What is the state?

September 17, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

“The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine. It can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.” – M.K. Gandhi

When looking at the US government today, one can barely fathom the tiny government it started with. The US became such a powerful and destructive government by constantly enlarging the scope of its action. Since the beginning of the federation it has expanded, from the westward march of federal government jurisdiction to the cause of the Civil War: the president’s war on secession. All told, 50 states were incorporated into the union. Now the government controlled resources on an entire continent, like China and Russia. Once the land was conquered, the US government expanded its ability to capture the wealth and challenge the sovereignty of other countries. Sometimes it used trade agreements; sometimes it used guns. There were many civil liberties, and a productive free market, but as the economy grew, the state grew. That is the state’s purpose: to expand the power of those who control it. Liberty quietly slipped away.

Max Weber defined the state as that organisation that has 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 uses force and compulsion which it calls the rule of law. 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 in practice claims ownership of both (through, for instance, laws that tell you what you can and cannot put in your body). 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.


The state pursues petty criminals partly because they threaten the stability of the system the state has erected and the security of the wealthy, but also because it claims a monopoly of crime. Mafia organisations are even more dangerous, as they pose a more fundamental threat to the state as competitors for plunder and dominance.

I think it is fair to include any state-protected monopoly as part of the state. Monopolies are a large part of the problem. Monopolies tend to lead to abuse, and they destroy the wonderful benefits of spontaneous order. A monopoly is always held together by force, except in the rare case of companies like Standard Oil, which was so popular because it lowered the price of heating oil to a fraction of what it had been (and competitors—not customers—used the state to break it up). In a communist society or even just a freed market, monopolies cannot exist, at least, not for long.

Anarchy is, in fact, the destruction of monopoly. Nearly all monopolies are created by the state. Monopolies and oligopolies, whether on patented medicine, oil supplies or national security, are protected by law. The state thus gains a measure of control over the distorted market and the government works for those rich people it creates. The relationship is symbiotic. The Federal Reserve system is not technically part of the government but a cartel institutionalised by the state. By my definition, it is part of the state.

I also consider the people behind the scenes who pull the strings part of the state. For example, what might be called the US foreign-policy establishment is not merely members of the State and Defense Departments. It includes high-ranking businesspeople. Executives, directors and shareholders in large oil companies probably have far greater influence over the use of the US military than, say, a couple of senators taking stands against war. It includes the Council on Foreign Relations and other influential think tanks, academics and “consultants” (often retired officers) affiliated with those who craft US foreign policy. Intelligence agencies—and not only those in the US government—influence the process as well. Andrew J. Bacevich points out “‘Military-industrial complex’ no longer suffices to describe the congeries of interests profiting from and committed to preserving the national-security status quo.”

This is the world behind the curtain, detailed in the work of Bacevich, among others, that can be described as the permanent foreign-policy establishment. The faces of the state change, but the clear continuity of US foreign policy reflects the interests of those truly in power. The same is true, to one extent or another, for all areas the state attempts to control.

The state’s raison d’être has had different pretexts as times have changed. It was originally a tool for conquering and controlling territory around a kingdom. Social scientists studying the emergence of states note the state began with the divine right of kings: the sovereign, or totalitarian king, kept his subjects in awe of the wrath of gods. Franz Oppenheimer, in his sociological survey of the state, describes its origins.

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.

As European states grew in technological power, they spread outside Europe as overseas empires. The ambition of conquering and subjugating the weak had not ended. To demarcate their possessions, states drew lines on maps. Countries are only countries today because of the movements of empires. States are products of conquest. Borders are the geographic limits to the power of individual states. States owe their existence and their growth to war. That is why Randolph Bourne called war “the health of the state” and Charles Tilly said “war made the state and the state made war”.

An empire is simply the growth of a state beyond its previous borders. A look at the pre- and post-imperial world gives us no reason to believe that uninterrupted rule by indigenous elites would have been any better than by empires. The liberation of most of the world from the colonial yoke was heralded as a new era of freedom, but in most cases results were very disappointing. Government by locals and foreigners alike leaves the governed wide open to abuse.

