigns of Europe and their agents would be the only ones legally allowed to use force within each of those State’s claimed borders, and that all use of force by those agents within the State’s borders would be considered legitimate. So It didn’t matter if the king of france also had a feudal claim to lands in England, within England the English king was supreme. It was essentially a non-aggression pact between the ruling elite, and it paved the way for trans-national capital, the rise of capitalism, and the entire european imperialist project.
We’ve since traded sovereign kings for more or less “democratic” forms, but otherwise the system remains largely unchanged. Within the borders claimed by a State, only that State (the power structure at the top) is allowed to use force (violence) and all force used by that State is automatically considered legitimate by default. All State power is based on this use of force, and police and militaries are the means by which it is carried out.
As an aside, if and when the populace decides that the State’s use of force is NOT legitimate, the state will collapse or be overthrown. This is true even for States that operate based on fear – they inevitably invoke “stability” to lend legitimacy to their terrorism. Whether that succeeds or not is up to the people they are terrorizing.
Now that we understand what the State is, let’s look at how it operates.
Nowadays Kings may have largely been left behind, but the fact that State power is based on a minority using the threat of ‘legitimate’ violence to enforce its will puts sharp limits on how democratic the State can ever truly be.
A critical thing to understand here is that the center of power under capitalism is no longer the state, it is the corporate boardroom. Just as Kings were ultimately beholden to the feudal lords that supported them, Capitalist States are beholden to the economic powers that be. The State is not the center of power, it is a tool by which elites exercise and maintain their power. The popular justification for the State may be ideologically based, wealth based, or a combination of the three; but it’s always a smoke screen. That might be a capitalist elite, a party elite as happened in the USSR, or a class of “socialist” billionaires as in China; but at the end of the day States always serve elites.
Marx’s class analysis is useful, but his flawed analysis of the State is where Marxism falls down. Dictatorship of the Proletariat – a State run by the working class – is a logical impossibility because the very structure of the State requires a small decisive group at the top to function. At most you might have a dictatorship in the name of the proletariat. The difference between a totalitarian State and a nominally democratic one come down to differences in the ruling coalition and how the State maintains its legitimacy, but the State apparatus itself is virtually identical.
Serving elites means that the interests of the State and the interests of the working class are fundamentally opposed. Making the State the vehicle for change means that when the two come into conflict, statists have to choose between preserving the State and thus their own power or siding with the populace. They will always choose the State because no ruling minority will ever give up power voluntarily. This is how revolutions become counter-revolutions, and it is why marxism always fails. In those incredibly rare cases where the people who control a State choose to prioritize the interests of the State, the State fails – as the USSR did when Gorbachev decided not to roll tanks on the people protesting to keep socialism but abolish the dictatorship.
The requirement that the interests of the State always be prioritized is also why States are so incredibly bad at maintaining the rule of law – in practice laws that restrict the behavior of the elites who control them are virtually never enforced.
That’s worth re-stating: while States are nominally the guarantor of law and order – in reality they are consistently lawless because criminal behavior by the ruling elite is legitimized by the fact that it was done on behalf of the State. This is true to varying degrees for every State in human history.
This is precisely what is happening every time police in the white supremacist American settler state murder people of color and are not prosecuted. Because they are agents of the State, their violence is assumed to be legitimate by default, and anyone protesting that violence is de-facto challenging the legitimacy of the State, which is why they are being met with such extreme brutality.
If we understand that the most basic “natural law” in every society is that killing people is immoral, we must recognize that the core power and legitimacy of the State rests on its ability to declare an immoral act to be moral; and to threaten enough violence against anyone who might object that no one dares challenge the crime.
- The State is a recent social institution and is less than 400 years old
- States and Capitalism originated at the same time and enabled each other’s rise
- The State is always run by a minority and its power is based on its monopoly on the use of legitimate force
- Because of that monopoly, all use of the force by the State is considered legitimate by default
- While States regularly govern using laws, they are never bound by laws – in fact the power of the state is dependent on the States ability to break the laws and let its agents break the laws with impunity.
- Attempting to use the State as an agent of popular liberation is counter-productive at best because the State must disempower the vast majority of people in order to function. Its existence creates a division between the people to be governed and the people doing the governing.
- Revolutionaries who seize the State and attempt to use it to re-shape society will find that the State re-shapes them based on its own logic instead.