Review: The Operating System by Eric Laursen

Eric Laursen. The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. Foreword by Maia Ramnath (AK Press, 2021).

Much of the ground Laursen covers in this book is already familiar to most anarchists. He does an adequate job, or better, at all of it. His treatment of the ideological hegemony of the state is exceptional, and deserves to be read alongside thinkers like Chomsky and Hermann.

But what stands out by far — and the focus of this review — is his central thesis of the state as operating system, and the related ideas he develops from it.

The state, he argues, is both a set of relationships, and a structure controlled by particular groups. In regard to the former: 

Marx defined the groupings that control the State too narrowly, denying that the State has any “will” or trajectory of its own. Kropotkin, likewise, failed to see the State as more than just the sum total of the selfish interests behind it.

Any theory of the state that focuses on one of these aspects to the neglect of the other will be unsatisfactory.

If we think of the State as a machine controlled by a specific group — the landed aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class — we understand only part of it, and we risk assuming that it can be abolished or reformed by abolishing or disempowering these groups. If we think of the State as merely a relationship or a practice, we end up ignoring the details, and we fail to understand its full dimensions. Above all, we fail to understand the magnitude of the task of creating true alternatives and counter-communities — and the opportunity to do so.

* * *

…The State is not synonymous with government, and its borders are not strictly physical (even though establishing and enforcing boundaries is one of the ways it wields power). Nor is it a conspiracy, controlled by some all-powerful clique of politicians, gangsters, or wealthy capitalists; while a great deal of its activity is cloaked in secrecy — and this penchant for secrecy is growing — its pattern of behavior is fairly easy to trace. Instead, the State is a vast operating system for ordering and controlling functions and relations among human society, economy, populations, and the natural world, analogous to a digital operating system like Windows, Linux, or macOS.

The modern state, by its organization and functioning, has its own expansionist logic. 

By virtually any standard — geographic, economic, cultural, technological — the modern State has been more successful than any previous system at imposing itself on humanity and the earth. Over five centuries, it has harnessed capital, labor, science and technology, and firepower to remake almost the entire world through conquest, slavery, innovation, economic exploitation, the subjugation or evisceration of societies that followed other models, the systematic stripping of the planet’s natural resources, and the inculcation of its worldview into every one of us.

These were not by-products or unintended consequences. They also didn’t have to happen. But these practices were integral to the State’s goals and ambitions; they are part of its DNA.

And the state encompasses everything that has been assimilated into its logic, not simply the formal government.

Its central feature is the legal, administrative, and decision-making structure we refer to as government. But the State is a much larger, more complex phenomenon, a comprehensive means of organizing and exercising power that, once it’s launched, expands to cover more and more aspects of existence according to a direction and logic of its own….

At the same time, and again like a computer operating system, the State is not a material object or entity. The various pieces of “hardware” we associate with it — big, imposing neoclassical buildings fronted by Greco-Roman columns quite often come to mind, along with military bases, roads, and monuments — are merely material containers and symbols of the immaterial reality. An operating system is soft ware [sic], a collection of embedded commands that direct a machine called a computer. The State, too, is “software”: a collection of ideas, doctrines, commands, and processes that direct the deployment of human beings and their deployment of physical resources.

The State is at once a political, social-cultural, and economic entity. Like an operating system, it networks together institutions, organizations, and less formal groups including government but also many others: corporations, banks, other financial institutions…, and other underpinnings of capitalism; eleemosynary (nonprofit and charitable) institutions; so-called civil society groups and political parties (especially “established” parties like the Democrats and Republicans in the United States, which have evolved into quasi-state institutions); and even basic units like families and households. Other institutions and groupings that form part of the State furnish cultural and even paramilitary support to the social order, strengthen organized religion, and reinforce racial and gender stratification: for instance… the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan, the National Rifle Association, militia groups, the Proud Boys, and the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States.

