Why a State II: Institutionalizing Violence and Exclusion, Not Taxation, Research Time, 17/10/2014

Hail the conquering despot and his institutions of
social control!
Continued from last post . . . It’s strange for me to admit it, but in a sense, I do agree with Nozick. The nation-state as it emerged from the political movements and contexts of modern Europe is a profoundly unjust institution. They were established in the first place through the organized violence of military force crushing the free cities that were run on principles more akin to network politics. 

After the self-organizing networks were crushed by increasingly powerful state armies, which, thanks to the influx of colonialist cash, expanded into biopolitical aspects of people’s lives that government had never touched before, the state became taken for granted as the only possible means of a people’s governance. 

All the philosophical arguments for the legitimacy of the state that arose during and after this period of the military centralization of political power (such as Robert Filmer’s divine right of kings, Thomas Hobbes’ social contract of the sovereign, John Locke’s social contract of free labourers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract constitutive of the general will, Georg Hegel’s conception of the state as embodying reason itself) all amount to just-so stories that overwrite and obscure the reality of this violent history. 

Robert Nozick offers several more just-so stories. The Demoktesis chapter describes a couple of them. And he openly admits that they serve a rhetorical philosophical purpose: demonstrating, though multiple examples, that there is no possible way that a state could come about with powers beyond his minimal level that does not employ violence, coercion, or slavery. 

Nozick continually talks about the violence inherent in the structure of the contemporary nation-state. But the violence he discusses is the violence, for example, of garnishing wages for taxation, conceiving of it as indirectly enslaving a person to the government through co-opting the hours he works for purposes to which he hasn’t consented. It’s the violence, for another example, of using a taxation regime to coerce a person to support social welfare or infrastructure programs that he personally doesn’t support. 

Over the last few months on the blog, I’ve discussed some of the classical writers in the anarchist tradition, and a couple who are allied to that tradition: Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman, Antonio Gramsci, Colin Ward. All of their opposition to the state as an institution was based in its historical and continual use as a violent power. For all the good that police and law enforcement agencies can do in the context of sex crimes, fraud, and traffic control, the police still have powers like New York’s Stop-and-Frisk laws, and can descend on towns Ferguson with the military equipment of a small country and respond to protests against police power with massive, community-shattering force.

The police are not always rationally justified in their actions,
even though a strong tradition in social contract theory
considers them essential to maintaining the security of
their society.
Nozick is a different beast than these anarchists in his opposition to the state, and how he understands the roots of a state’s justice. His early chapters tell a just-so story about the emergence of state infrastructure for maintaining security of person and property and punishing offenders of people’s liberty through the growth and consolidation of protection associations into a single dominant such organization for an entire territory. Because he can tell a story of such a state emerging from non-coerced decisions of free people, he believes that it justifies such a state.

Yet such a story, abstract as it is from the circumstances of real politics and history, justifies the state only in terms of its security and military apparatus because these institutions’ purpose is to protect the citizens from internal and external dangers. For Nozick, only the protective functions of a state are legitimate because they’re the only functions that can emerge from non-coerced contracts among free people. 

The police and military are, in real life, the most dangerous institutions a state can have. It's a different situation here where I live in Canada, because our armed forces and police have a strong culture of deference to civilian authority. In places like Latin America, southeast Asia, or Turkey, for example, the public tend to have a much more skeptical attitude of the armed forces, since violent military coups are in the living memory of most adults. 

Military and police are organizations of armed people marching among the citizenry. Far from being self-evidently legitimate, they must be kept on the tightest leash possible because their powers are the most directly violent and destructive to citizens of any state institution, at least potentially. Abstracting from real history into the abstract retro-historical justification of the state of nature model of philosophy blinds Nozick to what, today, is a self-evident truth.

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