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In Theory Anarchism, war and the state

Of the many movements and "isms" that have emerged in the past two centuries, none have had the run of stigma, mischaracterisation and sheer venom thrown at it as has the idea of Anarchism. Some use the term as shorthand for political violence, others for nihilistic rejection of societal coherence. Even those who admire its general principles often find themselves in conflict over how those principles are to manifest themselves in the world of reality. In a brilliant and thorough tour d'horizon, Ceasefire columnist Andrew Robinson looks at the development of the Anarchist response to war and the state. He uncovers some striking affinities as well as the nuances in difference within this widely variant (and much maligned) field of thought and offers a neat encapsulation of the major strands involved

Columns, Ideas, In Theory - Posted on Friday, August 6, 2010 15:53 - 9 Comments

By Andrew Robinson

This article summarises how a number of anarchist and anarchistic authors view the relationship between the state and war. Some of the authors discussed below are self-identified anarchists, while others are libertarian or autonomist Marxists who adopt anarchistic ideas. Stereotypically, anarchists are associated with violence, corresponding to the view of states as guarantors of peace. The first stereotype follows from the second: while anarchists disagree on the use of force, they generally view states as highly warlike, and oppose state violence both internationally and against internal ‘enemies’. The Hobbesian view of the state as protector is based partly on an assessment of state behaviour comparable to IR Realism, and partly PM awareness of histories of state-formation and of stateless peoples and movements. In contrast to statists, anarchists generally view society or social relations as separate and distinct from the state (or the state as a special kind of social relation distinct from others).

Michael Bakunin, one of the earliest, and most celebrated proponents of Anarchism

In response to a common misconception, it is not true that anarchists oppose the state because they are naïve about human nature. Anarchist views about human nature are widely variant. Objections to the state can be convincing based on many different views, such as distrusting people to hold too much power without abusing it. Statists might be said to have a dual conception of human nature: the good people are trusted with excessive power so as to disempower the bad people. Statism is thus associated with hierarchical differentiations of people. Further, the objection is not simply to states as institutions but to state-like ways of relating and acting: in some accounts, the state is a social relation. In anarchist theory, states are viewed as expressions of hierarchical, oppressive social logics. They are forces of decomposition, which tend to attack or break down alternative, horizontal social relations. They are also based on ‘reactive’ emotional forces of suspicion, hatred and aggression which they channel to produce warlike relations among people. They also turn on one another, accumulating wealth by pillaging other states or societies. Against such state violence, anarchist strategies often seek to find or form focal-points for social power which can counterbalance or draw energies away from state power. These focal-points necessarily involve living and acting in non-militarist, non-authoritarian ways.

In Statism and Anarchy, Bakunin portrays the modern state as primarily military, and closely connected to the ruling class. As a military force, the state is necessarily aggressive, competing with other states for power. It produces moral and intellectual decay through its corrupting power. The extent of this decay depends on the extent to which the state’s way of thinking filters down through society, a process which is strongest in the most militaristic states. The ‘people’, primarily meaning the excluded and powerless, are for Bakunin a potential counterpoint to the state, and can destroy it in insurrection.

Kropotkin similarly argues that the state, or ‘political principle’ (vertical association or hierarchy), is counterposed to society, or the ‘social principle’ (horizontal association or affinity). In The State: Its Historic Role, he argues that the state is ‘synonymous with war’. The state brings peace, if at all, only as lifeless dominance in a ‘colourless, lifeless whole’. Social networks bring effervescent life, whereas states bring death through structural violence and pillage. Since the state cannot tolerate other sources of power, it wages constant war against social networks as they arise. There is thus a constant zero-sum struggle between the state as a force of control and impoverishment and social networks as spaces for freedom and creativity. Local communities have capabilities for self-defence and/or peacebuilding. Although wars can be fought outside or against states, they have a different significance, enlivening people in the defence of liberty rather than disempowering them through its destruction.

Stirner’s argument is rather different. In The Ego and its Own, he starts from a critique of social roles and categories, termed ‘spooks’ in his work, to derive a critique of submission to overarching categories of all kinds. Stirner is what would today be called an ‘anti-essentialist’, an opponent of fixed labels and of the privileging of some aspects of a person over others. States are rejected as bearers of particular categories which are wrongly accorded a greater status than other categories. Further, sacrifices for the state are always matters of the state’s self-interest. By claiming a monopoly on violence, the state pursues self-interested violence at the expense of its subjects.