Any organization recognized and regulated by law is a component of the State; so are many illegal or extralegal organizations that rely on State institutions and infrastructure in some respect, such as informal or gray markets….. What these entities have in common is that they all reinforce the State even as they depend on the structure of the State to survive.  This is what makes the State a total operating system, not just a legal or administrative structure. 

Government is, of course, the core institution of the State, but government depends on many of these other institutions and organizations to fulfill vital functions. Government especially depends on private capital as a partner in generating economic growth. Historically, many social and economic functions have shifted back and forth from government to private-sector control while always remaining within the State’s power to regulate and legislate — and, in reality, the line between government and the private sector is profoundly blurred.

The state’s expansionist drive is reinforced by policies that lower the effort and transaction costs of operating within the state system, and for attempts to operate outside of it.

Like a computer operating system, the State manages relationships between government, capital, nonprofits, and other entities to make them work together easily and efficiently, many parts operating at the same time. Like an operating system, it lets us do things—make computations, write, communicate, learn, play, create art, make a living—but always within boundaries that it prescribes and manipulates. Like an operating system, it provides a user-friendly interface that makes it much easier for us to conduct our business inside rather than outside its boundaries. Consider citizenship, passports, and other personal identification; it’s possible to live in the modern world without them, though barely, and it is extremely inconvenient, to say the least. Or consider the highways, rail lines, and postal systems the State and its private-sector components offer. Or, for businesses, the infrastructure of trade treaties, customs services, and ports that facilitate commerce. There are ways around these, but it’s so much easier to use the platform the State provides.

Compare this Borglike, totalizing nature of the state as Laursen describes it to the expansionist imperative of capital as it is understood in Marxist theory. Both capital and the state are expansionist entities whose core logic drives them to incorporate and assimilate everything external into themselves.  

How do their interests intersect? According to free-market ideologues like economist Milton Friedman, the only imperative of business is to create value for its owners. Any other relevant social role is contained in that imperative; otherwise it’s not relevant. But this assertion is nothing more than ideology. The fundamental job of capital is to build the State; creating wealth, launching profit-making enterprises, providing needed goods and services, and manufacturing a desire for yet more goods and services are its principal contributions to the project. This often makes for extraordinarily uneven distribution of its benefits and accelerates the destruction of the environment, threatening human life as well, but it also increases the State’s sources of taxation, which provides the leverage needed for the State to borrow money and finance its growth. For this reason, capitalism has been a vital part of the State ever since the modern State began.

The state “enlists us in the work of reproducing itself” in the same way Marxists describe capital as incorporating workers’ extracted surplus labor into the mass of accumulated capital, so that workers’ own dead labor confronts them as an enemy and extracts still further surplus.

And the state, every bit as much as capital, is driven by the imperative to expand commodification and the cash nexus, in order to transform society into a fungible resource for its own purposes. “The State was the original capitalist, and it remains the greatest. It aspires to incorporate every inch, every corner of the society over which it presides into a vast wealth-producing machine.” Hence state policies from the beginning of the early modern period to impose specie money, to privatize and commodify common lands, and to coerce people into the wage system.

The motivation, then as now, was much the same. By adopting policies that raised productivity and held down labor costs, early modern states hoped to encourage economic growth that would boost taxes and other revenues, in turn allowing them to field more formidable armies, expand their geographic reach, and establish more pervasive control over their lands and populations.

The distinction between “public” and “private,” or “government” and “business” — standard in American-style right-libertarian discourse — is largely meaningless against this background. The modern model of “private property rights,” which the libertarian right depicts as the spontaneous outgrowth of Lockean homesteading, is the joint creation of the state and of capital.

This begins with property. When early modern European states began turning feudal lines of obligation into landed property — a form of direct ownership — the modern economy was born. Property ownership is a central principle of the State, a safeguard of authority and social order, and every state devotes a significant measure of its resources to defending property against almost any other moral or economic consideration….

