A Reply to Matthew Lyons, Part One: Anarchism Contra Marxism Revisited 5

This is the first in a series of essays in response to Matthew Lyons’ critique “Rising Above the Herd: Keith Preston’s Authoritarian Anti-Statism.” And here is the transcript of a recent lecture by Lyons where yours truly gets a couple of mentions.

by Keith Preston

Part One

Anarchism Contra Marxism Revisited: The Role of the State in Political Economy

Engels pretty aptly summed up the difference between anarchists and state socialists over a century ago: “They say abolish the state and capital will go to the devil. We propose the reverse.

-Kevin Carson

Let me say to M. Blanc: you desire neither Catholicism nor monarchy nor nobility, but you must have a God, a religion, a dictatorship, a censorship, a hierarchy, distinctions, and ranks. For my part, I deny your God, your authority, your sovereignty, your judicial State, and all your representative mystifications.

-Pierre Joseph Proudhon

Matthew Lyons summarizes his objections to my views on political economy as follows:

Preston portrays the state as the only significant source of oppression, and sees “corporate plutocracy” purely as a result of state interference in the market economy. It’s quite true as he argues that the state has actively promoted the concentration of wealth and economic power, but his assumption that “natural” markets can be separated from “unnatural” state involvement is a libertarian myth. Both state and market are institutions created by human beings, and the two are closely intertwined. Market relations have expanded enormously under capitalism — not in spite of, but largely through, state intervention (forcing subsistence farmers across the globe to become wage laborers, for example). “Freeing” markets from the centralized state would certainly reshape capitalist power, but would not abolish it. Rather, it would benefit certain forms of capital and certain business factions over others.

This is a restatement of relatively standard Marxist views of political economy. According to such views, capitalism is the outgrowth of the market economy itself with the state existing as a manifestation of the collective power of the capitalist class. It is this view of the state that has been among the principal sources of contention between Marxists and Anarchists in past times. Lyons also grossly oversimplifies my own views regarding the relationship between the state and ruling class power generally:

Although Preston is an elitist who expresses contempt for most people, he is also a populist. More specifically, his anarcho-pluralism represents a form of right-wing populism — that is, it seeks to rally “the people” against established elites based on a distorted analysis of power that both masks and reinforces oppressive social relations. Right-wing populism offers a plausible target for anti-elite rage that channels it away from a thoroughgoing attack on the oppressive order. Some right-wing populists target a specific ethnic group (such as Jews) or even a specific sub-group within the elite (such as bankers or multinational corporations). Preston targets the state. More precisely, he falsely equates oppression in general with the large, centralized state, in a way that both obscures and promotes other forms of social oppression and political authoritarianism.

The state by itself does not comprise the full body of the elite or the ruling class as a whole. Rather, the state is the core institution through which layered networks of systems of institutional power interact. The political class is merely the highest body of the ruling class, its top layer. The state contains within itself multiple layers and contending factions. It is the state through which the other core institutions of ruling class power such as banking and finance, international commerce, industrial corporations, systems of mass propaganda (i.e. education and the media), the legal caste, other professional castes such as medicine (“the white coat priesthood”), and military and police power are coordinated. These latter two institutions-the military and the police-are particularly important to the development of an understanding as to how the state interacts with the broader array of systems of power in a modern society.

Virtually all modern states claim a monopoly on military and police power. For instance, the organization of private armies outside the prerogative of the state is either formally or de facto prohibited in most U.S. jurisdictions. Anti-militia and anti-gang laws are examples of this. Now, there are also formally private but state-connected military organizations which operate on behalf of the state or to which to the state has “farmed out” aspects of its claimed military monopoly. The Blackwater mercenary corporation is an illustration of this. Ostensibly private entities such as Wackenhut or the Corrections Corporation of America that have existed for the purpose of constructing and maintaining aspects of the U.S. prison-industrial complex are another. But these institutions have as their function the implementation of policies specifically decreed and pursued by the state, such as mass imprisonment of subjects or military occupation of other nations. Genuinely private military organizations, such as the Black Panthers of the 1960s, the Order of the 1980s, or the militia movement of the 1990s, that act outside of or in opposition to the specific objectives pursued by the state always come under severe repression.

