Statism, Capitalism, and Beyond.

By Robert Hanna

“Diogenes Sheltering in His Barrel,” by John William Waterhouse

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108. Statism, capitalism, and beyond.

Du musst dein Leben ändern/You must change your life.

–Rainer Maria Rilke[i]

The State and other State-like social institutions are correctly characterized, as Max Weber pointed out, by their being social institutions that possess a territorial monopoly on the (putatively) legitimate means and use of coercion[ii] — but that’s only a somewhat superficial gloss that doesn’t really get at the essence of the State.

The essence of the State is that it’s a form of social organization, with territorial boundaries, that’s both authoritarian and also coercive with respect to its government, i.e., its ruling class.

The State is coercive insofar as it claims the right to compel the people living within its boundaries to heed and obey the commands and laws of the government, in order to realize the instrumental ends of the State, whether or not those commands and laws are rationally justified or morally right on independently ethical grounds.

In turn, the State is authoritarian insofar as it claims that the commands and laws issued by its government are right JUST BECAUSE the government says that they’re right and possesses the power to coerce, NOT because those commands or laws are rationally justified and morally right on independent ethical grounds.

Here we can easily see the the fundamental parallel between what I’ve called “Statist Command Ethics” and what’s classically called “Divine Command Ethics,” which says that the commands and laws issues by God are right JUST BECAUSE God says that they’re right and possesses the power to create and destroy the world, punish with eternal damnation, and more generally cause people to do whatever God wants them to do, NOT because those commands or laws are are rationally justified and morally right on independent ethical grounds.

Therefore, the basic objection to Statist Command Ethics is essentially the same as the basic objection to Divine Command Ethics, which is that the State’s (or God’s) commands and laws are INHERENTLY ARBITRARY, and fully open to the possibility they’re rationally unjustified, morally wrong, and even profoundly evil.

109. As James C. Scott shows in Against the Grain,[iii] States and State-like social institutions have been in existence for roughly 5300 years.

But Scott also convincingly argues, based on strong archaeological evidence, that humanity lived in various kinds of stable social institutions — usually nomadic or semi-nomadic, involving hunting and various uses of animals, but also agrarian, involving various kinds of farming — for 4000 years prior to the emergence of the State; and that the emergence of the State and the consolidation of animal-use and farming within State boundaries, actually produced systematic slavery and livestock-associated disease with extremely high mortality rates.

Hence neither is it the case that the State is historically or naturally inevitable nor is it the case that States and State-like institutions are by any means an obvious improvement over the non-State condition of humanity.

Sharply on the contrary, The State is fully contingent and constructed-by-us, hence the State is also fully open to radical social-institutional change or revolution, devolution, deconstruction, reconstruction, and new construction; and arguably the non-State condition of humanity (including not only the pre-State condition of humanity, but also a post-State condition of humanity) is generally for the better.

Hence the 16th and 17th century, Hobbesian idea of a “war of all against all” in the “state of nature,” in which human life is inevitably “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” is nothing but a myth that’s an essential part of the hegemonic ideology of Statism.

110. How then did the State come to be?

Of course, the answer to that question is hotly debated.

But here’s my own hypothesis.

There is strong archaeological evidence that some scattered and unsystematic coercion, tribalism, warmaking, and slavery existed during the 4000-year pre-State period.

My proposal, then, is that the State derives from what was essentially a large-scale protection racket system developed by a few leading tribal warriors, whose coercive power was measured by the number of lesser warriors and slaves they controlled, with the following seven features:

(i) it relied essentially on people’s fears about imagined threats of warmaking and enslavement by other warrior-tribes, together with implicit or explicit coercive threats by the local leading tribal warrior, and

(ii) it included early versions of some specialization of tasks for some weapon-bearing lesser warriors in the same tribe who become “neo-enforcers,” together with some non-warriors who became early “neo-managers,” and also, when, the earliest forms of mathematical bookeeping and writing emerged, “neo-accountants” and “neo-scribes,” whereby