This confluence of interests highlights the slipperiness of the distinction between the political and economic realms. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the State came to define the two as distinct and to define the economy as a closed system. This shift was useful because it allowed classical economics, focused exclusively on growth, to be presented as an objective, scientific area of study….

But the distinction is false. The State is an economic entity, just as much as a corporation or a company or a cooperative. It runs on revenues (taxes) and borrowed capital, just as a private company does….

The conjunction of interests between capitalists and the State… is profound. Both need steady, perpetual economic growth to remain viable and to legitimate themselves. Both are concerned with marshaling resources — animal, vegetable, inanimate, and human—for this purpose. Both therefore have an insatiable need… to track, record, evaluate, and make these resources more exploitable.

Capitalism already existed in the activities of bankers and lenders in the cities of medieval Germany and Italy, but the formation of the modern State in the late fifteenth century supercharged it, giving capital a primary client with far greater resources. That client could coin and later print its own money, could open up vast new territories for capital to explore and exploit, and would always need capital’s services as it grew and became more ambitious. Just like the State, modern capitalism isn’t something that arose “naturally”; it had to be constructed, subsidized, and directed, and it still does. It couldn’t exist without the State to supply the rules, enforcement, guardrails, and social acceptance that enable it to function — and, crucially, the credit backstop and subsidies needed to keep it profitable.

Even self-proclaimed “socialist states” of the Marxist-Leninist variety pursue the same economic logic that led to enclosures and the imposition of modern private property. The forced collectivization under Stalin, every bit as much as imposition of fee-simple commodity land ownership under Stolypin, entailed suppression of the Mir in order to make arable land resources legible to the state and to facilitate extraction. In fact, “Marxist” economist Yevgeny Preobrazhensky coined the term “primitive socialist accumulation” for the financing of industrial expansion with wealth extracted from the peasantry.

Hence the absolute necessity that “we first understand the capitalist system as a component of the larger system of the State”; otherwise 

any attempt to move beyond capitalism will only lead to a further buildup of the State and, in the end, the reproduction of capitalism in some form. This was precisely the outcome at the end of the “socialist decades” following the Russian Revolution and the heyday of social-democratic governments in Europe and elsewhere.

This is also true of the social democratic welfare state, which expands by absorbing and 

co-opting projects based on mutual aid that many workers adopted during the early industrial period through unions or fraternal organizations, such as old-age, survivors’, and unemployment benefits, making them part of the State apparatus and thus cementing a potentially troublesome urban population’s loyalty….

While social-democratic states at least in theory are more humanistic, inclusive, and caring than national states, they often express their rationale in a fairly hard-nosed way. “Today,” write political scientists Anton Hemerijck and Robin Huguenot-Noël, “the evidence corroborates the contention that the quality of modern social policy positively affects long-term supply, especially with respect to employment and productivity, and indirectly demand. Central to the financial sustainability of the welfare state are the number (quantity) and productivity (quality) of current and future employees and taxpayers.” 

While the social-democratic state tends to have more regard for its population as human beings, in the end its goal is the same as that of other forms of the modern State: to mold the population into a productive workforce who can play their part in the building of the State.

The state’s expansionist logic is reflected in the way it uses even the crises created by its own mismanagement to further expand itself. Laursen gives the example of the state’s disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic at virtually every step of the way. And yet the scale of the disaster itself has fueled an enormous growth in the state’s powers of surveillance and social control.

Consider also the 9/11 attack, which was used as the pretext for the biggest single expansion of the state’s power in decades: the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the USA PATRIOT Act, the introduction of what amounted to an internal passport system under TSA…. And yet the terrorist attack was itself blowback from decades of US foreign policy: active support for the Saud family (by far the biggest promoters of Wahhabism in the Middle East), followed by the destabilization of a secular Soviet client state in Afghanistan and aid to Wahhabist guerrillas who eventually gave birth to Al Qaeda, etc.

Compare this continuing reward for incompetence to capitalism’s imperative to use resources inefficiently and engage in waste production, and its treatment of wasteful consumption itself as the creation of value, in order to reduce the surplus and reduce idle capacity. 