Tolstoy’s Christian Anarcho-Pacifism draws similar distinctions, but characterises the anti-state pole rather differently. For Tolstoy, the state’s ‘law of violence’ stands against a ‘law of love’, with each expressing a particular emotional climate and set of passions. States embody ‘low passions’ such as hatred (often channelled against outsiders using nationalism), against which love provides a basis for peace and happiness. Love is expressed in acts such as conscientious objection, withdrawing the social activity on which state violence is based.

Anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were central in anti-conscription activism in First World War America and were jailed as prisoners of conscience. Their anti-militarist critiques placed a strong emphasis on socialist criticisms of the capitalistic basis of war. Elites use irrational prejudices to manipulate people into fighting on their behalf. Rudolf Rocker wrote an influential anarchist critique of nationalism around the same time, portraying the state as distorting legitimate particularisms into hateful chauvinisms. Also in this period, Randolph Bourne popularised the phrase ‘war is the health of the state’. In an unfinished work titled The State, he argued that the state demands ‘mystic[al] devotion’, which war is a means to realise. In war, the permanent state machine displaces party competition and comes to monopolise public life. Its main aim is not victory, but the ‘spiritual compulsion’ bound up with the ideal of the state, with the triumph of a ‘herd’ mentality over creativity and difference. The outpouring of irrational, reactive forces is managed by nationalistic elites for their own benefit.

With fascism overrunning Europe, the leftist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich pioneered a sexual-liberationist critique of militaristic states in his Mass Psychology of Fascism. Reich views repressive social systems as enabled by repressive biological and emotional structures through which people prevent themselves from feeling emotions. Fascism emerges from a complete identification with state power and the leader, a pattern derived from identification with the father in patriarchal, authoritarian families. Such families train people to channel attachments vertically rather than horizontally. More recently, Klaus Theweleit used this approach to interpret the masculine violence of proto-fascist groups as an attempt to seek existential security in categories of purity and displays of superiority over demonised others. On a similar line of thought, authors from the Frankfurt School have argued that industrialised war and genocide throw doubt on the benevolence of modernity. Adorno links war to the desire to dominate nature. Fromm argues that humanity’s survival is put at risk by a peculiarly human type of malevolent aggression arising from alienation. Marcuse critiques the discourse of war as a kind of doublespeak, and interprets modern war as a self-frustrating product of the frustration-aggression complex. Frustration arising from capitalist life is channelled and rendered socially functional through military aggression, but cannot be alleviated by such aggression because human means of war have been replaced with technological means. War thus tends towards repetition and escalation.

Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’ distinguishes between three types of violence or effective action. States are founded in law-making violence which posits their own command as the law, are maintained by law-preserving violence which maintains a status-quo through small acts of enforcement, and can be shattered by law-destroying violence (such as a general strike). For Benjamin, the state is based on reactive attachments, here interpreted as power over life for the sake of power, and is fearful, becoming more authoritarian over time as it becomes afraid of the emergence of counter-powers. Law-making violence is instrumental, whereas law-destroying violence is expressive, directing itself against the capability to use law-making or preserving violence.

The theory of the state as a source of social decomposition by means of social war is extended by Antonio Negri in his 1970s-era works. Negri views state violence as a means to preserve capitalist domination as a kind of irrational social command over labour. The new form of the state, the ‘crisis-state’, is geared to a permanent state of exception which simultaneously causes and wards off extreme risks of destruction such as nuclear war. It also forms an internal warfare state directed at forces of life, autonomous social movements, with which it is in an irreducible antagonism. In this phase, Negri views such movements as tending to become an armed society counterposed to the state. This view of radical antagonism fades in Negri’s more recent work, but still in Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Multitude, the state is deemed to be waging an unwinnable, unlimited global war indistinguishable from policing. Also from an autonomist standpoint, the Midnight Notes Collective have argued that recent wars are means for preserving Northern monopolies on advanced technologies by playing on risks of weapons proliferation, or are resource wars focused on the enclosure and exploitation of resources. The idea of the ‘state of exception’ has been expanded by Giorgio Agamben.