(iii) the local leading tribal warriors and their “neo-enforcers” promised to “protect” all the people living within some bounded space, behind walls or borders, from what they were told were highly coercive external threats from other warrior-tribes, or non-tribal bandits, who were all presented as actual or potential “enemies” of the neo-State, such that

(iv) the “protected” people ALSO agreed to a lesser coercive regime inside the neo-State, under the control of the local leading tribal warrior, his neo-enforcers, and his “neo-administration” (i.e., his neo-managers, neo-accountants, and neo-scribes), in return for which

(v) the “protected” people were allowed to survive, reproduce, and live strictly within those bounded spaces, provided that

(vi) they not only obeyed all the commands and laws of the government, on pain of arbitrary coercion as punishment for disobedience, but also had to

(vii) work either for the State itself or for some of the more powerful “neo-enforcers,” NOT as slaves per se (since an all-out slave class still existed below the “protected” people in the emerging social class-structure of the neo-State), but nevertheless STILL as semi-slaves of the new large-scale protection-racket system, aka the neo-State.

111. Here are some dictionary definitions of capitalism:

An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. (Oxford)

An economic, political, and social system in which property, business, and industry are privately owned, directed towards making the greatest possible profits for successful organizations and people. (Cambridge)

An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market. (Merriam-Webster)

It’s not my purpose here to provide a critical analysis of the concept of capitalism, so I’m prepared to grant for the purposes of my argument that the weak disjunction of these three definitions captures the basic features of capitalism.

But, given what I argued in 1., 2., and 3., then it’s clear —

(i) that the social institution of capitalism emerged in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, within the larger and essentially more complex social institution of the early modern Hobbesian and Lockean liberal nation-State, and

(ii) that the alienation, commodification, and wage-slavery, so famously described by Marx, that naturally flow from capitalism, are simply the early modern liberal equivalents of the fear, obedience, and semi-slavery that characterize the large-scale protection racket system of the earliest States, the neo-States.

In other words, what I’m claiming is that capitalism is essentially a social-institutional sub-system within the State, and that capitalism can be explained as a set of anthropological, historical, material, and structural complexifications and transformations of fundamental elements of States and Statism.

112. From this point of view, capitalism is essentially a State sub-system for controlling human work by controlling the means and products of production, and also for accumulating property and money far beyond what is required for the satisfaction of true human needs.

But capitalism is also partially and significantly grounded on the early modern liberal conception of “freedom” as the mutually unhindered, universal pursuit of individual self-interest.

This is the same as what, in The Doctrine of Right, Kant calls “external freedom,” namely, a mere freedom of action, guaranteeing the mutually unhindered, universal pursuit of individual self-interest, created by means of State coercion, within a civil-juridical-political society, that, because it is based on treating oneself and others merely as means to egoistic ends, not only does NOT ENTAIL deep or real freedom of the will, practical freedom, or autonomy, which Kant contrastively calls “inner freedom,” but also in fact is inherently INCONSISTENT WITH with deep or real freedom of the will, practical freedom, and autonomy.

Thus capitalism, via its State-grounding, is NOT ONLY inherently rationally unjustified and immoral from a Kantian ethical point of view, by requiring the treatment of oneself and others as mere means to egoistic ends, BUT ALSO inherently oppressive in that it systematically violates sufficient respect for human dignity by means of a coercive security system of “enforcers” provided by the State (principally the police and the legal justice system, hence also the punishment-system, often including capital punishment, but always prisons), in order to protect the spoils of capitalists, and also to keep wage-slaves from rebelling and turning into successful bandits and thieves, thereby creating an alternative economy that challenges Establishment capitalism.

113. So if what I’ve just claimed is correct, then the early modern liberal State and its State-provided coercive security system is also a logically or metaphysically necessary condition of capitalism.

“Anarcho-capitalism,” therefore, is a contradiction in adjecto, i.e., a two-word contradiction, and “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” i.e., nonsense on stilts.

Or otherwise put, “anarcho-capitalism” puts the “moron” in “oxymoron.”

Not only that, but also in recent or contemporary neoliberal nation-States, in which there isn’t State-capitalism, the State and its State-provided coercive security system also enable the existence of a national and international “power elite” consisting of global corporate ultra-capitalists, closely connected with the upper echelons of the military, higher education, and internet-driven news media and social media (aka “the military-industrial-university-digital complex”), which actually controls democratically-elected governments, as e.g., in the USA, but elsewhere too of course.

Moreover, in neoliberal nation-States, capitalism is also a hegemonic ideology according to which ultra-capitalists, their managerial classes, and the supportive professional classes, as well as anyone else under capitalism who is mentally enslaved to that hegemonic ideology,

(i) have systematically substituted “external freedom” for “inner freedom,” and

(ii) have not only deceived systematically themselves into thinking that this is authentic “freedom,”

(iii) but also in the USA and elsewhere, according to that advanced pathology of capitalist ideology, right-wing Libertarianism, have even managed a certain acme of self-deception and other-deception by hoodwinking themselves and others into thinking that they are somehow, mysteriously, anti-Statist, because they reject the social-welfare version of the nation-State and moralistically glorify the oppression of those who fall outside the system of wage-slavery and belong to the lowest economic class, the unemployed.

In other words, in the USA and other recent or contemporary neoliberal nation-States, capitalism has become the ultimate State system, that not only systematically self-deceives or convinces people that they’re NOT being oppressed or constantly coerced because they’re so “free,” but also, even more astoundingly, on the extreme Libertarian right, pretends that they’re ANTI-State-ist, because they reject the social-welfare State and moralistically glorify the oppression of the lowest economic class.

114. So the 16th and 17th century liberal nation-State was the actual early modern social-institutional ground of capitalism, just as the post-World War II neoliberal nation-State is the actual recent and contemporary social-institutional ground of capitalism.

Thus capitalism is every bit as fully contingent and constructed-by-us, and also every bit as fully open to radical social-institutional change or revolution, devolution, deconstruction, reconstruction, and new construction,[iv] as the State is.

And therefore the most direct route to revolutionizing and exiting capitalism is by means of revolutionizing and exiting the State, that is, by means of anarcho-socialism.

115. Moreover, revolutionizing and exiting the State is the same as radical enlightenment, about which Kant so famously wrote in the following texts:

Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his own self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding! is thus the motto of Enlightenment. (“What is Enlightenment?” 8: 35)

When nature has unwrapped, from under this hard shell, the seed for which she cares most tenderly, namely the propensity and calling to think freely, the latter gradually works back upon the mentality of the people (which thereby gradually becomes capable of freedom in acting) and eventually even upon the principles of government, which finds it profitable to itself to treat the human being, who is now more than a machine, in keeping with his dignity. (“What is Enlightenment?” 8: 41–42)

What’s far less well-known, however, is that Kant ALSO wrote the following texts:

I. CONCERNING THE ETHICAL STATE OF NATURE

A juridico-civil (political) state is the relation of human beings to each other inasmuch as they stand jointly under public juridical laws (which are all coercive laws). An ethico-civil state is one in which they are united under laws without being coerced, i.e. under laws of virtue alone.

Now, just as the rightful (but not therefore always righteous) state of nature, i.e. the juridical state of nature, is opposed to the first, so is the ethical state of nature distinguished from the second. In these two [states of nature] each individual prescribes the law to himself, and there is no external law to which he, along with the others, acknowledges himself to be subject. In both each individual is his own judge, and there is no effective public authority with power to determine legitimately, according to laws, what is in given cases the duty of each individual, and to bring about the universal execution of those laws.

