Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. – Lord Acton
Power kills. Absolute power kills absolutely. – RJ Rummel
Do you want to know what a sociopath looks like? Think of George W. Bush. Think of all the people he knew were killed due to his policies. Do you think he cared? Did you see him joking about finding weapons of mass destruction in front of the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2004? Do you think he had pangs of guilt later that night? I don’t think so. Sociopaths are people with no conscience. Many of those who have lost their consciences kill them over time by committing, ordering, approving or otherwise knowingly facilitate murder.
Psychopathy and sociopathy (in particular the so-called dark triad of narcissism, Machivellianism and sociopathy) broadly refer to the condition of having little or no conscience, no guilt, no feeling of responsibility, no ability to feel sympathy for others. Sociopaths lie, cheat, manipulate, intimidate, use violence for their own benefit and do not feel as though they have done something wrong. Some of them occupy positions of power in big business, politics, the bureaucracy and security agencies. Do you think that matters?
Are people born without consciences? Some might be, but environmental factors play a major role. Do you think we could reduce or eliminate some of the incentives to put aside one’s conscience? How might we do that?
Well, how did George take on the characteristics of a sociopath? Was he born that way? Possibly. Did his parents and his upbringing contribute? Probably somehow. But people in power usually kill their consciences over long periods. Few people are dropped into positions of considerable power. They climb to them over time. When Little George was still at university, he connected with other powerful people. He spent years in top positions in oil businesses. Did these roles teach him to control his conscience? When running for Governor of Texas he said he approved lowering the age of the death penalty to 14. If he was a full-blown sociopath by then (which he may have been), he could have signed the death warrants of a million 14-year-olds with no pangs of conscience. But even if he wasn’t yet, he had already begun to chip away at his conscience. He could simply tell himself killing teenagers was for the best for Texas, for “society” or for God and remain emotionally detached from any violence.
One reason soldiers commit suicide is because they can’t live with the guilt of killing people. George W. didn’t see a drop of anyone’s blood. He did the killing with strokes of the pen. His job was to shake hands and give speeches, not think. His PR people cultivated a highly likable image that made sense to enough voters. What are politicians but actors? He knew he would be rewarded for doing what other powerful people wanted him to do. If he ever felt ill at ease, he could always tell himself it’s all right, this is for the good either of others or of myself. But any excuse would do.
The more things they do they might otherwise have felt guilty about, the more cuts people make to their consciences. Soon, they simply don’t care about anyone but themselves. Now, consider how many millions of people around the world have power over us, from bureaucrats who can deny us permits and visas, to taxmen seizing what we worked for, to soldiers occupying our countries, to politicians who make it all official. This is the state, people. This is why your world has been so messed up for so long. They weren’t all born to be bad. This system sucked out their consciences like a leech. Its agents go through a process of learning to control any feelings of guilt by finding reasons to justify their decisions.
Actually, all of us justify hurtful actions sometimes. If we tell ourselves we did the right thing, we are more likely to do it again and with less guilt. But not all of us benefit from doing things that make us feel guilty or repressing that guilt. I can lie, but I might lose the trust of those I rely on. I might steal, but I might face all kinds of social penalties if I do, including jail. Having power means not needing to take responsibility. Indeed, unless there is a sufficiently large scandal and perhaps scapegoating (in a democracy) or rebellion, those in power are rewarded with more money and power. The most powerful in today’s world wield their power through the state.
The state is an instrument of concentrated force. The small minority who control the state can use it to build consensus for their plans or simply impose them without asking, but ultimately the choice is theirs. As long as the state and its precursors (pharaohs, kings, popes, and so on) have existed they have been a means of theft, whether by overt plunder, such as ransacking a town or enslaving people, defensive violence such as protecting large estates acquired by overt plunder, or covert plunder, such as taxation or economic policies. Working with the state, including trying to change it from within, inevitably means following the orders of those at the top of the pyramid to plunder the people.
Power feeds all the elements of the dark triad. The admiration and awe that come with power feed narcissism. As expert manipulators and ruthless competitors, Machiavellians benefit most from a competitive system. And sociopaths make decisions on impulse and take no responsibility for any harm they cause. The state’s monopoly on force shields all these people from consequences.
