Skip to main content

Theories of the State

Liberté, Égalité and such matters

Democratic states grant their subjects freedom and equality. Those with a unified and written constitution do so in the first few paragraphs of those documents to underline the importance of these guarantees.1 Or in the words of the declaration of intent of the world’s most successful capitalist states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”2 Their subjects generally thank them by making good use of these guarantees and by judging the world around them in terms of these ideals. Most praise the capitalist sovereign for services rendered while some (also) detect a lack of freedom and equality in its exercise of power.

One is hard pressed to find a political tendency, which does not appeal to (at least either) freedom or equality.3 The BNP outright calls its newsletter “The Voice of Freedom”, Tories accuse Labour of putting social equality before economic freedom, Liberal Democrats declare their identity with freedom by name, Labour attempts the delicate task of balancing freedom and equality, and there is a Trotskyist organisation dedicated to achieving freedom for workers – the Alliance for Workers Liberty. Anti-racist and feminist campaigners rally against (racist and sexist) inequality4 and even the international communisation journal Sic, who are not very fond of this society, asserts that “no equality can come from the use of a means whose very existence is based on inequality”.5

Hence, there is a bit of a dissonance between, on the one hand, freedom and equality being the central ideals of this society and, on the other hand, central standpoints for those who want to get rid of it. What allows this is the critically-minded assertion that in this society freedom and equality are either not fully realised or that in this society they are a sham.6

We disagree. Our argument has two parts, one on freedom and one on equality. In each we discuss what it means when states guarantee their subjects freedom and equality. In summary, our claim is that in this society indeed particular forms of freedom and equality are realised, which cannot be brushed aside. Instead, these are the forms in which (economic) exploitation and (political) domination happen. The critique of domination and exploitation must hence take on this freedom and equality.

The logic of punishment in democratic states

Punishment in the public debate

Crime pays – especially in the public debate. These days, many seem to be concerned with how to best fight crime. The discussions are diverse: some are concerned whether the state’s actions against criminals are sufficient enough so that the citizens’ need for protection is met. Others consider the possibilities of legal punishment to be adequate but claim that the law has to be enforced more persistently. Then there is a minority claiming that strict punishment and too much imprisonment do not help in turning criminals into good and decent citizens.1 Especially the Left argues that only those who have problems, cause problems and demands more money for the reintegration of (former) criminals into society. If prison conditions constantly become worse because less money is spent on, e.g. education in prison and probation workers, then no wonder that imprisonment does not help make better people out of criminals and protect them from a relapse, is a common leftist argument.2

So, as divergent the debates on crime and approaches to fighting it may be, the need for punishment and for the state’s capacity to use force is common ground – from right to left.3 For some, for example, it may be evident that we would get nowhere without the protection of private property and/or freedom. Without punishment citizens and their rights would not be properly protected and justice would not prevail. Even if some would admit that harsher punishment does not help, the necessity for the state to punish in order for a society to work is hardly an issue. Sentences, which impose punishment on offenders, it is claimed, have a deterring effect which – as sad as it may be – is inevitable in order for communal life to work. In this view then without punishment, it is claimed, many people would not accept the “legal rules” essential to live harmoniously together and it would always be the more powerful people asserting their “right”. This would result in the “law of the jungle”. And this, obviously, would be harmful for anyone without the “muscle”. Punishment by the state and its systematic practice is necessary, it is argued, because it respects the people’s need for punishment. But, in a “civilised”, predictable and just way, i.e. there is no “cruel and unusual punishment”.4 And this, as those who hold this view conclude, is the only way to prevent boundless and arbitrary punishment, i.e. that people take the law into their own hands.

In the following, we want to critique this explanation for the necessity of state punishment and show that the crucial basis for the continued existence of crime is not to be found within people themselves. Instead, we argue that the fact that the state by law guarantees private property, freedom and equality is what continuously produces “good reasons” to break the law. Moreover, we question what the public and jurisprudence consensually claim to be criminal law’s purpose: that it saves people from harm and ensures their daily “peaceful coexistence”.

