Rethinking Anarchism: Carlos Taibo (3)

The following is a translation of “Chapter 3” of Carlos Taibo’s Rethinking Anarchy: Direct Action, Self-Management, Autonomy (La Catarata, Madrid, 2013).  We have already translated and posted the “Prologue” and the “Chapter 1″ of this work (Click here) and “Chapter 2” (Click here).  And we hope to continue in what will be the complete translation of the book.  In this way we hope to share with English readers the work of one of the most significant anarchist voices today in spain.

Chapter 3: The State

Insisting on the State

It is known that anarchists consider the State as a major enemy.  The corresponding perception is born of a certainty: that it, as Proudhon often rightly pointed out, is in no way a natural and neutral power that imparts justice and protects the weak.  The idea that the State protects us has been encouraged with singular enthusiasm in the last decades by two moribund projects: that of social democracy and reformist labour unionism.  And it cannot but be of concern that those who claim to contest capitalism hold to it, without submitting the matter to any discussion.

The State is not an autonomous institution that lives at the margins of capital, as even some anarchists have also appeared to believe.  And as it is not, the aim of controlling and governing it to bring an end to capital itself is meaningless, sometimes because the project is mired in the miseries of social democracy, other times, because it simply becomes a sterile exercise.  The corresponding illusions of perspective nevertheless illustrate perfectly the unequalled success attained by the systems that we bear in the task of generating artificial and self-interested consensuses, and in the parallel goal of brutally centralising power.

Yet if the significance of the State seems clear in capitalism, it is no less so when the institution that concerns us here finds itself at the service of a supposedly socialist project: the soviet experience, that which in fact felt like a bureaucratic state capitalism, demonstrated conclusively that the State forged under its protection did not fail to subordinate itself to the interests of a new dominant class.  Though the idea that a transition phase is necessary to move from capitalism to socialism – or to whatever – seems as reasonable as it is respectable, this in no way obliges one to accept that it is the State that must be the inevitable instrument for such a transition.  Similarly, it is important to recall that despite, unfortunately, the majority of the variations on the choice between reform and revolution having understood the State as the principal transforming agent, the credibility of this idea for one and the other has forcibly weakened, and notably, over the course of the last one hundred years.

John Holloway has emphasised that the principal error of revolutionary movements of a Marxist character has not been to deny the capitalist nature of the State, but to have misunderstood the degree of its integration in capitalist social relations.  Holloway has himself indicated that the notion that society can be changed by means of the State rests on the idea that this last is sovereign, in such a way that the struggle for social change transforms itself into a struggle for the defence of state sovereignty.  “The struggle against capital thus transforms itself into an anti-imperialist struggle against foreign domination, in which nationalism and anti-capitalism are fused.” (1)  In this way, adds Holloway, self-determination and state sovereignty are confused, when the essence of the State is completely antithetical to the perspective of self-determination (or that of self-management, I would add).  Holloway concludes, in sum, that Leninism rests on a formidable equivocation: that which suggests that the concept of State power is the culmination of the drive towards self-determination, a drive which in the Russian case was born in the soviets. (2)

With everything, attention must also be given to another central dimension of the State, the repressive – armies, police, prisons, psychiatrists, schools, media – which has always been much more relevant than the welfare-protective side.  Who protects us, by the way, from the State?  Repression and war are consubstantial with it, under a process that has seen itself confirmed of late, before the illusions that have sustained it in the recent past.  A relatively new phenomenon has been gaining ground: the goal of hyper-controller.  The intrinsically coercive nature of the State originates, as David Graeber has repeatedly suggested, in a fundamental contradiction: when it claims for itself the monopoly on the use of violence, it grounds this pretention on a power that is distinct from it, that is, on acts that are considered illegal under the judicial system anterior to that of the State itself, which consequently arises from the result of violent acts that at the moment of their occurrence were considered illegal. (3)  Graeber emphasises how the French revolutionaries of 1789 were guilty of high treason from the perspective of the order that they were engaged in contesting.  If the kings, who self-interestedly positioned themselves at the margins of this order, found in such an operation an accommodation to free themselves from the corresponding difficulty, the same is not possible, by contrast, for “the people”.  This last is invoked as the legitimising source of State violence whenever, in panic, the horizon of a genuine democratisation of the regulating legal procedures is considered.  The people are therefore a merely rhetorical foundation, never material, of the order of State violence, which, always wild, in reality completely escapes popular control and direction.  In such conditions, the libertarian option, which defends that the revolution can in no way be carried through with the coercive power of the State, simply considered rationally, gains weight: revolution must rather ground itself on social organisation from the ground up.