Modern economies are not strictly “capitalist” or “socialist” according to the classical definitions of these terms. The capitalist/socialist dichotomy emerged in the nineteenth century as a descriptive concept developed for the purpose of understanding and analyzing particular systems of political economy and manifestations of socioeconomic conflict as they existed then. But the capitalist/socialist dichotomy became somewhat obsolete following the major changes in the nature of the political economies and systems of class relations that emerged in the industrialized nations in the twentieth century. Rather, the systems of political economy found in the advanced nations might be regarded as kinds of capitalist/socialist hybrids. The development of this hybrid was indicated by the emergence of the so-called “managerial revolution” in the industrialized nations in the middle part of the twentieth century and the related evolution of the “New Class” of technocratic and bureaucratic elites. This hybrid developed in the various industrialized nations irrespective of the official ideology of each individual nation. Thinkers such as Lawrence Dennis and James Burnham observed and wrote about this phenomenon as far back as the 1930s.

It is indeed interesting to attempt to identify a system of class hierarchies within the context of a contemporary system of corporate-social democratic political economy and mass democracy. As mentioned, the traditional anarchist view is that the state is the highest class, over and above socio-economic elites. The financial oligarchy and the largest, most politically influential corporate entities might be the second layer with national corporations of lesser influence or large regional corporations being the third layer. The fourth layer might be the increasingly expansive professional and bureaucratic class along with more localized or nationally or regionally organized but less wealthy and influential business interests. The traditional white collar class and the self-employed or small business class (the “petite bourgeoisie” in Marxist terminology) might be the next level. Following this conventional middle class would be the upper strata of the working class, such as high wage union workers. The lower socioeconomic levels consist of  the lower wage/lower proletarian sector, the lumpen proletariat of the unemployed and marginal or criminalized populations, and the neo-peasantry of rural agricultural workers and small, almost subsistence level farmers. This general outline is an oversimplification, of course. Within each of these classes, there is an array of sectors with sometimes contending or conflicting interests and there are a number of economic sectors whose specific class identity is a bit difficult to classify. Within the context of modern mass democracy generally, it has to be considered to what degree class identities and manifestations of class power actually share political power with organized interests of a not specifically economic or material nature, i.e. so-called “interest group politics” of the type that emerged in the mid to late twentieth century. Examples include ethnic lobbies, environmentalists, feminists, gay rights, pro-gun control, anti-gun control, pro-abortion, anti-abortion, et. al. Leftists recognize this latter concept in their own way with, for instance, their criticisms of racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural interests which they consider to be forces for oppression.

I am a bit baffled as to where Lyons gets the idea that I am an apologist for vulgar capitalism as many of his comments regarding my economic outlook would seem to imply. Lyons discusses the role of rivalries between contending capitalist factions in the shaping of U.S. politics at both the regional and national levels. I acknowledged as much in my interpretation of the rise of the postwar conservative movement as representing an insurgency by the Sun Belt factions of U.S. “capitalism” , with these being heavily intertwined with the military-industrial complex which emerged during precisely the same era, and acting against the traditional northeastern plutocratic and financial elites. I also largely share his apparent interpretation of the U.S. Civil War as a class conflict between northern industrial capitalism and southern agrarian remnant feudalism. Having been involved in municipal politics for years, I am well aware of the role of local financial, commercial, and real estate oligarchies in manipulating the reins of local and state governments. I also see the current manifestation of the Democratic/Republican divide as in part representing a political rivalry between newer, more high-tech industries such as those related to mass communications and the cyber-economy on one hand and the older, more established industries, such as oil, banking, armaments, and agriculture. Indeed, I regard present day American party politics as representing a class conflict between the older bourgeoisie WASP elites and the rising cosmopolitan, multicultural upper-middle class.

