The State and the Future of Post-Crash Anarchism
*A version of this article was presented as part of a panel discussion at the Renewing the Anarchist Tradition conference, November 6, 2010, in Baltimore, MD.
Just a couple of years ago, it was easy to believe that capitalism and the State had reached a fateful crossroads. The U.S. and much of the rest of the world were caught in a financial crisis unlike anything since 1929. The global real estate bubble was collapsing, some of the biggest financial institutions were technically insolvent, and even free-market fans like President Sarkozy in France were suggesting that the U.S. model of state capitalism might not be the pinnacle of human evolution after all. In April 2009, Barak Obama actually said to a group of corporate CEOs upset about pressure over their pay packages, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”
Less than two years later, the turnabout is remarkable. The too-big-to-fail banks are bigger and more powerful than ever, fattened up on taxpayer subsidies and interest-free loans from the Federal Reserve. Even before the November midterm elections, it was virtually impossible for Congress to enact necessary relief measures like extending unemployment benefits or bolstering Medicaid to prevent cutbacks in benefits, even though the country was still in the worst economic pit since the Depression. Even though Barak Obama was elected president in part because he had opposed the invasion of Iraq, Democratic and Republican lawmakers seem to have once again reached a bipartisan consensus to maintain a major U.S. military role in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the American wars in the Middle East hardly registered as issues in the campaign. Meanwhile, the Tea Party movement has been finessed into existence to occupy the space that should be taken up by populist outrage at a corrupt political and financial system.
Disciplining the State
But the most astonishing thing about this last couple of years is that the State itself seems to have become a target for harsh criticism by the very elites that control it. Two years ago, all we heard about was the terrible mess the banks had got us into. Now, all we hear in the corporate media is how spendthrift governments need to go on austerity budgets, slash social services, break unions, and pay down their debts in order to ward off bankruptcy. This despite the fact that the main reason for their budget deficits is not old-age pensions but the collapse of tax revenues in the wake of a global recession. We first heard this line early in 2010 when the countries being targeted were smaller nations like Greece, Italy, and Ireland. Now we're hearing the same thing about larger entities like the UK, France, and the U.S.
In a very significant development that hasn't been much reported, the top Treasury officials of the G20 countries got together in October to figure out how to revive the International Monetary Fund. The IMF had very little to do and had lost much of its influence after the Argentina, Russia, and countries in East Asia took steps to end their dependence on the fund, suddenly had a new lease on life after the Greek crisis broke out. And so the G20 voted it a lot more money and declared that they want the IMF to take on a new role as enforcer, disciplining countries that don't keep their budgets tight and eliminate needless frills like pensions and social services. That includes countries of all sizes, even the largest. It's not yet known exactly how the G20 will restructure the IMF, but clearly the point is to use it as a weapon to ensure that individual governments toe the Washington consensus line much more strictly from now on.
Let's put this in context. It's important to remember that states, in the modern sense, have never existed all by themselves. Going all the way back to their origins during the Renaissance, they have always existed as part of a mutually self-supporting system, first through diplomatic alliances and networks of police, military, and trade cooperation, and later through organizations like the UN, the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, the Warsaw Pact, and NATO. States need each other to survive. Big global financial institutions are part of this system, because they act as creditors of the various states.
Today, the economic crisis has weakened individual states. The financial powers that normally lurk behind the throne are asserting more overt control. And so the state system is tightening up and becoming more disciplinarian. At the same time, the line continues to blur between government and business. Treasury departments and central banks, which are the most important state institutions in modern capitalism, are organized so that they perfectly reflect the desires and the thinking of the commercial banks. One of the most important developments of the past few decades is that central banks have acquired much greater political independence, minimizing the amount of oversight elected officials can exercise over them.
The same goes in other parts of the corporate sector. Either the biggest hypocrites or the biggest chumps in the political arena today are small-government conservatives, who claim to believe that the State can divorce itself from any involvement in the economy other than to enforce property rights. The fact is that the State and capitalism are intermingling now more than ever as businesses in critical areas like energy, agribusiness, transportation, and of course defense depend on government subsidies, legal protection, and even physical protection in order to function and turn a profit.
The role of one state in particular, the U.S., is evolving in two significant new ways, both of which can be traced back to the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
First, when the UN agreed to let the U.S. invade Afghanistan and then Iraq, it gave the U.S. military carte blanche to become the world's police force – which means, effectively, the world's government, something Washington has wanted ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. What we've seen as a result is not just the invasion of two Middle Eastern countries, but for example, the establishment of Africom, a new U.S. military command covering sub-Saharan Africa. The excuse is to combat terrorism in places like Somalia, but the larger purpose is to put muscle behind U.S. corporate interests that are hoping to exploit valuable natural resources in Africa.
At the same time, the U.S. military is becoming more aggressive in Latin America than it's been in decades, hoping to reassert its hegemony against uncooperative states like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Argentina. One of the rationales for downsizing the welfare state in the U.S., advanced by imperial apologists like the historian Niall Ferguson and the political scientist Michael Mandelbaum, is that doing so leaves people in poor communities with fewer alternatives to serving in the military, which is now going to have to be expanded to fill its new role.
But the larger U.S. project, military as well as political, is to complete the work of bringing the remainder of the word under the economic regime of the Washington consensus: areas that it has bypassed up to now, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Some states that could serve as countervailing forces, like India and Brazil, are being co-opted. China is unlikely to develop into a serious threat to the new order, because it competes for the same consumer markets and the same natural resources as does the U.S. Others with more backbone, like Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, are either too small or too economically dependent on commercial export of natural resources to pose a serious threat.
The second major post-9/11 development is an effort by the State to exercise much tighter control of population movements, both within borders and outside them. This has always been one of the most central functions of the State, and maybe the trickiest. Since 9/11 we've seen an enormous rise in surveillance. Airport security is one aspect of this. So is the Internet. A line in an old Neil Young song goes, “You'll be watching your TV and it'll be watching you,” and that pretty much describes what the State, with the friendly cooperation of Google and other corporate providers, is putting into place now. Some Washington lawmakers and policy wonks are even seriously talking about introducing what would amount to a system of internal passports: an administrative feature that, in the past, was supposed to be peculiar to authoritarian countries like Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, not “democratic” states like the U.S.
Government secrecy has increased as well; more and more of what the State knows and does, in the heightened “security” environment post-9/11, is off limits to us: “privileged” information in every sense of the word. State power is taking on a more personalized, dictatorial character, too, as heads of state accumulate new powers in the years since 9/11. So even as the Washington consensus and the state system are broadening their reach, they're deepening and solidifying it as well.
The Challenge of the Border
As anarchists, we need to look closely at three key global realities that have materialized in the last 30-40 years: the collapse of the welfare state and the rise of the Washington consensus, the rebellion of indigenous peoples all over the world, and the huge upsurge in global migration. The last of these is where we can also start to talk about resistance and how to organize outside and against the State.
The economic crisis has created an opportunity for government to redouble its attack on social welfare, removing one more excuse for anyone to delude themselves that the State can be a vehicle for positive social change. Corporate control of the State, particularly by the financial sector, is becoming more overt in the wake of the financial bailouts two years ago, and so predictably, public cynicism toward “democratic” politics is growing. The middle class that was nurtured by the institutions of the welfare state is now under pressure in the U.S. and elsewhere. Much of the middle class is likely to be proletarianized in the years and decades ahead, whatever delusions Tea Party enthusiasts may hold.
The real site of resistance and possibly insurgency, I believe, is the Border. By this I mean not only the actual borders of political entities like the U.S., Israel, and the member states of the European Union, with their cement barriers, heavily patrolled coastlines, and paramilitary policing, but also the institutions they're setting up to control migrant populations, like INS detention centers, sweatshops, the communities that surround maquiladoras, virtual stateless regions like Somalia, the borderlands of porous states like Pakistan, Burma, and India, indigenous zones like Chiapas and Oaxaca and the Palestinian territories, and the shanty towns of Latin America. Communities of the homeless and families that have lost their homes to foreclosure in this country can be thought of as part of this archipelago of possible resistance as well, because the State no longer regards them as productive assets, but rather as a population to be controlled.
The Border – as I define it – is unique because the State and the state system never seem to be able to get one step ahead of it. The new global migrations create huge, concentrated populations of culturally disparate, often destitute people whose movements are unpredictable and are socially and culturally in flux. The State can't control these populations except through force. Migration puts downward pressure on wages, which is good news for the corporate economy. But it also creates potential communities of people who haven't been acculturated into capitalism and could generate their own economic and political solutions instead.
Why do I emphasize this? Partly because we've seen it before. Anarchism became a mass movement in Western Europe in the early to mid-19th century, when truly national markets developed in countries like Germany, France, and Italy and people who had only lived in one distinct region for hundreds or even thousands of years suddenly began moving about freely in search of work. Revolutionary economic theories percolated out of these groups and took root in them because they knew they had to develop an alternative to the alienating and even deadly conditions they enocuntered in the big manufacturing cities.
The same sort of cultural-political intermingling and interchange is happening today, on a global scale as borders and population movements become larger, less predictable, and more difficult for the state system to manage. Nearly 190 million people, about 3 percent of the world's population, lived outside their country of birth in 2005, a figure that's unprecedented. One billion people globally lived in urban slums, a number that's expected to double in the next 20 years. Many of these people still live in the countries of their birth. Many do not. All have been uprooted from their indigenous regions by economic hardship or political-military violence. Just like those who lived in the 19th century slums that gave birth to the revolutionary social movements of the 20th century.
The State is aware of the threat, but hasn't yet developed a comprehensive response. In the U.S., the political-corporate elite are profoundly divided over how to cope with the waves of immigration from Latin America, some calling for it to be shut off and others proposing various ways to manage it such that business can still benefit from this font of cheap labor. Another possible response is embodied in the strategies the U.S. has followed in Iraq, which involve isolating different religious sects as much as possible and playing them off against each other. Or in Palestine, where Israel has created virtual open-air prisons to house its unwanted population.
The common denominator is that these people don't have a state, and the State doesn't really know what to do with them, except confine them as best it can or keep them moving. Global migrants today are decentralized, often leaderless, living on the margins of the state-capitalist system, and still culturally grounded to a great extent in their traditional communities. What anarchism can contribute to the people of the Border – what it can offer as a way through the predicament they find themselves in – is nonhierarchical, cooperative strategies for organizing that disregard physical borders and show respect for the specific needs and desires of these groups. If we can look carefully at our methods of organizing, and find ways to make them work is practical alternatives for this new global nation of migrants, anarchism can pose a real counterforce to the State and once again become a mass movement.
Eric Laursen is an independent journalist, activist, and organizer living in western Massachusetts. He is co-author of Understanding the Crash (Soft Skull Press, 2010) and the forthcoming The People's Pension: The War Against Social Security Since 1980 (AK Press, Spring 2012).