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A Brief Dissection of the State

by J. L. Bryan

(This article was inspired by Murray Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State and Franz Oppenheimer’s The State.)

The state is, among other things, a minority of the population that asserts the right to aggress against the entire population. The state finances itself through conquest and through taxation, which is a form of extortion backed by the threat of armed robbery. Somehow, a relatively small organization can aggress against a population of hundreds of millions and be seen as legitimate. The key to the state’s popular legitimacy rests in the stories and narratives it tells about itself – the mythology of the state. This mythology has evolved through different forms over thousands of years. By tracing the history of the state, we can see how ideological evolution has not only protected the state, but made it more powerful and resilient over time.

According to Oppenheimer, the earliest proto-states were likely nomadic shepherd groups who attacked and looted farming settlements. This arrangement might be illustrated as follows:

The raiders attack the settlement and receive loot in exchange. Over time, the raiders may learn to simply threaten violence, and the population will pay tribute to avoid violence. The nomadic raiders might settle into a permanent state to control their revenue source, living off the labor of the farming village.

However, a problem quickly arises for the state:

People naturally resent being attacked and robbed. The state’s actions will create resentment, and people might band together to defend themselves. The question of how to deal with that spike of resentment rising from the population is the spur that has driven the evolution of the state over the millennia.

Early rulers learned to use a portion of their loot to subsidize priesthoods, often building impressive temples and holding elaborate public rituals. The priests, in return for wealth and power, would teach that the king was the legitimate ruler because he was divine. Here we have the first “buffer myth” shielding the state from the resentment of the people: “The divine nature of kings.”

The Egyptian Pharaoh and the Sapa Inca were considered gods in human form. The family of Julius Caesar was said to descend from the goddess Venus. The state priesthood establishes that the rulers – unlike most people – have the right to aggress because they are divine. Consequently, any rebellion against the state is a sin against the gods.

Over time, religions changed, and the “divine nature” of kings was worn down to the “divine right” of kings. Okay, the priests admitted, the king isn’t a god, but he is appointed by God.

Eventually, this buffer myth gave way altogether. When the population no longer generally believed that the king was divine (or divinely appointed), the state was again exposed to the raw resentment of the population. However, states in the 16ththrough 20th centuries faced populations far larger than the farming villages forcibly taken by the early raiders. Modern populations could not be controlled by aggression alone. As Boris Yeltsin said, “You can build a throne of bayonets, but you can’t sit on it for long.”

Historically, this resulted in tremendous political upheaval, from the English Civil War through the French and American Revolutions, up to Communist revolutions around the world. No longer willing to be ruled by kings (who were no longer divine), populations overthrew long-established monarchies. For the state to survive, a new buffer concept had to be developed and propagated. This new concept was the same in all republics and democracies, whether they were fascist, Communist or liberal democratic states. The new buffer concept, still current, is this: “The state is the people.”

First, let’s see how this works in the simpler structure of a totalitarian state, such as the Soviet Union:

The buffer myth “the state is the people” is generally propagated through state control of education, and some degree of control over the mass media. Religious leaders may also be brought into the game. Here we note a weakness of Communism: with its hostility toward religion, Communism was unable to tap into that most ancient source of state legitimacy. Fascism was more inclined to embrace religious leaders. In democracies, politicians know to cozy up to religious leaders in order to enhance the perception of their own legitimacy. Many religious leaders are happy to play along, in exchange for prestige, influence, and money. Both politicians and religious leaders, having been educated by the state, may actually believe the myth themselves.

The major problem faced by any one-party system is that all the popular resentment only has one place to go: it will be directed against the ruling party itself. There is simply no other authority to blame. One-party states must constantly refer to external enemies as a danger against which only the state can protect the population. (Multiparty states do this, too, but are not so critically dependent on this technique.)

Eventually, the population recognizes that the ruling party is not “the people” but rather a small group of rulers trying to control everyone else. All the looting and the abuses of the state can only be laid at the doorstep of the single ruling party. As we’ve seen in the former Soviet Union, the people will stop believing that the state represents them, and the state can no longer sustain itself without changing its form.

Democracies and republics with competing political parties are far more resilient, because resentment against the state is actually channeled into support for the state. This much more complex system is represented here:

First, as in the one-party system, people are indoctrinated by state schools, media, and religious leaders to believe that “the state is the people.” Next, while the population may possess a wide variety of political beliefs, these generally sort into “left” and “right.” Those who consider themselves more leftist will tend to listen to left-wing media, in which the right-wing party (and often the right-wing population) is blamed for the abuses and depredations of the state. Likewise, the rightists will attend to right-wing media, in which the left-wing party and population are blamed for the abuses of the state.