Nor I have ever suggested that business power should reign unchecked in a stateless economy or that there should not be institutional arrangements or mechanisms established for the purpose of preventing an excessive concentration of control over resources and property. In fact, I have repeatedly argued for just the opposite in an extensive and detailed manner. Unlike the Marxists, I regard “private property” as essential to both economic prosperity and individual liberty. This does not necessarily imply a vulgar neo-Lockean or classical bourgeoisie conception of “property rights” in the same manner as conventional “right-wing libertarians” of the kind Lyons obviously despises. Rather, it implies a dispersed and decentralized control over resources minus an overarching state apparatus of the kind favored by Marxists or plutocratic corporations of the kind favored by the conventional Right. Of the contending economic factions of the Right, I am probably much closer to the distributists than to the vulgar libertarians.

It is indeed true that much of the corporate apparatus and its supporting institutions are either directly created or assisted and maintained by the state. Kevin Carson, for instance, has documented this extensively, above and beyond the dissection of the relationship between state and capital offered by Marxist critics like Gabriel Kolko. Now, it is also true that without, for example, central banking, laws of incorporation, or corporate welfare, corporate entities of the kind we are presently familiar with might exist anyway, though on a more limited scale. My prediction would be that the breaking of the alliance between state and capital would mean the elimination of the super-plutocracy. There might still be a less concentrated wealthy class, a larger middle class, and a class of the poor that is still capable of living a dignified existence but not the large underclass we have at present. To some degree, I think inequality is inevitable. Most sober thinkers since the Greeks have recognized this. There is inequality of both individuals and groups: nations, regions, communities, businesses, socioeconomic classes, and other demographic groups. Some individuals are more intelligent, motivated, skilled, wise, and virtuous. Some simply have better luck than others. Nature is kinder to some than others. So is chance or fate.

But that does not mean we should not challenge abusive or exploitive economic arrangements when possible. As Aristotle observed, the most successful societies are those that are able to maintain a large middle class. The question is how to go about doing that. The key is to avoid the establishment of a plutocracy at the top or an underclass at the bottom. This implies both a widespread dispersion of property and resources and the existence of institutions that counter balance the influence of commercial and financial interests. Lyons recognizes my endorsement of labor militancy and the creation of alternative economic enterprises of the kind represented by the Mondragon workers cooperatives, anarcho-syndicalist labor unions, consumer cooperatives, tenants unions, non-state social services, private relief agencies, land trusts, and mutual banks. I also support agitation for the repeal of state policies, such as those mentioned in Carson’s “Political Program for Anarchists,” that have the effect of centralizing control over wealth.  I also think we need strong intermediary institutions as a counterweight to the power of economic institutions. One of the effects of managerial liberal-capitalism is its tendency to undermine or absorb institutions other than the state, the economy, and entertainment. Other aspects of life are eradicated. Larry Gambone’s “The Myth of Socialism as Statism” contains an extensive overview of the vast array of alternatives to both state and plutocratic rule that different thinkers have at times proposed.

My own approach to economics is pluralist: Proudhon, anarcho-syndicalism, Henry George, Austrianism, distributism, populism, paleoconservatism, Kirkpatrick Sale and Kevin Carson. Regarding the question of institutional checks on economic power, even orthodox libertarian thought on this question is not as monolithic or lacking in nuance as its critics often suggest. Lyons raises the issue of company towns, which Friedrich Hayek also found problematical. Mutualist and Georgist theories of land ownership suggest the legitimacy of limits on individual or collective accumulation of land wealth. The great libertarian-classical liberal Thomas Szasz has expressed sympathy for antitrust legislation. Later in his career, Robert Nozick came to endorse the need for limitations on inheritance so as to prevent the entrenchment of family dynasties in economic life. Murray Rothbard considered fractional reserve banking to be a form of fraud and thought it should be illegal in a libertarian society. Hans Hermann Hoppe has endorsed the syndicalist model for the distribution of state-owned property and Rothbard and Karl Hess, at least for a time, expressed sympathy for student occupations of state-run universities and worker occupations of welfare corporations and state-subsidized industries. The agorist philosophy of Samuel Edward Konkin III postulated the concept of counter-economics and counter-institutions as antagonisms to the status quo. And while it is true, as Lyons points out, that libertarianism is the faction of the US right-wing that has most impacted my thinking, classical European anarchism has been an even greater influence on my own outlook

