The Case Against States

In this essay I am attempting to make the point that not only do we not need a state to survive, but that we would survive a lot better without it. I will start first with a definition of the state. Peter Kropotkin wrote that the State "includes the existence of a power situated above society, but also of a territorial concentration as well as the concentration in the hands of a few of many functions in the life of societies."[1] He wrote that it "implies some new relationships between members of society which did not exist before the formation of the State. A whole mechanism of legislation and of policing has to be developed in order to subject some classes to the domination of others."[2] Anthropologist Harold Barclay writes that "the State is a territorial association" that "claims ‘sovereignty’ over a given place in space and all those residing within that area are subject to, and must submit to the institution of authority ruling the territory".[3] Harold Barclay also writes that it is the most important aspect of a state that it has "a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence with the territory."[4] In other words, the State has to be more powerful, and more violent – at least in quantity – than all other competing forces in a society. This last point is crucial to the idea of the State.

 Because the whole point of a state is to elevate the privilege of the minority at the expense of the majority, it has a number of serious moral shortcomings. Principally, it divides people up into classes in which one class dominates all the other classes. It also leads to large amounts of violence between classes, as the ruling class must keep down the lower classes to maintain its privilege. The oppression that states wreak upon the lower classes is summed up very well by a quote from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon concerning government, one of the chief institutions of the state. He said that "to be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the public interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality."[5]

 So in essence the State is not the order of a society, but a particular way of organizing society: one that involves class rule, domination, subjection, violence and oppression. In a capitalist society, the State comprises of the government, corporations and all the subsets of these.

 Given that the State is such an oppressive and violent way of organizing society it seems rather farfetched that anyone would defend it as completely moral. The main arguments in defense of the State claim either that it is the only option for organizing a society, that it is the best of the options that exist or that it maintains law and order.

 The first argument for the State is that it is the only option for organizing a society. This is an extremely weak argument for a number of reasons. First and foremost at least 94 percent of human existence has been stateless. This is based on the formulation that Homo Sapiens Sapiens are about 100,000 years old[6] and that the first states came into existence about 6,000 years ago.[7] But even then, States were very rare and have only become a near-universal entity in the past couple of hundred years or so, as a result of non-state societies being conquered by state societies. In fact 158 out of the current 192 independent states that exist "have arisen out of the colonial situation".[8] In other words, more than 80 percent of the States that exist now did not exist 500 years ago and were forced upon the societies by Europeans.

 A more complex and convincing version of this argument is that while the lack of a state was fine for small-scale societies, it does not work for the large-scale societies we have now. But this argument still has flaws. There are numerous examples of large-scale non-state societies that have existed and do exist. Firstly, the Iroquois Confederation covered a large part of what is now New York and was non-state, very egalitarian and peaceful.[9] Many large non-state societies are being built up now in Latin America. For example in Venezuela "there are presently 16,000 regional federations of Communal Councils organized across the country that deal with local issues. Each represents 200 to 400 families."[10] Although Venezuela is a society with a state, these councils have complete control over the areas that they represent and the federations function as their own non-state societies. In southern Mexico, the Zapatista revolution has taken over large parts of Chiapas, which are now organized without a state. And the Zapatistas are estimated to have about 3 million members.[11] In the Spanish revolution of 1936 "an estimated three-quarters of the economy" of Catalonia "was put under workers control" and organized with no state. Aragon had similar figures and anarchist and non-state socialists controlled about half of Valencia.[12] The Kibbutz in Israel is another example of a society that exists without a state and it currently has about 110,000 members.[13] There are plenty of examples of non-state societies have existed, including in the modern world.[14] These, and lots of other examples, show that a state is most definitely not the only means of organizing a society, even a large modern one.

 The argument that the state is the best way of organizing society that we is very easily challenged once the first point is refuted. Even a cursory look at the stateless societies that I have alluded to – and I suggest looking into them – will show you that they are usually far more egalitarian, democratic than any state and that they are far better from any moral perspective.

 Finally we come to the point that the state maintains law and order. This statement could be true and it could also not be, depending on your definition of law and order. If by law and order you mean the maintaining of the privilege of the few – a definition that people commonly use without even realizing they are using it – then it is most definitely true. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once wrote that laws "are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of government."[15] This is the law that the state protects. The order that the state protects is the order whereby a privileged minority of people rule over an oppressed majority.

