Kevin A. Carson and The State: Theory and Praxis

By Keith Preston May 12, 2023

Available from Amazon

Kevin A. Carson is an independent scholar of the far Left who published his seventh book in October of 2022, and is also a prolific essayist. Carson’s primary outlet is the Center for a Stateless Society’s website. The Center for a Stateless Society identifies itself as a “left-wing market anarchist” think tank and media outlet.  The bulk of Carson’s work involves the advancement of an anti-capitalist critique that draws on the work of a vast range of anarchist, libertarian, and decentralist thinkers from the past and present, along with the insights of more conventional leftists. Carson is likewise a well-known advocate of DIY (“Do It Yourself”) models of production and what used to be called “appropriate” technologies. Carson’s latest book, The State: Theory and Praxis, outlines what amounts to a left-wing anarchist version of elite theory similar to the “power elite” model famously advanced by C. Wright Mills in the 1950s.

At the risk of oversimplification, it could be said that Carson’s latest work has three basic purposes: a defense of the standard anarchist view of the origins of the state, a survey of left-wing theorists on the nature of the state, and a strategy for building an alternative model of society and economy. Drawing on the work of Michael Mann, Carson rejects the liberal, Marxist, and functionalist views of the state‘s origins and instead postulates the “militarist” or “conquest” view of how the state evolved at the dawn of civilization and has continued to evolve ever since. Carson cites the work of well-known anarchist anthropologists like James Scott and the late David Graeber in order to defend the conventional anarchist view that the state is founded on plunder, conquest, expropriation, enslavement, and domination.

This is hardly a controversial view from an anarchist perspective even if it flies in the face of conventional political pieties. The standard anarchist view is to regard the state as a glorified mafia whose purpose is to simply monopolize territory, control resources, exploit subjects, protect artificially privileged non-meritorious elites, expand its own power, and maintain a monopoly on violence to repress those who challenge the authority and rule of the state. Additionally, states maintain self-legitimating ideological superstructures in the form of myths and rituals that appeal to tradition, religion, or abstract theories that ostensibly provide intellectual, moral, or cultural support for the state.  The superstructure can assume virtually any set of characteristics whether the god-emperor, divine right of kings, sharia, social contract, general will, dictatorship of the proletariat, or the fuhrer principle. States survive due to the acclamation (Schmitt) and/or acquiescence (Boetie) of their subjects.

In his survey of left-wing elite theory, Carson begins by taking a justifiably dismissive view of Robert Dahl’s model of “interest group pluralism” which portrays modern liberal democracies as a mere competition of interest groups seeking to gain influence over the state. While Dahl was a centrist liberal, there are more conservative viewpoints of a similar nature such as public choice theory. The framework of Dahl might be applicable at a more mid-range level (for example, regional or municipal politics in the United States) but its explanatory power regarding to the exercise of statecraft at the meta-level is very limited. Carson also discusses the work of Marx and Engels, Dana Miliband and various other neo-Marxists, the debate between the instrumentalists and structuralists, power elite theorists such as Mills and William Domhoff, critics of “corporate liberalism” such as Gabriel Kolko, and state autonomy theory. All of these are conceptual frameworks that will be familiar to those who are knowledgeable of the social science literature on the question of the distribution of power in modern societies. Carson does not regard this collection of theories as necessarily being in conflict with each other as much as complementing each other, a position that seems reasonable enough.

Carson outlines a theory of political and economic change that essentially follows what I call the “anarcho-social democratic” model favored by Noam Chomsky. The essence of this framework involves voting for centrist liberal and social democratic politicians in order to thwart the supposed rise of the “fascists” (mostly meaning Trump voters and their counterparts in other countries), while simultaneously developing grassroots activist projects, dual power structures, worker cooperatives, unions, DIY technologies, and engaging in strikes, direct action, and grey market entrepreneurship. The hope is that a combination of “within the system” reforms and extra-parliamentary activism, organization, and agitation combined with technological, economic, and social evolution will eventually have the effect of reforming capitalism to death, or at least replacing it with a parallel economy that has grown in the midst of its ashes (what the Wobblies used to call “building the new society within the shell of the old”). It is an interesting idea but one that has an unhappy history. Past efforts at anarchist revolution have typically been repressed by even more authoritarian regimes than the ones anarchists were seeking to replace. Carson appears to be aware of this and instead favors an endless stream of piece meal reforms (“non-reformist reforms” as he somewhat incoherently calls this framework). Carson refers to this approach as an “interstitial” model that favors gradualism over “rupturalism.” The latter term seems to be a synonym for apocalyptic revolutions like those of Jacobin France, Bolshevik Russia, or Maoist China, which Carson wisely seeks to avoid.

