A common slogan among the radical left is “smash the state”. In the manner of many old leftist slogans it gets across the message of opposition to unjust power and support for the power of the people, but is also quick to equate the “state” with all forms of exploitative power. This may have made sense in the age of fascism and great nationalist movements when the state was considered synonymous with industry and authority but in the modern age of private armies, global financial capital and super-state law in the form of trade agreements “smashing the state” may not seem like such a good idea after all. In an attempt to keep us Internet communists relevant in present day, present time I’d like to do some critical examination of power and the role that states have in it. My assertion is that by repeating old slogans such as “smash the state” we are missing the true centers of power and the true horrors which confront mankind.
Who Holds Power?
An attempt to define what we mean when we say power is useful here, power can be used to describe many things: political influence, coercive force, social status, economic control and etc. A full discussion of the nature of power is beyond the scope of this little essay so for now I would like to define power as control over the actions and social organization of people in a given society. This definition entails an important property of power which along with some empirical observations can simplify our analysis greatly.
- Power is not infinite:
- the total power which exists in society is set by the summed capacity for action of all individual members of that society. This is not a fixed quantity. Technology or greater numbers will increase it. A million people with atomic technology have substantially greater capacity for meaningful action than a dozen people with sticks, but it is a finite quantity. It is impossible for a country or organization to exceed the total productive capacity of its members at a given time.
- Differences in individual capacity for action are small compared to the capacity of the population
- I would like to suggest as an empirical observation that the capacity of an individual to perform actions which affect the environment and other individuals never differs by more than two orders of magnitude (100x) and the difference is generally much smaller. A strong man can lift more weight and work more effectively than a weak man but he cannot out work 100 weak men. A smart man may be able to outdo 100 stupid men by coming up with an equation of invention but by himself he will still not be able to beat 100 men who are using the outdated tech. A hundred men with knives will kill one man with a gun. You could argue that the president armed with an atomic bomb could kill thousands but remember that president did not write the equation for fusion, mine the uranium, forge the steel, assemble and store the weapon and so on. A single man does not have the capacity to build and use an atomic bomb, the president is only able to do so because he is supported by a large industrialized society of people. Similarly when libertarian minded people speak of CEOs or business men building companies that is only true in the sense that the individual is the legal representative of the company. Steve Jobs cannot shit out microchips.
- All Significant Differences in Power arise from directing the actions of others
- We are defining power as the summed capacity for action of all individuals. There is only one source of power available if a person wishes to have more power than their individual capacity allows. That source is the actions and capacity of other people. A general or CEO can wield tremendous power by getting a large number of people to cede control of some of their actions and social organization to their boss. The power of the boss then becomes his own personal capacity summed with the percent of each individuals capacity under his command that he has managed to turn to his own ends. For organizations that are sufficiently large we can ignore individual variance in capacity and define the power of an organization by two factors. The percentage of each individuals capacity they can direct to the goals of their organization and the number of individuals that are working for the organization.
- Benevolent Power does not Accumulate
- We are defining the power of organizations as their capacity to direct the actions of individuals to some end but there is no requirement that this goal is evil. Lets imagine a group of workers come together under the command of a foreman to build a bridge in their town. They have given over a portion of their actions to the construction project but by doing so have benefited themselves and their town. Productive capacity was expended and assuming there are no other financial tricks the benefits are spread more or less evenly. A foreman may have directed the building effort and so held power but it was benevolent in that this power was used to do something of general benefit. Compare this to a more modern scene. A city government puts out bonds which are bought by banks in order to pay a construction company to build a bridge. The bridge is built and the city then charges a toll to every person who uses the bridge to pay back the bond. Productive capacity was expended to create something of public benefit but the rewards are not spread evenly. The construction company receives a large pay off in the form of profits which are not fully passed on to its workers, the banks receive a large pay off from the interest given in the bonds. Where do these payoffs come from? They are extracted from the productive capacity of the population who must either pay tolls on the bridge or finance the bonds through their taxed income. This type of project organization is far from benevolent in that much of the benefit from the bridge is not distributed evenly but is given disproportionately to the company, the banks, and the banks backing the company. Note how power accumulates in these two examples. The benevolent foreman does not come out with more power than he began with, the banks do and this accumulated power may then be turned around and used to finance other project and accumulate yet more power.
