Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The State as Violence

In the past few weeks I have been revisiting thoughts about the inherently violent nature of the state.

In so doing I have re-read a few classical thinkers who some may describe as anarchist who contest the very nature of the state and the contradictory impulse to seek order through violence or at the very least, the threat of force.

One such classical thinker is Leo Tolstoy. Though Tolstoy never described himself as an anarchist his resistance to the state and its layered class/race oppression is a staple of anarchist thought.

Last night I read parts of his "The Kingdom of God is within you" (1894) and it inevitably made me think of the respect that Gandhi had for Tolstoy especially where it concerned notions of passive resistance.

I want, however, to spend more time in thinking through the notion of the state as a purveyor of inevitable violence. The reason for this needs little explaining since the evolution of the state has not decreased the tendency toward violence but in fact it has increased the intensity of violence.

More people have died at the hands of those who direct the state and its interests than can be reasonably said to have died before the invention of the state.

I came across this quote from Tolstoy and it made me stop to think about the sense/reason we construct to protect the state; the lengths to which we will go to hold onto the disorder it foments:
"The greater the state, the more wrong and cruel its patriotism, and the greater is the sum of suffering upon which its power is founded."
American patriots come to mind when I read this but it does not stop there in its exacting deconstruction. In the name of the state we will kill, pillage, and just about destroy anything because it is for the mother/father land.

What absolute nonsense.

In a sense the state desensitizes our humanity. Or rather, the state disfigures our humanity. For its reason we will build walls to keep out undesirable folks who are seeking to escape their suffering.

And in so doing the matter as described by Realpolitik thinkers is that it is about interests and the quest to survive.

Whose interests is the question that comes to mind. A question that has popped into my head ever since my early undergraduate days as I worked through international political theory.

Who is this association of men and women who come to describe and prescribe the need and means toward survival? What are they afraid of?

Tolstoy answers some of this when he says
"Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us."
Absolutely. I have come to see the sense in this assertion over years of trying to answer the questions I pose above. They are not profound questions but they press a realization that what we have is unworkable.

So what to do?

Tolstoy arrived at this thinking:
"We must not only cease our present desire for the growth of the state, but we must desire its decrease, its weakening."
I think he was absolutely right and it remains so today. The state is a mere cauldron for the violent and oppressive interests of elites and their attachments. The imbalance we live as a result is not a mere dysfunction that can be fixed through more policy wonks and throwing money at consultants and the like.

The dysfunction is a strategy of condemnation that permanently ascribes the masses to lives without safety and worse, without meaning.

What is needed is more than just decentralization. Such policies are merely cosmetic delusions.

We need an entirely new drug though it is somewhat ironic that the new we need is to be found in the old wisdom of seeking balance and living inside our surroundings and not on top of it (call me Taoist if you must).

Like Tolstoy, Gandhi, Albert Luthuli, and Dr. King, among others, the need to erase the state as the contraption that deceives us into perpetual oppression is balanced by the need to find faith or meaning to live.

The meaning I speak of need not be formal religion - for even Tolstoy railed against the oppression of the formal or official church.

In a sense I return to the sense of the existentialists who press us to deal with the absurdity of life by living with meaning - and as Albert Camus emphasized to live so through militant engagement without ever needing to take a life.

And it is perhaps at this junction that I have returned to a sense of belonging I gave up on in years of anger and misguided militancy.

It is not enough to want the end of the state if one does not desire the end of violence in all spheres of human existence.

War or any kind of violence is never a victory - it is in effect a defeat. There can be no glory in the blood of others.

Tolstoy and Gandhi moved the non-violent marker even further to insist that eating flesh is wrong, even immoral. Tolstoy writes:
"A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite."
I have struggled with this aspect of my return to passive resistance and non-violence. I have no excuse though - it is my "appetite" to eat meat and not anything else that keeps me from being totally vegetarian.

The other part of seeking balance is addressing the hurt that has come as a result of my actions over the years of my life.

A few years ago somewhere in Malaysia I decided that I would do my level best not to hurt folks intentionally. I also thought it important to reach out to those who I hurt and apologize. The Qur'an teaches that making a sincere apology is a first step toward divine forgiveness.

I tried. But life is complex hey. I don't think we can ever not cause pain/hurt to those folks around us. And truthfully there are a few people I have not sought out, one in particular, who deserves my apology and my forgiveness too.

For Tolstoy the road toward balance was about promoting a view of Christianity as a "theory of life" and not a formal religion filled with folks who look like governments in charge of states.

