The Almighty, Impotent State Or, the Crisis of Authority

This article by Sigmund Knag and published by the Independent Institute goes a long way towards helping us understand the internal dynamics of modern states.  It can be read in full here. I have long argued that it is not sufficient for anarchists and other anti-statists to simply attack “the state” as a universal abstraction without any kind of context. Rather, while the state as generally conceived of is an enemy, it is also necessary to understand the particular workings and wider social functions of specific manifestations of the state. Given that most of us live in Western-style “liberal democratic” states, it is strategically and philosophically necessary to analyze and criticize the particular representations of the state under the rule of which we find ourselves. (This question also helps us to better understand the limitations of the Left’s obsession with “fascism” or the Right’s obsession with “socialism” as both of those are largely irrelevant to our own political situation).  This article by Knag is very helpful towards the development of such a critique. The ideas in this merit much discussion. Here’s a relevant  quote (hat tip to David Heleniak):

The twentieth century has witnessed two periods of confusion about authority. The first was the idolization of authority in the interwar years, when authority was defined inadequately and worshipped fanatically, resulting in the rejection of democracy and legality and in the condonation of dictatorship. The second was the postwar era with its New Left movement, which in various ways influenced the whole political spectrum. In the 1960s a remarkable awakening took place in academic and artistic circles, in which all authority was decried as tyranny, even the authority of the experienced over the novice, of parent over child, of teacher over student, of law over whim, of democratic decisions over sectarian goals. In conjunction with other developments, this trend created an aversion to the proper assertion of authority in Western countries and resulted in a tendency toward paralysis of society and government in the face of legal, economic, and moral disorder. Those in authority knew they should act but could not bring themselves to do so.

Both kinds of error are still with us, although the worship of political power has taken new forms. The fashion of regarding all authority as sinister or wrongfully inhibiting, whose history goes back at least to the French Revolution, has become a fixture in the modern worldview of certain leftists and certain libertarians.

If the first error consists of equating social order with coercively imposed order, the second error consists of neglecting the need for a social order or blithely assuming that order will come about solely from individual action. Some Rothbardian libertarians seem to embrace the idea of “spontaneous order” in that sense. And some Kropotkinian anarchists seem to think that in the absence of centralist government, some spirit will move individuals to coordinate their actions without the need for a hierarchy of leadership. Both are mistaken. Order may come about without central direction in more cases than commonly thought, but no order is spontaneous in the sense that it has no human agent or organizational form. Any extensive social order requires individual initiative—that is, leadership—and hierarchy, which implies authority (although not necessarily political authority) and deference by individuals. All cooperative social order requires individuals to restrain some of their own immediate desires in deference to the injunctions of authority. A concept of freedom that does not acknowledge this necessity must remain a pipe dream. No free society can come into being except by establishing authority and placing restraints on individual action. Political authority is only the most palpable manifestation of this general truth.

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  1. I’ll take an almighty impotent state over a lean mean authority machine. How any of what the author says here or in the rest of the article that gets worse than this can possibly be reconciled with anarchism of any kind boggles my mind. If you think that people need to be controlled in this manner for society to work and (assuming) you want there to be a society than advocate this sort of thing, but don’t try to pass it off for what it is not. This article seems to a hell of a lot like David Brook’s recent tirade which Kevin Carson has responded to on C4ss site Knag, just like Brooks makes basic errors in his analysis, one of the most glaring ones is the conflation of inequality of abilities, intelligence etc. with an inequality of coercive power over others though I suspect that perhaps the reason these people do this is on purpose in order to obliterate the distinction between the two. To his credit, Rothbard, though he defended hierarchy, always was able to see this distinction. Incidentally, the best article I have read from a libertarian perspective on authority is this one by Roderick Long as I think it cuts to the central issue better than any other. Also, what does he mean about restraining desires in deference to the injunction of authority? It should be pointed out that as Knag points out later in the article, authority means not just power or coercion, but legitimacy combined with that power. I am referring here to political authority as opposed to the other kinds he mentions because it is the political coercive kind that is of primary importance in this context. Now to my point, I really think it is wrong to say that radical libertarians and/or anarchists are against authority even though some of those types may say they are because I think that concedes far too much to the other side. Rather, I would say we (including myself in that) reject the legitimacy of such power so we would not consider it to be authority in the first place. I happen to think legitimacy itself like morality are completely subjective ideas. Not an important point, just something I wanted to make clear

    Lastly, I find it interesting that both Knag and Brooks whom I mentioned earlier complain about the anti-authoritarian tendencies of the younger generations while worrying about the chaos that will come with the crisis of authority. The thing here is that none of that is going on at all and ironically, the same sorts of values that these conservatives champion, hierarchy, denigration of the individual in favour of the group, etc are found in places that are disordered and violent. You know where people tell libertarians to fuck off and go to, Iraq, Somalia, well you get the idea.

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