- All Major Powers are Macro-Parasitic
- Because benevolent power does not accumulate, in the absence of a major counter-force evolution takes hold and the organizations that succeed and thrive are the ones that are least benevolent. That is they redirect the largest portion of the productive capacity they extract from the population to their own benefit and further accumulation of power. The more extractive these organizations are the faster they will accumulate power and the better they will be able to push out organizations who are more benevolent and therefore do not accumulate power as rapidly. The most powerful organization possible would be one that directed as close to 100% of the capacity of the whole population to it’s own ends as possible without killing them. Global slavery. In practice this does not happen because the population will rebel or refuse to work when pushed past a certain point. Remember the power of the organization is only as great as the capacity of the population it can extract, if half of their subjects refuse to work one day they have lost 50% of their power. The revolutionary dream is that this lost power then reverts to the people in full. Unfortunately the organization that has lost power is generally cannibalized by one of their rival organizations and the population is offered slightly better terms in exchange for their cooperation. Perhaps total extraction of productive capacity to the new ruling organization drops from 70% to 60% for a few years. This dynamic of extracting as much power as possible without upsetting the population enough that they reject the extraction is fundamentally parasitic. It is macro-parasitic because the parasitism relies on extracting the capacity not from single individuals but from as many individuals as possible, from a population. This is not a feature of a particular type of economic system, monetary system or social organization. Any society where it is possible to redirect the productive capacity of individuals to serve a larger power without returning that capacity in an even manner has all the conditions necessary for macro-parasitism.
- Macro-Parasitic Powers will Compete for Population Share but Cooperate to Increase Extraction
- There is a saying often attributed to Lenin that, “The capitalists will sell us the rope to hang them with.” The 20th century showed that this was far from true, the capitalist western democracies were nearly united in their opposition to any sort of labor movement, land-reform or protectionist policy in developing countries. A war machine was built which served not only as a means to transfer public funds to powerful corporations but as a global strike-buster. The majority of military and covert actions undertaken by the United States and NATO countries after ww2 were policing actions against poorer countries to keep them from closing their borders to the new neoliberal order of global financial capitalism. Taking our new analysis of major powers as macro-parasites the reason for this becomes obvious. These countries, their people and their resources were fuel for the power of the western based conglomerate of parasites who had taken much of the world into their domain. Any country that left their domain to either use their labor for themselves or to put themselves in the domain of some other conglomerate of parasitic powers (China, Soviet Block etc.) decreased their power. Any country or group of people or area of human activity that was not already part of the market increased their power when it was broken open. War, genocide, assassinations, economic warfare, propaganda, coups and so on were all used as tools to expand and preserve the domain this conglomerate of parasites fed on. Because these macro-parasites derive their power from taking more of the population under their domain it makes sense for them to cooperate to conquer people who were not previously accessible to them, once the people are accessible the competition becomes a civil-war where rival powers within the conglomerates viciously fight one another to take the biggest chunk of the accessible victims (market-share). The other case where cooperation between the parasites occurs is against their victims. Power is derived not just from the number of people and resources in their domain but from the percent of their total productive value which can be extracted. Any move by the population to decrease this percentage and keep more of their productive capacity for themselves (labor movements, increased wages, social-spending etc.) will meet unified opposition from the parasitic powers in a given conglomerate because they all stand to lose power if extraction of productive labor suffers.
- The State Acts as the Main Enforcer of Macro-Parasitic Extraction (for now)
- The state as Lenin would describe it is for now the main implement of these unified goals of the parasitic powers, ensuring that more of the worlds population is brought into their domain (open markets/free trade) and ensuring the continued extraction of labor from those who are already within that domain (law and order, property rights, and etc.). This is now a somewhat old-fashioned view of the role of the state because the macro-parasitic powers have become increasingly international, privatized and rely on super-national laws such as trade agreements which provide an explicit legal framework for open-markets and suppression of labor that is enforced by military and financial force. Currently this system is enforced using state power, in particular US military and intelligence power. As of today it is quite likely that the complete collapse of the US military would lead to the disintegration of the current neoliberal economic order. However in the near future this may no longer be the case, the parasites may decide that democratic states are too unreliable in their enforcement of macro-parasitic extraction and replace them with some form of fully privatized army. This is not so absurd as it may seem, modern narco-states are a wonderful example of places where the official government did not take a role in the main macro-parasitic economic engine (drug production) and as a result private organizations (cartels) took over this role. The result was that the official governments became powerless compared to the cartels. The cartels accumulated power by parasitism off of the productive capacity of the population which had been diverted into drug production. The government could only parasite off the shrinking share of the economy which was not engaged in the drug trade. This power shift was so great that in many places the cartels have even taken over the normal role of the state in providing schools, public-goods and so on. The cartels have in essence become the new state they just lack some of the official enlightenment accessories of statehood like laws or procedures for settling disputes that don’t involve torture or murder.
