What Is the Main Function of the State?

Source: The Anarchist Library
Republished with permission.


The main function of the state is to guarantee the existing social relationships and their sources within a given society through centralised power and a monopoly of violence. To use Malatesta’s words, the state is basically “the property owners’ gendarme. This is because there are “two ways of oppressing men [and women]: either directly by brute force, by physical violence; or indirectly by denying them the means of life and thus reducing them to a state of surrender.” The owning class, “gradually concentrating in their hands the means of production, the real sources of life, agriculture, industry, barter, etc., end up establishing their own power which, by reason of the superiority of its means ... always ends by more or less openly subjecting the political power, which is the government, and making it into its own gendarme.[Op. Cit., p. 23, p. 21 and p. 22]

The state, therefore, is “the political expression of the economic structure” of society and, therefore, “the representative of the people who own or control the wealth of the community and the oppressor of the people who do the work which creates the wealth.” [Nicholas Walter, About Anarchism, p. 37] It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the state is the extractive apparatus of society’s parasites.

The state ensures the exploitative privileges of its ruling elite by protecting certain economic monopolies from which its members derive their wealth. The nature of these economic privileges varies over time. Under the current system, this means defending capitalist property rights. This service is referred to as “protecting private property” and is said to be one of the two main functions of the state, the other being to ensure that individuals are “secure in their persons.” However, although this second aim is professed, in reality most state laws and institutions are concerned with the protection of property.

From this we may infer that references to the “security of persons,” “crime prevention,” etc., are mostly rationalisations of the state’s existence and smokescreens for its perpetuation of elite power and privileges. This does not mean that the state does not address these issues. Of course it does, but, to quote Kropotkin, any “laws developed from the nucleus of customs useful to human communities ... have been turned to account by rulers to sanctify their own domination.” of the people, and maintained only by the fear of punishment.” [Anarchism, p. 215]

Simply put, if the state “presented nothing but a collection of prescriptions serviceable to rulers, it would find some difficulty in insuring acceptance and obedience” and so the law reflects customs “essential to the very being of society” but these are “cleverly intermingled with usages imposed by the ruling caste and both claim equal respect from the crowd.”Thus the state’s laws have a “two-fold character.” While its “origin is the desire of the ruling class to give permanence to customs imposed by themselves for their own advantage” it also passes into law “customs useful to society, customs which have no need of law to insure respect” — unlike those “other customs useful only to rulers, injurious to the mass of the people, and maintained only by the fear of punishment.” [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., pp. 205–6] To use an obvious example, we find the state using the defence of an individual’s possessions as the rationale for imposing capitalist private property rights upon the general public and, consequently, defending the elite and the source of its wealth and power against those subject to it.

Moreover, even though the state does take a secondary interest in protecting the security of persons (particularly elite persons), the vast majority of crimes against persons are motivated by poverty and alienation due to state-supported exploitation and also by the desensitisation to violence created by the state’s own violent methods of protecting private property. In other words, the state rationalises its existence by pointing to the social evils it itself helps to create (either directly or indirectly). Hence, anarchists maintain that without the state and the crime-engendering conditions to which it gives rise, it would be possible for decentralised, voluntary community associations to deal compassionately (not punitively) with the few incorrigibly violent people who might remain.

Anarchists think it is pretty clear what the real role of the modern state is. It represents the essential coercive mechanisms by which capitalism and the authority relations associated with private property are sustained. The protection of property is fundamentally the means of assuring the social domination of owners over non-owners, both in society as a whole and in the particular case of a specific boss over a specific group of workers. Class domination is the authority of property owners over those who use that property and it is the primary function of the state to uphold that domination (and the social relationships that generate it). In Kropotkin’s words, “the rich perfectly well know that if the machinery of the State ceased to protect them, their power over the labouring classes would be gone immediately.” [Evolution and Environment, p. 98] Protecting private property and upholding class domination are the same thing.

