The iOS State

This is a review of Eric Laursen’s The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State (AK Press, 2021).

There is a famous quote by the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who, in 1851, wrote the following:

“To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.” (From the 1923 Freedom Press edition of General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, translated by John Beverly Robinson.)

If you want to read a modern-day, 250-page version of this, you won’t go wrong with Eric Laursen’s The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. I don’t think that Laursen’s book lives up to the claim of offering “a new anarchist theory of the modern State,” but he frames an anarchist theory of the state in modern terms.

Laursen sees the state as “a form of human organization that aspires to create an encompassing social, cultural, and functional environment for every one of its inhabitants.” What the state most resembles is “not any other human form of organization, but a human-created mechanism: a computer operating system like Windows or iOS.” Laursen explains: “Like an operating system, the State works to make the environment it creates so enveloping that we hardly think of functioning outside it because doing so would require too great an adjustment for us to feel motivated to try, whatever annoyances and even injustices this might cause us.”

Laursen tends to attribute most evil in the world to the state. When discussing the claim that the state would help protect vulnerable communities, he sees this as “another reason to ask why states exist to abuse Somalis, Jews, and Mexicans in the first place.” When discussing Medicare (after all, a government program), he calls it “a form of mutual aid that doesn’t need the State to function.” With regard to COVID-19, he feels that “when the State … fails to properly address a problem like COVID-19, much of its rationale for governing us is called into question.”

There is a bit of conflating correlation and causation here. Yes, in a nation-state world, pretty much any problem is in one way or another related to the nation state. Yet, neither does this mean that the state is, necessarily, the cause of the problem, nor does it, necessarily, mean that there exist better solutions outside of it. In times when anti-government rhetoric – and action – mainly comes from the far right, a passionate plea such as “anarchists view the demise of the state as a wonderful opportunity for humans and the earth” can ring a little hollow.

In order to make an anarchist world desirable – and to thereby strengthen and popularize anarchism as a political movement – we need to make it clear why and how an anarchist world would make people’s lives better. It’s a huge task and hence hardly surprising that Laursen’s book falls short of it. The usual references to concepts such as degrowth or buen vivir are not enough; we need ideas for how to implement these concepts on a mass-scale – without the help of the state, no less.

It is true that anarchists are distinguished from other leftists by not believing that the state can administer the transition to a stateless society. But it shouldn’t allow the anarchist critique of the state to be self-complacent. Laursen’s assertion that “anarchism is the only theoretical approach that fully recognizes the connection between capitalism and the State” is simply wrong. It doesn’t help to caricature the Marxist analysis. Laursen writes: “Karl Marx considered the State to be a creature and enforcer of bourgeois economic interest. For his disciple Vladimir Lenin, it was merely a mechanism of power that could be harnessed to achieve the ends of any dominant group.” It is a little more complicated than that.

Laursen believes that today’s anarchists “shy away from directly addressing the State.” He suggests that this is the reason for anarchism no longer being “an effective mass revolutionary movement.” I doubt both assumptions. With regard to anarchists shying away from addressing the state, Laursen cites Routledge’s 2009 Contemporary Anarchist Studies reader, in which, as he says, only one essay out of 28 does so “directly.” Even if that was true (I’m not exactly sure what “directly” means – in the title?), Laursen ignores more recent publications that would indicate the opposite, such as Peter Gelderloos’s 2017 release Worshiping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State Formation (somewhat ironically released by the same publisher as Laursen’s book). With respect to the lack of a full-out attack on the state getting in the way of anarchism being a mass movement, it is curious that Laursen would name Noam Chomsky as one of the few anarchists whose work, apparently, still stands for that attack. After all, it was Chomsky who upset many anarchists with the following comments in a 2009 conversation with Howard Zinn:

“Many anarchists just consider the state the fundamental form of oppression. I think that’s a mistake. Among the various kinds of oppressive institutions that exist, the state is among the least of them. The state, at least to the extent the society is democratic … you have some influence on what happens. … You have no influence on what happens in a corporation. They are real tyrannies. As long as society is largely dominated by private tyrannies, which is the worst form of oppression, people just need some form of self-defence. And the state provides some form of self-defence.”

It would have been interesting to see Laursen engage with this argument.

I do not share Laursen’s believe that it is the lack of focus on the state that keeps anarchism from being a mass movement. The problems are multiple ones: a lack of material (economic) analysis, organizational strength, strategic perspective, and, indeed, vision. (For those who are interested, I have elaborated on this in “Revolution Is More than a Word: 23 Theses on Anarchism.”)

It is good to see authors taking on the challenge of formulating anarchist ideas in these particularly unsettling times. Eric Laursen’s The Operating System is now out with AK Press.

Gabriel Kuhn

(March 31, 2021)

Read a response by Eric Laursen.