The state has unique coercive powers that other institutions do not have such as a legal monopoly on the use of violent force, and an ideological superstructure that legitimizes this monopoly. Max Weber regarded this monopoly as the essence of the modern state as it has existed since the time of the Treaty of Westphalia. The modern state’s powers of taxation and conscription have provided the state with unique capacities for destruction such as the production and amassing of nuclear weapons and the ability to amass the resources necessary to wage war on a total level. The state has a unique penchant for genocide. This is one of the chief political lessons of the 20th century. Whatever one thinks of McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, or Microsoft (and I think very little of these), such corporations simply do not hold a candle to the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot regarding the question of institutional propensities towards the extermination of human beings on a massive scale.

The standard efforts at rebuttal offered by contemporary statists to arguments such as those mentioned above almost always involve an invocation of “democracy.” The presumption is that democratic states are of a fundamentally different nature than the more overtly totalitarian manifestations of the state associated with ideologies like Nazism or Stalinism. The assumption behind this argument is that democratic states are essentially peaceful and generally benign in their actions and not specifically inclined towards aggressive warfare, mass killing, or exploitation of subject populations in the same manner as non-democratic states. A school of political science, commonly labeled “democratic peace theory,” is even built up around this presumption. Therefore, a vitally important consideration that must be addressed by any contemporary critic of the state involves the question of the nature of the modern mass democratic state.

It is no mere coincidence that states have become more powerful and intrusive as they have become more democratic, and Plato’s ancient observation that democracy is typically the final stage in the degeneration of a political order before full-blown tyranny begins has been borne out by historical experience. The most vicious totalitarian states of the twentieth century emerged only after the traditional monarchies and aristocracies in their respective nations (e.g. Germany, Russia, China, Cambodia) had been overturned. Likewise, the rise of statism in the United States has transpired in direct proportion to the expansion of democracy. Indeed, the United States provides an excellent case study in how a traditionally democratic state can engage in mass killing and oppression in a way comparable to that of a formally totalitarian regime. It is widely known, for instance, that the USA incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the ostensibly totalitarian Chinese regime. Likewise, the body count generated by American foreign policy during the Cold War and the subsequent era of the U.S. as the “sole superpower” often matched that of America’s totalitarian rivals. A number of researchers-Johann Galtung, John Stockwell, Peter Dale Scott, Noam Chomsky-have documented that the probable number of casualties generated by U.S.-directed counter insurgency and destabilization campaigns during the Cold War era was approximately six million, roughly the same number of casualties produced by the Jewish Holocaust. The hundreds of thousands of casualties produced by the American invasion and bombing of Cambodia during the early 1970s rivaled the casualty count achieved by the Khmer Rouge regime during the latter part of that decade. A similar comparison could be made between the Cambodian holocaust and the massacres generated by American puppet regimes in Central America during the 1970s and 1980s or the American-sponsored and financed Indonesian occupation of East Timor during the same period. The number of persons killed as a result of U.S. aggression against Iraq over the past two decades easily rivals the number of casualties produced as a result of actions taken by the regime of Saddam Hussein. The American empire is as pertinent an illustration as any of the inability of so-called “democracy” to act as a constraint on the destructive nature of the state.

