In Theory Anarchism, war and the state
Columns, Ideas, In Theory - Posted on Friday, August 6, 2010 15:53 - 9 Comments
By Andrew Robinson
This article summarises how a number of anarchist and anarchistic authors view the relationship between the state and war. Some of the authors discussed below are self-identified anarchists, while others are libertarian or autonomist Marxists who adopt anarchistic ideas. Stereotypically, anarchists are associated with violence, corresponding to the view of states as guarantors of peace. The first stereotype follows from the second: while anarchists disagree on the use of force, they generally view states as highly warlike, and oppose state violence both internationally and against internal ‘enemies’. The Hobbesian view of the state as protector is based partly on an assessment of state behaviour comparable to IR Realism, and partly PM awareness of histories of state-formation and of stateless peoples and movements. In contrast to statists, anarchists generally view society or social relations as separate and distinct from the state (or the state as a special kind of social relation distinct from others).
In response to a common misconception, it is not true that anarchists oppose the state because they are naïve about human nature. Anarchist views about human nature are widely variant. Objections to the state can be convincing based on many different views, such as distrusting people to hold too much power without abusing it. Statists might be said to have a dual conception of human nature: the good people are trusted with excessive power so as to disempower the bad people. Statism is thus associated with hierarchical differentiations of people. Further, the objection is not simply to states as institutions but to state-like ways of relating and acting: in some accounts, the state is a social relation. In anarchist theory, states are viewed as expressions of hierarchical, oppressive social logics. They are forces of decomposition, which tend to attack or break down alternative, horizontal social relations. They are also based on ‘reactive’ emotional forces of suspicion, hatred and aggression which they channel to produce warlike relations among people. They also turn on one another, accumulating wealth by pillaging other states or societies. Against such state violence, anarchist strategies often seek to find or form focal-points for social power which can counterbalance or draw energies away from state power. These focal-points necessarily involve living and acting in non-militarist, non-authoritarian ways.
In Statism and Anarchy, Bakunin portrays the modern state as primarily military, and closely connected to the ruling class. As a military force, the state is necessarily aggressive, competing with other states for power. It produces moral and intellectual decay through its corrupting power. The extent of this decay depends on the extent to which the state’s way of thinking filters down through society, a process which is strongest in the most militaristic states. The ‘people’, primarily meaning the excluded and powerless, are for Bakunin a potential counterpoint to the state, and can destroy it in insurrection.
Kropotkin similarly argues that the state, or ‘political principle’ (vertical association or hierarchy), is counterposed to society, or the ‘social principle’ (horizontal association or affinity). In The State: Its Historic Role, he argues that the state is ‘synonymous with war’. The state brings peace, if at all, only as lifeless dominance in a ‘colourless, lifeless whole’. Social networks bring effervescent life, whereas states bring death through structural violence and pillage. Since the state cannot tolerate other sources of power, it wages constant war against social networks as they arise. There is thus a constant zero-sum struggle between the state as a force of control and impoverishment and social networks as spaces for freedom and creativity. Local communities have capabilities for self-defence and/or peacebuilding. Although wars can be fought outside or against states, they have a different significance, enlivening people in the defence of liberty rather than disempowering them through its destruction.
Stirner’s argument is rather different. In The Ego and its Own, he starts from a critique of social roles and categories, termed ‘spooks’ in his work, to derive a critique of submission to overarching categories of all kinds. Stirner is what would today be called an ‘anti-essentialist’, an opponent of fixed labels and of the privileging of some aspects of a person over others. States are rejected as bearers of particular categories which are wrongly accorded a greater status than other categories. Further, sacrifices for the state are always matters of the state’s self-interest. By claiming a monopoly on violence, the state pursues self-interested violence at the expense of its subjects.
Tolstoy’s Christian Anarcho-Pacifism draws similar distinctions, but characterises the anti-state pole rather differently. For Tolstoy, the state’s ‘law of violence’ stands against a ‘law of love’, with each expressing a particular emotional climate and set of passions. States embody ‘low passions’ such as hatred (often channelled against outsiders using nationalism), against which love provides a basis for peace and happiness. Love is expressed in acts such as conscientious objection, withdrawing the social activity on which state violence is based.
Anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were central in anti-conscription activism in First World War America and were jailed as prisoners of conscience. Their anti-militarist critiques placed a strong emphasis on socialist criticisms of the capitalistic basis of war. Elites use irrational prejudices to manipulate people into fighting on their behalf. Rudolf Rocker wrote an influential anarchist critique of nationalism around the same time, portraying the state as distorting legitimate particularisms into hateful chauvinisms. Also in this period, Randolph Bourne popularised the phrase ‘war is the health of the state’. In an unfinished work titled The State, he argued that the state demands ‘mystic[al] devotion’, which war is a means to realise. In war, the permanent state machine displaces party competition and comes to monopolise public life. Its main aim is not victory, but the ‘spiritual compulsion’ bound up with the ideal of the state, with the triumph of a ‘herd’ mentality over creativity and difference. The outpouring of irrational, reactive forces is managed by nationalistic elites for their own benefit.
With fascism overrunning Europe, the leftist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich pioneered a sexual-liberationist critique of militaristic states in his Mass Psychology of Fascism. Reich views repressive social systems as enabled by repressive biological and emotional structures through which people prevent themselves from feeling emotions. Fascism emerges from a complete identification with state power and the leader, a pattern derived from identification with the father in patriarchal, authoritarian families. Such families train people to channel attachments vertically rather than horizontally. More recently, Klaus Theweleit used this approach to interpret the masculine violence of proto-fascist groups as an attempt to seek existential security in categories of purity and displays of superiority over demonised others. On a similar line of thought, authors from the Frankfurt School have argued that industrialised war and genocide throw doubt on the benevolence of modernity. Adorno links war to the desire to dominate nature. Fromm argues that humanity’s survival is put at risk by a peculiarly human type of malevolent aggression arising from alienation. Marcuse critiques the discourse of war as a kind of doublespeak, and interprets modern war as a self-frustrating product of the frustration-aggression complex. Frustration arising from capitalist life is channelled and rendered socially functional through military aggression, but cannot be alleviated by such aggression because human means of war have been replaced with technological means. War thus tends towards repetition and escalation.
Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’ distinguishes between three types of violence or effective action. States are founded in law-making violence which posits their own command as the law, are maintained by law-preserving violence which maintains a status-quo through small acts of enforcement, and can be shattered by law-destroying violence (such as a general strike). For Benjamin, the state is based on reactive attachments, here interpreted as power over life for the sake of power, and is fearful, becoming more authoritarian over time as it becomes afraid of the emergence of counter-powers. Law-making violence is instrumental, whereas law-destroying violence is expressive, directing itself against the capability to use law-making or preserving violence.
The theory of the state as a source of social decomposition by means of social war is extended by Antonio Negri in his 1970s-era works. Negri views state violence as a means to preserve capitalist domination as a kind of irrational social command over labour. The new form of the state, the ‘crisis-state’, is geared to a permanent state of exception which simultaneously causes and wards off extreme risks of destruction such as nuclear war. It also forms an internal warfare state directed at forces of life, autonomous social movements, with which it is in an irreducible antagonism. In this phase, Negri views such movements as tending to become an armed society counterposed to the state. This view of radical antagonism fades in Negri’s more recent work, but still in Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Multitude, the state is deemed to be waging an unwinnable, unlimited global war indistinguishable from policing. Also from an autonomist standpoint, the Midnight Notes Collective have argued that recent wars are means for preserving Northern monopolies on advanced technologies by playing on risks of weapons proliferation, or are resource wars focused on the enclosure and exploitation of resources. The idea of the ‘state of exception’ has been expanded by Giorgio Agamben.
