How the state thrives
How does the state maintain itself? It is true that to some extent all states initially derive from conquest through devices such as war and land theft. However, once a state has been established, and once many generations have passed, it need not rely on such overt violence in order to maintain its rule. Instead, it relies on the mechanisms of propaganda, of buying out intellectuals and aristocrats within the public, and by providing bread and circuses. Ultimately, the most powerful factor keeping a state in place, once one has been established, is the compliance of the populace, driven fundamentally by ideology. For ideology is a far more dangerous weapon then any guns or bombs. The only thing truly keeping the state in place is the people’s ideological support for it and the state’s exploitation of any ideologies that they may adhere to.
This does not mean that everyone consents to the government. Indeed, people may have gripes with much of the various things that the government does. However, what keeps the state in place is ultimately people’s passive resignation to its existence and their ideological acceptance of the notion that there is a need for one in the first place. They may strongly disagree with many policies of the government, but they have simply been born into the system and have been given the impression since birth that the government is good, necessary and inevitable, and that the only alternative to its rule would be absolute chaos and destruction. For ideological support for the state is fundamentally based on the Hobbesian notion that human beings are inherently evil and conflicting when left to their own devices, and therefore they need to be ruled in order for their allegedly inherently chaotic natures to be kept in check.
In short, the state essentially dupes the bulk of the populace into believing that, despite whatever gripes they may have with it, they benefit from its rule. The state may bolster this impression by providing various public services, ranging from the essential to the trivial and things of mere entertainment-value. In ancient Rome, this took the form of gladiator’s arenas and aqueducts and booty for soldiers. Today it may take the form of anything from national healthcare to farm subsidies to federal funding for the arts. This gives the people the illusion that the state is benevolent and giving. Little do the people realise that they are only being given back a small portion of what was initially stolen from them and their ancestors.
The state is more maintainable when its subjects are dependant on it rather then self-reliant. A self-reliant citizen simply has no need to depend on the state for their well-being, and therefore the state has an incentive to create an institutional framework in which self-reliance is discouraged. Consequentially, the state has an interest in maintaining and expanding a class of people who are dependant on it for their very survival. This may be called the welfare class. The state may very well, both purposefully and by unintended consequences, bring about circumstances that lower people’s well being, therefore creating a reason for it to step in and provide relief and security.
In a sense the state thrives and grows based on a cycle of interventionism. That is, the state itself creates a problem, and then uses the problem as a reason to intervene to cure the problem and expand its powers, which then leads to more problems and the cycle keeps repeating itself. It may exploit the opportunity in order to blame the problem that it created on some inherent flaw in society so that the rulers can claim that the state’s power is all the more necessary in order to fix the problems of the people. Intervention breeds more intervention.
An important aspect of the maintenance of political rule is the collusion between private interests and the state. A small band of individuals from within the public receive special privileges from the state beyond what the average person can access in exchange for their services and loyalty to the state apparatus. This group forms an intellectual class of apologists for the state’s rule, who gain control over the flow of ideas within the society. It creates a symbiotic relationship by which private interests such as religious organisations, the media, businesses and unions gain patronage and protection in exchange for their political support. In medieval times this took the form of the union of church and state and the economic system of feudalism. Today it takes the form of the union of business and state, central banking and union cartels.
In order to thrive, it is important for the state to buy out the intellectuals within a society. For the most intellectual people possess the most potential to challenge its authority, so they must be brought to be on the side of its authority. As Thomas Jefferson very well was aware of, a well educated populace is the most dangerous thing to the state’s power. Therefore, the state tried to incorporate as many of the most educated people in a society as possible into its apparatus. Economists, scientists, inventors and technologists are all made as dependant on the state as possible and are employed by it to serve its purposes.
Critical to the state’s reliance on ideology for its support in modern times is the provision of public education. For public education provides the state with an indispensable means by which to control the ideas of the people. What better way to create a passively obedient populace then to control their education from birth? Indeed, in public schools children are essentially instilled with a sense of nationalism and are spoon-fed what amounts to fairy tales about their government and leaders from times past. The history and social studies books are predictably written to portray the government in a positive light, and any blunders the government may be responsible for are blamed on the people in some way. And this control even extends to college, where vocational priorities and opportunities are predetermined and professors are disproportionately biased.
The state’s control of the flow of ideas in a society of course does not stop once one graduates from school or finishes college. In our modern age it extends to the mass media. The state regulates the airwaves. In order to make it into the mainstream media business, one must be licensed, and with the licensing comes a load of requirements for fitting state-determined criteria for content and etiquette. While many countries may not have state control of the media to extent that a communist country in which the state literally runs the media itself does, the patronage between the private media business and the state, and the amount of regulation involved, produces a close enough effect.
There is a profound sense in which the state thrives on conflict. There are two ways in which this is true. On one hand, the state thrives by pitting the people against each other. On the other hand, the state thrives by uniting the people against a common and external enemy. In both cases, the main emotions to be exploited are fear and distrust. Rich are pitted against poor, labor is pitted against capital, religious is pitted against secular, nation is pitted against nation and ethnicities are pitted against each other. Pick any two opposing personal preferences and there is a potential conflict to be created by the state in exploiting them. Some of the conflict is over patronage with the state, while in other cases it is simply in the name of dominance. This encouragement of conflict functions as a distractionary device as well as a means to get people to support state power in the pursuit of such conflicts.
The state is constituted by self-interested individuals just like any other institution. These individuals have every reason in the world to try to maximise their own revenues. However, if a parasite sucks too much from its host, it eventually kills its host, and dies itself in turn. Therefore, some members of the state may try to maintain a balance by which they extract as much as possible from the people while still leaving them with enough to ensure that the plunder can continue. This is of course not to say that these individuals may be particularly good at calculating exactly where the cut-off point is, nor is it to say that there are not individuals who will recklessly try to extract as much as possible without any such considerations for sustenance.
Nonetheless, the master politician is he or she who is best able to determine where this point of balance lies. For plunder cannot be efficiently institutionalised unless it is made sustainable, and the state is the very incarnation of institutionalised plunder. It is a protection racket. The art of rule consists of finding ways to keep the plunder repetitive and sustainable. The common criminal pales in comparison to the common ruler. For while the common criminal may manage to plunder their victim once, it is doubtful that they will return to the same victim twice, let alone convince their victim that they are actually helping them and that they are a necessary part of the social order. But the successful ruler gets away with this, and much more.
How the state falls
Based on our understanding of how the state thrives, it behoves us to understand how the state falls. After all, there is no such thing as a permanent institution, and the state is not exempted from this fact. We live in a world of scarce resources with mortal beings and limited abilities. No matter how successful a state is at maintaining its rule, one day it eventually falls. One could very well think of it in terms of entropy in that all systems are ultimately reduced to their component parts. One way in which the state falls is merely by following its natural course, which is to say that it drains and damages the source of its supply to the point where it cannot thrive any longer. In a sense, all states seal their own fates by setting up economic conditions that eventually render them helpless. For there are many unintended consequences to the economic meddling that is required to maintain the existence of a state.
Viewed another way, there is a certain social evolutionary inertia at work that makes state control harder and harder to maintain over time. As technology improves and as information spreads and complexifies, it becomes harder and harder for the state to adequately plan anything and the market itself starts to provide functions more efficiently and more cheaply then the state can manage to. The state’s provision of services starts to become progressively obsolete over time. No matter what a state may do to try to control a market, the market has its own inertia and a dynamically self-correcting nature that defies all attempts to control it. And as the amount of information in a society intensifies, the ability of a state to control public opinion and the prospects for power remaining centralised decreases.
There comes a certain point where the exploitive nature of the state becomes blatantly obvious to the public at large and the possibility of revolution enters the horizon. The instinct of people to be free can only be bottled up for so long. And information cannot be suppressed completely or eternally. Violent revolution is of course not the only possibility for the fall of states, and it is probably the most risky route that can be taken. But wether violent or not, some sort of rebellion becomes inevitable after a point. Iron curtains cannot be kept in place infinitely. Artificial divisions cannot be indefinitely maintained. Prohibitions can be defied almost as if they didn’t exist at all. With enough effort, taxes can be resisted and avoided.
If we accept the premise that the state is fundamentally kept in place by ideology and passive resignation, another way by which the state may fall is by the mass withdrawal of consent by the populace. Mass civil disobedience has proven to be a surpassingly effective strategy for change in many instances. For as soon as people stop believing in the state, it essentially disappears unless its members wish to resort to overt violence. And if it tries to resort to overt violence in order to maintain its rule, it risks delegitimising itself even more in the eyes of the populace and facing what amounts to a domestic insurgency of the people, which can be a very tough thing to beat in battle. Civil war and domestic insurgency is hardly a desirable state of affairs for the members of the state.
The withdrawal of consent can also be manifested in terms of competition, even on black and grey markets. If people want to avoid the state schools, they may try resorting to home schooling or private and alternate methods of schooling. If people want to avoid the mainstream media, they may try opening up alternative media organisations and using the internet. If people are displeased with the government’s courts, they may start resorting to private arbitration. If people are displeased with the police, they may start relying more on self-defence, engaging in limited forms of vigilantism or even opening and patronising alternative institutions for defensive purposes. If people resent ridiculous and archaic laws enough, they may simply start defying them in mass.
Never underestimate the power of a massive withdrawal of consent. It can potentially grind a political system to a halt within days, much in the same way that a massive enough boycott can eventually drive a company out of business. A business cannot survive without customers. And a state cannot survive without participants and dependants. It would be an interesting scenario indeed if on one election day no one showed up at the ballot box, or if large numbers of people decided to simply stop filling out their tax forms, or if soldiers and policemen and bureaucrats simply quit in mass. What a quagmire that would be for the top dogs!
For rulers are reduced to nothing but feeble individuals as soon as obedience is simply denied to them outright and in mass. They only constitute a tiny portion of society. They most borrow the eyes, ears and labor of their subjects to maintain their power. The lone ruler is truly powerless without the complicity of people willing to enforce their will for them. They do not directly enforce anything themselves or pay for anything out of their own pocketbooks. They are quite cowardly individuals. They do not fight their wars themselves. They do not do the paperwork themselves. They do not patrol the streets themselves. They have no more power over you then that which you lend to them by joining their ranks and directly participating in their institutional framework.
And therefore the key to dismantling their power is to simply stop participating in it.
Make use of the following additional resources to expand knowledge and understanding of the topic covered in this unit.
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