Anarchist Concepts 2: The State

“Surely” the reader might think “everyone who knows anything about anarchism must know what the state is, after all, whatever the central tenets of anarchism are, one must be the rejection of the state.” You’d be right to some degree, to be an anarchist you’ve got to have some sort of theory of the state. However there are grades of understanding, and “the state” is nowhere near as simple as it first appears.

The definition I like is that states are bodies composed of a minority of a society, which claims the right to direct the common affairs of that society. We’ll use that as a working definition. Note that this definition is mine alone I’ll leave it up to you if you like it, it doesn’t reflect any kind of anarchist consensus.

Within the anarchist movement tremendous debates about what kinds of organisation are suitable post revolution, and what are simply states by another name. While some have argued that such debates are frivolous given how far we are away from revolution, they have became very real in situations where anti-authoritarians have gained any measure of influence, from Barcelona, to the Ukraine, to the Chapias in Mexico.

To what extent do humans need some kind of administration of their common affairs, and before global revolution can be achieved, their defence? What methods meet these needs without falling into the trap of merely creating another state? Are elections always bad, or can they be acceptable, on a limited basis for specific purposes and a fixed time (i.e. the election of a shopfloor foreman). At what point does a society stop being anarchic and become a state?

Especially in an industrial society, there is much to be administered. Further, the range of public administration would expand immeasurably if capitalism were abolished. Presumably not every single decision can be made of a general assembly of the entire local assembly, so what methods are acceptable? Some anarchists answer that the common administration of things is not necessary, but it’s difficult to see how this approach could be achieved while maintaining industrial civilization*.

There are endless models for dealing with these problems. One I’ve particularly fond of is sortition, selecting committees to deal with particular questions of planning, justice and the like by lot of the whole people, and for a limited time. This prevents the formation of a parasitic political class without turning life into one long meeting for everyone. No doubt this would be supplemented by general assemblies for major decisions.

The point is not that this particular model is the best, but that this is one answer among very many to a real and interesting problem. While thinking about how things will be organised come the revolution might seem like a bit of a wank, I think it’s quite important. When things happen, things will happen fast. While the phrase “I reject the state” might seem to answer all questions of political form, it leaves two critical questions unanswered what is a state? And what alternative forms are acceptable? Without becoming fixated on it, I’d urge you to give these questions a bit of thought.


*Of course some of these anarchists quite like the idea of abolishing industrial civilization so this presents no barrier. For those of us that are sane though, the thought of losing penicillin in exchange for anarchy is galling.


About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
This entry was posted in Anarchist concepts series, Political & far left theory. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Anarchist Concepts 2: The State

  1. James says:

    Hi Tim,

    Nice article.

    Those questions you consider here are ones I have thought about a bit, especially in response to self-described ‘anarchists’ acquaintances of mine who often recite the mantra: ‘I reject the state’. I regularly find myself frustrated with such folk when it comes to their vision for alternative forms of administration. While I appreciate the questioning of authority and critiques of abusive power that ‘anarchists’ often do, I feel as though there is a ‘cop out’ (pardon the pun) aspect to (many of) their positions. An alternative vision is rarely forthcoming (‘the Spanish Civil War, stupid’ aside) and so I am often skeptical of what seems to be a self-righteous, ideologically purist position with respect to many political problems. Perhaps I have just not liased enough with anarchists such as yourself who have a go thinking this stuff through.

    The ‘sortition idea’ seems like a promising form of alternative administration to me. A friend recently suggested that organising our student unions on this basis would probably constitute a significant improvement from the current situation of dominance by the parasitic hackery class (read ALP students). And yes, complimented by general assemblies for major decisions. I guess there are technical questions there as to how you would organise the sortition so that it was reasonably representative etc.

    Concerning a theory/working definition of ‘the state’. I like Ibn Khaldun’s notion, shared by Adam Smith it seems, which suggests that the state is just like a non-myopic bandit who has settled more or less permanently in a particular place and established a reciprocal, ongoing relationship with the people it threatens. The idea is that ‘in the beginning’ bandits roamed the countryside looting communities of their material wealth in order to sustain themselves; that eventually some bandits and communities began to develop a bit of foresight and realise that it would be easier to just keep one bandit in the community on an ongoing basis, so long as the bandit did not take too much so that the people would perish, but just enough so that they could each sustain themselves. In return for ‘pillaging’ a part of the people’s produce, the bandit would defend the community from other (roaming) bandits. Bit more long winded than your definition, but works for me…

  2. Note though that Ibn’s definition and mine are not dissonant (though as a matter of fact I tend to disagree with him). His is a theory of the state, as well as it’s history, whereas mine is more purely definitional.

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