Looking at autonomy more broadly, alternatives to the state also emerge in studies of stateless indigenous social groups. There is substantial debate on whether such groups are warlike, with scholars arguing that certain groups are extremely peaceful or engage only in ritualised forms of combat. Clastres’ theory of indigenous warfare stands out in showing the difference between indigenous and statist types of war. In his theory, indigenous war is a way of asserting the difference and autonomy of each village or band, placing an obstacle in the way of state-formation by ensuring that power remains diffuse. Statist war, in contrast, causes ethnocide, which is inscribed in the nature of the state as the dissolution of the many into the one. Autonomous social movements such as La Ruta Pacifica also offer autonomous responses to war. In this group’s discourse, social weaving is theorised as a way of counterposing energies of hope to those which sustain the permanent state of war in Colombia. Their activities focus on morale-boosting, emotional repair, collective mourning and working through fear. They believe that violence decomposes social relations, so that power can be exercised by recomposing relations.

Noam Chomsky has been a vigorous champion of Anarcho-syndicalist ideals

Noam Chomsky is perhaps the best-known anarchist critic of imperialist wars. Chomsky’s work focuses on exposing the lies and distortions of political and media accounts of wars, focusing on the empirical rebuttal of false claims. Chomsky focused on economic self-interest as the main motive for warmongering, portraying the military-industrial complex as a financial racket. As well as direct resource grabs, the American war-machine is directed at making the current world-system seem inescapable by eliminating ‘the threat of a good example’, of a country which succeeds without playing America’s game. To allow such warmongering, illusions are systematically manufactured through distorted media coverage. Such ideologies can also be self-perpetuating, particularly among the foreign policy ‘backroom boys’, causing wars through their own dynamic even where there is little economic or geostrategic benefit.

The insurrectionist anarchist Alfredo Bonanno provides another contemporary theory of anarchism and war. In Bonanno’s theory, affirmation of life goes hand-in-hand with assaults on structures of power and alienation. Insurrection is viewed as the point of explosion of accumulated discontent. Struggle must not, however, reproduce militarist approaches which are ‘the dominion of death’. Bonanno also interprets ethno-religious civil wars in terms of the mistaken mapping of the desire for revolt onto misleading ethno-religious categories. Nationalist wars can be manufactured to defuse the ‘powder-keg’ of revolt, or can complicate rebellions against the powerful.

In poststructuralism, war is critiqued as part of a mechanism of logistical control through which diffuse hierarchical apparatuses reshape society. Deleuze and Guattari view states as counterposed to autonomous war-machines of the kind discussed by Clastres. The state also captures such war-machines, turning them into forces of reactive desire for its own projects of ‘antiproduction’ or decomposition. War-machines captured by states become agencies of “war for war’s sake”, tending towards total destruction. Virilio treats the military class as an important social force with its own logic or ‘essence’ which it seeks to impose on society. The method of the military class is not simply to defeat enemies but to control and rearrange space so as to disempower enemies in advance or corrode their affirmative energies. This is achieved, for instance, by creating ecologically inhospitable spaces subject to control, in place of dense ecosystems. The military is thus counterposed to popular defence, which has a different logic based on dense ecosystemic spaces giving strategic advantages over attackers. Today, popular defence has recomposed as insurrection, in cases such as Vietnam and Palestine, and has as its goal the destruction of military control over space. Baudrillard argues that states cause not ‘war’ (which implies an adversarial and symbolic element) but ‘non-war’, a kind of destructive violence in which the enemy is not recognised as an agent but instead, systematically disempowered by technological means. ‘Non-war’ is pursued as a means to systemic dominance, but is compromised by its incapacity for dialogue.

One can summarise these various views through a few leitmotifs they have in common. Firstly, anarchist views of war see the state as a force for repressive control, in the interests of the state itself or of a ruling class or elite. Such states find themselves in constant war with other kinds of social forces, and sometimes with other states too. They thus use war as a kind of crisis-management, to control societies and maintain an overall system of control. States are based on, or else produce for their own ends, reactive emotional dispositions of aggression, fear and ‘herd’ morality which find their apex in war. States, especially warfare-states, tend to disempower and sap energies from other social forces and to decompose social relations. Against such powers, people can activate counter-powers, either as forces in a relation of non-militarist war with the state, or as networks which withdraw the everyday power on which the state depends.

* This article is based on “The State as a Cause of War: Anarchist and Autonomist Critiques of War”, forthcoming in Hall Gardner (ed.), The Ashgate Research Companion to War: Origins and Prevention, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge.


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Aug 7, 2010 1:16

what I find the most problematic aspect of critiquing state-power is that its often impossible to tell whether a particular critique treats the statist phenomenon as quasi-biological in nature, in other words, as coming into existence independently of individual human intentions within it..

Aug 7, 2010 15:53

Accounts of where states come from are rather speculative and contested. The idea that people naturally evolve into states has been well and truly rebutted. Only a tiny minority of stateless societies evolve into states, but since states are expansionist, they tend to absorb or eliminate other stateless societies; this is why we’ve ended up in a world of mostly states (I’m drawing here mainly on Michael Mann). Most states today are adaptive, i.e. they are either formed by the imposition of the state-form from outside by conquerors, or the imitation of the state-form to resist conquest by other states. This still raises the question of why the initial states arise which produce such effects. Nobody knows quite why it happens. Theories I’ve seen include a process passing through the “big man” system, the autonomisation of the power of a warrior-caste, or an effect of class-formation if a war between societies leads to permanent subordination.

Once they’re in place, states seem to be self-reproducing, and anarchist politics is most often directed at disrupting their reproduction. This is why there’s a certain structuralism involved in some anarchist accounts, mainly I think because of the automatism of statist actions once basic statist attachments are locked in – without a conscious act of will, people carry on acting in habituated ways. For instance, an individual police officer doesn’t usually stop and think whether it is right to suppress a protest when ordered to do so – there’s a kind of metaethical imperative which causes the officer to obey unconsciously, without thinking, and to feel it is natural to do so (cf Arendt’s “banality of evil”). Quite often this is expressed in ideas of upholding the law (whatever its content) or obeying orders (whatever their content) because the alternative would be anarchy/chaos, which is unthinkable, and somehow more “wrong” than any particular abuse might be.

Some of the more psychologically inclined authors would put this down to unconscious processes – fear of difference, identification with the oppressor and so on. I think the impression in many of the accounts summarised here is that there are two forces in the human psyche, the active and the reactive, and whereas the former produces horizontalism, the latter produces various hierarchical relations including the state. This is clear in Tolstoy for instance – the state is basically an amalgamation of individual hatreds, sustained by people’s agreement to submit to these hatreds; similarly in Stirner, the state is a “spook” (an imagined entity) which exists because people are stupid enough to subordinate themselves to it, or because some people are sneaky enough to trick others into subordinating themselves to it and hence to themselves. In many of the other authors it is complicated by discussions of class – the state is an effect of alienation, of broader hierarchical relationships, of the need to keep subordinates under control. These accounts would put conformity down as a kind of false consciousness or ideology, or attribute it to self-interest by people who hold state power and are rewarded for it in various ways.

So we have here at least three mechanisms by which states reproduce themselves. Psychological: states condition people into reactive desires, herd mentalities, identification with oppressors, authoritarian personalities and so on – which once created, lead to a demand for the state. Ideological: states take over some of the means of producing ideas, and use them to produce ideas which mystify and legitimate state power (including by habituating it). Material: states use their coercive power to seize resources which they distribute to their supporters, who in turn then provide the coercive power the state needs. All three processes are worryingly circular. They’re breakable through acts of will and through aberrant flows, but they create a situation where the state seems to reproduce itself independently from human will (because people are conditioned to act in ways in which they appear not to be exercising will).

Aug 7, 2010 19:02

sure, but aren’t you really making a general point of power structures rather than the state specifically? Almost everything you said can be seen (in attenuated or accentuated forms) in companies, academic institutions, football clubs and even NGOs, can it not? Isn’t the “state” in this case a mere tautologically applied term to very large political power structures? Do you believe very large organisations/organisms/collectives can realistically and sustainably be built on anything other than power-relations?

Aug 8, 2010 2:40

Generally, anarchists are against all hierarchical organisations, but don’t necessarily call them all “states”. The state is particularly problematic because as well as being hierarchical and alienating, it uses violence and coercion to keep itself going. The answer to how to do large-scale organisation is either 1) don’t do it, rely on small, local groups instead, 2) federate the small units into voluntary unions based on mutual aid among the units, or 3) “unity in diversity” – rely on the different groups within a particular constituency to act on something in their own way. According to Clastres, the Guarani were able to put out armies tens of thousands strong without authoritarian organisation, summit protests also get hundreds of thousands in one place based on a rather loose call for action, a wide range of tactical approaches and a similar orientation. “Swarm logic” is the key – the articulating forces are horizontal rather than vertical.