Any of us could walk the path to these disorders. We are not immune to knowingly hurting others for our own benefit, or in the name of some idea whose implications we do not understand but which we invoke to ourselves for the sake of assuaging our consciences. People have trouble resisting taking power over others when it is offered to them, or when they condition themselves to believe it is right. Concentrating and institutionalising power incentivises sociopathic behaviour. If we considered everyone equal and thus not deserving of power over others we could achieve a free society with far less violence and suffering.
It is hard to see how at any point in American history, whether it’s the Civil War, World War One, the Cold War or the War on Terror, it’s hard to see how these infringements on the right to dissent, infringements on basic civil liberties actually have any military value whatsoever. Does anybody think that Germany would have won World War One if Eugene Debs had been allowed to speak in the United States? Or is it really the case that we can’t allow people basic civil liberties, the right to a trial, the right to see the evidence against them, because otherwise Osama bin Laden is going to take over the world? – Eric Foner, professor at Columbia University and president of the American Historical Association
Necessity is the excuse for every infringement of human freedom. – William Pitt
Since its inception, the state has existed to make war. In this age of imagined liberty, some people expect certain rights. They believe, for instance, they have the right to say what they want on the internet without being targeted by law enforcement. But during war, the state does not permit rights. The age of imagined liberty is in fact the Age of Perpetual War. Along with fighting fabricated enemies abroad, the war has been expanded to the home front, and every dissenting group is targeted.
What Professor Foner does not point out is the actual reasons the state took away all our liberties during the various wars. Among others, dissent from the official line, especially loud, public dissent (such as that of Eugene Debs), undermines the state’s power to wage the war. The state, at all times but especially in war, desires uniformity of thought, as getting the masses to tow the official line enables the decision makers to do as they please. During the 1960s in the US, young people protested the war on Vietnam. The state cracked down on them violently for protesting, but dissent grew. What did Richard Nixon do? He declared war on his home-front detractors—not on demonstrations but on drugs. Smoking pot was common among those who opposed the war. Nixon found it politically useful to escalate violence by claiming marijuana would destroy the country, and not enough people defied him to reject his policy and humiliate him. Since Nixon’s resignation, other power-hungry people have given the War on Drugs a life of its own, with the purpose of attacking the lower classes or entire racial groups, as well as the politically unpopular.
Naturally, the US government’s attacks on dissent go back to its founding. Consider the Alien and Sedition Acts, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Wilson’s Espionage Act and his jailing of dissenters. But while those measures established the precedent that war would mean no freedom, they were temporary measures. Today, war is not meant to end, and freedom is not meant to return.
The War on Terror has been even more destructive of liberties. The Patriot Act and the NDAA instantly bring to mind the practices of torture and indefinite detention to anyone who has been paying attention. The US government has suspended the Bill of Rights and the Geneva Conventions indefinitely. The NSA’s extensive spy network and the drones over American skies—that’s 30,000 drones by 2020—ensure the state knows if you are violating any one of its millions of statutes. The police have been militarizing since 9/11 (or before, thanks to the War on Drugs), ostensibly to combat the miniscule terrorist threat but probably to prevent any kind of insurrection. The FBI uses blatant entrapment to jail and destroy the lives of otherwise innocent people for life under trumped-up charges and spread the lie that the terrorists are everywhere. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here) It has harassed activists its clients do not like, such as anarchists, Greenpeace, PETA and Antiwar.com. The state legitimizes its war on you by claiming it needs to defeat an enemy that exists largely in our imaginations—“the terrorists”. It has claimed complete control over you in its endless war. (See more here.)
The state’s unwitting accomplices in the legal war on freedom are the millions of Americans who never cease to yell at anyone who disagrees with what the military is doing. These people repeat the state’s line about the wars’ being about freedom and security and democracy, not realizing they have in fact got it backward. They believe the US as a nation (represented, of course, by the US government) has a divine purpose to spread these things around the world. Their job as loyal citizens is to lash out verbally (and sometimes physically – see here) at anyone who does not believe the gospel. (See this page for countless examples.)
As such, anyone who thanks soldiers for securing their freedom has it backwards. Soldiers make war possible, and war is the excuse to take away freedom. If soldiers want to fight for freedom, they can stop going to war.
“Anarchy is no guarantee that some people won’t kill, injure, kidnap, defraud or steal from others. Government is a guarantee that some will.” – Gustave de Molinari
The warning that, after the removal of government, gangs and warlords would take is not an argument for government; it is an argument against government. Government is not different from warlords. It is the result of the institutionalization of warlords as the formal rulers of a given territory. This argument might confuse some people, so allow me to explain.
Max Weber defined the state as that organisation with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given (national) territory. “Legitimate” here merely means legal, as actual legitimacy is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. That is why Albert Jay Nock countered Weber by saying the state “claims and exercises a monopoly of crime” over its territory. (Statism is the belief that this monopoly of crime is good or necessary.) David S. D’Amato explains its effect: “the state’s principal manner of acting is to make peaceful interactions crimes while protecting the institutional crime of ruling class elites.”
After all, what does the state do? It steals, but it calls its theft taxation. It kidnaps, but calls kidnapping arrest. It counterfeits, but refers to state counterfeiting as monetary policy. It commits murder on a wide scale, but prefers terms such as war and execution. The state claims to act to protect person and property, but paradoxically aggresses against person and property. It claims to protect freedom while taking it away. It claims to aid the less fortunate when in fact it benefits the powerful at the expense of everyone else. If I go to another country to kill people I do not know, I am a murderer. When the military does it, it is fighting terrorism and promoting democracy. This sleight of hand and clouding of truth is how the state manufactures legitimacy.
From a historical perspective, the purpose of the state is and has always been the same. Franz Oppenheimer explains.
The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors. No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner.
The warlords have already taken over. That is the problem.
At this point, those with some understanding of history point out such is the way of the world: states and empires constantly expand their power and attempt to conquer us all. But again, this claim is not an argument in favour of government. It is an admission that a monopoly on crime is wrong. Vocal opposition on moral grounds to states and empires can lead to resistance and revolution. If people understand why the state, the concentration of power and the monopoly on crime, are unnecessary and wrong, they can fight it. They can find ways to avoid paying taxes, avoid conscription and arrest, set up systems of mutual aid to become independent, and counteract the lies of the schools and the media.
Countries can still be invaded if the states do not comply with the empire of their time. A military is no guarantee of security. However, the difference between a state society and a free society is resistance is resistance is considered legitimate and necessary in the latter. Those who believe in freedom believe in the right to defend oneself against all oppressors by any means necessary without having to put on a uniform. Freedom must be defended by decentralised forces. People will need to fight the power or they will neither achieve nor maintain their freedom for long. But it is possible, and it is worth it.
Finally, we often run up against the claim that domination, hierarchy and elitism are part of our nature, which is why formalizing them is accepting the inevitable. It is unsurprising that we should hear this claim so often. Everyone in our society with a few years of schooling claims to understand human nature, and invokes it whenever defending the status quo. However, in my experience, most such claims reflect the thinking of the immediate world around the speaker. In other words, we believe what we have experienced reflects the whole range of human possibility. Looking more carefully through history, psychology and anthropology, however, we can find innumerable counter-examples. One need look no further than the history of the highland people of Southeast Asia (Zomia) for people who have consciously avoided domination and hierarchy for centuries.
My question to those who cite human nature as an excuse for domination is, should we not be allowed to resist and defend ourselves? Should we give up and submit to those who desire power over us? Yes, we would need numbers. Yes, we would need time. But if you recognise that warlordism and violence are wrong, why would you not support us? We should unite to fight all forms of warlords and replace them with freedom.
He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression. – Thomas Paine
If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all. – Noam Chomsky
Nowadays, everyone claims to believe in freedom. Most people, however, do not. This post aims to expose hypocrisy.
