On June 12, the northwestern Syrian city of Jisr al-Shugur, CNN reports, “was under heavy shelling as hundreds of military vehicles entered the city and helicopters hovered in the sky.” The vicious onslaught, which Syrian state television blames on “armed gangs,” has escalated what human rights activists are calling a “humanitarian crisis” in the country, with some estimates placing the death toll at more than 1,200.
Since March, protests have raged in the Arab country, where authoritarian military rule has long been the norm. Recently though, the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters has intensified to a level of violence exceptional even in one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
The official narrative claims that the tanks and helicopter gunships are necessary to “restore security and tranquility,” that Syria is “terrorized” by groups opposed to President Bashar Assad’s rule. According to observers, however, Syrians were fleeing the ravaged city to escape the state’s unprovoked blitz against overwhelmingly peaceful protests.
For 40 years, Syria has caricatured the worst kind of dictatorship. The autocratic Assad family, imposing martial law and ossifying widespread poverty, long ago banned political parties, handing control of the economy to political favorites. The government’s recent spree of murders and arbitrary arrests has put on display for the world the kinds of policies Syrians have long endured.
And although Syria would seem to represent the utmost extreme of Orwellian, antihuman public policy, its actions are only an instance of what the state is, by definition, geared to do: Transgress individual liberty. “Liberty,” writes economist George Reisman, “should be understood as freedom from the government, specifically, freedom from the initiation of physical force by the government.”
Aggression against peaceful individuals is the feature of the state that sets it apart from other human institutions. Market anarchists see the systematic coercion of the state as an instrument of a small power elite, empowering and enriching it at the expense of the productive majority.
The state, then, is and always has been a tool of class warfare, dividing those who live and trade nonviolently from those who profit from the obstruction of and theft from voluntary society. Because the state’s system of hierarchy and authority is inherently unstable and offensive, its maintenance requires sustained militarism and the use of fear to suppress awareness.
In contrast, market anarchists advocate simply for an undeviating application of a principle that almost everyone, at least implicitly, subscribes to — that people should be free from violent interference within their own sphere of autonomy. Consistent respect for the dignity of each human being would mean an end to the state’s ill-founded ability to use crime against the rest of society.
Lamenting that the very “personality of man” had been rendered an “unpaid prostitute” of the ruling class, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon called for “free contract” to replace “arbitrary law.” “To be governed,” he said, “is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded … .”
The people of Syria, petrified under the shelling of their government, understand acutely and intimately the gravity of Proudhon’s words. The Syrian state, like all states, is nothing more than a criminal gang that has deluded the population into a belief in its legitimacy.
The brazen savagery of the Assad government against its own people mocks all decency, revealing the true nature of the state. The silver lining, if indeed one can be discerned, is the opportunity for all of us to renounce the naive belief that the state is at all necessary or ethical.