The state is a central concept in the political philosophy of Anarchism. Anarchism is often defined as being an anti-state ideology. While this is sometimes a useful way to distinguish anarchists from other state socialists it also leads to a fair bit of confusion. We will look at the source of this confusion with the aim of showing that anarchism is in its essence opposed to rulers and is not a naive or idealistic form of anti-statism.
What is the State
Anarchism emerges in Western Europe, in the dark times of the mid to late 1800s. The state is, at this time, of a quite brutal character. The welfare state is almost entirely absent. The institutions that exist are almost entirely either military in character (the police often not being distinguished from the military) or designed to adjudicate conflicts amongst the rich. While there were parliaments and courts, they served a function which is perhaps best described by James Madison:
Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.
Here we see expressed in no uncertain terms the role of the state as seen by the ruling class in this period. It is therefore not surprising that the content of anarchist writing in this period is preoccupied with the elimination of the state. In this context, anti-statism is clearly an opposition to an institution whose purpose is to stop the majority from having a fair share in society. The form of the state, has however, not stood still.
The massive wave of socialism that occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s had a transformative effect. The state found itself in a position where it had to change character in order to ensure its very survival against a revolution of the majority. Republics were made more democratic, institutions were made more egalitarian, and the welfare state was created. This transformation, which can perhaps be called the rise of Social Democracy has important implications as to how we conceive the state. The state of the early anarchists really is largely concerned with the coercive arm of the modern state. This view of the early socialists is summed up nicely by Friedrich Engels:
Further, in most historical states the rights conceded to citizens are graded on a property basis, whereby it is directly admitted that the state is an organization for the protection of the possessing class against the non-possessing class.
The state, as describe here, is nothing more than a "special coercive force" (also Engles) meant to keep the majority from power. Anarchists generally share Madison and Engles view of the state.
A Difference without a Distinction?
Anarchists want a radical restructuring of society along democratic lines, a democratisation of all organs of governance and importantly the productive forces of society. Because Anarchists speak favourably of democratic polity, or self governance, we are sometimes accused of playing linguistic games when we say we are opposed to the state. Yet the distinction between self-governance and the state is not arbitrary. It is a useful analytic tool that allows us to differentiate two very different states of affairs (if you'll excuse the pun).
Weber, famously described the state as a "monopoly of violence". In fact the monopoly on violence being held collectively by a population in order to protect themselves is not something that should be opposed. Indeed the Anarchists during the Spanish revolution were not willing to allow the fascists to run about with armed forces in Madrid and Catalonia. This is hardly surprising, but it has sometimes been used to show that anarchists are actually statists. Under this definition of statism, they in fact would have to be classified as such.
This description of the state, is however of almost no value at all. The types of situation that fit "statelessness" in this description of the state are places like Iceland in 1000 or recent Somalia. They tend to be enormously violent, and are not generally considered desirable by anyone (save some really strange Anarcho-Capitalist types).
Anarchists are not opposed to the wielding of power as long as it is done collectively, with an absence of a ruling class, and in an inclusive society. The definition of state as given by Engles lets us clearly distinguish a situation in which we [the working class] are collectively guiding the development of society, from a situation of tyranny, guided by a limited "opulent" minority.
The many forms of state socialism are without this analytic distinction, and to their great detriment. They find themselves unable to distinguish the seizure of the coercive arm of the state by a cadre of self described socialists who then declare a workers state, from the real development of a free inclusive and socialist self rule.
The anarchist definition of the state is therefore concerned with the functionality. If it is democratic, inclusive, accumulation has been abolished and the productive forces are wielded democratically, it is a system of self-governance. If it is not, it is still a state.
What Lies Beyond
The state in modern form is no longer merely a coercive force intent on guarding the accumulation of the wealthy, and the institutions that they hold. It is far more democratic now than it was in the past, and has all sorts of auxiliary institutions that serve the interests of the majority including everything from mass transit to the dole.
So when anarchists say they want to eliminate the state, what can they mean? Are they intent on destroying our social welfare programs? Is the military industrial complex and health care all in the same class, both being equally reprehensible? Such an analysis would rightly be viewed as absurd by most people.
The mechanism of transformation of the early republics towards social democracy in the 20th century was largely the result of the majority of people organising in unions and other mass organisations and forcing concessions from the state. They fought, through strike and other means, for the franchise, democracy, the 8 hour day, the 40 hour week, the social programs that we know today and many things besides.
It is this expression of our own power, a power of people when organised amongst themselves that we are able to build the institutions of the new society. The mass movement of people, in opposition to the ruling class, is both the means and the ends. It is not just the mechanism by which democracy will come into being, it is itself inchoate democracy. The softening of the state was a transformation wrought by this power.
The knowledge of self-organisation, of how to cooperate amongst ourselves, has been heavily eroded since the 1970s. Indeed, we face a situation where the state hopes to recede from the costly social welfare programs that were necessary concessions in former times. Times in which radical unions and a strong working class were present. It may succeed in doing so if the populace finds itself unable to muster forces.
What Might We Do?
It is imperative that we work to ensure that we don't lose further ground, but push forward until the state is truly laid to rest for good. Concretely, this should mean retaking or remaking organisations that represent us in such that they reflect the things that matter to us now. Democratic reforms were a big part of what socialists called for in the early part of last century. As those were given, the call for democracy receded into the background, while calls for wages remained.
While clearly many people among the working poor, which constitutes up to a 1/3 of the population, are concerned with wages, as they should be, many wage earners are fairly comfortable. Instead, they are worried about other issues, such as official corruption, education, the environment and human rights. Recognising this change is important if we are to find a way to cooperate with each other to move forward.
The most powerful tool that we as wage earners posses is our work. We are able to withdraw our labour. If we want to see a real impact on areas such as human rights and the environment, we should not look to the ruling class to do it for us. We should not focus our time on appeals to justice, to a ruling class which have shown themselves fixated on war and hardly lift a finger for the environment. Instead we should be using the power we have to ensure that it takes place. If a company is polluting, its employees could bring it to a halt. If a company is supplying arms or material assistance to those who violate rights, they can be brought to account. In other words, democratic assemblies of workers can help to bring about the changes we want to see, and in doing so, make the society itself more democratic.
It is up to ourselves to create these organs, or to transform what exists already into a form that this is possible. If we don't do it ourselves, it will not be done.