As a less severe but still significant example of the relative power of the state versus non-state institutions, we might wish to take a look at the practice of debt enforcement and collection in the present day United States. Traditional debtors’ prisons have for the most part been abolished in modern societies. At present, the only debts on which default can lead to imprisonment in the United States are those debts imposed by the state such as taxes, criminal fines, child support, and, in some instances, civil damages awarded in lawsuits. Forms of private debt such as that pertaining to credit cards, utility bills, rent or mortgage payments, bank loans, car loans, school tuition, and so forth can carry significant consequences in the event of default but rarely if ever lead to imprisonment in instances of non-payment not involving actual acts of fraud. To break it down even further, we might wish to take a look at the differences in collection and enforcement practices between state-issued student loans and private student loans. Default on a state-issued student loan can lead to administrative wage garnishment and asset seizure, while private student loan creditors have to go to court to get an order of garnishment. State-imposed debts and state-issued student loans are the only forms of debt which are non-dischargeable through bankruptcy. Private student loans are also non-dischargeable, but are considered an unsecured debt which in turn places greater limitations on the ability of creditors to pursue debt enforcement. The law always prioritizes the interests of the state over and above the interests of private competitors to state power. Even Bill Gates is not exempt from the clutches of the state. George W. Bush, on the other hand, was able to start a war under fraudulent pretenses and kill a million people thus far with impunity.

The evidence from both historical and contemporary experience overwhelmingly affirms the traditional Anarchist view, contra the Marxists, that it is the state that is the ultimate power in society, that the state is a uniquely destructive institutional force in human civilization, and that the state is a privileged class unto itself over and above commercial or socioeconomic interests.

Lyons gives no specific indication of what his own ideal economic arrangements might be. At one point in his critique, he claims to oppose the “centralized state” along with other “hierarchies” but provides no description of how a non-market, non-statist egalitarian economy might actually work. This has been the norm among Marxists for the past one hundred and fifty years.


  1. Thanks, Miles.

    I noticed this comment in Lyons’ lecture on “right-wing movements”:

    “Imagine a president who expands affirmative action, actively promotes school desegregation, enacts important new laws in social welfare, environmental protection, occupational health and safety, and consumer protection, supports comprehensive health insurance and a system of guaranteed income for all citizens, and whose Justice Department opposes the RICO Act on the grounds that it gives the government powers that are much too broad and sweeping for prosecuting criminals. In 2011, such a president would be considered far to left of Barack Obama and far to the left of almost everyone in Congress. Forty years ago, such a president was called Richard Nixon.”

    This is the view of the state that Leftists have had since the French Revolution. They see the state as the means of breaking down traditional institutions they consider to be oppressive or unenlightened and regulating regional provinces, local communities, the private sector, and civil society to insure conformity with leftist ideals.

    Their lack of concern about the totalitarian proclivities of centralized governments reflects their view of human nature as essentially benign and benevolent but only corrupted by inadequate institutions or miseducation. In their view, an idealized, progressive state controlled by a political class than has been enlightened by ideology can be trusted with extraordinary powers.

    It’s also interesting that Lyons has claimed to oppose the “centralized state” but endorses the use of the same as a means of achieving ideological goals. This is the standard Marxist view of the state, i.e., the state can be dispensed with in the future egalitarian socialist utopia but first we have to use the state to subjugate political and class enemies.

  2. Well done, but I really am looking forward to your response to some of the tougher charges he makes. This post basically rehashes your typical responses to the typical mischaracterizations, but the interesting thing about the original article is the atypical familiarity the author has with your work which leads him to some novel, genuine questions. For instance, I think his skepticism about your anarch-centric view of society is a legitimate and under-recognized piece of your approach that doesn’t often get brought up, let alone challenged. Great opportunity to broaden the conversation around a (for once, both) hostile and at least somewhat informed critique.

  3. Part One is just a response to some his misreadings of my economic views. I haven’t even gotten to any of the really controversial stuff yet.

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