The Role of The State
If you’ve followed me so far then it should be obvious that the role of the state for the proletariat is a mixed one. The state is the immediate enforcer of a parasitic system built off of their labor and their backs. Police break strikes, kill or imprison individuals who are not considered useful contributors to the system. The military and intelligence apparatus act as thugs enforcing global open market policies through assassination, bombing and massive military operations. However, the state is also empowered to maintain a system in which productive work is possible in order for the parasitic extraction to create the greatest possible yields. This means maintaining infrastructure, basic standards of living for productive workers, enough safety and security that productive work is not halted by terror and uncertainty (but not too much), and other tasks involved in maintaining a sort of equilibrium. Capital is by itself a very dumb parasite and if left unregulated will kill or damage its host to such an extent that productive capacity is lost. To prevent this some power was ceded to the state to regulate and make compromises with the proletariat. Systems such as social security or state health care are compromises that the state made with the proletariat to prevent all out revolts (which are very bad for extraction of productive activity). The state is the hand that both gives and beats to keep us in line.
Privatization and the Importance of State Power
Critics of the state rightly point out that state power is ultimately derived from the people and so these ‘gifts’ are just crumbs of our own labor given back to us. Many leftist intellectuals say the state is in essence a tool of the bourgeois and therefore counter-revolutionary in various capacities. This is true but it would be extremely naive to imagine that if the apparatus of the state is destroyed all the resources and productive capacity it held will revert to the people. Remember, the state is something like a trade group. A number of macro-parasitic powers under the same flag agree to forego some of their possible extraction from the population in their domain and allow the state to have it instead (taxes, public-infrastructure, etc.). They are willing to give up this extraction because the state provides stability and necessary services for their operations. But the portion of extraction for the state is comparatively small, while the state may be bigger than any single macro-parasitic power within a domain the total power of the parasites is vastly larger than the state. They command immense resources and in situations where state institutions fail 90% of the time the portion of the domain they represent is quickly snapped up by one of the existing macro-parasites who proceeds to squeeze it for productive capacity far more viciously than the state did. An example of this is charter school education, in cases where the public schools are destroyed one could imagine that domain reverting to the people and some sort of free and collaborative education taking place. This has not occurred. Instead, vultures sweep in and replace the admittedly awful public system with an equally awful and also exploitative profit-seeking system. For instance in New Orleans the destruction of the public schools after the hurricane resulted in charter schools replacing most of the older education system. This is the fundamental issue with “smashing the state”, the power the state represents does not automatically revert to the people, there are often worse demons waiting in the wings to snap it right back up.
Infinite Hunger and Madness
I’m going to suggest to you that the state is an accumulation of power which is attempting to reconcile the infinite hunger for ever-greater extraction of the macro-parasites with the limited capacity of man. You may have been left with the impression that capital, that the systems of organization I am calling macro-parasitic are evil. They are not, they aren’t even beings, they’re a wave, a chemical reaction, a self-sustaining pattern that moves through people rather than through particles. The true terror here is that when you look behind the curtain and see the men who hold the strings. They aren’t capable of stopping this system either. What happens if one of the big fish quits? Really truly quits, not just starts a charitable foundation, but dismantles the parasitic organizations that built his wealth and returns its domain to the public. Throws open the factory doors and declares it a collective open to all mankind? To even do such a thing he must first destroy or counter his own underlings. There are many people who extract their livelihood from the parasitism of large organizations and few of them wish to see the thing that gives them their wealth and status dissolved and returned to the people. Any capitalist who attempts to rebel against the infinite hunger or the parasites that feed him will be in very real danger of being shot in the back of the head. There is no true loyalty in these organizations, any action that requires cooperation against the immediate greed of the members will be sold-out for a promotion. Even assuming that a capitalist somehow succeeded in dismantling his own parasitic organization other parasites would quickly move in to try and retake the domain it had been built on. The parasitic system we have set in motion is beyond the power of any one person, the bourgeois who receive the spoils from it are just as trapped as the proletariat who are milked for their productive capacity. It is a vast creature whose nature is utterly callous to the suffering and joys of human beings. We built ourselves a god and it is a blind god, a mad god, a god whose very nature is to devour us. The state as well as the church during some periods of history is an attempt to control this god. We can imagine the system is something like an Aztec temple where government priests carefully tally and sacrifice victims, foreign captives when possible or their own people when that supply runs dry to keep the hungry god under their temple in check.
