Understanding the Modern State: an Interview with Eric Laursen

It’s become increasingly common to see news stories about the record levels of dissatisfaction and distrust in governments and institutions. One of the most recent came from a Harvard Kennedy School poll of young people in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 29 in which more than half of respondents believed they are living in a failed democracy. While many people may refer to specific institutions when expressing dissatisfaction about the state of the world, such as governments, corporations, military, and police, each of these institutions are just a part of a larger system that aims to control every aspect of our lives—the State. 

Agency’s Eric Laursen’s recent book, The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State published by AK Press, provides an accessible and fascinating overview of the development of the modern State, drawing a provocative equivalence between the State and a computer operating system aiming to oversee and control our existence. Agency recently produced a short animated video that captures some of the core elements of Eric’s book (see below). We caught up with Eric to take a look at how the modern State functions and why we need to move beyond it. 

Agency: Your recently published book The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. Why the State? What inspired you to tackle such a monumental subject at this time?

Eric Laursen: Mainly the fact that it hasn’t really been done before. I’ve identified as an anarchist for just about my entire adult life, and early on, I was struck by the fact that the so-called “classic” anarchists – Kropotkin, Bakunin, Goldman, etc – never analyzed in an extended way what the State was. I had my own ideas, and I found myself agreeing with their basic argument: that overthrowing capitalism is impossible without at the same time overthrowing the State. But I needed to understand better what the relationship was between the two, and very little in the anarchist body of writing and theory—or in Marxist theory, for that matter—explained this to me in a satisfactory way. So I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. My new book is really the result of years of puzzling over this, and then taking a much deeper dive into the issue about two years ago.

The other reason I decided to take this on is that I felt we were reaching a crisis point in humanity’s relationship with these systems: capitalism and the State. It was their decision, over the last 200 years, to build an economy built massively on the use of fossil fuels. It was their decision to impose neoliberal economics on the developing world, undermining local economies and social orders and leading to vast population displacements throughout the world. It was their decision to apply neoliberalism in the developed world as well, which has led to widening economic inequality, the hollowing out of communities, and a massively swollen financial sector that’s essentially turned the economy into a casino.

It’s urgent that we better understand the dynamic that created these crises, which are global and existential. And that’s synonymous with understanding the relationship between the State and capitalism.

Agency: Why is a computer operating system a good analogy for the State?

Eric: Because a system like Windows or iOS, like the State itself, aspires to supremacy: to be all-seeing, all-knowing, ever-present in our lives. To build a global monoculture, which it then peddles as a kind of utopia. This isn’t a coincidence since computer operating systems are a product of the State, developed through an intense public-private collaboration in the decades following World War II. Like the State, they’re one of the defining developments of the modern world that began a bit more than 500 years ago, and they embody so many of the ambitions of the State itself.

Let me explain what I mean by that. There’ve been all kinds of states in human history, going back to the Egyptian dynasties, the Roman empire, the Chinese empire, and so on. But the modern State is something very particular that arose in Europe around the end of the 15th century. What made it different is that in these new states—France, England, Spain, initially—the monarchs tried to weld together a unitary regime that used commerce and finance as a tool to attain and extend its power. It wasn’t just about armies and tribute and taxation anymore, it was about the commodities you produced, the size of the markets for them, and the leverage that they gave you to defeat your enemies and expand your power, internally as well as externally. That’s why I say the State was the original capitalist, and still is the biggest.

But to use this new weapon effectively, rulers needed to have much greater control over the lives of their populations. Every aspect of them. That meant, as the modern State developed, greater control of where they lived, how many children they had, what religion they followed, what occupations they pursued, what they thought and what they believed. As the centuries passed, that meant more tracking, more surveillance, more regulation, more social engineering, more efficiency, and it meant absorbing more of their traditions into the infrastructure of the State, or else destroying those traditions if they got in the way. And it meant imperialism and colonization, as the State tried to absorb more parts of the world into its economic and political model. The State itself is a colonial export—maybe the most successful bill-of-goods that’s ever been sold in the history of the world.

Computer operating systems have the same ambition: to provide a framework for every part of our digital lives. We become “citizens” of Windows, “citizens” of Mac iOS. These become the deep culture inside of which we live more and more of our life—and if Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk has his way with the “metaverse,” all of it.