Total liberty would yield any number of predictable and unpredictable benefits. But not everyone is convinced. To them (thanks in part to Hobbes), we need a hegemon or overarching power to keep us in check. But why? We have spent most of our history either without rulers or trying to avoid being subjugated by them. Collective security emerges whenever it needs to. We are told history shows the more powerful and better organised militaries always triumph over the masses, which is basically true. That is not a reason to give up and accept our servitude. It is a call to help more people see through the lies and unite against the power that aims to enslave us. Working together we can stay both safe and free. It has happened before and can happen again with the right ideas.
Many who claim to favour freedom believe in strict gun control. How do we defend ourselves against tyranny of those who have all the guns without equal forces? Others say we need to limit immigration. These people believe either freedom should be reserved for those inside our political boundaries, or else it is simply untenable.
Those who advocate real freedom are frequently told they should move somewhere else (usually Somalia). It is clear those who say you should leave the place where you live in order do not believe you should be free where you are. The idea of secession is derided as untenable, which simply means those who want to try it are foolish. But if that were the only problem, people who care about free would still defend those who wished to secede. Instead, they are told they cannot, because, as the nationalist refrain goes, if you try to split my country I will kill you.
But the most hopeless cases are those who claim to defend freedom but in fact loathe it. I refer to soldiers and their supporters. Not all of them, of course; many have indeed seen through the lies and realise how much damage war causes. Too many, however, hold contradictory positions. Their claim is they defend freedom. While there is no actual evidence for this claim, let us assume it is true. Why, then, would they also continually tell the rest of us to stop criticising the wars and the troops? Why would they not encourage it as a sign freedom exists? They actually threaten us with violence, seeing no contradiction between this action and what they claim to have fought for. Their lack of logic, their utter incomprehension of freedom, their inability to see through the lies of the war and the elite that send them to war hold us all back. It is sad that the most well-meaning people, those who could be defending the people against the state, are doing exactly the opposite.
Thus we have the fairweather friends of freedom, those who speak freedom out of one side of their mouths and yet advocate authoritarianism in practice. The list of objections to freedom is endless, but it all amounts to the same: you cannot be trusted to govern yourself, therefore you need to be under the threat of violence at all times. I urge those who believe freedom must be limited to reconsider their positions based on the evidence. See the links above for more.
There is a widespread belief that security and freedom are incompatible. We have been told, especially since 9/11 and not just in the US, that the needs of security, meaning keeping us safe from non-state actors who want to do us harm, who are apparently everywhere, outweigh the luxuries of freedom. But security versus freedom is a false dichotomy. The truth is, the extent to which we are free is the extent to which we are at peace.
Some extremes on the opposite end of the spectrum of freedom are prison, slavery, and a surveillance or informant state that does not tolerate dissent or differences. There is neither peace nor freedom in these situations, as anyone is subject to mistreatment at the hands of his or her masters at any time. The claim that “if you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide” is wrong because people who have power do not always need what you would consider a good reason to use it. Ask people living in jail for selling drugs, or a slave. They are routinely subjected to whatever form of abuse because their bodies are constantly at someone else’s mercy.
A short way from the extreme opposite of freedom is a situation such as a city locked down after a panic. The presence of vehicles of war on the streets of Boston or Cairo following terrorist attacks is not a situation of security. In the case of Boston, ordinary people had guns thrust in their faces and their homes entered, which presumably inspired them with terror as intense as the bombing that just taken place. It is unlikely Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would have killed people if they had been allowed out of their homes, especially since if he had the people could have dealt with him themselves. In Egypt following the deposing of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, peaceful protesters were killed and arrested and a curfew was imposed. Police of every level of the security apparatus, including those in plainclothes and the spy agency, remain all over the city. We are all subject to arrest (or extortion) for looking suspicious or saying the wrong things. The threat of violence looms always just over our heads. And it is not clear how such state reaction prevented further terrorism.
Getting people to expect such state action and believe in it as a necessary way to restore security and freedom are part of the building blocks of the police state. We usually do not know about how power is wielded every day because of compliant media; alternatively, when we find out about what the powerful are up to, we are told why their actions were necessary and right, proportional and in self defense. When we accept this state of affairs it can happen more often.