Aug 11, 2010 23:17

Great article, thanks. The question I wanted to ask when reading this has already really been asked and answered. So carrying on from that, do you think there are any historical conditions that could arise in modern western industrialised states which would make anarchism viable? (i.e. what context is necessary for the state to recede?). What about in South America, Africa and S.E. Asia, is it more likely we would see a recession of the state in these areas due to the prevalence of stateless groups or do you think the state will grow in these areas (due to growth of capital) and stop this? And a question more out of interest since it involves factoring in an infinite amount of variables, do you think we could see the successful recession of the state on say, a continental or global scale within our lifetimes (assuming we are in our twenties).

Aug 11, 2010 23:58

Andy, this is a good short history/summary of a substantial topic. I would also mention the role and arguments of the Christian, and especially Catholic, anarcho-pacifist movements in the US. This is significant for a few reasons: firstly, these groups were amongst the first to take part in the building of the dialogue between Tolstoy’s ideas and those of Berkman and Goldman, secondly the way in which they then fed those ideas into the New Left’s understanding of anarchism, and finally, the sheer vocality and activity of the groups involved. Frustratingly a lot of the works they produced are now out of print (There are several copies of The Book of Ammon in UK libraries (inc Nottingham) and Dorothy Day still has a few works in publication), and I cant pretend any great expertise. Their impact seems to be more practical than theoretical though, and from what ive heard still inform a lot of the American ‘folk understanding’ of pacifist anarchism.

Aug 12, 2010 1:51

Josh – it depends how strictly we’re using terms like “anarchy” and “state”. Right now we are seeing receding states in a lot of the more marginal countries which are slipping out of the world economy, and there are a lot of subregions within formal state remits which have never been very well incorporated. The composition of the global majority is still pretty marginal overall, with huge numbers of shanty-town residents and subsistence farmers for example, and these people live primarily through networks rather than states, though they also make strategic demands on states. The difficulty is that while stateless spaces proliferate, they tend to be inserted in other kinds of hierarchies – patron-client systems, gangs, ethnoreligious movements, local militias and so on. Also, the aspiration to be an included consumerist citizen is very widespread (because of global media flows and unequal resource distributions), so many people who live in mainly stateless ways, would like to be *more* integrated into states. One might take Chiapas or Bougainville as an example of what is possible in a lot of these sites, if a more anarchic set of aspirations emerged. On the other hand, states are grabbing for more power, but not because they’re more powerful, rather because they’re afraid (I’ll write about that another time). The trends are towards fewer people being included in the global core and towards networks, rather than hierarchies, becoming more powerful over time. I think we will almost certainly see large regions of the globe slip out of de facto state control in our lifetime, though whether these regions recompose as anarchist is a different question entirely. Think Somalia + Chiapas + Haiti, spread through most of the global South, parts of the North and in certain suburbs of the major cities.

Another way to think about this is the relative proportion of state and societal practices in everyday life – in fact a lot of our life even in highly “statified” societies is basically anarchic, it is lived through horizontal networks. We need to recover more networked practices to survive current problems (e.g. we will likely need to rely on local sources of food and energy within our lifetimes), and we’ll have to rely less on hierarchies to make this work effectively, though states and corporations will try their hardest not to lose power. So there is a chance of social rebalancing towards anarchy (even if not all the way there). On the other hand, there is also a chance of a kind of global dystopian regime where states hold onto power by repressing any recomposition before it emerges. And a good chance of a prolonged muddling-along before the issue really comes to a head.

The problem with predictions is that history is pretty open – unexpected events happen quite a lot (e.g. collapse of the USSR). If the autonomists are right, the system is always only one failure to innovate away from collapse – but the way an existing composition is disrupted is pretty much unpredictable (each wave of struggles renders unviable the previous constellation, but the response is a new constellation which recuperates or suppresses the new struggles0. In terms of longue duree trends, we’re going through a prolonged crisis of world-systemic hegemony with America as declining hegemon (the 1970s crisis has been deferred but never resolved), and we are due some sort of resolution to the hegemonic crisis within our lifetimes. Also, according to the cycle of struggles theory, we should be due another big wave of struggles on the scale of 1848, 1917 and 1968, inbetween 2020 and 2030.

AB – I did think the piece was rather light on anarcho-pacifists considering the topic, but I didn’t know of any major theorists apart from Tolstoy. The literature you refer to sounds interesting, how do you think it fits into the typology of themes I’ve identified?

Nov 16, 2011 20:06

The difference between the state and other hierarchical power structures is that the state holds a monopoly on force (violence).

Nov 19, 2011 4:02


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