It is of course true that many of the features of State institutions have continued to change over the course of time.  Accordingly, for example, the western European State characteristic of the 19th century – with its compliments of electoral farces and absence of welfare concerns – equipped itself in the 20th century with a patina of democracy seasoned with apparent links with the wellbeing of the population.  As I will suggest a little further on, we are obliged to free ourselves – apparently – from the many illusions of perspective that have surrounded the social State of law.  The authoritarian shift of the institution of the State, and its manifest submission to private interests, ever more evident of late, do nothing but strengthen the anarchist diagnosis, only seemingly put in check by Welfare States.  Lastly, to leave nothing out of the argument that over the course of the last centuries it has been evident that numerous parasites have made of the State their home, one may add with certainty that today we are speaking of a machine that lives at the expense, also, of future generations.  Will it not be the case that the State of the future will fully realise Arthur Koestler´s old affirmation that noted that in a totalitarian State, everything which is not prohibited is obligatory?

Welfare States

From a libertarian perspective, the formulation of a general criticism of what Welfare States have presupposed in the second half of the 20th century in Western Europe (there are no manifestations of the phenomenon outside of this geographical area) is inevitable.  With this end in mind, it must be noted that they are institutions specific to, and exclusively of, capitalism; it is to be emphasised that they carry with them mechanisms for the delegation of power and for the taking of decisions over resources that escape any logic of self-management and popular control, and which always place the State at the centre of all processes; it is visibly related to a dead project, that of social democracy; such a State is associated to forms of submissive labour unionism, the kind of unionism testified to by our Comisiones Obreras (CC OO) and the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT); its unequivocal, and to a certain degree paradoxical, relation with an economy of care whose negative weight falls overwhelmingly upon women is of note; profound doubts about its ecological sustainability can be raised; it must also be recalled that these institutions are ways of economic and social organisation characteristic of countries of the north, lacking any signs that suggest any vocation of solidarity with the inhabitants of the south, and, in sum, one puts one´s finger on what is most problematic, namely, the Welfare States’ evident aim of pacifying open challenges to the system that we live under.

Once this criticism is enunciated, a problem that is anything but insignificant comes into view: if, on the one hand, it would not be very wise to avoid what is said to us, on the other hand, the demands, logical, that are made by people in the areas of health, education, retirement pensions, must be attended to in a significant way.  We cannot say to an older person, for example, that, as we are engaged in the construction of an ambitious program of libertarian communes, he must renounce his pension and ambulatory care provided by social security.  The principal response that has been formulated to this problem has consisted of a defence of self-managed and socialised public health and education.  Though this response implies a laudable awareness that the problem exists, let us admit that it does not resolve the matter completely.  And this for a reason that is easy to identify: the logic of self-management and socialisation marries very poorly – doesn’t marry – with that of the State, and this gives rise to insurmountable contradictions.

I will, in any way, try to discuss the matter in a less abstract way.  Today, calls for the preservation of the Welfare State clash, for us, with two fundamental obstacles.  The first has to do with what may be intuited as a lamentable illusion of perspective: that we can return to 2007, to the situation prior to the eruption of the financial crisis, in complete ignorance – for this reason I speak of illusion – of the fact that what we have today is a direct consequence of what we had then.  Beyond this, in the libertarian world the conclusion is inevitable that the majority call for more than the simple reconstruction of a supposedly regulated capitalism.  The second obstacle is born of an inevitable question: how much time do we dispose of to set matters right in the ambit of health, education, or pensions, given that the reconstruction of the Welfare State calls for the participation of political parties, parliaments and institutions that do not appear to be up to the task, or to state things more correctly, that support, with or without impertinence, privatisations and budget cuts?  If we assume a response that does not go beyond what political parties, parliaments and institutions can contribute, will we not find ourselves condemned to accept a scenario by virtue of which the Welfare State will be, despite the good intentions of some, even more rickety in the services that it has always proffered and thereby contribute to increasing the burdens that I have already spoken of?

Many times I have spoken of how over the years, in the midst of many student demonstrations, I habituated myself to recite the litany that demanded a public, universal, free, secular and quality education.  One day, even as I pronounced it, I remembered that when, decades ago, I was a university student we used to harshly criticise State public education because understood as a central mechanism for the reproduction of capital.  I see that we were not off track: far from any horizon of self-management, public education has often promoted compliance with authority, obedience, unrestrained competition, individualism, the primacy of values of the ruling classes and submission before the reigning order.  What then finally happened with the passing of years?  The regression that we continued to experience in all domains counselled many to dig trenches and to come out in defence of, to avoid even greater evils, public education.  However logically forgivable this decision was, in itself, it ceases to be so however when it converts itself into an incentive to reproduce once more the logic of capital.  If – let us repeat – the words self-management and socialisation impose themselves as antidotes, it will be good to be aware – I repeat – that they marry poorly, very poorly, with the institution of the State.  It would certainly be even worse though should private anarchist schools respond, as happens frequently with some, with elitist projects far removed from those from below.

Where the State ends

The discussion regarding the Welfare State – a term that certainly embellishes gratuitously the corresponding reality – takes place on an uncertain terrain: one which configures concepts which are not always useful inasmuch as they are understood in distinct ways by everyone.  What is public, for example, does not necessarily pertain to the State, even though the identification of the two realities has gained such weight that it is difficult to separate them.  Alternately, the private does not refer ontologically to individualisms and egoisms: from a justifiable perspective, an anarchist school has a private character.  I will close this brief exposé with the equivocations that one is reminded of and that are ever more frequent in which the public is linked with what is common, in a perspective in which one may join with it without difficulties – apparently – the terms self-management and socialisation.  And I would add, lastly, that the problems are not often resolved, or resolved with excessive convenience, because of the categorical refusal by the State to do so, for it prefers to forget delicate situations and complex problems.  Consider the following example: from solidarity with a people expelled from their land in Galilee or in the Negev, and held in a prison in Gaza and the West Bank, I will confess that, even though never having sympathised with the proposal to create an eventual Palestinian State, I want to be aware of the fact that such a proposal is not born of nothing and awaits, rather, the resolution of urgent problems, at the cost no doubt of creating other problems.

As things were, the temptation to objectify and aggrandise excessively the State, as if it were the only enemy and the only source of power is occasionally evident in anarchist thought.  In the same way that many Marxist thinkers have obsessed about relations of production, many anarchists have done so with the State.  One of the consequences of this exercise of objectification and aggrandisement that calls my attention may well be that it contributes to obfuscating other manifestations of power, cases more or less autonomous with respect to the State.  There is a kind of anarchism that identifies this last exclusively with ministries – and the revolution against it then has to be carried out with picks and shovels, and with violence – and it fails to consider that we carry power and its rules in our head, punished as we are with very different kinds of oppression.  If we situate the State within the general frame of oppressions, its image dissipates – there is something more than the state –, while it strengthens itself, whenever the State is unequivocally at the centre of these oppressions.

There is also no absence in libertarian discourse, which obsessed – I will come back to this – with the State, leaves in the background capitalism or pays no attention to phenomena which preceded it, as is the case with patriarchal society.  Let us not forget that certain currents of libertarian thought, like anarcho-primitivism, seem to understand that the principal cause of our misfortunes and problems is not the State, but something antecedent that sustained it: the very human civilisation that we know.  From this vantage point, to content oneself with a critique of the State would be often to contest what is superficial and elude what lies at the basis.


  1. John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power. Pluto, New York, 2010, p. 16.
  2. Ibid., p. 232.
  3. David Graeber, Critica della democrazia occidentale. Elèuthera, Milan, 2007, pp. 106-8.
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