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Forsaking Society for the State?

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08/24/2011Wendy McElroy

The wall separating state and society is crumbling. Or, rather, the state is taking a jackhammer to it in an aggressive attempt to control every aspect of productive and cooperative life.

Consider one small example. A few days ago, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano launched the latest in a series of so-called public-service announcements that are slated to play at Walmarts across the nation. While you are standing in line to buy a carton of milk, the Orwellian Napolitano will look down upon you from a television screen and preach the virtue of turning neighbors and strangers into the authorities for the crime of "suspicious" behavior. What next? A two-minute "hate session" in the produce department?

Meanwhile, the FBI is handing out brochures to hotels, motels, stores, and most particularly gun shops; the pamphlets ask owners to inform the authorities of suspicious activity by customers such as paying in cash or buying "night flashlights." A headline on the Daily Paul site captures the essence of what the feds now consider suspicious: "FBI Lists Purchase of Preparedness Items as 'Potential Indicators of Terrorist Activities'."

The people you deal with on a daily basis are ceasing to be good neighbors, honest merchants, and disinterested strangers. They are becoming state informants who monitor your expression, your money, your behavior and attitude in order to report you to the authorities. They are ceasing to be "society" and becoming instead "the state."

The State versus Society

Two of the most important concepts in any discussion of liberty are the state and society. Almost all libertarians agree that there is a line between a state and a society, but exactly where is it drawn?

"The question for the state becomes how to convince free people to willingly relinquish a productive, cooperative society in preference for a coercive state."

The 19th- to 20th-century sociologist Franz Oppenheimer famously analyzed these concepts in his classic work The State. He wrote,

I mean by it [the State] that summation of privileges and dominating positions which are brought into being by extra-economic power.… I mean by Society, the totality of concepts of all purely natural relations and institutions between man and man.

The two institutions use competing and incompatible methods to acquire wealth and power. The state uses what Oppenheimer calls "the political means" or the use of force; society uses "the economic means" or cooperation. Where the society produces, the state plunders; where society functions through agreement, the state issues orders. Thus, the state is the main rival and enemy of society upon which it preys for sustenance.

The 20th-century American individualist Albert Jay Nock was a conduit of Oppenheimer into American thought. In his book Our Enemy the State, Nock wrote,

Taking the State wherever found, striking into its history at any point, one sees no way to differentiate the activities of its founders, administrators, and beneficiaries from those of a professional-criminal class.

"With the control of information, the authorities could convince people that they acted to further public welfare, that they were the embodiment of the public good, of law and order."

Murray Rothbard refined this description in his essay "Society without a State" in which he wrote,

I define the state as that institution which possesses one or both (almost always both) of the following properties: (1) it acquires its income by the physical coercion known as "taxation"; and (2) it asserts and usually obtains a coerced monopoly of the provision of defense service (police and courts) over a given territorial area. An institution not possessing either of these properties is not and cannot be, in accordance with my definition, a state.

Not every libertarian agrees with Rothbard's anarchistic analysis. Even Nock introduced a third concept into his discussion: government. To Nock, government was an agency that protects individual rights within society in exchange for a "fee." Nor was Nock alone in distinguishing between a government and the state. Oppenheimer himself left the door open for a distinct agency called government when he declared, in the introduction to The State, "Others may call any form of leadership and government or some other ideal the 'State.' That is a matter of personal style."

Whatever your personal style may be, however, America now clearly operates under a STATE writ large — not a legitimate government. And, like every overweening parasite, the state is beginning to consume and kill the society upon which it is feeding.

The Engineering of Consent

The state consumes society either by force or through people's consent. It prefers consent. For one thing, there are too many people to compel obedience from everyone; if as few as 10 percent refused to obey a law, then that law would probably be unenforceable.

The question for the state becomes how to convince free people to willingly relinquish a productive, cooperative society in preference for a coercive state.

There are several ways. For example, people can be convinced that the state itself is not only productive but also more reliable than society. Thus, agencies like the Food and Drug Administration are not only credited with "producing" food safety but also with reining in an irresponsible free market that would otherwise sell poisoned baby food. In reality, the FDA produces nothing; it drains society through taxes and regulation, and prevents effective alternatives for safety from arising. Yet the state convinces people that society is their enemy; authority is their friend.

"La Boétie viewed the mystification of the state as the second most compelling reason why people obeyed."

Another method by which the state controls and consumes society is through conditioning. In his essay Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, the 16th-century French jurist Étienne de La Boétie probed the question of why people obey. The primary reason, he concluded, was custom. Through training, people gradually lost the habit of acting like free individuals. La Boétie observed,

It is incredible how as soon as a people becomes subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it, obeying so easily and so willingly that one is led to say, on beholding such a situation, that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement.

Generations that were born "under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery" accepted their condition as natural. Thus, it was important for the state to control how children were reared, largely by controlling education. Soon people came to believe that life had always been this way, that life will always be this way; and, so, it took extreme effort to introduce a new vision.

But controlling education was not enough to stifle the dissent that would inevitably come from those who could not be convinced nor educated into obedience. The state countered dissent in various ways. A key one was to control or, at least, monopolize the press because "books and teaching more than anything else give men the sense to comprehend their own nature and to detest tyranny." In this manner, the authorities prevented people from comparing the past with the present and, so, controlled what people believed was possible in the future.

With the control of information, the authorities could convince people that they acted to further public welfare, that they were the embodiment of the public good, of law and order. Thus, those who acted or spoke against the state were enemies of the public good.

The individuals in authority reinforced their own lofty self-image by appearing to be larger than life — that is, through a process of mystification. Politicians aligned with religion, swore to uphold the law of the land, fell back on the authority of tradition or a founding document, etc. They presided over displays of pomp and clothed their agents' uniforms with guns. Authorities participated in rituals of office and housed their agencies (e.g., the courts) in expensive, awe-inspiring buildings.

La Boétie viewed the mystification of the state as the second most compelling reason why people obeyed.

Of course there would always be people who could not be convinced or awed but who, perhaps, could be bought off. And, so, the authorities also engaged in a faux largesse that La Boétie identified as another great reason for obedience: bribery. He recounted the spectacle of rulers who literally fed people by distributing stocks of food. "And then everybody would shamelessly cry, 'Long live the King!'" La Boétie remarked scornfully.

The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them.

This direct bribery paled in significance, however, beside an indirect form that La Boétie called "the mainspring and the secret of domination, the support and foundation of tyranny." This was the institutionalized bribery through which millions of people were employed at state jobs and relied upon tax funds in order to pay their bills. These state employees "cling to the tyrant" and offer him their loyalty. Some state employees, such as police officers, became the hands of the state, reaching throughout society to implement laws and policies. Tax-supported intellectuals, such as public-university professors and recipients of government grants, became the voice of the state, defending its legitimacy. Still others, working as clerks or minor agents, made the daily machinery of the state grind on.

"Like every overweening parasite, the state is beginning to consume and kill the society upon which it is feeding."

Over generations, a vast new class of people: people who served the state in exchange for a salary. These state employees willingly destroyed their own liberty and that of their neighbors. And they did so without thinking because the force of custom and the power of education led them to believe that things had always been this way and always would be.


And, so, when you stand in line at Walmart and watch a televised Big Sister admonish other shoppers to monitor your every move for the public good, understand that this phenomenon is the result of a long process. Convincing people that society is their enemy, the state is their protector has required propaganda, public schools, media cooperation, mystification, and bribery. It has taken a great deal to convince your neighbor to become the state and "turn you in."


Contact Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy is a Canadian individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a cofounder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist magazine in 1982.