A Big Man (or woman) to Tame the Beast
If you’re still with me then the appeal of the various state ideologies such as fascism or various sorts of socialist democracy should be obvious. The majority of the population does not believe that people are capable of governing themselves, that people could provide the conditions of a good life in cooperation. This is seen as naive or impossible and the absence of any modern organizations where this sort of organization takes place is pointed to as proof. Incidentally, these organizations aren’t around because they were destroyed and wiped from history by the victorious parasites, not because they are impossible.
People understand the existence of the mad god we’ve created, the parasitic economic system of capital. They very reasonably believe that if the state is destroyed they will be subjected to the unrestricted ravages of this monster (which they believe to be a result of human nature rather than a specific form of social organization). To protect themselves from this horror they support the existence of various sorts of heroic figures to tame the monster and put a check on the ever encroaching darkness of its endless hunger. Depending on their personality the hero is either anima, or animus. A strong fascist state with a powerful heroic male leader or a powerful social democracy administering the world with a firm hand and kind intentions. Left and right are in this sense two sides of the same coin, different attempts to impose through authority a humane structure on a world they believe is by nature unreasoning and cruel. The general myth is that we fall into madness and savagery, very few people feel that we fall into humanity and kindness.
Myth and Revolution
Now I’m going to get weird on you. If we understand that the psychic and real importance of the state is that of the hero or the martyr, a figure who fights or sacrifices to put a check on the essential darkness of the world and human nature. True revolution is impossible. While the majority of the population believes that human nature is dark and authority is necessary to have a modicum of light and humanity in the world they will willingly submit themselves to and support parasitic powers and those states and institutions that moderate for the parasites. They will differ only in which type of god they wish to live their lives in service to. The fascists who want to live in service to a powerful state that sets the world on a noble course at least wish to build a noble myth while the last-men who believe there is nothing other than the darkness just wish to serve whatever god is strong at the moment to come out on top. People are very psychically invested in these myths but they are in fact myths. Capitalism is as real as any other god, the wave only continues as long as enough of the particles behave in the necessary way. It’s all a big fucking game. But if no one accepts that it is a game, if the darkness is believed to be the truth or human nature or some other word for inevitable then any fundamentally different system of organization is impossible. Revolution cannot happen.
In light of this the radical left has in my opinion only two important roles in society. The first is to remind people that the current mode of social organization, the macro-parasitism, the wars, the poverty are in fact part of the game we happen to be playing and not a consequence of fate. The second is to propose better games. I suggest that we’ve ended up in the role of that smartass kid at school who nobody likes because we’ve been fairly successful at the first role but completely failed at the second. Every Communist society that has existed was macro-parasitic in the same way as the capitalist ones. Many excuses were made about how it was only a transitional form of Communism and so on but the transition never came, revolution was never realized and we again end up with an economic system where a minority turn much of the productive capacity of the population to their own ends rather than the general benefit. A true communist system where the benefits of productive activity are evenly shared and not extracted is a difficult thing because the power in such a system is benevolent. Benevolent power does not accumulate. If power does not accumulate then coercion can’t be effectively used by the organization which leaves it with less reliable tools like persuasion and communication. Persuasion and communication may be impossible so long as the population believes that human nature is dark and authority necessary. I do not even have the beginning of a solution, my hope is just that by making a clear statement of the problem an answer may become obvious to someone else.