Saturday, April 17, 2010

The state: the 'negation of humanity'

A few weeks back I criticized Nation contributor Melissa Harris-Lacewell for expounding on the specter of right-wing Tea Partiers undermining the state's "legitimate" monopoly on violence while ignoring the exponentially more destructive and pervasive threat to society: the state and its use of that much-vaunted monopoly. But however wrongheaded the offending article was, Harris-Lacewell did provide a useful description of the state and the inverted view of morality that justifies it, noting that the use of force and coercion, while denied to mere individuals, becomes -- under the prevailing liberal view of government -- morally right and just if undertaken or sanctioned by one of the two corporate-sponsored candidates allowed on the ballot and subsequently voted into office by those who are all of the following: 1) eligible to vote 2) registered to vote and 3) willing to vote.

As Harris-Lacewell approvingly noted, "The state is the entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, force and coercion." Indeed, "If an individual travels to another country and kills its citizens, we call it terrorism. If the state does it, we call it war. If a man kills his neighbor it is murder; if the state does it is the death penalty. If an individual takes his neighbor's money, it is theft; if the state does it, it is taxation."

Rather than challenge this presumed legitimacy, however, establishment liberals have been preoccupied passionately defending it, their apologies for state power tending to appeal to images of immunized children and public libraries rather than overflowing prisons and preemptive wars, distinguishing them from their conservative counterparts.

Never adequately explained in the midst of all the talk of social contracts and the legitimacy conferred by elections, however, is why one human institution is allowed to violate the basic norms of right and wrong, "murder" to you or me becoming mere "collateral damage" if carried out with enough brutality by a government agent. If children are taught early on that consent, not violence and coercion, is to govern human relations, why does that lesson not apply to government? What is the moral and philosophical case for exempting any subset of humanity from the rules by which the rest must live?

The state, envisioned as that great mechanism for promoting human cooperation and betterment, is -- outside the realm of textbook -- in reality clearly anti-social, its very essence the "flagrant negation of humanity," as Russian radical Mikhail Bakunin once wrote. The government's de facto right to violate universal notions of individual morality is, Bakunin argued, both "its supreme duty and its greatest virtue" in the eyes of those who support it:
It bears the name patriotism, and it constitutes the entire transcendent morality of the State. We call it transcendent morality because it usually goes beyond the level of human morality and justice, either of the community or of the private individual, and by that same token often finds itself in contradiction with these. Thus, to offend, to oppress, to despoil, to plunder, to assassinate or enslave one's fellow man is ordinarily regarded as a crime. In public life, on the other hand, from the standpoint of patriotism, when these things are done for the greater glory of the State, for the preservation or the extension of its power, it is all transformed into duty and virtue. And this virtue, this duty, are obligatory for each patriotic citizen; everyone is supposed to exercise them not against foreigners only but against one's own fellow citizens, members or subjects of the State like himself, whenever the welfare of the State demands it.
This explains why, since the birth of the State, the world of politics has always been and continues to be the stage for unlimited rascality and brigandage, brigandage and rascality which, by the way, are held in high esteem, since they are sanctified by patriotism, by the transcendent morality and the supreme interest of the State. This explains why the entire history of ancient and modern states is merely a series of revolting crimes; why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries – statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors – if judged from the standpoint of simple morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labor or to the gallows. There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: “for reasons of state.”
These are truly terrible words, for they have corrupted and dishonored, within official ranks and in society's ruling classes, more men than has even Christianity itself. No sooner are these words uttered than all grows silent, and everything ceases; honesty, honor, justice, right, compassion itself ceases, and with it logic and good sense. Black turns white, and white turns black. The lowest human acts, the basest felonies, the most atrocious crimes become meritorious acts.
Wash that taste of The Nation out of your mouth and read the rest. (And I promise to never mention a certain Princeton professor again, god willing.)


  1. Brian Drake6:57 PM

    Blasphemy. Pure blasphemy. You are clearly a defective citizen.

    Keep it up!

  2. l. nickel augustine1:45 AM

    read 'leviathan' by hobbes. the state engages in these crimes to end the war of all against all. our current understanding of the state and its crimes has developed in the context of substantial stability of internal affairs for generations. without the leviathan chaos rules or so hobbes would have us believe.

    your position, as I read it, has my sympathy, however.
    how are our lives enhanced by all those starved iraqi children C. floyd reminds us of just today, for example? etc.

  3. Anarcho-Hippie8:13 AM

    State violence is always sacrosanct, whether you are a liberal, conservative or socialist. That's why anarchists are universally despised.

    BTW, another great post Charles.

  4. Thanks for the inspiration, Charles.

  5. anarcho-hippie, with his repetitive mantra, has this one right

    but, oh my goodness! I was reading along, and then . . . all of sudden . . . Bakunin?!?

    I almost fainted

    more seriously, though, as noted here, liberals are willing to accept the militarism and prison industrial complex in return for the social benefits that they perceive from the state, indeed, worse than that, liberals accept them as complimentary

  6. Richard,

    I don't know why the Bakunin quote would surprise you. Pretty much all my political idols are 19th century radicals with beards (facial hair: correlation or causation?).

  7. I was just teasing you, and pointing towards the obvious fact that there are few, if any historical figures, who are considered as taboo as Bakunin in the US political discourse.