Books / Digital Text
What the State Fears
What the State fears above all, of course, is any fundamental threat to its own power and its own existence. The death of a State can come about in two major ways: (a) through conquest by another State, or (b) through revolutionary overthrow by its own subjects—in short, by war or revolution. War and revolution, as the two basic threats, invariably arouse in the State rulers their maximum efforts and maximum propaganda among the people. As stated above, any way must always be used to mobilize the people to come to the State's defense in the belief that they are defending themselves. The fallacy of the idea becomes evident when conscription is wielded against those who refuse to "defend" themselves and are, therefore, forced into joining the State's military band: needless to add, no "defense" is permitted them against this act of "their own" State.
In war, State power is pushed to its ultimate, and, under the slogans of "defense" and "emergency," it can impose a tyranny upon the public such as might be openly resisted in time of peace. War thus provides many benefits to a State, and indeed every modern war has brought to the warring peoples a permanent legacy of increased State burdens upon society. War, moreover, provides to a State tempting opportunities for conquest of land areas over which it may exercise its monopoly of force. Randolph Bourne was certainly correct when he wrote that "war is the health of the State," but to any particular State a war may spell either health or grave injury.35
We may test the hypothesis that the State is largely interested in protecting itself rather than its subjects by asking: which category of crimes does the State pursue and punish most intensely—those against private citizens or those against itself? The gravest crimes in the State's lexicon are almost invariably not invasions of private person or property, but dangers to its own contentment, for example, treason, desertion of a soldier to the enemy, failure to register for the draft, subversion and subversive conspiracy, assassination of rulers and such economic crimes against the State as counterfeiting its money or evasion of its income tax. Or compare the degree of zeal devoted to pursuing the man who assaults a policeman, with the attention that the State pays to the assault of an ordinary citizen. Yet, curiously, the State's openly assigned priority to its own defense against the public strikes few people as inconsistent with its presumed raison d'etre.36
- 35. We have seen that essential to the State is support by the intellectuals, and this includes support against their two acute threats. Thus, on the role of American intellectuals in America's entry into World War I, see Randolph Bourne, "The War and the Intellectuals," in The History of a Literary Radical and Other Papers (New York: S.A. Russell, 1956), pp. 205-22. As Bourne states, a common device of intellectuals in winning support for State actions, is to channel any discussion within the limits of basic State policy and to discourage any fundamental or total critique of this basic framework.
- 36. As Mencken puts it in his inimitable fashion: This gang ("the exploiters constituting the government") is well nigh immune to punishment. Its worst extortions, even when they are baldly for private profit, carry no certain penalties under our laws. Since the first days of the Republic, less than a few dozen of its members have been impeached, and only a few obscure understrappers have ever been put into prison. The number of men sitting at Atlanta and Leavenworth for revolting against the extortions of the government is always ten times as great as the number of government officials condemned for oppressing the taxpayers to their own gain. (Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy, pp. 147-48) For a vivid and entertaining description of the lack of protection for the individual against incursion of his liberty by his "protectors," see H.L. Mencken, "The Nature of Liberty," in Prejudices: A Selection (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), pp. 138-43.