Syria and the “Popular Will”

Against the backdrop of anti-government protests and his regime’s brutal response, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressed the country on June 20. Downplaying both the demonstrations and the dissatisfaction that they represent, Assad called on “the people and the state [to] come together.”

With the death toll climbing, Assad’s assurances about “getting the military back to their barracks” hardly ring believable, but there was a faint truth to his words. Although the insight is no doubt lost on Assad himself, by appealing for the unification of the people and the state he implicitly acknowledges that the two are quite distinct.

Summarily taking to the streets following Assad’s speech, unconvinced protesters met his talk of “reform” with chants of “liar.” For market anarchists, their chants were loaded with subtext regarding the relationship between society and state. Nietzsche perhaps said it best: “The state is called the coldest of all cold monsters. And coldly it lieth; and this lie creepeth out of its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’”

Far from personifying some collective will, the state is merely the unwieldy implement of a power elite, plotters who conspire not behind a curtain, but right out in the open. The political class, the parasitic few who contrive the system of state capitalism, feel no need whatsoever to hide; they cheat and extort the public from behind protestations of the “popular will.”

We will find, though, that historically the “popular will” has been no more than an assiduously attuned cover for the will of rulers, rhetorical chicanery to hold the ruled in line. Other meanings, any formulae that advance the phrase as something beyond just the sum of individual wills, proves elusive or altogether illusional.

To market anarchists, abstract notions like the “free market,” “the popular will,” and “democracy” are, by definition, not things that can be orchestrated according to design or imposed by some governing body. To have any real significance, such expressions must be properly understood as verbal proxies for complex webs of voluntary interactions.

Popular concerns about what is now considered “the free market,” warranted as they are, are in fact worries about an economic reality in which the state has intervened for powerful business interests at every level of analysis. Distinguished by its Himalayan peaks of concentrated wealth separated by vast expanses of poverty, today’s system is a product of the state rather than of a pure free market.

Consider, by analogy, the tendencies of liquid or gas molecules, their natural drift from areas of higher density into areas of lower density. As related in a popular science text, “Unequal pressures will always equalize themselves if given a chance.” The functioning of a genuine free market — one composed of the unobstructed trades of self-ruling people — would achieve the same kind of balance.

It is the concentration of power in society, with the state falsely holding itself out as “the people,” that gathers wealth into the hands of a small coterie. The social phenomenon of the state, then, is thoroughly tied to the economic conditions we observe today. As is very apparent in countries like Syria, for the yawning breach between the “haves” and the “have-nots” to exist, the introduction of coercion is necessary.

The public outcry in Syria demonstrates that there’s distinction between political and economic problems — or between political and economic freedoms. Market anarchism is the idea that all relationships, whether of a social or commercial kind, ought to be grounded in consent and mutual respect. This is the simple idea that can unchain a true social will from the state’s ruling classes.

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