The Psychology Behind the State

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August 20, 2007

A co-worker of mine often laments, "Maybe we should take the Noah's Ark route -- 40 days and 40 nights of rain, flood the world, start all over again". Indeed, when I talk about anti-statist or individualist ideas, people respond with dismal appraisals of the human race as proof that an anarchist society "wouldn't work".

"People are freakin' crazy, you know!"

"We need government because some people simply cannot govern themselves; crime would go out of control."

"Without government, we'd all collapse into chaos!"

"What would we do in the event of a catastrophe?"

"You give people too much credit -- we don't live in a perfect world, people are too flawed."

"People are not rational."

And my personal favorite, "In anarchy, what would prevent another Hitler from rising up and overtaking us all?"

Here we have a look into the psychology behind the State. There's something profoundly erroneous, dangerous and destructive in these views that most people don't see. So let's first examine the premises and see what we dig up.

First: a profound sense of capitulation. Historically, governments have regularly done things that might put ordinary people in jail or the gallows if they attempted them. The statist system enshrines a double standard between actions permissible by individuals and actions permissible by the State. We end up with a fatal lack of consistency, integrity, and rationality at the system's core because of such deep ethical contradictions. Most people shrug it off and passively accept it, even if they realize their error! Case in point: "Well, it'd be nice if we could have a perfect world but government is a necessary evil."

Here's the problem: when you give up strong, rational and consistent ethical standards, you give up the ability to assert your life, liberty and rights. When you give these up you likewise give up the ability to damn and resist those who would take these rights away from you. Indeed, this moral relativism is perfect fodder for the amoral ruling class and their amoral State because it makes people less able to identify their double standards, see the B.S. for what it is, and identify their authority as illegitimate. People give up their first line of defense in the process. Hence you hear so often, "Well, it'd be nice if we could have a perfect world, but government is a necessary evil" or "Sometimes you have to go for the lesser of two evils." After all, "Everything is subjective -- there is no right or wrong", right?

Think a little about how often you hear such sayings. Think about it, long and hard.

Second: equating anarchy with chaos. Statists assume the State is the only thing that can possibly provide social order (no alternative institution or system need apply). Yet most of the time you really are "left to your own devices," and chaos does not ensue. Most of the time there is no all-knowing, all-powerful entity planning things or pulling the strings. The vast majority of human interactions and situations involve no man with a gun keeping people in line and quoting legal textbooks in the process. No ruler is present; therefore, this is an anarchic situation. Yet this is society at work.

On the other hand, chaos is a total lack of order, a total disintegration of laws, customs, notions of responsibility and rights. People don't function well in such a tempest-tossed environment, so we have created the aforementioned things to provide boundaries of conduct ' basically, a social framework that helps individuals "get along" so they have energy to pursue other things. The anarchist's questions are not whether or not this arrangement is useful but rather questions of moral legitimacy: (a) "How should it be set up and enforced?" (b) "Which is the fairest way to go about it?" (c) "Are the underlying principles rational or arbitrary?"

The anarchist looks at history and observes that statism, and other forms of illegitimate control, have caused more harm than good. The worst tyrants in history came to power because they had powerful states backing them up. Moreover, the anarchist recognizes a fatal contradiction in statist assumptions: if people are naturally unfit to govern themselves, then how can any particular person be fit to govern others?

Third and last: a sense of unavoidable catastrophe. Libertarians and anarchists often find themselves "tested" with rhetorical traps:

"Are you saying that if there's a massive epidemic, we should all fend for ourselves and beg drug companies for aid?"

"What would we do if the economy totally collapses, all banks collapse worldwide, and we lose our jobs?"

"Without drug laws, what would stop everyone from shooting up drugs and getting addicted?"

"If we get rid of gun control, what'll prevent some wacko gun-nut from getting a nuclear bomb?"

"What if a monopoly came and bought up all of a valuable natural resource for itself?"

"So it's okay by you if government collapses and there's nobody to take care of roads, no standardized schooling, no safety net for the elderly?!"

"What about Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, huh?!"

What next, invasion by aliens? Now, there are plenty of intelligent, legitimate questions that a statist can have for an anarchist, yet their "arguments from catastrophe" are alarmingly common challenges to even mild libertarian positions. The world is hardly perfect but such extreme, hellish, fabricated scenarios are not the norm. Surely you are aware of the pitfalls of using bizarre hypotheticals to illustrate general principles? Such reasoning is self-defeating.

With these three basic symptoms -- moral relativism, fear of chaos, and paranoia -- let's make a diagnosis.

Arguments favoring the State generally rest on a malevolent metaphysics -- in other words, a negative view of existence. They rely on a sense of the world as a big, dark, scary, wild, dangerous place. They assume that nothing can be done about it, and they assume the people within it are all fundamentally corrupt, stupid, mean, violent, and just plain bad. Some people point to a stream of atrocities on the ten o'clock news as proof: "See, I told you so!" They finish by claiming that they must be controlled, that a solution from above is necessary -- a State. Through it all, their premises are sinister and their reasoning is full of more holes than Swiss cheese.

Francois Tremblay writes that freedom "is a concept that finds its expression in the free will of each individual . . . it can only be destroyed, by killing the individual, enslaving his body, or enslaving his mind to some belief system." The statist metaphysics, and the psychology that arises from it, do just that. It is a psychology of self-denial, a psychology based on anti-values.

What could possibly make people accept it and defend statism with almost religious fervor?

Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead provides a fine illustration. One of the novel's villains, Ellsworth Toohey, describes the process with alarming precision. "Make a man feel small." Push onto him "a sense of guilt, of his own basic unworthiness." And then, "his soul gives up its self-respect. You've got him. He'll obey. He'll be glad to obey -- because he can't trust himself, he feels uncertain, he feels unclean." In the end, "the soul is that which can't be ruled. It must be broken. Drive a wedge in, get your fingers on it, and the man is yours. You won't need a whip. His own mechanism will do your work for you."

Indeed, we don't see goons with guns directly enforcing this. We don't need them. We become our own guilt-marketers, and with the proper amount of prodding and social reinforcement, this dark element gets the better of us and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We welcome dictators in times of crises, or shepherds in times of peace, because we've been actively taught to be weak, ashamed, confused, and feeble-minded -- because we've been actively taught to throw out our values, reject reason, and practice self-denial in favor of a shepherd, a provider, a ruler.

In short, this cynical view of the world and human nature appeals to people who need a ruler or provider like a security blanket. Statism attained the heights it has reached in the past and the present not through mere brute force but by simply taking advantage of this psychology.

"Anarchy" means "no ruler", strictly speaking. But anarchism goes far beyond the scope of politics. More than any other philosophy of life, anarchism stresses the ideal image of a person: someone who is free, who owns themselves, who cannot be dominated, who cannot be manipulated, who refuses to live in guilt and fear, who possesses a creative spirit, who forces themselves on nobody, who doesn't believe in making others needlessly sacrifice for them, who has self-esteem and self-love, who has a strong mind to cut through all the crap, who loves to live and learn and explore rather than be complacent, who has a deep, unbreakable conviction in right versus wrong.

In short, I'm describing the kind of person who neither wants nor needs a ruler. We may never see that heroic man or woman, but it is a worthwhile image to uphold, in peace as well as strife.

You might assume that I take an overwhelmingly positive view of human nature. Not so fast! I simply say that people are not naturally evil and the world is not as naturally malevolent and humans not so naturally unworthy as hundreds of little Ellsworth Tooheys preach. After leaving the womb, people exist on an ethical blank slate and it is their conscious choices, and the consequences of their actions, that determine the right and wrong and grey areas of things. So we can't take the "Noah's Ark" route; there is no salvation from above, we can't start over again. You must be your own "savior".

I'm not naive enough to think we'll have some sort of utopia if only we could get rid of the State. No, there is no such thing as perfection. But can we get as close to it as possible? There is a chance to maximize opportunities for that ideal man or woman to appear, and a chance to minimize opportunities for harm and oppression. That requires a somewhat different framework than we have now. That requires a different metaphysics, a different philosophy, and a different ethics.

With this in mind, consider these questions: How much good has statism really done for humanity? How much value has it really created? How fulfilling is the statist psychology and value system, really?

If a particular framework does not work, and has not worked in 10,000 years, reject it and try another one! That is the rational choice. America, the Great Experiment, is one of the few places where libertarian ideals truly had a chance to thrive. It remains one of the few places today where anarchist ideas and values can get any sort of hearing.

Too often anti-statists are defined more by what we are against than what we are for. It's easy to talk about political and economic domination, but it's critical to identify statism as a form of psychological domination, based on a malevolent view of existence and anti-values. Really, what we must do is uphold a more positive alternative.

That means rejecting unearned guilt, shame, fear and coercion, in favor of life, freedom, reason, strong ethical convictions, and moral consistency. That means rejecting the idea that we deserve to go "back to the caves", and upholding the ideal image of a man or woman as someone who neither wants nor needs a ruler. That means seeing humanity not as a sinful mass to be controlled, but rather a mass of individuals who are not unlike you in most ways. And through all, that means emphasizing the sanity needed to hold these values and thrive from them.

In order to do that, we have to appeal to the deepest parts of a person; their sense of life, their worldview, and the psychology beneath it all. That's where anarchist and libertarian thought must begin and end in order to have integrity.

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Marcel Votlucka's picture
Columns on STR: 29

 Marcel Votlucka writes from Brooklyn NY.  His work focuses on the connections between psychology, culture, and anti-politics.  Visit his new website at