A Market Anarchist Critique of Marx’s Views on the State

“That government is best which governs not at all…”
–Henry David Thoreau

In this essay, I will contend that the role of the state is to prevent competition to its “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. In order to substantiate this argument, I will first compare Marx’s definition of the state to a market anarchist’s definition. I will then critique Marx’s view that the state is a tool by which “the organised power of one class… [oppresses] another” through a market anarchist lens. This critique will interpret the state to be a part of (and catalyst for) the maintenance of kyriarchy in any given society. I will then provide a brief overview of the means by which any given state maintains its monopoly on the right to use violence. Following this, I will propose that the state should ideally have no role. I shall expound reasons for supporting this view, with a focus on detailing the pitfalls of state control and evaluating the market anarchist alternative. The inadequacies of Marxist thought with regards to dissolution of the state will also be highlighted. Finally, I will conclude by summarising the key areas of disagreement between Marxists and market anarchists: highlighting the superiority of market anarchist thought in the each cases.

In order to understand the state’s role, we have to define what a state is. Both market anarchists and Marx have criticised attempts to conceive of the state as analogous to civil society. Marx highlighted this separation, stating that the “political state everywhere needs the guarantee of spheres lying outside it”. Similarly, the Center for Stateless Society defines market anarchism as “advocacy of replacing the state with civil society”.

The state is therefore, according to Marx and market anarchists, a separate entity to civil society: “no organicist metaphor, no irrelevant bromide that ‘we are all part of one another,’ must be permitted to obscure this basic fact [that we as a collective are not the state]”. What distinguishes the state from other institutions of civil society is its attempts to maintain itself as the sole association of individuals holding the ‘right’ to use coercive violence over a given geographical area. Marx also recognised the state’s basis in coercive violence. However, “the most prevalent conception of the state within Marxist theory” is that of instrumentalism: the state being defined as “an instrument in the hands of the ruling class for enforcing and guaranteeing the stability of the class structure itself”. Whilst certain strands of market anarchist class theory partially adhere to this definition , it can be argued that the Marxist conception of the state ignores potential heterogeneity within the ‘ruling class’. As I will content, this renders it inferior to the market anarchist definition of the state: a group of individuals attempting to maintain the right to use coercive violence over a given geographical territory.

Different interpretations of Marx’s conception of the state exist; however, I have chosen to discuss the instrumentalist position as it most accurately reflects Marx’s disagreements with his contemporaneous anarchist critics. Whereas all anarchists are united in opposition to the state in any form, Marx believes that – as a neutral tool – it should be used temporarily by a ruling class of the proletariat. Responding to criticism from Mikhail Bakunin, Marx states that “the proletariat raised to a governing class” entails:

…the proletariat, instead of fighting in individual instances against the economically privileged classes, has gained sufficient strength and organisation to use general means of coercion in its struggle against them…

Now it has been established that Marx considers the state to be a tool that any class can wield, an important limitation of this view will be explored. Characterising the state as being a tool of the ruling class fails to account for the plurality of power structures in society. If one were to accept Marx’s bourgeoisie/proletariat dichotomy as the structure of oppression, one ignores other similar structures of control (e.g. bureacracy, racism, patriarchy, homophobia). A group of individuals attempting to maintain a monopoly upon the right to use (or threaten to use) violence may be composed of people with radically different ideological goals. Samuel Edward Konkin III also made this point, writing that “the class consciousness of the superstatists, while high, does not include class solidarity”. Stating that ‘the bourgeoisie’, ‘men’, ‘Aryans’, ‘Soviet apparatchiks’ or any other single group are the ruling class fails to acknowledge overlapping structures of oppression that operate simultaneously, often aided and abetted by state coercion. Whilst contemporary Marxist-feminists and Marxist antiracists have attempted to incorpate Marx’s insights into their analysis, this essay deals with Marx himself and thus these charges stand.

Anarchist attempts to identify the ruling class as those who exercise state power for whatever purpose are also flawed. Whilst possession of the right to use or threaten violence is indeed a strong indicator of dominance within society, it does not necessarily render one dominant. Few would consider a disabled, transgender African American to be part of the United Kingdom’s dominant ‘ruling class’ after finding out that he/she was a local councillor.

