The state is an organization through which some people exercise political authority – coercive power with a claim of legitimacy – against other people.
A state is said to have the right to do things that ordinary individuals do not have the right to do. The state is conferred the right to rule over individuals. It works to control life in order to safeguard or expand the power of the people in charge and the powerful interests they answer to. Individuals may not opt out of state demands without being subject to legal sanctions (unless state agents find the cost of enforcing an individual infraction too high for the perceived benefit).
Some use the term “state” to describe the specific form of government that arose in Europe following the 1648 Peace of Westphalia – distinguished from feudal empires, tribal rulership, etc. But this is drawing too sharp of a distinction. The only thing that distinguishes a state from any other gang of authoritarians is that the state is recognized as a state by rulers of other states.
The antithesis of state power is anarchy, life without rulers. Anarchy recognizes equality of authority among all individuals – each rules over his or her own life, and nobody rules over another’s life. All relations are to be done on a consensual basis, and no ruling power, regardless of what they call themselves or claim to be authorized by, will be considered legitimate.
What are some characteristics of state power?
1) The state operates on organized violence and the threat of violence.
Military and police forces (the distinction between these two is blurring) exist to protect the state and its rule from opposition or disruption. They will incidentally protect people claimed by the state when it suits the interests of a dominant faction of authority.
States currently pretend that state violence must be used for defensive purposes only. At best this is a robber “defending” himself from other robbers. At worst it is an outright lie. Because the state is an institution by which some seek to take control of things that don’t belong to them (creating conflict by doing so), states will always cause wars.
Individuals who are not connected to a state are almost invariably considered terrorists or criminals when they use organized violence, regardless of whether the violence they use is legitimately defensive.
State leaders try to control violence that isn’t explicitly political as well. Sometimes this is done by enforcing monopoly (like when schools teach and enforce the status of helpless victim) and sometimes it is done by getting people on their side (like when crime that is incentivized by state-driven poverty is supposed to be solved by getting excited about shooting people of certain demographics).
2) The state establishes boundaries to its turf, and sanctifies them as borders.
Borders are an essential part of modern state control. They are used to control the movement of people and goods, lock people into their current political and economic situations, and glorify the ruling gangs in charge of the state. Borders are usually drawn by state violence and political maneuvering to determine which gang will control an area and all of the people and resources within it.
The reality of border enforcement is often brutal and ugly. The concrete, machine guns, and thugs of the Berlin Wall are well known to history. In today’s United States, people who have harmed no individual but are found by state agents to be existing where the state has not authorized them to exist are taken by government agents and locked in unmarked warehouses or overcrowded jail units. Detainees frequently face abuses from their captors – apart from the inhuman conditions of their facilities. Family members and legal representatives often have great difficulty establishing communication with them.*
If individuals acting outside of state authority did this, it would be widely recognized as gang turf being established by violence and enforced by kidnapping and deprivation funded by theft.
3) The power of taxation means that the state is officially allowed to take money by force.
Any time a dollar is spent in the above-ground economy, much of that dollar will go into supporting services that the state forces on people. It usually starts with sales taxes, but eventually will go into paying for various income taxes, property taxes, and other taxes that businesses must pay in the course of production.
Because the state forces people to support its existence, and answers to power instead of popular demand, the money that the state takes is spent on things that are much less productive (they enrich life less than they could). If people were not forced to pay taxes, who would pay for so many $20,000 bombs, or pay hundreds of millions of dollars each year to maintain fleets of $14 million helicopters?**
4) To expand the power of politicians and the interests they are connected to, the state monopolizes large sectors of the economy, raising costs and hampering service.
In the United States, the Federal Reserve holds a monopoly on issuing money (though one can probably get away with creating barter tokens). Other things the state holds monopoly or near monopoly on include education, food and drug regulation, medical licensing, undeveloped lands, infrastructure, and welfare. These things may sometimes be done by non-state entities, but the state sets the terms, and therefore the state is in control.
Because the state is about control, politicians use monopolized industries as means of control. Education operates on institutional and bureaucratic lines, highways and railroads determine where people travel and live, things are built according to political interest, and welfare keeps people’s minimum needs satisfied after the state destroys opportunities.
Environments are controlled according to the interests of those who write the regulations and development plans. The interests of those without political power, including those who first use an area and those who are prevented by law from using an area, are pushed aside. This may be done in the name of money, preservation, cleanliness, or safety, but the motivation is really to control or dictate the standards of these things.
State power co-opts the works of individuals acting for personal and economic satisfaction, and attempts to manage political, social, and economic changes. Meeting needs outside of the state-capitalist order is further discouraged by the prevalence of authoritarian views concerning personal productivity.
5) Political leaders work with the social and economic interests that can help them expand their power and enforce their plans.
From local developers to bailed-out banks, leaders of businesses and governments often work together. As noted above, the security-industrial complex is big business. Intellectual property is another area in which state control puts certain businesses in better situations. Copyrights and patents protect large corporations at the expense of individual creators and craftspeople (except for the few who manage to get rich).
Political leaders often present themselves as embodying the values of those they expect votes from. Between affairs and campaign-funded sex trips, they make deals with the morality lobbies, further pushing to the margins those who will not contort their desires into established customs. Or they’ll work with the most establishment-friendly tolerance lobbies and act like they’re making real contributions to personal freedom.
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To do all of these things, rulers will exert control over the process of political change. You are expected to work within the system according to the rules made by those in charge. Line up to line the pockets of professional lobbyists, don’t bang on the cage surrounding the free speech zone, and maybe enough properly filed forms will get you into the debate.
Politicians value control more than they value prosperity. It’s not so much about having stuff as it is about controlling stuff. Trouble arises when they take more than the optimum for political stability or efficient draining of the people.
Political authority also conflates individual identity with the state. “Illegal immigrants break our laws,” but how are the laws ours? “We are at war,” but who counts as “we” and who is waging war on us?
The state is built from authoritarian social relationships. Rather than each individual being recognized as sovereign over his or her own life, the worth of an individual is based on rank. Some people must be obeyed because that is the rules.
Hierarchies help set people against each other. People in higher social ranks struggle to maintain their status, since they don’t want everyone getting above them. The state uses laws to detour social and economic advancement, attempting to force people to work through its monopolies or languish.
Promoting an equality of authority requires negating the authority that some hold over the lives of others. Promoting an equality of liberty requires encouraging others to maximize their freedom without interfering with the equal freedom of others.
To gain freedom, one must think and act towards freedom. Find where authority is vulnerable to your talents and wedge out the cracks to expand freedom. Break monopolies and spread the ideas of liberty and solidarity.
State power is a problem at every level. Humans flourish best in freedom, and destroying the state and the powers that work with it will yield a brilliant future, a future far different from the dreary dystopias and gore-strewn war zones that authority offers.
*For specific facts on border policing, check the links at http://darianworden.com/blog/2009/12/there-are-currently-secret-prisons-in-america
** Figures are from Wikipedia and fas.org