State-Capitalist Plutocracy or Free Market Prosperity?

While today’s states are very powerful, cracks in their power can open as they adapt to a changing world. Recession is not the only force of change. Economic and social practices and pressures that develop through increasing global contact will have a massive impact on the power and role of the state. Global commerce and communications continue to make the world more interconnected and interdependent.

Possible courses for the changing role of the state in an era of globalization can be represented by three general tendencies, keeping in mind that politics in reality will often be characterized by tensions between them.

The first possible course is reactionary nationalism.

The second is global corporate rule.

The third is global distributed power.

Reactionary nationalism involves the cultivation of local or national chauvinism, the closing of borders to people, products, and capital, and the suspicion of those perceived as “others” or “outsiders.”

Though this tendency does have the potential to inflict significant damage to life and prosperity, it probably will not see much success unless economic trouble becomes significantly more serious – which is of course possible. Regional spheres of influence and trade established in opposition to globalism can arise but they will still be connected to the global economy.

Reactionary nationalism is likely to be less prominent because of increased communication and its influence on ideology and economics, the need for outside resources and products, and improved transportation. If the use of sustainable energy reduces transport costs over the long term then autarky becomes economically less viable.

But more important than transportation or trade is communication – today it is faster, connected to larger networks, and more democratic than ever before, meaning that the average person has an unprecedented ability to not only receive, but to broadcast and fact-check information. Meme Generator pictures can be used to further a cult of personality, but they can also undermine it.

Social identification becomes less nationalistic with increasing global connectivity. Anyone with access to online social networking, especially when a common language or translation is available, can become known to worldwide peers. When we hear unfiltered news from Twitter we become involved in the process of sifting truth from rumor and share the feelings of outrage or triumph. The people we feel are “like us” can be those whom we see as sharing our struggles and successes, not those who look like us or talk like us. A sense of global community really comes into view when pizza orders placed from Egypt feed protesters in Wisconsin, and Anonymous hackers from around the world stage the electronic version of a sit-in protest by defacing a Syrian government website.

It is important to take a brief aside to remember that access to communication technology is not equal. This was well demonstrated by an Al-Jazeera report about residents of northern Uganda viewing the Kony 2012 video for the first time. After millions of people had seen the Kony 2012 video on the internet, many residents of northern Uganda, the region the film focuses on, had not been able to view it until a local charity organization screened the film. The reaction was generally negative.[1] Arab Spring protests were not caused by Twitter or Facebook, but internet communication was one tool used by organizers and protestors, sometimes more to broadcast to the outside world than to locals taking the streets. However as technology becomes cheaper and more accessible and various organizations work to distribute the tools the world will become more connected.

If reactionary nationalism is taken out, that leaves 2 choices: global corporate rule, or global distributed power.

Global corporate rule means the rule of political and economic elites, where political power typically is applied so that risk and cost are socialized while profits are privatized as much as possible. It sees a world of “hollow states” and crony states as people become resources to further the power of politicians and the profits of capitalists. In some cases border crossings offer little restriction on capital but major restrictions on labor, prohibiting labor choice in the global market, appeasing nationalists, and putting further barriers on inter-ethnic solidarity.

Appealing to rationality or the common good will sway few elites in this system, as many would rather have the power that comes with a greater share of wealth than have a lesser share of a greater amount of total wealth – or subjectively value political power over prosperity.

Global distributed power means that the powers held by political and economic elites become more widely dispersed among the population, with no region or body dominating others. It means trade between strong communities. It means that more people are able exercise more decision-making power over their own lives.

The environment of global distributed power provides the greatest opportunity for expanding individual liberty, making it the best choice for libertarians.

But any intention to disperse power runs into several problems.

States tend to be heavily armed organizations. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that over 19,000 nuclear weapons at various stages of readiness currently exist on the planet. The US alone has 8500 nuclear weapons. The US Navy has about 250 commissioned ships including 11 aircraft carriers. Well over a million people are in the US Armed Forces. [2]

Domestic police forces are being militarized. Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, boasted last fall, “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.” The last ten years have seen more police forces equipped with SWAT teams, military rifles, armored vehicles, and even drone aircraft.[3]

Such factors suggest the benefit of avoiding the appearance of a “collapse” into “anarchy” – if only to discourage domestic crackdown and foreign military intervention. It might be best to approach the goal as a transition to an open, cosmopolitan decentralism that continually builds opportunities to further disperse power and to undermine the authority of one person over another in political, economic, and social relations. Rather than create a power vacuum that we must race against authoritarians to fill, it would be better to fill today’s personal and social power vacuums with popular power and individuals empowered by their relations in functioning libertarian communities. It is competing against the state by doing better where it falls short.

Of course, every gun requires someone to control it. This underscores the power of ideas, and the power of identity and allegiance. Will people identify with state power and orders from above or with a libertarian populism? How do they define their interests?

Another potential problem is that an overemphasis on decentralism can be exploited by authoritarians. Militarized police won’t just disappear, so who controls them and what for? Bloomberg the Duke of New York? Decentralism can also be used as a buzzword to promote exclusionary fiefdoms where “outsiders” who don’t belong are violently excluded and a tight-knit tyranny is tied over those who do “belong.” A twisted principle of “non-interference” or “self-determination” can be invoked to argue against outsiders trying to block the ability of local powers to interfere with individuals.

Educational work can mitigate or prevent such outcomes. Individuals deserve the freedom to do whatever does not interfere in the equal liberty of other individuals, to advocate for a way of life and help others when invited, and do not have the right to organize for the purpose of doing violence to people who aren’t invading the liberty of others.

Empowered individuals and libertarian communities bring counter-power to check the power of authoritarians. Within a libertarian community, the availability of a variety of alternatives and the realistic ability to create new alternatives establish a real check on power as organizations cannot stay in existence without pleasing individuals exercising free choice.

Of course, most of today’s powerful probably do not want to let go of their power, and they have many resources and techniques to steer events and discourse their way.

The solution is to dismantle power structures and create alternative social groupings to disperse power horizontally.

People today tend to rely on job and state. How to shift to dependence on voluntary mutual aid associations and alternative trading networks? The friendly societies that used to exist provided a worker-created source of stability: if someone got injured or lost a job, there were people and funds to take care of them as they got back on their feet – no application to the government required and no loss of medical coverage with the loss of a job.[4] But the organization used for emergencies can become a new model for everyday living. In this context the cooperative movement, which promises and often delivers people a chance to be greater participants, to have a greater say, in the services they rely on or the workplace that occupies a large part of their lives, has illustrative value.[5]

Building greater social power removes the personal power vacuum that states exploit, while displacing the authorities from political power.

Showing that a person will derive concrete benefits from participation in organizations of distributed power invites more participation in a community where libertarian social norms can be made to predominate. One kind of organization with the potential to create more widely distributed economic power is the makerspace or hackerspace. Members can pay a fee for private workspace and/or access to machine tools with less investment than would be needed for a startup business or garage tinkering – and they also get the benefits of interaction with other people in a voluntary organization with similar goals.[6] The global exchange of information can make localized production more feasible as people have a broader pool of knowledge to draw upon. More innovation and customization results from more people having access to knowledge and the tools to employ it.[7]

Going local typically doesn’t mean going against the world, but showing an interest in local diversities and in reducing the global burden of energy consumption.

Education will play a major role in bringing about the world of global distributed power. Ideas of liberty and solidarity and skills for making the transition in any specialty need to be researched and taught. The advantages and disadvantages of various alternatives to the status quo should be studied, and the way that emerging economic structures actually function can be better understood through the research methods of economics, anthropology, history, and sociology.

While the state does not hold a complete monopoly on education, state education policy does directly bear on the day-to-day lives of the majority of people of schooling age. Within state institutions, education for global distributed power can be done – in research, courses, and organizations at various levels. Alternatives like unschooling and voluntary community schools can educate while also demonstrating different models of dispersing power. Public gatherings, like those of the Occupy movement also offer opportunities for discussion and teach-ins.

The internet’s importance to making libertarian changes should not be underestimated. Social media and digital content are widely used for all types of information. The hyperlink and the search engine provide a faster way to verify claims than citations in print media or sources listed on television or radio broadcasts. Using Twitter can be more effective in learning global citizenship than looking at textbooks in a classroom. People who specialize in education need to work with, not against, the digital world.

How do some of today’s organizations and activities stack up in terms of tending toward global distributed power?

The European Union sounds good at first. On lands where millions have been killed in combat, war crimes, and genocide over the last century the EU engenders political and economic cooperation between 27 countries of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds and operates with an ethic of fostering the rule of law and liberal democracy. But it has drawbacks. The way it treats political representation holds the danger of locking current nation-states in place. More immediately, it represents an effort at economic centralization. The EU operates a central bank, and promotes the use of a single currency which has been adopted as the official currency of 17 member states. This is centralizing economic power, and it operates within the system of finance run by economic elites.

With the economic crisis in Greece, many people have turned to local alternative currency networks, which participants generally describe as benefitting them economically as well as providing a sense of empowerment that comes with feeling a reliance on one’s own labor yet having deep connections with others.[8] Alternative networks can scale up from local initiative. Mobile applications and digital repositories open opportunities for exchange between a number of systems, and there is no reason why several currencies, local, regional, and global, cannot operate in parallel.

Bitcoin is an innovative digital global currency. It is not without its issues, but it is used to get around state controls. As a competing currency, it spreads economic power wider.

Today’s protest movements – whether Arab Spring, Greek rage, Indignados, Occupy, or even Chinese revolts – have a local basis but a global impact. In populist movements that shake up the status quo and get people into the streets and working together to make alternatives, a number of solutions are going to be proclaimed and sought, but importantly there are opportunities for people to try to live without the control of elites, and communication on what paths to take.

Anonymous and related cyber activist and hacktivist efforts are global undertakings that tend to target those who use repressive force in preventing the wider distribution of power. WikiLeaks makes it harder for organizations to operate in secret – they have a greater risk of public exposure to balance against internal communication, or could choose to bear the cost of operating honestly.

The state might think it’s not going anywhere but the globally-connected world means that it will need to adapt or perish. A creative approach to dispersing power globally can undermine the very foundations of state power. A true international community arises from the conversations held and solidarity felt through social networking and global protest – not from meetings of political and economic elites behind closed doors and security barricades.


This essay was presented at the 2012 Association of Private Enterprise Education Conference.

[1] “Kony screening provokes anger in Uganda,” Al-Jazeera, March 14 2012.

[2] “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved March 19, 2012. Nuclear weapons figures include weapons slated for dismantling. However for the purposes of dismantling the state they remain a factor.

“Fleet Size,” US Navy Naval Vessel Register. Retrieved March 19, 2012.

“Military Personnel Strength Figures,” US Department of Defense. Retrieved March 19, 2012.

[3] Hunter Walker, “Mayor Bloomberg: ‘I Have My Own Army,’” Politicker, November 30, 2011.

Charles Johnson, “No, seriously, I could swear the water in this pot is getting a little hotter… (#7).” October 6, 2008.

Police Drones Are Already Here, Defense Tech, March 8, 2012.

[4] See for example, Roderick T. Long, “How Government Solved the Health Care Crisis: Medical Insurance that Worked — Until Government ‘Fixed’ It.” Originally published in the Winter 1993-94 issue of Formulations. Online at Roderick T. Long’s website:

[5] For more on cooperatives, see Keith Taylor, “The Lost Generation’s Call To Action,” Center for a Stateless Society, January 20, 2012.

[6] TekArts in Milford, New Hampshire is a hackerspace with active libertarian participants.

[7] For more on localized production, see Kevin Carson, “The Homebrew Industrial Revolution,” Center for a Stateless Society, September 2009.

[8] Darian Worden, “Alternative Currency: Coming to Stores Near You?” Center for a Stateless Society, October 15, 2011.

Jon Henley, “Greece on the breadline: cashless currency takes off,” The Guardian, March 16, 2012.

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