The presence of both a left media and a right media has two important effects. First, it encourages people to identify with either the established “left” or “right” viewpoint. Second, these media outlets filter what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable” within these two viewpoints. So conservatives might learn that it’s fine to call for reduced welfare spending, for example, but that they should support increased spending for military, intelligence, police and prisons. Likewise, the liberal might learn that it’s perfectly acceptable to oppose the Iraq War, but questioning America’s overall imperial role in the world, with military bases in dozens of countries, is seen as “extreme.”

A multiparty system channels the popular resentment away from the state as an institution and into fuel for the political parties. During a right-wing administration, resentment against the state is channeled by the left-media into support for the left-wing party. When resentment becomes intense enough, the left-wing party will win an election and the right-wing party will be temporarily knocked down a peg. Eventually, resentment will grow against the new left-wing administration, and the right-wing party will regain the top spot. In neither case is the state itself questioned. After all, we learned in school some version of “the state is the people.” Since the state is really us, how can we question its basic right to rule? It’s just us ruling ourselves, isn’t it?

In the multiparty electoral system, popular resentment is not only diverted away from the state but transformed into support for the state. Those who deeply resented the rule of the right-wing party now find themselves defending the current rule of the left-wing party. This may come from a belief that the party for which they voted is genuinely benevolent, or else one party may be seen as so unspeakably evil that the other party must be supported by default. (It’s interesting how people can believe that a political system constantly in grave danger of being taken over by an unspeakably evil political party is also the best system that could exist.) !

A multiparty parliamentary-style system would seem to be even more resilient than the two-party system of the United States. It looks like this:

In this case, resentment is diverted even further from the institution of the state itself. In England, for example, a Liberal Democrat can blame both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party for the state’s abuses. The idea that robbery, aggression and abuse might be inherent in the state itself becomes ever more distant. The hopeful, involved, public-spirited citizen spends his best do-good energy working to oppose the other parties and to put the “good” party (or at least the “not-so-evil” party) into power – and then to defend the “good” party’s actions once it gains power.

In this way, the state always has millions of vocal supporters, regardless of which party is in power. The state itself is not blamed for abuses, but rather one or more political parties are blamed as the villains. The individual citizen is given both the problem – nasty, evil Political Party A has too much power! – as well as the solution – vote for Political Party B! Resentment and revolutionary tendencies are thus channeled back into support for the state. Members of the population can use political contributions and voting to convince themselves they are doing their part to alleviate state abuse, when in fact they are simply giving the state greater legitimacy and, therefore, greater power to act however the current rulers see fit.

Elections take the place of the large public rituals staged by state priests in ancient times. The priests’ elaborate seasonal rituals maintained the buffer myth of “the divine nature of the king.” Modern elections are rituals maintaining the buffer myth that “the state is the people.” The Ammonites sacrificed their children by burning them alive. The modern state requires for its exaltation mass human sacrifice through war, often in the name of some messianic purpose like “making the world safe for democracy” or “spreading freedom.” To question the state’s motives in such matters is to engage in heresy.

Blame for the damage and suffering caused by the state is deflected back onto political parties and also shared by the voting public. Nor is the nonvoting public exempt from blame. If you vote for the winner, you are allegedly responsible for that politician’s actions while in office. If you vote for the loser, you still gave your consent to the outcome by participating in the election. If you don’t vote, anything the state does is now your fault, since you didn’t do your part and vote. In this way, the actions of the state are mystically transubstantiated into the “will of the people.” Should the state commit stupid or evil acts, it is simply because the general population is stupid or evil. It’s our own fault not being a morally upright population composed entirely of vigilant law researchers, economists, historians and political scientists.

In the absence of such buffer myths, we can only see the state as it is: a gang of people who make their living through extortion and robbery, and will happily resort to mass murder to attain their ends. While many, if not most, participants in the state – politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, teachers, journalists, voters, etc. – may actually believe that “the state is the people,” this does not make the myth true. The pharaoh may have believed he was divine, and his priests and worshippers may have believed it, too, but this did not make him a god. Like any politician, he was only an actor in a costume, playing out the local mythology.

May 15, 2010

J. L. Bryan

From Tragedy and Hope: A History of The World in Our Time (Macmillan

Company, 1966,) Professor of History, Carroll Quigley of Georgetown


He also wrote The Evolution of History and The Anglo-American


"The chief problem of American political life for a long time has been

how to make the two Congressional parties more national and

international. The argument that the two parties should represent

opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of

the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to doctrinaire and academic

thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that

the American people can throw the rascals out at any election without

leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy. Either party in

office becomes in time corrupt, tired, unenterprising, and vigorless.

Then it should be possible to replace it, every four years if necessary,

by the other party, which will be none of those things but will still

pursue, with new vigor, approximately the same basic policies."
(During his acceptance speech after the primaries, Bill Clinton
specifically mentioned Quigley as being a major influence on him)

Original article here