The parallel between his resistance to the disorder of the state and the disorder of official-church Christianity is striking.

It brings me to one final thought and it is about the need to march toward universal freedom. I am just about convinced now that there will never be freedom inside of associations that create hierarchies for the supposed purpose of order.

To be free we must act militantly to remove the imposed shackles that Rousseau described but failed to resist in his theories toward a social compact.

There can be no freedom inside of order drawn from artificial associations like the state or official religions.

To be free we must return to the balance imposed by nature - as it stands now so much of what we are stands in absolute contradiction to nature.

And we are not free.



Bill said...

You're one of the very few "bloggers" I read for whom the broader political questions always come down to personal interactions, and vice versa. It's how it should be.

You get to the point right at the end, and I'll echo you in the language I've used to help myself understand it. The limits imposed by nature to which you refer are precisely the contours of who we are as people. 95% of our existence as a species, chronologically, was in small, "hunter-gatherer" groups. We are not wired for complex societies, and states, to us, are not only inherently violent but inherently foreign.

We are designed, or developed if you prefer, to know more or less everyone we see intimately. We are not prepared for social isolation. Crowds are inherently anti-human. We need to be surrounded by living things. We don't farm out our violence to others so we don't have to experience the pain of having hurt someone. This is of course, our "human" nature, completely at odds with the demands of modern capitalism.

A starting point is to do what you're doing: note that settler colonies are not natural, that states by design work against us as people, and then try to be straight in your personal dealings.

Ridwan said...

Hi Bill:

Thank you kindly for your comment and for adding complexity/nuance to my post.

I was struck by the manner that you capture the alienation of so called 'modern life' inside the crowd.

It made me think/remember just how invisible one can be inside of 'modern life' (the crowd) ... which often leads to an unending pursuit of finding oneself or meaning.

Also, your point of farming out violence is insightful and instructive.

Many folks are OK with the wars to keep the state intact yet would fall apart if they were asked to pull the actual trigger.

Your point presses the greater alienation that has been forced on us and is as you say, not natural.

After I finished my post it occurred to me that I offer no thoughts on a way out.

I became slightly anxious as the mirror in my head clouded somewhat when I thought that unraveling the oppression of so called 'civilization' will need great momentum or perhaps it will just be brought by an inevitable collapse.

Here in South Africa many folks are just coming to terms with the realization that the supposed revolution so many gave their lives to led to no more than a state that has reinforced inequality for most and privilege for a few.

The notions of equality have been laid bare as elsewhere as fat cats reinvent their grip on power.

And the effect/outcome is as you say: "the state works against us people".

It is little wonder that folks everywhere are more lost now than ever - this despite all the so call advances that should make us more secure.

But we are not - and we are not free hey.

Thanks once again for reading here and adding a very valued comment.

I have already started to read some over your spot.

Peace to you Bill.


Pstonie said...

I have been toiling on these things also, and I agree completely.

The solution I came up with (with help or subtle indoctrination) is that we should organise ourselves into micro states. Any person can only know a few hundred people, so that would set the limit. Theoretically, that would enable everyone to know whether their leaders deserved the trust that leaders receive, since currently we only have PR to try and make that determination. I was schooled recently though, when it became clear (within a gated community) that even if the extent of the leader's bastardry and thieving is well-known, even if it's a 100-meter walk to where that bastard lives, everyone simply looks the other way when that leader turns himself into a despot and elects themselves for the new term. Oh they'll complain about it like nobody's business, but when it comes time to do something, no one has the stomach to deal with the politics, or the kind of utter trash that's attracted to power. Simply put, control means a hell of a lot more to them than it does to us.

So I've concluded that we face a challenge suited to a much greater race. The problem isn't the scum that lives amongst us, the problem is our own inability to deal with them correctly. These days governments and similar filth survive by doing things so absurd and obviously wrong, that most thinking people can't even comprehend how they think they'd get away with it, never mind finding a place to begin explaining what order of idiots they are. Unthinking people just follow whoever's making the most noise, but they are where they're supposed to be.

It's complicated to say the least. Our consideration for others, what most would call our humanity, is emerging on a large scale. Not only must we find the balance between that and consideration for ourselves (plants are alive like animals, but if we don't kill and eat enough of them we ourselves would cease to exist), but compared to clubbing the weak over the head and taking what they have for yourself, our emerging feelings seem like pie in the sky; a theoretical problem invented by safe and entitled humans with too much time on their hands.