There is a middle ground (though not at times of crisis) in which police can provide the people with general protection and not turn despotic. However, state security of any kind is necessarily unaccountable to the people and can be used by those with power for social control. Getting a group we do not belong to to protect us does not necessarily lead to protection from that group. We do not necessarily have this choice, because rule is imposed on us without our consent.
That is one danger in the idea of private-security firms. Private security is more likely to be accountable to us than the state is, because if they do not report us they will not get paid. Nonetheless, we must consider the fact that my employing a private-security firm does nothing to guarantee the security of the people around me. And yet, my security depends on those around me. Errico Malatesta put it thus.
Solidarity, that is, harmony of interests and sentiments, the sharing of each in the good of all, and of all in the good of each, is the state in which alone man can be true to his own nature, and attain to the highest development and happiness. It is the aim towards which human development tends. It is the one great principle, capable of reconciling all present antagonisms in society, otherwise irreconcilable. It causes the liberty of each to find not its limits, but its complement, the necessary condition of its continual existence–in the liberty of all.
He proceeds to quote Mikhail Bakunin.
No man can recognize his own human worth, nor in consequence realize his full development, if he does not recognize the worth of his fellow men, and in co-operation with them, realize his own development through them. No man can emancipate himself, unless at the same time he emancipates those around him. My freedom is the freedom of all; for I am not really free–free not only in thought, but in deed–if my freedom and my right do not find their confirmation and sanction in the liberty and right of all men my equals.
Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of the conditions under which we can realise our potential. If we seek peace, we need security not just for ourselves but for others. This belief may be demonstrated when a desperate or mentally ill man robs and attacks someone. We did nothing to help this person and we are all vulnerable as a result. It is even easier to see in an age when people who feel their lives and cultures are threatened can go around the world to plan and execute a terrorist attack on the heart of the entity they believe is threatening them.
Security for all means peace. Freedom for all means peace. They are not opposites. They are, in the end, the same.
If you want to understand why a coalition of states invaded Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, why drones are bombing people in a dozen countries and why Syria and Iran will probably be next, consider, as one reason, the logic of empire. Empires are always attempting to expand. For at least 20 years now, if not 50, people have been talking about the decline of the US empire. It’s not declining. It’s still expanding. But it’s a new kind of empire.
This empire does not consist solely of the US government. It includes considerable cooperation from other states. Contrary to what some realist scholars believe, states do not represent the people they rule over (and never have), but the elite of the given territory they rule. In recent decades, however, as legal regimes have converged and states have made it easier to make and move money across borders, the elite and their corporations have gone global. National and regional governments have become, to one degree or another, subordinate to this empire.
This empire is becoming less about the US than about multinational corporations and pliant states around the world. The UN and all affiliated organisations designed for global governance, aided in part by well-meaning non-governmental organisations, have spread constitutional and legal norms. Corporations now have the law (ie. words they have written to give them the use of hired guns) on their side when they repress and displace locals, whether kicking native people off their land in far-flung regions or tossing people out of foreclosed homes all over the US.
If states do not play by the rules of empire, they become targets for regime change. While the US is integral, as I mention elsewhere, this modern empire is not only about the US military but whichever militaries the elite want to use so they can enjoy a piece of the action. Look at how they carved up Iraq’s oil reserves. They went to oil giants from the most powerful countries, not just Shell, Exxon and BP, but the China National Petroleum Corporation, Japan Petroleum Exploration Co., the Korea Gas Corp, Malaysia’s Petronas, Turkish Petroleum International and Russia’s Lukoil and Gazprom. The conquerors auctioned off the oil in Iraq those who might otherwise have had the power to block future wars. Now that they profit from war, they are likely to support it more willingly in future.
Historically, all empires have declined and fallen. There are a variety of answers as to why. Suffice to say, we have it in our power to push this empire over the cliff of history as well. But it is not inevitable. The people of the world could eventually cave in, succumbing to the boot on their faces and accepting their enslavement. Most people do not even know what is going on. It is up to those who can see the system for what it is to show others. Resist. Disobey. Fight for freedom and justice. We can have it if we want it enough.