The State Makes Serfs

It’s not unreasonable to worry that corporate and government interests force the average person into serfdom. Chris Hedges’ words, in a recent interview with The Raw Story, exemplify the concern: “We’ve undergone a corporate coup d’état in slow motion … Unless we begin to physically resist, they are going to solidify neo-feudalism in this country” (“Exclusive: US empire could collapse at any time, Pulitzer winner tells Raw Story,” Dec. 17).

Those who benefit the most from an economy woven through with state coercion tell those at the bottom to make sacrifices and accept getting less in return for their acquiescence. Social programs are cut while the security-industrial complex gets new contracts and the managers of favored firms are protected from the consequences of their actions. The poor are expected to shoulder all the blame for their condition at the same time that workers are expected to be grateful to have any job at all. The drill is, “Appreciate what you’re given and let the important people do important things.”

We could argue about whether the system is broken or just working at abnormal intensity, but either perspective raises an important question. Should the system be fixed? Should a different system be adopted?

Wherever states exist, they will always try to drive producers toward serfdom. The powerful have the easiest access to the state, and politicians need a stable power structure to administer society. Reformers can at best make the state less destructive by placating conflict or pushing deprivation to the margins. Better conditions are won by forcing concessions or by playing different ruling class interests against each other.

But is entrenched power a necessary evil that must be negotiated with to attain the essentials of life? No.

Entrenched power brings with it bureaucracy and cronyism. No matter how much funding is increased for anything from schools to security, the flow of money will be dammed up by excessive administration and siphoned off to the pockets of crony contractors. But reducing funding while leaving the system in place often means that administrators will continue taking their cut and just leave less for those at the bottom — the people who are supposed to be helped by programs in the first place. Without fundamental changes people pay and obey as much as they are forced to, but get less in return.

Even worse, reliance on power structures dissolves personal autonomy and social bonds. It conditions people to await orders and devote their time to carrying out orders. Initiative often becomes a matter of how effectively one can get around requirements. And relying on distant powers means dependence on people who probably know you as a statistic or as work material, instead of creating reciprocal relations with people who know you as a person.

The resources exist to dispose of the system altogether. Authority rests primarily on the idea that it ought to be obeyed. If a large number of people were to dispense with this idea and support each others’ efforts in enacting new ideas, then change would be more than a campaign slogan.

The best way to resolve disputes over how to use the state against people is to abolish the state. No system will be perfect, but an order based on the flourishing of each individual instead of on subordination to elites, where people make their own lives instead of having their purpose given to them with commands, certificates, or clubs, is a world that allows the best systems to emerge.

Citations to this article:

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist