Fear of the state

It has always puzzled me that some people can look at something like public provision of health insurance and see a fateful step toward tyranny and oppression. What this requires is a suspicion of “the state” simply as such, and it seems to me that Foucault was right to say that the greatest achievement of the early neoliberal theorists was to convince seemingly everyone in the world that the lesson to be drawn from the experience of “totalitarianism” is the dangers stemming from excessive state power.

In fact, if there is anything to be gained by placing the Nazi and Soviet experiences under the same conceptual heading, it cannot be a lesson about the dangers of state power — indeed, it has to be just the opposite: the dangers of a weak and impotent state that cannot restrain the power of a para-state movement. Both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks ran roughshod over the state, so that the official state organs were largely subservient or irrelevant, respectively. Hitler’s power as “Führer” did not stem from his official position as German Chancellor, and indeed the entire strategy of his movement was to suspend the official political order as much as possible to create a space to exercise power without restraint. The pre-existing state in Russia was even weaker than the Weimar Republic, and Stalin was able to elevate what was originally the purely functional position of “party secretary” (i.e., the person who takes notes, just like I currently take notes in my capacity as “faculty secretary” at Shimer college) into a position of absolute power — and what ultimately broke the power of the Communist Party was Gorbachev’s decision to treat the “official” Soviet political institutions as more than empty formalities. (The contrast between the “lawless legalism” of right-wing strategy and the left-wing tendency to simply ignore “official” power structures and begin exercising power “directly” is an interesting one.)

So if we’re to be on the watch for looming totalitarianism, it seems that we should be looking to movements that deride the official state apparatus and seek to “weaponize” every possible loophole and formality in order to advance their own goals. In American history, I’d say the closest thing to that model we have is the Jim Crow order that emerged in the South after the failure of Reconstruction — exploiting the weaknesses and gaps in federal power in order to clear out the space to effectively disenfranchise the black population and then control them through the continual threat of extra-legal terrorist violence and using any procedural means at their disposal to hamstring efforts to remedy the situation. (On the left, it seems like the only example you could even make an argument for is FDR.)

In contemporary politics, the only real examples are from the right — the neoconservative “putsch” under Bush and then the pathetic spectacle of the Tea Party. Perhaps an exceptionally paranoid person could have been worried about a kind of “cult of personality” forming around Obama, but it should be clear by now that there could be no more fervent believer in the status quo (indeed, one could even say that he has been very concerned to “save appearances” by maintaining continuity with Bush policies, retroactively obscuring how radical they were). Perhaps the Republicans will be chastened in some way, but it seems fair to say that at this point American politics is shaking out into one party that’s in favor of having an official state apparatus and another that is increasingly dominated by people who are impatient to destroy and undermine it in every way possible.

I’m sure it’ll turn out fine, though. Presumably the free market will make sure things don’t get too out of hand if the proto-totalitarians in our midst get their way.

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15 Responses to “Fear of the state”

  1. Jon Awbrey Says:

    The Reagan Retrovirus is the vector of Democracy’s Auto-Immune Disease (DAID).

  2. k Says:

    First paragraph: Overwhelmingly, though, those who oppose government funding for healthcare worship the military and love state secrecy (as far as state murder goes), and even endorse state torture. They laugh and cheer when the state beats protesters. Etc. Their opposition to a normal healthcare system can’t be a suspicion of the state. It’s more a rejection of a state that does certain things.

    This is not your main point, but the phrasing in the first paragraph is clearly incorrect.

  3. ambzone Says:

    The notion of “power” does a lot of heavy lifting here, as it should. That should be the real discussion within the various libertarian hotspots, not the State but how state-like power (official or not) ends up being exercised or mediated.

    Though I don’t think the contrast between lawless legalism and direct power is useful in distinguishing Left or Right power structures.

  4. Jon Awbrey Says:

    The operative distinction is between private corporate governance and public democratic governance.

  5. Aaron Says:

    If you haven’t read it, I think you’d enjoy Stephen Kotkin’s book “Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization.” It is a Foucault-influenced study of the Stalin-era Soviet mining city of Magnitogorsk, and an origin text in the “post-totalitarian” phase of Soviet studies. Uses a hell of a good deal of empirical evidence to demonstrate that much of what went on under Stalin was not the direct result of state policy or incentives, but rather the result of extra-state appropriations and mobilizations of the latter on the part of non-state and para-state actors. Lines up with a lot of what you’re saying here.

  6. Aaron Says:

    Ooops, meant “hell of a lot.” Not sure why I typed “good deal.”

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Very cool. I do love to read about Stalinism!

  8. Joe Miller Says:

    Didn’t Karl Polanyi demonstrate years ago that capitalism requires a strong state to function, and that the construction of the latter is essential for the establishment of the former?

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t think we need to do any more work “disproving” this obviously false and incoherent talking point about the dangers of government as such. Let’s just take it as a given that it made no sense when the neoliberals first put it forward and it continues to evolve in new sense-not-making ways today.

  10. Alex Says:

    I’d watch what Foucault has to say about early neoliberalism and their “state phobia”. Most theorists in the burgeoning “neoliberal studies” scene (for example, Werner Bonefeld, Ben Jackson, Jamie Peck, Philip Mirowski et al), all of whom respect Foucault’s work in kicked the whole field off, say he rather over-egged the cake. They tend to say that in fact what made neoliberalism distinctively *neo*liberal was that it envisioned a more positive role for the state, that neoliberalism represented a turn from laissez faire to remaking the state as a market creating actor, the hermeneutical key being the ordoliberal strand. It got muddier later on in theory, but neoliberalism’s founding credo was (following Schmitt) “strong [but minimal, i.e. not welfare] state, free market” and that the latter required the former – see, for example, the only article Milton Friedman ever wrote using the term “neoliberal” in which he pretty much says this. This is even clear in the classic texts of neoliberalism which expose the creeping totalitarianism thesis you are referring to, The Road to Serfdom and the even more strident Capitalism and Freedom. While in theory later neoliberals became rhetorically more anti-state, they have always been in practice pro-state, even down to their positioning within state apparatus. For example, Friedman’s advisory role to Reagan, which was much hated upon by actual out and out anarcho-capitalists, and, of course, the situation in Chile.

    “looking to movements that deride the official state apparatus and seek to “weaponize” every possible loophole and formality in order to advance their own goals”

    I’d say neoliberalism itself was a classic example of this in what Jamie Peck refers to as its “roll back” phase (destroy the traditional roles of the state) and its “roll out phase” (create the neoliberal state proper).

  11. ambzone Says:

    @Alex

    In one lecture Foucault pretty much lays out what you said about ordoliberalism and the role of the State intervention (setting up and maintaining market spaces). He also described the American form of this new liberalism as being more anarchistic at least at the level of rhetoric. Maybe the overegging happened before this particular lecture?

  12. Alex Says:

    I’m talking about the specific trope where he says they were “state phobic” that Adam seemed to reproduce here. I do think Foucault tries to drive too much of a wedge between Chicago and Freiberg though.

    Then again, probably I just forgot because its a good while since I read his neoliberal book and this is better read as a wider commentary on neoliberals and the state.

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The notion that there just “shouldn’t be” a state is obviously absent from all these thinkers. But it’s a major shift from the classical modern doctrine of the state to say that state institutions must be subordinate to and legitimated by economic institutions, which they must serve. What they’re arguing against is the notion that the state should be an independent and assertive center of power with its own goals and priorities — and again, they’re using as “evidence” for this claim two situations (Nazism, Stalin) in which the true danger clearly did not come from over-assertive state organs, but just the opposite.

  14. Benjamin Says:

    Jumping in late here, I know, but on the left, you could argue (I think) that the Huey Long regime in Louisiana was a ‘para-State’ apparatus. More broadly, certain kinds of machine politics could arguable fall in this category, right? (Or am I misunderstanding what you mean?)

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think you’re right.


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