Sunday, January 04, 2009

Has the Time Come to Abolish the State?



by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy 


A new book, Against the State by philosopher Crispin Sartwell, rejects with impeccable logic the traditional arguments in support of state legitimacy and power. Sartwell finds lacking all of the classics of Western political philosophy --Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Hume, Bentham, Rawls, Habermas and others. They were not only wrong, he says, but indefensible.

He lists three traditional arguments in support of state power:
  • social contract theories,
  • utilitarianism
  • justicial views
In the end, Sartwell argues, state power does not reside within the consent given it by the people but, rather, on coercion, primarily, the threat and use of deadly force. Sartwell argues that the state use of coercion does not follow from legitimacy. Rather, state use of coercion is without legitimacy and demonstrates the illegitimacy of the state. It is on this point, specifically, that I fully concur. I believe that only human beings have rights. States, like corporations, are mere legal abstractions. What right has a legal abstraction to require of any one of us anything whatsoever? What if 200 million people told the state to fuck off?

I might have welcomed a strong, centralized state had I been certain that it would exercise its awesome power only against those would subvert the liberties of individuals or rob them of the fruits of their labor, necessities, homes, families, educations, careers. Certainly, George W. Bush has proven as no other President in our nation's history has or could have done that there is, indeed, no state of any form that can be entrusted with the care of our rights or welfare. Americans have erred twice. We believed in the legitimacy of state power. We trusted the state.


Anarchist Philosophy




Sartwell Interview


Sartwell's critique of all forms of 'state' power are correct as far as they go. Until recently, it was easy enough to justify 'state power' generally as simply the best choice among few --none of which were good. Surely decision theory must have something to say about the nature of this no win proposition.

The rise to power of George W. Bush in a nation that likes to think of itself as 'Democratic' is cause enough to re-examine the legitimacy of every means by which state power is exerted, indeed the concept of 'state power' itself. Sartwell's skepticism is timely and well placed.

The very existence of someone like Bush is evidence if not proof that Democracies are as inclined as totalitarian states to war crimes, abrogations of 'civil liberties', subversion of the 'separation of powers' thought to be the institutional check against absolute power. The strongest case for Democracy has been compromised, perhaps shattered forever. As I have often put it: if my rights as a human being are violated what difference does it make to me whether those rights are violated by Adolph Hitler or George W. Bush? If wars of aggression, in violation of numerous international prohibitions and conventions, are perpetrated, what difference does it make whether the offending nation is a communist state or a beacon of free market capitalism and Democracy? If human beings are tortured, their persons violated, their lives taken upon callous orders by higher ups, what difference does it make to the victim whether the order should issue from Adolph Hitler or George W. Bush?

I might have welcomed a strong, centralized state if I were certain that it would exercise its awesome power only against those would subvert the liberties of individuals or rob them of the fruits of their labor, necessities, a home, a family, an education, a meaningful career. Certainly, George W. Bush has proven as no other President in our nation's history has or could have done that there is, indeed, no state of any form that can be entrusted with the care of our rights or welfare. As the guarantor of social justice, the Bush administration has failed miserably if not deliberately. It is for this reason that Sartwell's argument that Social contract models (Hobbes & Locke, primarily) rest upon 'submission rather than consent' is most powerful and especially well-timed. The very existence of a 'George Bush' supports Sartwell.

However attractive, it is hard to imagine anarchy as the solution. By definition, anarchy is no check against the rise of a repressive state which is sure to rise up in reaction. To create an institutional check is to end --by definition --the anarchy. A dialectic of that form tends to confirm Hegel and Marx.

Perhaps what Sartwell is really telling us is that we have at last arrived at that point in human evolution in which our species will fall victim to the 'states' of our own creation! Like the parasite which kills its host, states enabled the survival of our kind when other forces in the natural environment posed the greater threat. We found safety in numbers and for our survival made peace of sorts with tyrants. Is Sartwell telling us that all systems, pressed to their logical conclusions, fail?
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