Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The State Will Wither Away...

It's occurred to me on and off that one characteristic of what we might call millenarian political movements is the prediction/desire that the state will disappear. The more pragmatic among us recognize that there are always going to be differences between individuals, and someone needs to be an arbiter, besides providing some goods that are not easily apportioned among their users, like roads and schools.

But there's this longing for all of us to just get along and not have to worry about that superstructure and apparatus that is required to maintain order and keep the snow plowed. Someone sitting in an office? Never mind that they're coordinating the snow plows, that must be a sign of our tax dollars going to waste. And then we can complain that the streets weren't plowed.

One of the commenters at Balloon Juice touched on the subject again, this time with Sarah Palin as exemplar. Presumably this vision of a no-goverment world has clouds for footings, with harps and white robes assigned to all. (But who assigns them? Oh noes!)

I'm reading Bruce Lincoln's The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and The Russians, and I've gotten to the part where the guys who believed that government would wither away are doing what they felt were the preliminaries to that withering. Of course, they were faced with the ugly practicalities and did their best. Marx had expected his preferred forms of government come to an industrially advanced country, like Germany. But the opportunities (and opportunists) arose in underdeveloped Russia, which had been badly governed for some long time. It turns out that even when you decapitate a state, as the Bolsheviks did in 1918, some of that state's bad characteristics remain. We can still see remnants of them today in Russia, one of the possible barriers to that withering away. So millions of uncooperative people who wouldn't wither away were sent to slave labor camps in Russia's taiga and Arctic to die miserable deaths. That's one way to do it.

So were the Bolsheviks mistaken about that withering away, or were they simply opportunists with a good line? How about Marx? And how about today's Libertarians, Tea Partiers, and others who would like to drown the state in a bathtub? Come to think of it, that's a more violent way of putting the Bolshevik vision.


Eric said...

"So millions of uncooperative people who wouldn't wither away were sent to slave labor camps in Russia's taiga and Arctic to die miserable deaths. That's one way to do it."

I've yet to see anybody that is a personality on the "right" talk about doing anything remotely like this.

What an absolute misreading of history.

Cheryl Rofer said...

I'm just laying out the history. Perhaps I should have been more explicit, but this is just a blog post. All I've said is what I've said. Eric, of course, is free to read into it what he will. I agree that no "personality" on the right has suggested such a thing and wonder why he is careful to limit his statement in this way.

I find it amusing/interesting/confounding that Libertarians and others continue to insist on removing the state when this historical precedent exists.

I find it even more confounding that so few people comment on the parallel of an ideal stateless paradise.

troutsky said...

Anarchists on both sides of the spectrum get very touchy about this. No one for me has done a good job explaining the difference between self-determination and governance. Or government,that body that governs, and the State, that terrible thing with coercive power.

The confusing discourse on democracy is partly to blame.Various parliamentary schemes from representative, to direct democracy or plebicite remain unclear to most citizens. Marx's "withering away" directed decision making to workers councils but it seems to me that whoever coordinates them becomes "the state".

Charles Cameron (hipbone) said...

Hello again, Cheryl:

As you likely already know, but some of your readers may not, the historical background to Engels' "withering away of the state" is indeed millenarian, as Norman Cohn showed in his Pursuit of the Millennium. It derives from Abbot Joachim of Fiore's notion of the three ages of Father, Son and Spirit – the age of the Father being intensely legalistic, that of the Son reducing the laws to two (Matthew 22:35-40), and that of the Spirit requiring no written law, since the heart is communion with God would know what to do. In Cohn's words:

the third age would be one of love, joy and freedom, when the knowledge of God would be revealed directly in the hearts of all men. The Age of the Spirit was to be the sabbath or resting-time of mankind. Then the world would be one vast monastery, in which all men would be contemplative monks rapt in mystical ecstasy and united in singing the praises of god.

As someone with a keen appreciation for the monastic life, that would suit me okay -- but I don't have the sense that it is the direction in which the world as we know it now turns...

Frank Wilhoit said...

Nobody hates government for any other reason than crimicals hate police.


Phila said...

I don't think the rhetoric in question has much to do with the withering of the state. I think it has to do with creating a specific kind of state that benefits a specific kind of person (and perhaps more important, doesn't benefit certain other kinds of people).

The complaints about "statism" provide a screen for these desires, just like complaints about homosexuality often provide a screen for the desires of hard-right politicians and preachers. These people's bedrock problem with the state isn't the concept of governance itself, or imperious power, but the basic ideals of checks and balances, equal rights and so forth. I don't see anything anti-authoritarian or anarchistic in it. Quite the opposite. The goal here is to replace a dialogue with a monologue.

Norquist's rhetoric on government makes a lot more sense if you read "small" as "exclusive."

Anonymous said...