But some things I can still say with relative certainty: no one is served by having their battles fought for them. As can be seen under the state model; the weak just get weaker, and while they no longer have to worry about lions, an altogether more sinister, subtle and cowardly predator starts preying on them. So I can say with relative certainty that any solution I want to come up with for this problem does not have to work for everyone, as we've been led to think. That's what the state has been trying to do, and that's how you end up legislating for the lowest common denominator and everyone being treated like terrorists.

Another thing that seems clear is that the only victory that we will see in our lifetimes over these power-hungry cowards are personal ones. People who do not put in the time to try and really understand things like freedom will forever be susceptible to whatever definition those who can make the most noise choose to bestow on it, and whatever invasions they will say are needed to protect it.

Kweli said...

I'm of the opinion that Hobbes and Locke should be tried posthumously for crimes against humanity.

The only social contract we have with the state is that we pay taxes, blood, tears and our lives, and the state screws us over.

I like the question you pose: "So what to do." I dream of starting a radical school like Tolstoy did, to "corrupt" the youth---and don't drink the hemlock when they try to make you.

Ridwan said...

Pstonie thank you kindly for your thoughtful comment. There is a lot there and I need to read it again and think it through some more.

Your last paragraph is powerful and strikes a particular chord with my dissatisfaction with the state and the elites its supports.

Your last paragraph reminds me of Gramsci's hegemony argument and the reference to making the state common sense.

I remember during the G. W. Bush's administration some of young men and women at the university where I taught signed up to go and defend the country (US) "over there".

On occasion I would ask where and why.

The answer to where was never definitive but on why it was often about protecting the constitution of the US.

My response was always to ask if the US constitution was in jeopardy "over there" and if it would not be safer to just make more copies as backup.

The sarcasm was lost on most.

Your last paragraph made me remember how blind loyalty or call it idiotic submission to the craft and purpose of the state makes otherwise smart people quite, well dense.

In Gramscian terms we accept the hegemony of the state and, thereby, render ourselves limited - even useless in terms of establishing a greater humanity.

It is this observation that makes me such a fan of critical theory because it deconstructs how we construct what we consider real - even what we consider possible.

This is perhaps where most interrogations of what we value about the state should begin.

For example, I bet some folks would argue that in the absence of the state there would be no order and chaos would make us disappear.

But why do we associate order with the state and forget how power is abusive?

I am still trying to think through what post-state environment might look like: lots of sleepless nights ahead then :0)

AnyHowze, thanks for your valued input.

Peace to you,

Pstonie said...

"For example, I bet some folks would argue that in the absence of the state there would be no order and chaos would make us disappear."

You'd've made some money, had you made that bet. Along with a well-weathered handbook on alinsky tactics, false dichotomy makes up about all of what modern (internet) shills are apparently armed with. That, and the final "it's all we have so just grow up and accept it", which usually signifies the end of their script.

Ridwan said...

Hi there Kweli:

Thank you for your comment - you have called it just right again.

Social contract theory is such a load of crap and yet there is not one school where political science or sociology students are not fed its wild imagination.

Life outside the social compact (read the state) is supposedly 'brutal and short' - ummm, tell that to the folks in Afghanistan or most every other post-colonial state anywhere.

Yet the notions of justice and freedom are wrapped into making the state the final association (the best place for order/jusice).

Most US foreign policy is beset by this thinking. Somalia is a prime example of how the US frets over non-existent states.

If it does not exist - hell create one even if it does not have any real coherence.

I think here in rainbow delusion a large part of the dysfunction is exactly because South Africa does not really exist except in an artificially constructed reality.

I asked a group of undergraduate students once what it meant to be a South African.

For about an hour no-one could come up with a coherent/plausible reason beyond platitudinous stuff like rugby/soccer/Mandela, etc.

In the end one lone student raised her hand and said: "we exist because of apartheid and that is worrying".

She nailed it in my thinking. Can South Africa ever exist outside of its relationship to apartheid?

I think not and this is the Achilles heel since the apartheid past cannot forever be the glue that keeps this Frankenstein afloat.

I like your idea - to resist the idea of belonging anywhere under a national banner or any other label really.

Such confinement is the reason why we are not free inside the state and its hegemonic system(s).

I smiled when I read your "hemlock" remark - Socrates showed the rulers/state though did he not?

He drank the hemlock knowing that his death made them even more shackled than they even realized but in death he was free (of them at least).

Trust you well in puddle town brother.

Peace to you,

Kweli said...

Puddle's been dry for three days!

Three days!

I laugh at Hobbes' and Locke's "state of nature." Those cats were too cynical. And: they have never been to New York city. That right there, the financial capital of this state, is the state of nature.