As “a group of individuals attempting to maintain the sole right to use coercive violence over a given geographical territory”, the state must prevent anyone else from separately claiming such a right. The role of the state, then, is to prevent competition to its monopoly. In order to do this, “any government…must have the support of the majority of its subjects. This support, it must be noted, need not be active enthusiasm; it may well be passive resignation”. The general means by which it may achieve this support can be defined as follows:

  1. Violence and intimidation. A population’s passive consent may be achieved by means of forcefully suppressing any resistance to state power. This suppression may be overt, such as in autocratic, fascist or authoritarian communist regimes. However, it often takes on more subtle forms: control of competing protective agencies, for example.
  2. Ideology. Perhaps the most important weapon in the arsenal of the state, ideology assists in persuading civil society that the state is necessary for any number of reasons. From the Divine Right of Kings to the ‘common good’, ideology is employed in order to guarantee that at minimum, any given state is better than other conceivable alternatives.
  3. Protecting vested economic interests. Whether through modern ‘state capitalism’  or vassalage in feudal Europe, states can manufacture consent by forcibly redistributing wealth towards favoured groups. Whilst limited in scope, Marx’s description of the state as “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” provides an example of such a favoured group.

There is no shortage of anarchist (and libertarian) literature detailing the innumerable faults of the state. Perhaps the most powerful and concise summation can be found in Proudhon’s ‘The General Idea of the Revolution’, where to be governed is (among other things) to be:

…watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about, by men who have neither the right, nor the knowledge, nor the virtue.

The state is both an originator of (and catalyst for) oppression. It has, in various forms, supported harmful power structures within society, from racism and speciesism to patriarchy and ageism. It has a black record of murder to answer to: “in the 20th-century alone, states have murdered well over 100,000,000 human beings, whether in war, concentration camps, or man-made famine”. Its restrictions on freedom of trade and freedom of movement have drastically slowed humanity’s ascent out of poverty. These evils and more are, in the view of market anarchists, avoidable; hence, the state must have no role. That is to say, the state must be abolished.

For every area in which the state exerts its coercive influence, market anarchism provides a voluntary alternative. Whilst there are debates amongst anarchists regarding the use of violence that are not within the remit of this essay, a brief illustration of the systems that will replace the state should highlight the superiority of a stateless society.

In the case of the welfare state, market anarchists (and indeed anarchists in general) often point to the rich history of cooperatives, mutual aid organisations and friendly societies. Without the state, which has (in the words of Peter Kropotkin) “systematically weeded out all institutions in which the mutual aid tendency had formerly found expression”, voluntary associations of various forms would step in to provide assistance for those in need.

There are strong arguments as to why market anarchism would assist in the decline of the patriarchy. For example, Herbert Spencer saw “the replacement of militarized hierarchical societies by more market-oriented societies…as closely allied with the decline of patriarchy in favor of increasing sexual equality”. The anarcha-feminist tradition, encapsulated in thinkers such as Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman, propagates such arguments in more detail.

However, the central claim that distinguishes market anarchists from other libertarians is the replacement of state legislation and law enforcement with private alternatives. The details of such polycentric law are explained in David Friedman’s ‘The Machinery of Freedom’, where he advocates competition between arbitration and protection agencies within the same geographical area. This is based on the belief that “a system of private courts and police has certain special advantages over our present government system”: such as “better protection for the poor” and being able to “compare how good a job different agencies do and their prices”.

It must be stressed that, in the final analysis, Marx also believed that the state should eventually have no role . However, the means advocated by Marx to achieve this are flawed, according to anarchist criticism. His proposition that the proletariat should establish a ‘dictatorship’ in order to create a classless society has empirically led to state tyranny and oppression on an unprecedented scale. This was accurately anticipated by Bakunin:

They [Marx et al.] assert that a dictatorship – theirs, of course, can create liberty for the people. We assert that no dictatorship can have any other goals than the perpetuation of itself, and that it is capable only of creating and cultivating slavery in the people which submits to it. Freedom can only be created by freedom…

Admittedly, there are elements of non-governmental routes to the destruction of the state in Marx’s writings. His advocacy of “municipal committees and municipal councils…worker’s clubs or worker’s committees” hints at worker self-organisation rather the statist means to the creation of the stateless society. However, the overriding narrative is one of ‘statelessness via the state’.

We have seen how market anarchist thought and Marx’s thought differ with regards to both the current role of the state and what role the state should have. Whilst Marx conceived of the state as an instrument of one ruling class, market anarchists highlight the importance of the intersecting structures of oppression that contribute to a kyriarchical view of the state. Although both Marx and market anarchists eventually envision the dissolution of the state, they profoundly disagree on the means by which to bring this about. According to market anarchists, Marx’s strategy of using the state as a tool to abolish itself will merely create and then perpetuate dictatorship in a new form. Looking at the historical record, this criticism appears all too valid.

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