The historian Charles Beard makes a similar point:

“Inasmuch as the primary object of a government, beyond mere repression of physical violence, is the making of the rules which determine the property relations of members of society, the dominant classes whose rights are thus to be protected must perforce obtain from the government such rules as are consonant with the larger interests necessary to the continuance of their economic processes, or they must themselves control the organs of government.” [“An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution,” quoted by Howard Zinn, Op. Cit., p. 89]

This role of the state — to protect capitalism and the property, power and authority of the property owner — was also noticed by Adam Smith:

“[T]he inequality of fortune ... introduces among men a degree of authority and subordination which could not possibly exist before. It thereby introduces some degree of that civil government which is indispensably necessary for its own preservation ... [and] to maintain and secure that authority and subordination. The rich, in particular, are necessarily interested to support that order of things which can alone secure them in the possession of their own advantages. Men of inferior wealth combine to defend those of superior wealth in the possession of their property, in order that men of superior wealth may combine to defend them in the possession of theirs ... [T]he maintenance of their lesser authority depends upon that of his greater authority, and that upon their subordination to him depends his power of keeping their inferiors in subordination to them. They constitute a sort of little nobility, who feel themselves interested to defend the property and to support the authority of their own little sovereign in order that he may be able to defend their property and to support their authority. Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” [The Wealth of Nations, book 5, pp. 412–3]

This is reflected in both the theory and history of the modern state. Theorists of the liberal state like John Locke had no qualms about developing a theory of the state which placed the defence of private property at its heart. This perspective was reflected in the American Revolution. For example, there is the words of John Jay (the first chief justice of the Supreme Court), namely that “the people who own the country ought to govern it.” [quoted by Noam Chomksy,Understanding Power, p. 315] This was the maxim of the Founding Fathers of American “democracy” and it has continued ever since.

So, in a nutshell, the state is the means by which the ruling class rules. Hence Bakunin:

“The State is authority, domination, and force, organised by the property-owning and so-called enlightened classes against the masses ... the State’s domination ... [ensures] that of the privileged classes who it solely represents.”[The Basic Bakunin, p. 140]

Under the current system, this means that the state “constitutes the chief bulwark of capital” because of its “centralisation, law (always written by a minority in the interest of that minority), and courts of justice (established mainly for the defence of authority and capital).” Thus it is “the mission of all governments ... is to protect and maintain by force the ... privileges of the possessing classes.” Consequently, while “[i]n the struggle between the individual and the State, anarchism ... takes the side of the individual as against the State, of society against the authority which oppresses it,” anarchists are well aware that the state does not exist above society, independent of the classes which make it up. [Kropotkin, Anarchism, pp. 149–50, p. 214 and pp. 192–3]

Consequently anarchists reject the idea that the role of the state is simply to represent the interests of the people or “the nation.” For “democracy is an empty pretence to the extent that production, finance and commerce — and along with them, the political processes of the society as well — are under control of ‘concentrations of private power.’ The ‘national interest’ as articulated by those who dominate the ... societies will be their special interests. Under these circumstances, talk of ‘national interest’ can only contribute to mystification and oppression.” [Noam Chomsky, Radical Priorities, p. 52] Nationalism always reflects the interests of the elite, not those who make up a nation and, consequently, anarchists reject the notion as nothing more than a con (i.e. the use of affection of where you live to further ruling class aims and power).

Indeed, part of the state’s role as defender of the ruling elite is to do so internationally, defending “national” (i.e. elite) interests against the elites of other nations. Thus we find that at the IMF and World Bank, nations are represented by ministers who are “closely aligned with particular constituents within their countries. The trade ministers reflect the concerns of the business community” while the “finance ministers and central bank governors are closely tied to financial community; they come from financial firms, and after their period in service, that is where they return ... These individuals see the world through the eyes of the financial community.” Unsurprisingly, the “decisions of any institution naturally reflect the perspectives and interests of those who make the decisions” and so the “policies of the international economic institutions are all too often closely aligned with the commercial and financial interests of those in the advanced industrial countries.” [Joseph Stiglitz, Globalisation and its Discontents, pp. 19–20]

This, it must be stressed, does not change in the so-called democratic state. Here, however, the primary function of the state is disguised by the “democratic” facade of the representative electoral system, through which it is made to appear that the people rule themselves. Thus Bakunin writes that the modern state “unites in itself the two conditions necessary for the prosperity of the capitalistic economy: State centralisation and the actual subjection of ... the people ... to the minority allegedly representing it but actually governing it.” [Op. Cit., p. 210] 


Freedom – Equality – Solidarity

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