 But if by law and order you mean the protection against chaos and violent crime then not only does the state not provide law and order, it actively prevents it. One need not look very deeply to find that states commit far more violent crime than they prevent, if they even prevent any. The crimes of totalitarian states are well known but the crimes of so-called democratic states are not so well know. Historian Mark Curtis estimates that since 1945 Britain has been directly responsible for the deaths of at least 10 million people.[16] In 18 years of involvement in Iraq, the US and Britain have been responsible for the deaths of 2.7 million Iraqis according to scholarly estimates.[17] After 14 years of war against Vietnam the US had killed approximately 3.5 million people.[18] No mafia don, drug lord or terrorist – not including state terrorist – has got close to that quantity of violence. And there are many more examples of colossal state violence.  

 The brutal and violent nature of states is well known. In an interview on Znet Noam Chomsky said that "in the course of creating modern nation states, Europe developed a culture of savagery and a technology of violence which enabled it to conquer the world, and as it conquered the world it attempted to impose nation state systems wherever it went, also artificial and violent. If you look at today’s major conflicts around the world, most of them are the residue of European efforts to impose nation state systems where it doesn’t make any sense, which is almost everywhere. The few exceptions to this are places of European colonization where they simply exterminated the indigenous population, like the United States and Australia."[19]

 Even if you ignore the immense violence of states, and focus solely on the question of how they prevent violence by non-state actors, you will not find that states prevent violence. Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found that the more unequal a society the more crime it has, as well as other negative factors.[20] Because the primary goal of states is to promote the privilege of a chosen minority, they will, by their nature, promote inequality. And since states increase inequality and inequality increases crime, states therefore increase crime. That does not sound like the promotion of law and order.

 And law and order, as in the protection against chaos and violent crime, can thrive greatly in non-state societies. Take the Kibbutz in Israel. In 1986, Joseph Blasi noticed that in Kibbutz Vatik, "the community had never experienced a violent crime".[21] In a letter to Freedom newspaper in 1940, a British air marshal stationed in Palestine wrote that in the Kibbutzim "the problem of violence has never arisen",[22] and in a paper entitled "Laws And Legalism In the Kibbutz" Avraham Yassour wrote that the very phenomenon of crime had "factually disappeared" within the Kibbutz.[23] And this is just one example of a non-state society that effectively promotes law and order.

 As you can see the main arguments for the state collapse under the barest scrutiny. Hopefully now people will consider the proposition that maybe we do not need states after all.


[1] Peter Kropotkin, "The State: Its Historic Role"

[2] Ibid

[3] Harold Barclay, "The State"

[4] Ibid

[5] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, "General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century"

[6] Chris Harman, "A People’s History Of The World"

[7] Barclay, "The State"

[8] Ibid

[10] Kahentinetha Horn, "The Onkwehonwe Democratic Agenda", Znet, http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/1659

[11] Interview with Pietro Vermentini by Dino Taddei, "Libertarian Chiapas", http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/mexico/accounts/lib_chiapas_00.html 

[12] Murray Bookchin, "To Remember Spain: The Anarchist And Syndicalist Revolution Of 1936"

[13] James Horrox, "A living revolution: Anarchism In The Kibbutz Movement". Horrox wrote that by the end of the century Kibbutz Artzi had "a total population of approximately 35,000 … around 32 percent of the entire contemporary Kibbutz movement". From this I worked out the Kibbutz has approximately 109,375 members.

[14] Lots of examples are given in Harold Barclay, "People Without Government: An Anthropology Of Anarchism"

[15] I do not know the origin of this quote but it can be found at http://anarchismtoday.org/MediaWiki/Famous_Anarchists_and_Anarchist_Quotes

[16] Mark Curtis, "Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses"

[17] 200,000 deaths is the generally accepted figure for Iraqi civilian deaths in the First Gulf war; In "On The Justice Of Roosting Chickens" Ward Churchill estimates that at least 1.3 million Iraqis died as a result of the sanctions; Opinion Research Business, the British polling agency, have estimated the figures for deaths of Iraqis as a result of the 2003 invasion to be 1.2 million, http://www.johnpilger.com/page.asp?partid=462

[18] http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstat2.htm#Sources this website provides a list of sources and various estimates for many wars including that of Vietnam

[19] Noam Chomsky, "State And Corp.", Znet, http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/6242

[20] Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, "The Spirit level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better"

[21] James Horrox, "A living revolution: Anarchism In The Kibbutz Movement"

[22] Ibid

[23] Cited In Ibid



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