The nation-state and capitalism arose together at the beginning of the modern period, have existed symbiotically since, and continue to help each other to grow like a cancer. In fact, Laursen implies that the government and capitalism are both components of the state: 

…[I]t’s government, but it’s also capitalism and the vast edifice of institutions, identities, and livelihoods grouped under those headings. In this book, we call it the State….

When we examine [Global Systems Science] literature closely, we find that “systems” and “societies” are nearly synonymous with the State as we’re defining it….

Cutting through the jargon, that “complex system of global nodes and links” is the commercial side of the operating system the State molds, embodies, and presides over.

The state has expanded not only intensively — that is, by subsuming everything within its jurisdiction into its core logic — but extensively. Since the founding of the Westphalian state system in Europe, it has replicated itself laterally to include virtually the entire world (aside from still partially ungoverned spaces, like the Indigenous communities of the Amazon rainforest, within the technical jurisdiction but not the actual grasp of nation-states). Even when states are at enmity, they tend to reinforce each other by accepting the state as the normal partner for interaction and by promoting a continuation of the nation-state model even over conquered territories. Time and again, revolutionary movements have reconstituted themselves as governments of territorial nation-states after taking power. And time and again, liberation movements in former colonized countries have, after independence, left intact the artificial national borders originally drawn by imperialist states in disregard of ethnic or cultural boundaries, and constituted governments on the Westphalian nation-state model rather than attempting to reconstitute traditional, precolonial governance structures. The state, with its borders and territory legally guaranteed, is the normal actor under international law. A whole set of multi-lateral institutions treat nation-state status as the norm for membership.

It’s interesting to compare and contrast Laursen’s views of the nature of the state with those of state autonomists like Theda Skocpol and structuralist Marxists like Nicos Poulantzas. At one point Laursen seems to argue that when the immediate interests of the state conflict with those of capital (but note the qualifier “immediate”), the state will pursue its own entirely autonomous and self-generated interests at the expense of those of capital.

The immediate interests of the State and capital are not always congruent — and when they are not, usually it is the State that determines the agenda. For example, in 1834 the British Parliament downgraded the rich and politically powerful East India Company into a managing agency for the British government in India and in 1873 dissolved it (after a final dividend payment and stock redemption). The European carve-up of the developing world into colonies and protectorates, at around the same time, which in reality was sparked by political ambitions, territorial rivalries, and proxy warfare, not to mention the need to supply military and civil posts to members of polite families, was rationalized as a business proposition. But European capitalists and businesses underinvested in these territories, which served primarily to extend the State’s military and political control.

But he goes on to imply — in a manner reminiscent of the structuralist argument that a “measure of autonomy” is necessary to properly serve capital’s real interests against the greed and short-sightedness of actual capitalists — that even when the state’s “immediate” interests differ from those of capital, they serve its longer-term interests.

These examples underscore the State’s knack for taking the long view and the willingness of capital and big business to follow its direction, knowing that in the end, they all contribute to the same project. Lacking both the leadership and the protection (from itself) extended by the State, capital would either destroy itself or be quickly brought down.

Laursen is wrong, in my opinion, to define statism in entirely qualitative rather than quantitative terms, and to posit such a low threshold of engagement with the state (anything that “occupies cracks and corners within the operating system,” or relies on “infrastructure of roads, airports, housing, postal systems,” etc.) as sufficient for defining it as a component of the state.  

The first error rules out the possibility that the state can be pushed in the direction of becoming less statelike in degree (for example the Partner State model). In this he resembles the leftists who attach the most essentialist understanding to the phrase “no ethical consumption under capitalism,” assuming that a thing is entirely under capitalism until it isn’t.   

The second rules out the existence of interstitial phenomena that not only prefigure post-state and post-capitalist society, but constitute the seeds from which it will grow, despite maintaining some interfaces with the existing state/capitalist system of power.

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