I think you had me up until that last paragraph. I'm not sure what libertarians, the Tea Party or Sarah Palin have to do with Millenarianism. I also think there's a substantial difference between a desire to "drown the state" (and let's be clear that neither libertarians, the tea party and Sarah Palin are anarchists) and the Bolshevik notion of an enforced conformity by class using the power of the state. The latter, in my view, is much more violent.

helmut said...

I beg to differ, Andy. Not that I endorse either, but libertarianism-meets-anarchism entails eternal revolution. Society requires some organization - in everyone's interests. Each time it does so, it acts as a state or an incipient one. The Soviet case is a violent one, true. But look at Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew - "benevolent" authoritarianism. Most Singaporeans are pleased enough. Not the same as Bolshevism, but Singapore, China, and other states that enforce conformity along various lines are generally not violent states. Of course, they also sacrifice individual freedom and expression and so on. But on the question of violence, I think the libertarian/anarchism position ultimately and necessarily entails constant violence, while authoritarian states do not necessarily, even if Americans romanticize the revolt against authority.

Anonymous said...


Libertarianism isn't anarchism. I think you are making a mistake by conglomerating them together. Libertarians don't want zero government, nor do they want zero organization. I think that's impossible anyway - in the absence of government, people will self-organize.

Furthermore, if you look at history, organized violence is both more bloody and more commonplace than anarchy and authoritarian regimes are best able to engage in such violence. As you note, not all authoritarian regimes engage in mass violence, but I think the notion that libertarianism or even anarchy are more prone to violence is completely unsupported by the historical record.

troutsky said...

One more distinction that might be helpful is to think of two axes, the social and the economic. I'll argue all day that free market, anti-state libertarianism is a long way along the continuum towards anarchism ( not anarchy, a whole different beast).

I self-identify as a libertarian socialist, minimum state at the social level, some (administrative) in the economic realm.

helmut said...

I didn’t say libertarianism is anarchism. I’m also not making a mistake by putting them side by side. What a libertarian or anarchist supports varies, but neither are after zero government while both are after at least minimal government (usually). Nobody thinks “zero organization” is possible or desirable. But if one is anti-state, or minimal-state like Robert Nozick, any accretion of state-like activity (e.g. generation of public problem-solving institutions – i.e., government) is a risk to the coherence of the ideology if nothing else. The most brilliant libertarian thinker to have existed was Nozick, and his notion of the minimal state grounded on three basic principles of justice in holdings – basically protecting the acquisition and transfer or private property – is ultimately incoherent. Theoretically, both are in tension with human tendencies to organize. The human species has a great characteristic – the capacity to do collective problem-solving. But anarchism and libertarianism aren’t very helpful here.

It’s also pretty silly, if we “look at history,” to compare authoritarian states and anarchist or libertarian states re violence since there aren’t any of the latter. The history of political organization at the level of nation-states is overwhelmingly a history of diverse forms of authoritarianism – patriarchal pre-state societies to autocracies/monarchies to Soviets to contemporary oligarchies/plutocracies. So, which states have been the most violent in history? Authoritarian states!

Cheryl Rofer said...

I used the word millenarian advisedly. Not because I knew the history that Charles Cameron gave us; I didn't, and many thanks to Charles. I used it because those who want to believe the state will wither posit a climax to history in which the state will no longer exist. That's something like what libertarians are saying.

This sort of thinking puts a premium on that climax and, if it focuses too much on that climax and bringing it about, well, anything goes. That is what led to Stalin's purges.

Phila raises a nice question that implies that I may be taking the prediction/desire for the state to wither too much at face value. He may be right.

But I think it behooves today's advocates of shrinking government to look at the historical parallel, if only to avoid the excessive focus that led to the terrible outcomes. It may be that Phila's few were cynically running things, but their actions were approved by the many who were willing to believe in the state withering away. Someday.

Phila said...

It may be that Phila's few were cynically running things, but their actions were approved by the many who were willing to believe in the state withering away. Someday.

That's pretty much how I see it, and I'd relate it to the way in which the ideal of a "free market" serves to anonymize the wielding of power. Outcomes that are the result of policy are portrayed as "natural," and any victims deserve what they get. Under this scheme, the actual power of the state would flourish; we'd simply change its name to protect the guilty.

As a neo-Muggletonian libertarian socialist, I wouldn't want to tar every form of anti-statist thought with this brush. But I do think the right-wing/populist version of minimal government amounts to little more than dreary authoritarian anti-pluralism gussied up with a few radical-chic fashion accessories.

Anonymous said...


I am specifically challenging the idea that "the libertarian/anarchism position ultimately and necessarily entails constant violence, while authoritarian states do not necessarily." What is your evidence to support this assertion about libertarianism and violence?