A new state in Africa: South Sudan

In 2011, the South Sudanese people voted on the question of independence for their region, which is about two and a half times the area of the UK. Chances were that the people would vote for an independent state – and they did. They did so, even though the citizens of the new state are neither united by the same language, nor by the same religion nor were they ever called ‘South Sudanese people’ (by themselves or others) beforehand. In fact, they were identified as Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk, Azande, Acholi and so on. Hence, those characteristics are missing that nationalists worldwide think of as crucial with regard to the founding of a state. Their common ground is merely negative. They have never been the ideal national citizens the various regimes of the (north-) Sudanese state propagated since its formation: neither were they Arab-speaking nor followers of Islam.

Benefit envy without benefit

The government is undertaking a massive impoverishment programme, part of which is to cut housing benefits. In a (now not so) recent speech1, Cameron argued: “If you are a single parent living outside London, if you have four children and you’re renting a house on housing benefit, then you can claim almost £25,000 a year. That is more than the average take-home pay of a farm worker and a nursery nurse put together.” He added: “For literally millions, the passage to independence is several years living in their childhood bedroom as they save up to move out; while for many others, it’s a trip to the council where they can get housing benefit at 18 or 19 – even if they’re not actively seeking work.”2

Cameron presents us with farm workers, nursery nurses and “literally millions” who struggle to pay for housing. He also presents a simple solution to the problems they are facing: get housing benefits. In fact, under current legislation people in work whose earnings and other income are below a certain threshold (set by the state) are entitled to housing benefits, too. But let us assume for the sake of argument that Cameron’s bogeyman was real: The same solution still applied, if two people working full-time take home less than a single parent on out-of-work benefits. A rational choice could be to stop working and to have kids. As for the millions saving up for their mortgage: that does not seem to be a rational choice either – again, assuming for the sake of argument that Cameron’s picture was correct, which it is not – , if all you have to do is quit your job and get a flat provided by the state.

Kittens #3

We released the fourth issue of kittens – the English speaking journal of Gruppen gegen Kapital und Nation. It is available here as a PDF and around London.

Gentrification - the Economy of the Land and the Role of Politics

1. The economy of the land

Who displaces whom and why?

Bitcoin - Finally, fair money?

In 2009 Satoshi Nakamoto invented a new electronic or virtual currency called Bitcoin, the design goal of which is to provide an equivalent of cash on the Internet.1 Rather than using banks or credit cards to buy stuff online, a Bitcoin user will install a piece of software, the Bitcoin client, on her computer and send Bitcoin directly to other users under a pseudonym.2 One simply enters into the software the pseudonym of t

Insane my Arse, Muammar Gaddafi - a Historical Sketch of his National Project

Already during his lifetime public opinion in the West had been in agreement about the deceased Libyan dictator: “insane” was the most frequent description of him. However, putting aside fashion faux-pas and focussing instead on his political career, the former ruler shows up in a rather different light. So who was Muammar Gaddafi?

Sovereign debt and the crisis in the Eurozone - All Parts

Here is a nicer PDF which collects all four parts of "Sovereign debt and the crisis in the Eurozone".

Those are independently available as:

Sovereign debt and the crisis in the Eurozone - Part 4 of 4

The sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone

Since late 2009, Greece has been facing a debt crisis. It has not been able to find enough investors willing to lend it money to service old debt under the previous conditions that is. Therefore, in order to get money at all, Greece has been forced to offer higher interest rates to its creditors. The financial markets did not greet this news with joy and queue to collect higher returns, but rather as a result they became even more cautious about Greek debt. For if Greece already had problems, then how would it be able to repay even higher obligations in the future. This raised interest rates on Greek debt even further which Greece would have had to offer on new loans if the Euro Community and the IMF had not intervened in early 2010.

The figure below shows interest rates that various countries of the Eurozone had to pay in the past. What is striking about it is that with the introduction of the Euro, interest rates began to align (Greece joined the Euro in 2001) and then with the financial crisis in 2007 interest rates diverge again.