The anarchist author maintains that the only thing the state “is superior at is conquest.”
“States are constantly upgrading in order to amass more power and deal with the unending string of disasters they cause.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Peter Gelderloos. Gelderloos is an anarchist writer originally from Virginia. He is the author of How Nonviolence Protects the State, Consensus, and Anarchy Works. His book is Worshiping Power An Anarchist View of Early State Formation
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Peter Gelderloos: As we grapple with unprecedented problems like climate change, and pay increasing attention to centuries-old problems that were only ever swept under the rug, like colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, it becomes vital to understand the relationship of each of these problems to what is today the dominant form of political organization, the State. Studying the evolution of the State shows us that states have always been ecocidal, they've always been patriarchal, and they have always gone hand in hand with slavery or forced labor, as well as wars of conquest against neighbors.
It helps to know, for example, that the only states to achieve some level of environmental sustainability in their home territory have done so by invading, colonizing, and expropriating their neighbors. The link between ecocide and colonialism couldn't be clearer. How are we going to talk about a “Green New Deal” without respecting the territory and autonomy of indigenous peoples who knew—and still know—how to take care of this land?
State formation isn't ancient history. It's a process that began in a few small corners of the world between six and three thousand years ago, but it's a continuous process. States are constantly upgrading in order to amass more power and deal with the unending string of disasters they cause. Many of the reforms we see today correspond more to the need of the State to maintain control than to any earnest, lucid consideration of the problem at hand. They want to deal with police shootings through sensitivity trainings and body cameras? Police in this country originated as slave patrols. How do you just reform that away?
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The fact that the State constitutes, by definition, the domination of a society by any means necessary. The fact that a near universal response to this domination is resistance, and therefore that the State is in constant decomposition. Many people today are thinking about the borders, prisons, police. The corporate media, government, corporate-financed NGOs, and universities don't hesitate to give us the tools to reform any of these institutions, once enough people start making a fuss. But through reform, we dedicate our life energies to give more life to the institutions, making some things better, making other things worse, moving the problem around. I think it's time more people adopted a dual perspective that's both broadly historical and intensely personal. To me that would mean putting our lives before the artificial life of any institution, and choosing abolition for any political structure as soon as we realize it doesn't have our best interests at heart.
It's striking that, historically, states could only develop in societies that were already hierarchical, usually in that they were patriarchal, they were aggressive towards their neighbors, and a small group of people had inordinate control over their religious ideas. Perhaps most importantly, their spirituality included the worship of power and hierarchy. While a state could essentially tutor a neighboring society with a weak hierarchy, turning them into a state as well, they had a much harder time when it came to anti-authoritarian societies. There were no hierarchies to make use of, no leaders to negotiate with; in effect, they didn't have a shared language. There was little a state could do other than try to eliminate them entirely. On multiple continents, anti-authoritarian societies were the most successful at resisting European colonization (just as decentralized tribes gave the most problems to the Roman Empire, before Europe was dreamed up as an entity).
A vital takeaway from this is the need to find harmony between means and ends. When we use authoritarian means in a struggle for liberation, we invite the State into our movement, and in the long-run we make ourselves weaker.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
The assumption that the State is a universal political form because it is superior or necessary. The only thing it is superior at is conquest. The vast majority of the planet's societies were inducted into statism by force. If the State were necessary, why did so few societies choose it for themselves? Why was a constant activity of all states preventing their populations from running away, right up until the point in the 19th century when all territory on the planet was controlled by one state or another? States are not effective from an environmental standpoint, and they are not well suited for allowing us to develop as people, to meet our needs and pursue our desires. It helps to realize that that was never their purpose, and it still isn't.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
The most relevant to Worshiping Power would be Fredy Perlman, James C. Scott, and Russell “Maroon” Shoatz. Fredy gave us a beautiful story tracing the origins and development of this thing, this Leviathan, that is devouring the planet, and he was able to do it in a way that resituated the importance of myth, while also revealing the rationalist His-story for what it is, another myth, but one that celebrates slavery, lies, domination, and ecocide. His myth also happened to be exhaustively researched. Scott gives us volume after volume of elegantly documented studies illuminating the universality of resistance to state formation, the ways that people can shape their communities and their lives to facilitate collective self-defense, the blunt, overbearing stupidity of states, and the pockets of freedom that sometimes open up right in the shadow of the State. And Maroon really hits the nail on the head, showing the relationship between how we struggle and what we reap, and tracing the intersections between state power, centralized resistance, slavery and colonialism on the one hand, and on the other hand, revolution, decentralized resistance, and communal, ecocentric, and spiritual ways of living. The fact that he can accomplish this from a maximum security prison cell belies the false idea of intellectual neutrality and underscores the importance of fighting for what we believe in. By upending the usual hierarchies of institutionalized knowledge, he also inspires me, since I couldn’t afford (and couldn’t abide) college.
I should also mention Sylvia Federici, Arthur Evans, and Giovanni Arrighi as three writers who each provided extremely insightful, albeit limited, perspectives on a slice of the larger process of social evolution I was studying.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
People nowadays have a psychological dependency on the State. If you task a group of people with solving climate change, they will explore solutions that first and foremost allow the State and capitalism to maintain their monopoly on power, and only secondarily, perhaps, might make a dent in climate change. The same with police violence, homelessness and poverty, you name it (keep in mind that I'm speaking of capitalism as it is beyond the liberal hype, recognizing that socialist measures like UBI or subsidized housing don’t change any of the fundamental mechanisms, monetary logics, property relations, etc.).
Our first priority is always to preserve the machine that is destroying us one day at a time. Subsequently, we are allowed to try to deal with the symptoms.
By removing this blockage, we can begin to actually speak of imagination. By realizing that the vast majority of human history has been anarchic, that we have created myriad forms of social organization under myriad conditions, we can see that the sky is the limit. By realizing that the happiest and healthiest human societies have been the anti-authoritarian ones that allowed people to determine their own lives, we might encourage ourselves to set our imaginations in pursuit of a future that first and foremost is good for us, rather than constantly imagining new decorations for a putrid system. And by remembering that the happiest, healthiest moments for the underclasses of the State have been those instances when we have set fire to the palaces of the powerful, when we have escaped our obligations, discovered something free, and shared it freely with those we love, we might begin to see a way out of here.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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