I don't see the historical parallel between Bolshevism and the Tea Party or libertarians. Perhaps I'm missing your argument, but it seems to me that the desired libertarian end state is governance that is unable to have much impact on individuals - if so, how can that result in something like Stalin's purges? The whole idea of libertarianism is to prevent the state from having the capacity to round people up and murder or imprison them. The level of violence for a purge requires an extensive and pervasive security state and that is something Libertarians are uniformly opposed to.

I tend to agree with phila about the right-wing and withering the state. Even the libertarians agree.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Andy, you're making a few too many jumps in logic in the service of removing any connection between libertarianism and communism. And you may be right. But when two ideologies that tend to ignore the realities of practice agree on a fairly big point, I see danger flags.

The parallel is that both expect/desire the state to wither away. Now I haven't read as much libertarian philosophy as Helmut has, and the parallel may not be exact. The Bolsheviks (if we take them at face value, pace Phila) believed that as the workers took over, the millenium of no-government would arrive. Libertarians seem to believe that we are already in that millenium, or could be, and no government is needed by a perfected people.

So if a perfected people (or the millenium) implies that government will wither away, and if, as you take away government, people don't behave as though government is not necessary (they whine about no snow removal rather than forming workers' combines or free-enterprise businesses or shoot people in the street or any number of other unpleasant things people do), then it must be those people who don't deserve to live in the workers' paradise, or whatever the libertarians call it.

So one must do something about them, which requires more government. Only temporarily, you understand, until we have achieved the proper degree of re-education.

And here we begin to converge with Phila's explanation. I understand the need for spontaneously-arising workers' councils, and Andy understands the need for free-market business, so he and I clearly have reached the enlightened stage of the millenium.

Therefore we are qualified to decide who gets re-educated. And it's possible that hard labor building that railroad across Siberia would be salutary for that re-education.

Perfectly natural, as Phila points out.

troutsky said...

Cheryl does a great job explaining the danger of "new man" type thinking and the terrifying unity it can engender.I don't see "perfected people" notions espoused directly by libertarians but certain rhetoric about "common sense", or native wisdom within heartland Americanism speaks to an assumed natural authority.

It definitely relates to "Left Behind" Christian millenialism, where those who "get it" are removed along with all antagonism ( after the cleansing).

Phila said...

I tend to agree with phila about the right-wing and withering the state. Even the libertarians agree.

Well, lest you agree too hastily with my babbling, I have to say that my definition of "the right-wing/populist version of minimal government" includes libertarians, whom I consider en masse to be cloest-case authoritarians (though I try to keep an open mind re: the possibility of meeting one who doesn't fit that description).

Also, I basically agree with helmut that the "libertarian/anarchism position ultimately and necessarily entails constant violence," even if the way I read "violence" in that sentence makes it difficult for me to accept his claim that "authoritarian states do not necessarily."

Libertarians remind me a little of the people who talk passionately about the utopian ideal of a "colorblind" society, in order to downplay or ignore existing inequality and blame its victims for their own oppression. Which is probably not a coincidence, since they tend to be the same people. (Disclaimer: I'm sure there are libertarians who don't fit this bill, or don't want to. But I'm not convinced they wouldn't simply go along with the majority if their groovy revolution ever came to pass. I have libertarian friends with many good qualities, but I've noticed that when occasions arise to demonstrate that there's way more to their philosophy than tight-fisted ressentiment, they haven't exactly acquitted themselves.)

Disclaimer: WTF do I know? I'm just another opinionated loudmouth on the Internets.

Charles Cameron (hipbone) said...

Cohn's Pursuit of the Millennium is a fascinating study of a cluster of medieval heretical movements -- but his interest in them arises from his sense of their relevance to the major 20th century totalitarian movements of both "left" and "right".

Thus it's probably worth a mention that he also finds roots of Nazism in the same millenarian current -- in his view the Third Reich, also known as the Thousand-Year Reich (!), stems from the third of the Three Ages of Joachim, just as the "withering away of the state" does.

From what I recall, Cohn is fairly direct about these connections in the first edition, muted his claims somewhat in the second, and returned to them with some vigor in the third -- but it has been a while.

From Cohn's obit in the Guardian:

His best known study, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (1957), demonstrated convincingly that the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, chiefly Marxism and nazism, shared a "common stock of European social mythology" with apocalyptic medieval movements such as the Flagellants and the Anabaptists.

Common to both modern and medieval versions of this ideology was a belief in the end of history, culminating, after much suffering and struggle, in an earthly paradise for an elect, and the destruction of their enemies. Just as the established church, rich landowners and Jews were to be swept away by the poor of medieval Europe, so the "world Jewish conspiracy" was to make way for the Third Reich, or the Marxist proletariat succeed the bourgeoisie. This enduring strain of belief has found more recent echoes in both Islamism and the US evangelical right.

troutsky said...

I don't think we want to leave Fukayama's "End of History" out of this totalizing milieu. The liberal-democratic capitalist vision of established order finally reigning over an earthly paradise has similar roots. What else is the "invisible hand"?