Today, states are still about a monopoly of crime over a given territory, but the humanist direction of the moral evolution of society has demanded new functions of the state. Due in part to the pressure from anarcho-syndicalist unions and the supposed alternative to capitalism in the USSR, for example, Western states felt compelled to mitigate the worst aspects of capitalism and introduce the eight-hour work day, the five-day work week, breaks, vacation time, and so on. It is now expected that, since society is rich enough to afford education, housing, health care and so on for everyone, those things will be provided by the state, the organisation with the most resources. The only reason people believe the state is necessary for social programmes, scientific research, relations with other states and so on, is because it has taken on those functions. The state does not exist to provide social programmes; it provides social programmes so it can continue to exist.


The state is not about social programmes and emergency rescue. It is about domination, power over others. People who believe otherwise do not know how to think like the state.

Thinking like the state

What does the state want? In a word: power. Power could be defined simply as the ability to enforce one’s will on another. A further definition is the ability to carry out violence on another if necessary to get one’s way. An abusive husband and father is violence on a family level. The state threatens and employs violence on a local, national and global level.

Its power to carry out violence everywhere exists in the form of local, national and international police; armies, navies, air forces, spy drones, national guards and special branches; intelligence services, surveillance cameras, wiretapping, reading mail, reading email, reading instant messages and collecting data on everyone; and spy satellites in case you try to escape Earth without authorisation. The state has evolved from the small confines of localities to go global. It has a measure of power over us everywhere we go. Such power over so many concentrated in the hands of a few is dangerous.

The state is a monopoly on force, but the constant expansion of the state has led it to take on other monopolies over time. Modern states came to control land, the money supply, infrastructure and the security of the streets. As it has grown, the state has created new monopolies and oligopolies. Having a monopoly on the provision of law, it has created corporations, which relieve their owners and operators of responsibility; granted patents, enabling some of the biggest corporations, from Disney to the pharmaceutical giants, to attain their current size; and used complicated and unnecessary regulations, tax codes and barriers to foreign trade to prevent competition for the big players in the market. The state creates monopolies. Monopolies promote abuse, because they grant power and power corrupts.

Thinking like the state means understanding it expands its power in every direction by every means. If it can close a loophole enabling a citizen’s freedom, it does; if it can write a new one for its friends, it does. But instead of thinking like the state, most of us think the way we are told.

Thinking like the state wants us to

“The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion.” – Edward Bernays

“They don’t want a population capable of critical thinking. They want obedient workers, people just smart enough to run the machines and just dumb enough to passively accept their condition.” – George Carlin

An even subtler power is the state’s ability to shape our thinking. Through its control of primary and secondary education, its influence over tertiary education and the media, the state sets the agenda for what we are to think and believe. The prevailing norms of any statist society are those that benefit the ruling class, until that brief interval of revolution which, so far, has inevitably led back to statism. What kind of person does the state want to create?


The ideal citizen is one who believes he or she thinks for him or herself but does not. Our socialisation comes, to a great extent, from the state. The ruling class has certain ideas it benefits from: statism, nationalism, militarism, consumerism, fear, and to a lesser extent in today’s world, religion. We are surrounded by these ideas and bombarded with “evidence” they are correct. As such, we take so many things as given that we have considerable trouble thinking independently. But those who are told they are free believe it, while they fall in line with the orthodoxy of the ruling class without question. They come to love the symbols of the state: the flags, the uniforms, the songs, the slogans, the language of family, honour, duty and sacrifice. They come to think of them as representing the family of the nation, rather than the institutions of the state. They chastise those who go against the truth they have been given. How dare you question democracy? You are unpatriotic! As George Orwell said in 1984, “Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

On the other hand, people who do not follow conventions are bad citizens. H.L. Mencken described these people.

The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is apt to spread discontent among those who are.

The state exists to establish a social order that benefits the ruling class, protect that class and its property, expand its power and wealth wherever possible, fool the people it rules into believing this is all for their own good, and subdue those who do anything counter to its interests. I think we need more bad citizens and less state.

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