There exists a common narrative among members of the far left that argues that the state as an institution is inherently oppressive and evil. This criticism is not without some merit, as states have often used their control over people and resources to commit atrocities on a scale otherwise unimaginable: Total war, the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, and the subjugation of African Americans were all conducted by states. Nevertheless, the anarchist prescriptions of those skeptical of state power do not follow. For all its problems, the state has contributed enormously to human progress and represents an effective, if imperfect, vessel for continued societal improvement. Absent the state to organize and regulate, it’s doubtful that we would be enjoying a world as peaceful and stable as the one we now have. And the great feats of human ingenuity – the moon landings, the internet, and the development of global transportation networks – would never have occurred, confining us to a far less prosperous and far more limited world. But the deeper problem with leftist anarchism is not that it forgoes the positive aspects of the state, but that it is vacuous nonsense entirely divorced from reality.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of leftist anarchism is its inability to develop a convincing alternative to the state. Many leftist scholars and activists call for utopian, nebulous positions such as “radical rethinking” or “critical reflection.” But while these approaches might be fruitful in the long term, they are simply methods for thinking about alternatives to the state, not alternatives in their own right. Moreover, this kind of reflective resistance is not necessarily mutually exclusive with a state framework: One can radically interrogate the excesses of state power without abolishing all elements of the state. Indeed, it’s quite ridiculous to argue otherwise, as that would presume that one has already concluded his or her “radical rethinking” and arrived at a concrete solution that necessitates the destruction of states. Given that almost no anarchist intellectual has proposed a concrete alternative to the state, however, this can’t possibly be the case.
Even if one were to arrive at a cogent and defensible alternative to the state, there is still the quite large problem of developing a strategy for destroying states. And one cannot only destroy one’s own state, as this would simply permit other states to move in and occupy this newly “liberated” territory, leading to a reimposition of state control. Instead, the entire state system would have to be vanquished. Perhaps modern nation states will fade away naturally. Indeed, increasing levels of transnational cooperation and participation in international political institutions suggest that a form of global governance could emerge in the extreme long-term, though this is far from guaranteed. But irrespective of whether this occurs, a global government would certainly not eliminate anarchists’ concerns, as it would only further concentrate power, thus amplifying the dominance of the state and increasing the possibility of abuse. Thus, anarchists must find another approach.
Whatever approach they choose, attempts at destroying the state would not be without cost. After all, it seems unlikely that those in power would sit idly by as the institutions that undergird their authority and influence are systematically demolished. This means that anarchist revolutionaries would incur the wrath of the state and all its legal, financial, and coercive power. Moreover, by adopting the most radical position possible, these revolutionaries forfeit their ability to shape and influence the state from the inside, effectively destroying the legacies of reformers who have sought to democratize and constrain state power for centuries. From the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights to the plethora of international legal institutions and treaties designed to prevent state abuses, the system has come a long way in “civilizing” the state. It would be inaccurate to argue that states never employ coercion or oppression to achieve their ends, but it would be equally naive to assert that modern liberal democratic countries are effectively no different from the extractive, corrupt, and oppressive kingdoms and empires of the past. By abandoning the state entirely and threatening its destruction – thus forcing the use of coercive actions by the state – anarchists create the very system they so despise. The state may be socially constructed, but that doesn’t mean that it can simply be wished away. And by refusing to engage with the state, anarchists cede the political space to the authoritarian patriarchs whose policy ideas they so despise. As Krause and Williams so eloquently argue:
From a critical perspective, state action is flexible and capable of reorientation, and analyzing state policy need not therefore be tantamount to embracing the statist assumptions of orthodox conceptions. To exclude a focus on state action from a critical perspective on the grounds that it plays inevitably within the rules of existing conceptions simply reverses the error of essentializing the state. Moreover, it loses the possibility of influencing what remains the most structurally capable actor in contemporary world politics.
Finally, I think it is important to point out the possibility that all of our values are a product of the state. Were this the case, it would be deeply ironic, as it would mean that anarchists and revolutionaries condemn the state according to the ethical and moral precepts of modernity and, by extension, of the state itself. As Yale’s Samuel Moyn so astutely notes, if concepts like freedom and equality only became valued through the development of states, then arguments that rely on these values to demonstrate that the creation of states was a historical mistake are nothing more than the projection of state values onto an unknowable non-state system, not a reason to reject modernity and the state.