Nearly a quarter century ago the end of the Cold War instituted what then-President George H. W. Bush called a “New World Order.” It was, perhaps, a poor choice of words that elicited more in the way of conspiracy-fueled fear of one-world government than a bright, new cosmopolitan future, but it was nonetheless an apt description of a new era in world politics.
Like Fukuyama’s infamous “The End of History and the Last Man,” the elder Bush’s turn of phrase promised a new, orderly world system that would simultaneously be more peaceful, prosperous and free. Democracy and capitalism would spread around the globe, and states would find themselves bound together both out of necessity and ideological agreement. This newfound unity of global purpose, in turn, would express itself through mighty new international organizations and endeavors that would cement this new order for at least the next hundred years.
How wrong all that promise of a brave new world has turned out to be. Instead of a new world system, we have jumped back to the future to a global order that seems much more like the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries than some futuristic liberal utopia. Indeed, there are all sorts of commonalities between that earlier time and now for the implications to be more than a little disconcerting.
Among the most important is that then, as now, a highly interconnected version of financial capitalism girds the world, mashing together labor, capital and cultures in a way that has upended comfortable domestic status quos, challenged existing cultural values and created immense political tensions around the world. Everywhere, it seems, this tension is boiling over in a protest, riot and revolution in defiance of an order that seems to benefit connected elites much more than average people and entrenched special interests more than public good.
A result of this is that the state – whether authoritarian or democratic – has naturally become a target for this rising discontent as its capture by elites and special interests is crucial to their continued domination of everyone else in this new, post-Cold War world order. Unfortunately, what has also emerged is a very old idea that is also gaining traction amongst many on both the far left and the far right: anarchism, or the belief that the state can be done away with altogether and replaced by a society organized solely along the lines of non-coercion, communal self-help and mutual aid.
As Peter Marshall notes in his seminal history of anarchism, “Demanding the Impossible,” anarchist opposition to the state is nearly as old as the state itself, and has been repeatedly manifested throughout history via social movements and belief systems adopted by those excluded or otherwise marginalized by the state and those controlling it. From medieval religious communes to today’s Rand-quoting anarcho-capitalists, the argument that the state and its oppressive system of central control is the ultimate source of all problems in society is a consistent one. If only, goes their argument, we could get rid of the state, then the world would be a much better place.
Invariably, this condemnation of one the world’s oldest social institutions is coupled with a denunciation of the use of force, too. Violence, the anarchists argue, can only lead to oppression, and so any institution whose foundation rests upon the use of violence for the purposes of coercion and social control is, by its very nature, immoral and illegitimate. Like an original sin that stains all it touches, the state cannot get away from this basic, ugly truth of its existence. It should, therefore, be abolished and replaced with a free society built on cooperative voluntarism. Only such a society, argues the anarchist, has the moral foundation to succeed in the ways we want it to.
It all sounds very nice, of course. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in such a society? Imagine a system, well-ordered and peaceful, where collective problems are solved through the voluntary association of men and women in small, independent groups all working for – in the far-left version – the collective good, or – as in the right-wing version – in mutual self-interest. Such a world could not but be a better place than our own because everyone would be free to pursue what is best for them without coercion. Without the state, a thousand flowers would bloom.
As the title of Marshall’s book suggests, of course, this is impossible for the simple reason that for all its many faults, the political state is a solution to the problem of violence, not a result of it. Indeed, so terrible was this problem that its solution – political authority and the state – emerged very early in humanity’s civilized history. That’s because we were once, a long time ago, organized very much along the lines of what anarchists suggest. Only then, however, thousands of flowers didn’t bloom, they withered.
In pre-history, for instance, we were all distributed in small, independent bands of genetically-related groups that interacted with similar-such groups. Each band or tribe generally kept to its own territory, traded and intermarried with other groups, and met and feasted with their neighbors. Without centralized authority, every little band was more-or-less sovereign in its own right and acted accordingly. No man was an island, but effectively every tribe could be and was.
This, however, was not the peaceful, happy world anarchists imagine it to be. In addition to trading, marrying and feasting with one another, these allegedly happy little bands also feuded and warred incessantly. There was, in fact, no utopia before the invention of the state and its imposition of coercive, centralized control over others. Instead, what existed was exactly what Hobbes imagined: a world riven by war in which violent competition between groups was the norm, not the exception.
Importantly, it is not mere philosophical musings which lead us to now say, definitely, that this was in fact the case. Today ample archeological and anthropological evidence clearly show that murderous, violent death in skirmishes and raids was common and affected the lives of everyone in prehistory. There was, to put it simply, no human culture or society that existed without it for the simple reason that human nature – simple fear, mistrust, greed, jealousy and anger – was present in equal amounts in every society and culture.
Without the state to maintain order, however despotic, the best evidence indicates that death by violence was at least several orders of magnitude higher than what we see today in even the most crime-ridden and violent state societies. Violence between groups was an ever-present threat, and because of it, no group could safely do away with making war or engaging in violence for fear of being destroyed by those who remained wedded to the practice. Caught in this brutal prisoners’ dilemma from which there was no way out, a competitive arms race between groups emerged and the state – with its ability to command resources and employ them in battle – emerged as a key to success and, more importantly, survival.
As a consequence of this advantage in war, the ability to wield violence effectively also meant the state could easily keep the peace within the group as well, which by now was significantly larger than the small, tribal bands that got the long ball of state formation rolling. With the pacification of wide areas and large numbers, such as what we saw in the empires of the ancient world, long-distance trade and economic specialization could emerge, thus leading to cultural and technological progress.
Indeed, so important is the state is that when it collapses we see demographic, cultural and even technological retrogression of a type that can only properly be called Dark Ages. The collapse of the Roman Empire, for instance, broke apart a long-unified territory criss-crossed by long-distance trade routes that led to the immediate decline of cities and civilization. In Britain, for instance, trade goods like quality pottery and glasswork that were once common disappeared altogether for hundreds of years after the collapse of the Roman West. Likewise, literacy – a hallmark of a culture worth living in – declined precipitously and was kept alive only by monks living in fortified, secluded places that were out of the way of marauding war bands and barbarian kings.
As in the ancient West, so, too, in other times and places. The collapse of the Soviet state, for instance, did not usher in a new era of freedom for its former citizens. Instead, what they got was a new form of anarchic, gangster capitalism that was much worse in many ways than what came before and which directly led to the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin. The collapse of Imperial China, likewise, did not bring much in the way of benefits. What the Chinese got instead of freedom was a system of warring petty states and invasion and occupation by outsiders that made Maoist, revolutionary communism look like a good alternative.
The same goes for modern Somalia, Congo, Yugoslavia and a host of other countries and societies that have faced a similar breakdown in internal order and state power. What invariably follows the collapse of central authority is not freedom, but gangsterism, war and violence that is only alleviated by the reconstruction of state authority – either through the creation of a successor state or states, or via imposition by outsiders – in some form. Freedom, it seems, needs some form of coercive order for it to flourish properly.
Thus, what anarchists of various stripes have yet to understand is that while political authority does flow from the barrel of the gun, the absence of such authority does not make the gun, or the penchant to use it, disappear. Instead, it creates an open space for competition to seize the gun and results in vastly more bloodshed and misery as a result – something to which members of post-Roman Empire Western Europe or modern-day Somalia can mournfully attest.
So, the state is here, and it is here for a reason. Instead of whining incessantly about recreating a past golden age of peaceful, anarchist voluntarism that never existed, those angered by the current capture of states by corrupt elites and special interests would be far better served by organizing politically to retake the state from those very same interests. People in Ukraine and Venezuela today are doing exactly that.
If only our own anarchists, comfortable in the safe space the state has created for them, could learn from their example before riot and revolution — not voting and demonstrating — become our only options.