What is a state? A common definition is “a territorial monopoly of force.” But what about a civil war in which an old regime and a would-be new regime are fighting street-to-street over control of a city? In that case, there is no territorial monopoly of force over the contested areas. But are we to say that such areas are “stateless”?
When an incumbent regime loses its monopoly of force over a region, it does not suddenly become more benign as an institution. And the fact that the upstart “rebels” do not yet have such a monopoly does not make them any more benign either. Both are still pernicious in a hugely important and distinctive way. They both enjoy the privilege of committing aggression that is perceived by at least some to be exceptionally legitimate. Both are granted a special dispensation by their partisans to commandeer the persons and property of others.
That is the fundamental problem that makes both groups distinctively vicious as compared to other criminals, regardless of whether they have yet achieved uncontested dominance. And so it is that characteristic that deserves to be the criterion for statehood. It highlights the most important issue in the theory of government if we define the state not as “a territorial monopoly of force,” but as “anybody whose aggression is considered exceptionally legitimate by some.”
And there are grades of legitimacy. A warlord’s tribute, not yet hallowed by the years, may not have as much perceived legitimacy as a tax extracted by a long-established bureaucracy. But so long as it is normalized at all by habit and/or propaganda in the minds of the victims, then it is importantly different from pirate booty or a highwayman’s loot. Most warlord bands, therefore, should be considered statelets.
Understood this way, situations which are often called instances of “anarchy,” like Somalia, are actually chronic civil wars fought by contending states. As Charles Johnson has said, they are not “power vacuums,” but “power plenums.” The fact that there are multiple states contesting the same ground, instead of one state solely dominating it, means that, far from “statelessness,” the pitiable residents are up to their eyeballs in “statefulness”. Consider, for example, the plight right now of the Sunni tribespeople in the Alam District of Iraq. They have to deal with the pretensions of ISIS, whom they are openly fighting, as well as the government in Baghdad, who bombs them anyway. That is not anarchy, but multi-archy: not a lack of a state, but a surfeit of states.
The important “monopoly” held by any state is not territorial, but spiritual; it is the privileged place that the state holds in the hearts of its individual subjects, the possession of which exempts the possessor from the rules of justice that that the subject holds everyone else to.
A state is not a particular band of men, along with their weapons, cages, and other resources. It is the subject’s attitude toward those men and implements, and the myths that inform (misinform) that attitude. It is a “great fiction,” as Frederic Bastiat said, and a “dangerous superstition” as Larken Rose says. It is a victimizer’s lie internalized by the victim. It is the Stockholm Syndrome institutionalized. A state is a disease living in the minds of its victims. It is only there, in the battleground of the mind, that a state is to be truly and totally vanquished. A de-legitimized state is a contradiction in terms. Destroy a state’s legitimacy in the minds of its subjects by debunking the lies that underpin that legitimacy, and you’ve already annihilated the state itself, leaving in its stead a hopelessly outnumbered band of common criminals.
However, an even more fundamental problem than the belief in any particular state, is the belief in statism in general. De-legitimazing, and thereby overthrowing, a particular state, even a tyrannical one, does not necessarily do any good. If statism still reigns in the hearts of men, a revolution is likely to make things even worse. Immediately after the tyrant falls, people afflicted with statism will look for a new yoke and a new master, and will not be wanting for candidates. Moreover, the new yoke will likely be heavier than the one just thrown off, because the upheavals of revolution are frightening, and when people are frightened, they are more prone to give masters (even new ones) vast emergency powers. Revolutions almost always install tyrannies worse than the ones they replace.
This is a particularly pressing point, because our present tyranny is going to fall, no matter what we do or fail to do. The empire is now in a downward spiral, massively overextending itself through war and welfare (especially of the corporate variety) and massively overburdening its host population. It is only a matter of time before the spiral accelerates terminally, as our empire, like Rome before it, descends into frantic, golden-goose-killing, scrambles for revenue and desperate totalitarian gambits to maintain control. Since a large part of its scramble for revenue will be implemented with the printing press, it will engender more economic dislocations and panic-inducing crashes. It will also likely destroy the dollar, which, if there are no currency alternatives, would eliminate economic calculation, and dissolve the entire market division of labor upon which our living standards depend. By doing all this, the empire is going to destroy its own legitimacy much faster than anarchists ever could.
This means that the role of libertarians is not to precipitate a collapse that is inevitable anyway. Our role is to prepare the ground for what happens after the collapse. Our mission is not to delegitimize any particular state, but to delegitimize “The State” as an institution, by using sound economics, social theory, and political philosophy to debunk the lies that underpin statism. It is to teach people the private-property, anarcho-libertarian principles that, after the collapse, will keep them from each other’s throats and stockpiles, immunize them from the sway of demagogues and warlords, and preserve civilization.
And it is only having taught them thoroughgoing, anarchist principles that will do any good when things fall apart. In a crisis, minarchism in theory will become totalitarianism in practice. If people are instructed, even only implicitly, that civilization requires at least a minimal state to stave off chaos, then in times of tumult, they will grant their new state vast “temporary” emergency powers in order to establish and preserve it.
And we need to work faster, because we are in a race with the spiral. If, when the collapse occurs, the populace is still roughly as statist as it is now, literally all could be lost. Humanity may not survive the wars that would ensue as factions struggle to shape the new statist order to their own advantage.
So, let’s get moving. Let us seize the day while the days are not yet dark. We need to get over our shyness and reluctance to rock the boat, and really get reading, studying, talking, writing, agitating, organizing, and sponsoring. We need to reshuffle our priorities and make time for it. Every libertarian should treat spreading the principles of liberty as a second job. If more were to, we might actually pull this off.
The empire is going into the abyss, no matter what we do. It is our pressing and indispensable job to make sure it doesn’t drag civilization down with it.