Carson is also aware of the dangers of the potential cooptation of his preferred model of revolution which parallel the dangers of suppression. Perhaps the saddest portion of Carson’s book is this:

We should note that the question of cooptation is itself very much dialectical in nature, depending heavily on the background situation.  From a certain perspective, things like Rockerfeller [sic] and Ford Foundation funding of counter-institutions or establishment of friendly ties with grassroots movements, and government sponsorship of solidarity economy projects, can arguably be seen as a positive sign. Depending on the shifting correlation of forces, and which of the respective systems is in the ascendant or decline, such attempts to buy access may reflect a strategy less of cooptation than of “being eaten last” (although the two aren’t mutually exclusive).

The most likely possibility in my opinion is that the liberal or progressive wing of capital sees itself as part of a system in decline, and wants to retain as great a range of options as possible. For them the best case scenario is indeed cooptation: to enclose the solidarity economy within the institutional framework of a social democratic model of capitalism, and use green technologies as the basis for a new engine of accumulation or Kondratiev long-wave (in return, of course, for a more robust social safety net and a floor under working class purchasing power). Although this is unlikely to exist as a stable, long-term possibility, they’ll take it if they get it.

Anarchists can do better than to embrace a model of change that involves being co-opted by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Carson recognizes the dynamic nature of capitalism and the different forms capitalism has assumed over time. Examples would include 17th and 18th century agrarian capitalism (represented most flagrantly by the trans-Atlantic slave trade), 19th century industrial capitalism (represented by the likes of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller), 20th century managerial capitalism (represented by legendary CEOs like Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca), and 21st century digital capitalism (represented by the new tech-oligarchs like Zuckerberg, Bezos, and Musk).  The co-optation process that Carson describes is indicated by the growing relationship between rising elites and the “social justice” movement.

My own theory of revolution is that revolutions are made not by the poor and working class but by the left-wing of middle classes that are upwardly mobile but experience the frustration of their political ambitions by entrenched elites that are impervious to reform. The prototype for modern leftist revolutions in the early modern period was not America or France but the Cromwell revolution in England, which represented the rise of the Protestant-Jewish merchant class alliance in opposition to traditional aristocratic, royal, and Catholic clerical elites. The merchant class insurgency found its expression in the theories of John Locke’s “natural rights” which, not coincidentally, included religious toleration for all of the various Protestant and Jewish sects, but not for Catholics and atheists.  The Lockean philosophy eventually came to power in America in the form of a revolution carried out by the temporary alliance of the northern merchant class and southern agrarian gentry against the traditional English ruling class. The radical wing of the Enlightenment, inspired by the philosophes, came to power a few years later in France, and bourgeois revolutions continued to take place in the 19th century, for example, the European revolutions of 1848 or the Latin American wars of ondependence. Similarly, the Marxist and anti-colonialist revolutions of the 20th century were led by the left-wing of the nascent bourgeoisie in various countries of the East and South.

At present, the Western democracies are experiencing an economic revolution in the form of digital capitalism, neo-liberalism, the rise of the newly rich, the tech-oligarchs, and the professional-managerial class combined with a cultural revolution carried out by the left-wing of the white bourgeoisie, and elite upwardly mobile members of traditional out-groups. The process that is unfolding has been documented in detail by social theorists such as Bill Bishop, Joel Kotkin, Michael Lind, and Thomas Piketty.  Kotkin refers to this process by using pre-revolutionary France as a metaphor, with the alliance between the tech elite and what Kotkin calls the “new clerisy” (i.e. professional class arbiters of the “woke” ideology) constituting the First and Second Estates. Piketty characterizes the new elites as a “Brahmin left” that is in opposition to the traditional rule of the “Merchant right” historically found in capitalist countries.

Hence, the left-wing of the capitalist class and professional-managerial class is seeking to co-opt and ultimately destroy the popular movements of the kind favored by “anarcho-social democrats” like Carson, an objective that will be successful because the “social movement left” ultimately shares the same basic set of cultural values as the left-wing of the capitalist class, and therefore has no mechanism of self-defense. The newest wave of counter elites that were described by the Machiavellian elite theorists like Mosca, Pareto, and Michels has indeed arrived, and it is the political milieu of which Carson is a champion that has emerged as their hapless constituents. When someone who personifies the new ruling class like Hillary Clinton dismisses the traditional working to middle classes as “deplorable,” the “social justice left” can only nod their heads in agreement, no doubt to the delight of those pulling the strings of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

In other writings, Carson has described himself as an “anarchist without adjectives” in the tradition of historic anarchists who embraced a plural framework of anarchist models. Indeed, in an essay titled “Anarchism without Adjectives” from 2015, Carson provided a comprehensive summary of his overall economic vision that is well worth quoting at length:

Anarchism Without Adjectives

So what can we say about the general outlines of a stateless society? First, it will emerge as a result of the ongoing exhaustion, hollowing out and retreat of large hierarchical institutions like state, corporation, large bureaucratic university, etc. It will generally be based on some kind of horizontalism (prefigured by movements like the Arab Spring, M15 and Occupy) combined with self-managed local institutions. Second, its building blocks will be the counter-institutions cropping up everywhere even now to fill the void left as state and corporation erode: Community gardens, permaculture, squats, hackerspaces, alternative currency systems, commons-based peer production, the sharing economy, and in general all forms of social organization based on voluntary cooperation and new ultra-efficient technologies of small-scale production. And third, to the extent that it reflects any common ideology at all, it will be an attachment to values like personal autonomy, freedom, cooperation and social solidarity. But the specifics will be worked out in a thousand particular ways, far too diverse to be encompassed by any verbal model like “communism” or “markets” (in the sense of the cash nexus).

I expect a wide variation in small-scale institutions, both within and between communities: workers’ collectives, business firms, cooperatives, p2p networks, etc. Multi-family social units like squats, cohousing projects and extended family compounds may take practice autarkic communism internally and take advantage of small-scale machinery to meet most of their needs through direct production, while obtaining the rest through exchange on the market. Property rules in land and enterprise ownership will vary from one community to the next.

Even if we stipulate starting from basic assumptions like the broadest understanding of self-ownership and the nonaggression principle (not that even a majority of the anarchist movement actually comes from the philosophical tradition which regards these as words to conjure with), that means very little in terms of the practical rules that can be deduced from them. There is simply no way, starting from basic axioms like self-ownership and nonaggression, to deduce any particular rules that are both obvious and necessary on issues like (for example) whether I have the right to intervene to stop an animal being tortured by its “owner,” or what the specific rules should be for squatters’ rights and constructive abandonment of a property long left idle.

Even the definition of physical aggression against an individual is, to a large extent, culturally defined. The surrounding environment impinges on the physical body in a million different ways, and the boundary between those that are considered aggressive and those not (like photons or sound waves that physically affect the sensory organs and subsequently the nervous system and internal mental state) is somewhat arbitrary. The same is true for varying cultural definitions of the boundary between person and environment, and how much of the surrounding physical environment not actually part of the human body can be regarded as an extension of the self or an envelope of “personal space.” Bear in mind that common law definitions of assault assume such a spatial envelope, and include actions short of physically touching another person’s body with one’s own.

Any post-state society will include both individuals and communities adhering to many conflicting ideas of just what “freedom,” “autonomy” and “rights” entail. Whatever “law code” communities operate by will be worked out, not as obvious logical deductions from axioms, but through constant interaction between individuals and groups asserting their different understandings of what rights and freedom entail. And it will be worked out after the fact of such conflicts, through the practical negotiations of the mediating and adjudicating bodies within communities.

What Carson has described here might be called the “next mode of production” when capitalism finally runs its historical course.  The “interstitial” model that Carson outlines as a transitional process might well run parallel to the predicted economic transformation. But how is this supposed to happen merely by piggybacking on the rising ruling class?

Decades ago, I came to the realization that the primary failures of historic anarchist movements were their inability to develop a defense mechanism against either cooptation or repression by existing ruling classes, and their consistently being “swept away and made impossible” within the context of actual revolutionary situations. Methodologies need to be developed that are capable of subverting existing states and economic monopolies and oligopolies, without triggering state repression or becoming incorporated into the existing ruling class paradigm, and which do not require apocalyptic revolutions as a means to an end. Carson is on the right track by recognizing such challenges, either explicitly or implicitly, but remains overly committed to the existing “left” paradigm to develop feasible alternatives.  Just as Chomsky has been an essential figure to modern anarchist theory with his critique of US imperialism and modern systems of propaganda, Carson has established a comprehensive economic analysis for modern anarchists that allows anarchists to move past both liberal and Marxist influences in terms of their wider economic critique. Though a brilliant scholar, Carson, like Chomsky, remains a party-line progressive, a self-limiting and ultimately self-defeating ideological framework. Therefore, an alternative approach is needed.


3 replies »

  1. A rich trust fund cross-dresser pays four “anarchist writers” to write fake and gay bullshit. That is what “Attack the System” is.

    Like anarchism dude.

    The fact he had the balls to endorse organized crime – like some ghetto nigga hoping to get some social media clout – says it all.

    Muh “anarchist philosophy” I teach freshman 101 white girls in bumfuck community college 101 makes me something or other.

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