Looking at autonomy more broadly, alternatives to the state also emerge in studies of stateless indigenous social groups. There is substantial debate on whether such groups are warlike, with scholars arguing that certain groups are extremely peaceful or engage only in ritualised forms of combat. Clastres’ theory of indigenous warfare stands out in showing the difference between indigenous and statist types of war. In his theory, indigenous war is a way of asserting the difference and autonomy of each village or band, placing an obstacle in the way of state-formation by ensuring that power remains diffuse. Statist war, in contrast, causes ethnocide, which is inscribed in the nature of the state as the dissolution of the many into the one. Autonomous social movements such as La Ruta Pacifica also offer autonomous responses to war. In this group’s discourse, social weaving is theorised as a way of counterposing energies of hope to those which sustain the permanent state of war in Colombia. Their activities focus on morale-boosting, emotional repair, collective mourning and working through fear. They believe that violence decomposes social relations, so that power can be exercised by recomposing relations.
Noam Chomsky is perhaps the best-known anarchist critic of imperialist wars. Chomsky’s work focuses on exposing the lies and distortions of political and media accounts of wars, focusing on the empirical rebuttal of false claims. Chomsky focused on economic self-interest as the main motive for warmongering, portraying the military-industrial complex as a financial racket. As well as direct resource grabs, the American war-machine is directed at making the current world-system seem inescapable by eliminating ‘the threat of a good example’, of a country which succeeds without playing America’s game. To allow such warmongering, illusions are systematically manufactured through distorted media coverage. Such ideologies can also be self-perpetuating, particularly among the foreign policy ‘backroom boys’, causing wars through their own dynamic even where there is little economic or geostrategic benefit.
The insurrectionist anarchist Alfredo Bonanno provides another contemporary theory of anarchism and war. In Bonanno’s theory, affirmation of life goes hand-in-hand with assaults on structures of power and alienation. Insurrection is viewed as the point of explosion of accumulated discontent. Struggle must not, however, reproduce militarist approaches which are ‘the dominion of death’. Bonanno also interprets ethno-religious civil wars in terms of the mistaken mapping of the desire for revolt onto misleading ethno-religious categories. Nationalist wars can be manufactured to defuse the ‘powder-keg’ of revolt, or can complicate rebellions against the powerful.
In poststructuralism, war is critiqued as part of a mechanism of logistical control through which diffuse hierarchical apparatuses reshape society. Deleuze and Guattari view states as counterposed to autonomous war-machines of the kind discussed by Clastres. The state also captures such war-machines, turning them into forces of reactive desire for its own projects of ‘antiproduction’ or decomposition. War-machines captured by states become agencies of “war for war’s sake”, tending towards total destruction. Virilio treats the military class as an important social force with its own logic or ‘essence’ which it seeks to impose on society. The method of the military class is not simply to defeat enemies but to control and rearrange space so as to disempower enemies in advance or corrode their affirmative energies. This is achieved, for instance, by creating ecologically inhospitable spaces subject to control, in place of dense ecosystems. The military is thus counterposed to popular defence, which has a different logic based on dense ecosystemic spaces giving strategic advantages over attackers. Today, popular defence has recomposed as insurrection, in cases such as Vietnam and Palestine, and has as its goal the destruction of military control over space. Baudrillard argues that states cause not ‘war’ (which implies an adversarial and symbolic element) but ‘non-war’, a kind of destructive violence in which the enemy is not recognised as an agent but instead, systematically disempowered by technological means. ‘Non-war’ is pursued as a means to systemic dominance, but is compromised by its incapacity for dialogue.
One can summarise these various views through a few leitmotifs they have in common. Firstly, anarchist views of war see the state as a force for repressive control, in the interests of the state itself or of a ruling class or elite. Such states find themselves in constant war with other kinds of social forces, and sometimes with other states too. They thus use war as a kind of crisis-management, to control societies and maintain an overall system of control. States are based on, or else produce for their own ends, reactive emotional dispositions of aggression, fear and ‘herd’ morality which find their apex in war. States, especially warfare-states, tend to disempower and sap energies from other social forces and to decompose social relations. Against such powers, people can activate counter-powers, either as forces in a relation of non-militarist war with the state, or as networks which withdraw the everyday power on which the state depends.
* This article is based on “The State as a Cause of War: Anarchist and Autonomist Critiques of War”, forthcoming in Hall Gardner (ed.), The Ashgate Research Companion to War: Origins and Prevention, Aldershot: Ashgate.
Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge.