Thinking about Anarchism - Anarchism and the State


Ever wonder why the Gardaí show up in large numbers when you’re trying to stop water meters in your estate, but haven’t got the resources to come straight out when you think your neighbour’s house is being burgled? If so, you’re thinking about the state.


Misconceptions & Reality

The most common misconception about anarchism is that it is in favour of ‘chaos’ or some sort of world generally devoid of order and democratic institutions which would leave us at the mercy of predators within our society. Therefore it aims for the destruction of civilisation and democracy itself, which in this view are represented by the state – the guarantor of peace, freedom, and of course, roads.



This couldn't be further from the truth. Not only is the aim of anarchism to live in peace, but anarchists are in favour of a highly organised society, one based on mutual agreement and co-operation rather than compulsion and competition. This requires replacing the state, an inherently violent institution founded upon arbitrary authority, with grassroots democratic institutions of a much more voluntary character.

What is the State?

But what is the state? We know the state by its courts, police, military, government, and general bureaucracy. It claims a monopoly on legitimate force, a 'right' to fine you, tax you, lock you up, or even shoot and torture you. The state is a mechanism by which a minority can wield hugely disproportionate control over a majority. A relatively tiny number of people can launch a war involving millions of people, decide what gender you are allowed to kiss, govern what you are permitted to write in an article, and greatly subsidise ecologically destructive activity. Fundamentally this involves one group of strangers bossing around or attacking another group of strangers.

My Property’s Keeper

Contrary to popular belief, the state does not exist to protect everyone from harm or provide necessary services which could not otherwise be provided. Instead it exists to preserve and improve the position of the dominant groups in society. The capitalist nation state is primarily a tool to perpetuate the existing private property system – where a person can own offices, apartments, factories, and land, that they don't even use - and hence the grossly unequal distribution of wealth within our society. In a world of huge want, force is required to stop the needy from taking what they lack, to stop the homeless from taking homes, to stop the hungry from taking food. Crucially the state enforces a situation where the vast majority are excluded from control of society's productive capacity. This allows a very small capitalist class to rent out the rest of the population for wages (wage labour) and in doing so achieve great wealth and hence power.

Capitalism and the state have a symbiotic relationship, and they grew up together over hundreds of years. When capitalism is in trouble (or even when it isn't) the state comes to the rescue through bailouts, tax breaks, subsidies, even taking direct control over large sections of industry. In times when the system is under threat from popular pressure, the state's armed forces can restore order as a last resort.

Rossport, Water Charges, the Song Remains the Same


That the state serves elite interests is evident to anyone involved in the recent anti-water charge campaign. When people have come together to stop water meters being installed, bizarrely large amounts of Gardaí are consistently deployed to disrupt protesters, often by kidnapping (more commonly known as arrest). Gardaí arrested 23 people at the crack of dawn for participating in a 2-3 hour sit-in protest in Jobstown, yet Margaret Heffernan is free as a bird after Dunnes Stores workers have been fired and otherwise punished for going on strike. The state has attempted to smear the water protesters through the state broadcaster RTE, government politicians, and senior Garda figures. People have even been pepper sprayed for, ironically, protesting Garda aggression.

This pattern is a repeat of the state repression at Rossport, where protesters were routinely arrested (to be released without charge), assaulted, and smeared, for daring to oppose a dangerous experimental pipeline and the gift of our natural gas to Shell. Indeed in these cases the difference between Gardaí and private security for Shell or Irish Water is academic, and this gets to the root of the purpose of the police. Despite its secondary role to combat anti-social crime (murder, etc), it is hard to entertain the idea that the police exist for the safety of people at large considering the Gardaí were instrumental in stopping the sabotage of US warplanes refuelling at Shannon airport. Rather than seeing the police as the thin blue line between civilisation and barbarity, anarchists see it as the thin blue line between the violence and deprivation of the present and the peace and satisfaction we could achieve in the future.

Law and Crime

Of course, the police are 'just following orders' and those orders mostly (but not always) derive from what is known as the law. Rather than have an intrinsic respect for the law, anarchists analyse and act in the world according to what is ethically right or wrong. Who would say that it was wrong to illicitly use a condom when they were banned in Ireland? If a law is unethical it should be disobeyed, and if it is in harmony with what is right then it is the right which should be respected and not the law. After all, laws are arbitrary decrees crafted by an elite - the vast majority have, as usual, little to no say over the matter.

We are told that we need such laws to prevent anti-social and dangerous behavior. But really, laws - when they are not doling out oppression - merely address the symptoms of our sick society rather than the root cause. Drug prohibition is an excellent example of this. Most crime is in fact a byproduct of the system we live under. Broadly speaking, people who have access to what they need do not steal. Broadly speaking, people who are nurtured as children, who are part of a community and live full lives, are not violent. And so forth. Throwing people into prison is not an intelligent solution.

Divided We Fall

But at least the state brings people together under one big tent, right? Unfortunately not. The state is a deeply divisive institution. It pits citizens against non-citizens, settled against Traveller, white against black, cis heterosexual against queer, man against woman, Protestant against Catholic, Christian against atheist, and so on, in different forms across the planet. Not only that but in the guise of nationalism the state pits the inhabitants of one nation against those of another. The state, in order to maintain the integrity of such an internally antagonistic society, and because it is mostly operated by people from society's dominant groups, has fostered cultural phenomena such as racism, sexism and nationalism which have divided the world’s working class.

Welfare State

While recognising that the state has many beneficial subsidiary functions such the maintenance of public services, the reasons the state took on many of these roles should also be considered. It did so primarily to mitigate the threat of revolution after the second world war and began to divert part of every worker’s wage to form a new social wage which would be used for the education of workers and limited social security. This is what we call the welfare state. It has functioned as a massive bribe which heads off social struggle. In Ireland we see how the state has operated as a supposedly neutral mediator to maintain 'industrial relations' through social partnership, defusing the transformative power of trades unions.

A Workers’ State?

However, the anarchist critique of the state isn't limited to the capitalist state. The problem is not simply who wields it. Unlike Leninists, we do not want to seize state power and try to put it to good use. The state as an organ has evolved over a long time in particular conditions to perform a certain function - it cannot be reined in to perform a totally different purpose of a sudden, just as a heart cannot suddenly act like a kidney. The famous experiments in, for example, the USSR and China have shown that. Therefore, rather than grabbing existing power structures, anarchists want to supplant the state's functions with new popular organs formed upon different principles.

This also calls for a different way of doing politics in the shorter term. Anarchists don't seek to enter government. We see real political change as happening outside of the established political channels. That's why you'll never see the Workers Solidarity Movement running candidates in elections. Not only that, but entertaining the electoral game lends the system credibility and reinforces the cultural expectation that 'someone else' will solve our problems. Instead, anarchists participate in community groups, like those created to fight the water charges, agitate in unions, take direct action (e.g. stopping water meter installations, striking, squatting), and otherwise work towards building a decentralized grassroots counter-power to the institutions of the ruling class.

A New Initiative

The state has the tendency to expand into more and more areas of life, until we look around and wonder what pie the state doesn’t have its finger in. Importantly, the state saps people of their initiative. It claims a certain social space by asserting itself as an authority. Part of what defines authority is the waiving of responsibility by those who cede to it. We complain about potholes rather than filling them ourselves because it's the council's job, but if we did fill them we would probably be fined. Communities don’t police themselves because the Gardaí are supposed to do that, even when they do a woeful job. And when Dublin city centre residents tried to do just that in the 1980’s to combat the heroin epidemic ravaging their social fabric, the state was more keen on shutting them down than solving the real problem. Remember, the state is the only show in town.

Many people upon hearing about anarchism for the first time ask ‘but who would build the roads?’ This raises a crucial point: the state doesn’t actually do anything, it’s an abstraction. People do things, and people will continue to build roads - specifically the relevant workers under direct community control and organised in whatever fashion they feel most adequate. Remember that fire brigades and ambulances were volunteer initiatives before being co-opted by the state apparatus, so don’t believe the creation myth of the state (‘before the State, there was nothing ...’). It is perfectly possible to work together freely to create the world we want to live in. All public services and subsidiary roles taken on by the state would come under the administration of the workers and community assemblies and institutions created by them. We don’t require a monolithic outgrowth from feudal times, not least one with a history too brutal to contemplate.


WORDS: Cormac Caulfield and Alex Amargi


This article is from Issue 11 of the Irish Anarchist Review