In an already existing political community all the political citizens are, as such, still in the ethical state of nature, and have the right to remain in it; for it would be a contradiction (in adjecto) for the political community to compel its citizens to enter into an ethical community, since the latter entails freedom from coercion in its very concept. Every political community may indeed wish to have available a dominion over minds as well, according to the laws of virtue; for where its means of coercion do not reach, since a human judge cannot penetrate into the depths of other human beings, there the dispositions to virtue would bring about the required result. But woe to the legislator who would want to bring about through coercion a polity directed to ethical ends! For he would thereby not only achieve the very opposite of ethical ends, but also undermine his political ends and render them insecure. — The citizen of the political community therefore remains, so far as the latter’s lawgiving authority is concerned, totally free: he may wish to enter with his fellow citizens into an ethical union over and above the political one, or rather remain in a natural state of this sort. Only insofar as an ethical community must rest on public laws and have a constitution based on them, must those who freely commit themselves to enter into this state, not [indeed] allow the political power to command them how to order (or not order) such a constitution internally, but allow limitations, namely the condition that nothing be included in this constitution which contradicts the duty of its members as citizens of the state — even though, if the ethical bond is of the genuine sort, this condition need not cause anxiety.

II. THE HUMAN BEING OUGHT TO LEAVE THE ETHICAL STATE OF NATURE IN ORDER TO BECOME A MEMBER OF AN ETHICAL COMMUNITY

Just as the juridical state of nature is a state of war of every human being against every other, so too is the ethical state of nature one in which the good principle, which resides in each human being, is incessantly attacked by the evil which is found in him and in every other as well. Human beings (as we remarked above) mutually corrupt one another’s moral predisposition and, even with the good will of each individual, because of the lack of a principle which unites them, they deviate through their dissensions from the common goal of goodness, as though they were instruments of evil, and expose one another to the danger of falling once again under its dominion. Further, just as the state of a lawless external (brutish) freedom and independence from coercive laws is a state of injustice and of war, each against each, which a human being ought to leave behind in order to enter into a politico-civil state, so is the ethical state of nature a public feuding between the principles of virtue and a state of inner immorality which the natural human being ought to endeavor to leave behind as soon as possible. (Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason 6: 95–97)

Therefore, the most direct route to revolutionizing and exiting capitalism is by means of revolutionizing and exiting the State — aka anarcho-socialism — AND radical enlightenment.

116. But revolutionizing and exiting capitalism AND the State AND our self-incurred immaturity isn’t a single, simple jump into a new social-institutional way of living, moving, and being — on the contrary it’s essentially a process with four basic stages or steps.

The first step is the ethical recognition of the rational unjustifiability and immorality of using people merely as means and/or treating them as mere things, in general, and also of coercion in particular, and, correspondingly, the ethical recognition of our moral obligation to treat all people with sufficient respect for their dignity.

The second step is the ethical recognition of the rational unjustifiability and immorality of authoritarianism.

The third step is the intellectual, emotional, practical, and more generally existential recognition of the contingency of capitalism and the State, and their essential openness to radical social-institutional change or revolution, devolution, deconstruction, reconstruction, and new construction.

This third step, in turn, when it is added to the first two steps, is equivalent to what, in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Kant calls the revolution of the heart or revolution of the will that is the essential gateway to exiting the State and thereby exiting capitalism too, and also thereby exiting our intellectual, emotional, practical, and more generally our existential immaturity, and entering a universal, cosmopolitan ethical community.

117. Now what about the fourth step?

The fourth step consists in the concrete, specific details of what the process of exiting the State, capitalism, and our self-incurred existential immaturity, and entering a universal, cosmopolitan ethical community would actually look like.

Correspondingly, I’ve already taken my best shot at providing such an account in Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism, especially sections 2.8, 2.9, and 2.10, and in part 3, aspirationally entitled, Utopia Now, and all that can be found HERE.

118. So all you need to do now is click, download, read, think for yourself, take it all to heart, and then, I hope!, freely change your life and act accordingly.

NOTES

[i] R.M. Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” trans. S. Mitchell, in R.M. Rilke, Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), pp. 60–61, line 14.

[ii] M. Weber, “The Profession and Vocation of Politics,” in P. Lassman and R. Spiers (eds.), Weber: Political Writings (Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 309–369 at p. 310.

[iii] J.C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2017).

[iv] See also M. Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Hants, UK: Hunt Publishing, 2009).

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