Like these systems, the State wants to make us feel so completely at home in the acceptance of  an unsustainable mode of existence—built on fossil fuel extraction and consumption—that exploits millions of people in poor and developing regions and endangers our very existence, that we can’t conceive of existing outside it.

Agency: In The Operating System you discuss the issue of a Core Identity Group being at the center of power in every State. Can you share any examples of these Core Identity Groups and how they have concentrated power in the State?

Eric: Well, there’s always been something artificial about these Core Identity Groups. I’ll give you an example: what’s known in the U.S. as “white people.” That’s actually a pretty disparate group, by class, by ethnic origin, by wealth.  But we’re taught to think of white people as a privileged caste, the “real” Americans, the ones most entitled to the privilege of calling themselves American—as the “nation” that the State supposedly embodies—even though whiteness is an invented concept, that can be stretched to include new groups as needed.

Every State has had its version of a Core Identity Group, going back to the origins of the modern State. What it really is, is the group that the State relies on for its base of support, that it encourages to identify most closely with itself, and it’s the reservoir from which the State obtains each new iteration of its leadership. The problem with the notion of a Core Identity Group is that it inevitably excludes somebody: actually, a lot of people. Everybody else forms an underclass that is eternally knocking on the door of privilege but never gets in. The result is that the price of the State is racism, sexism, and gender-identity discrimination: because women and the non-binary are only provisionally part of the Core Identity Group. Capital, of course, needs an underclass to help it hold down the cost of labor, so this arrangement serves business and financial interests as well. What I want to stress is that these are not problems that the State can help us to resolve. They are endemic to the State itself, part of its internal logic.

Agency: The Operating System discusses how the State so often fails to address even the most basic needs of communities. Are there specific areas that you think the State fails particularly hard in relation to community needs?

Eric: I’ve just mentioned one of them—racism—and that includes the targeting and elimination of the world’s remaining Indigenous groups and their cultures. But there are so many others. Another, of course, is poverty. The State is not geared to eliminate poverty, in spite of all its resources—which in theory are sufficient to do so—and in spite of the “trickle-down” ideology that liberals as well as conservatives tacitly accept. The State has always been geared to pursue economic growth as fast as possible, since this is the basis of power in the modern world, and because it relies on capital to do so, it’s inevitably subject to a boom-bust cycle that tosses human beings aside and requires the bailing-out of the too-big-to-fail perpetrators. And that disregards the toll the system takes on the environment. Which of course is another problem; we pay a staggering price for the growth and maintenance of the system based on the State, and as climate change accelerates, that price becomes devastating. So I want to emphasize another thing: that the State is not capable—has no incentive—to solve the problem of global warming, or reverse it. It just has no real incentive to do so, because this would deflect attention from its pursuit of rapid economic growth.

Agency: It feels like most people take the existence of the State for granted, as if it’s a given and there are no alternatives that aren’t terrifyingly brutal. Do you have any thoughts on how agents of the State have managed to create so much fear around stateless societies?

Eric: Yes! The State enforces its vision of society through a combination of hard and soft power, and by cultivating the loyalty of the Core Identity Group. We’ve seen that recently, of course, in the way Trump stroked white Americans’ sense of themselves as the “real Americans,” the “regular people,” and how the Brexit campaign in the UK encouraged white people in Britain of Anglo backgrounds to adopt a very exclusive sense of what it meant to be “English.”

But there’s a problem. Faith in government is at a historic low in most so-called advanced economies. So the State encourages the Core Identity Group to identify closely with two particular institutions: the military, and the police forces. They are seen as the Core Identity Group’s protectors against the other “elements” that threaten them, as the upholders of the society’s best values, as a kind of glue that holds the world together for a group of people whose loyalty the State buys by constantly encouraging them to feel embattled.

When all else fails, of course, there’s hard power: the kind that people outside the Core Identity Group are most liable to feel the force of. Lately, we’ve seen the military adopt more impersonal ways of killing, and the police adopt more military techniques for maintaining order. In the U.S., we’ve seen the prison population expand to the point where there literally is no more room to house them. But even hard power has a “soft” aspect to it: the effort to reassure the Core Identity Group that it’s being protected and looked after.

Both hard and soft power have been part of the mix since the beginnings of the modern era. But like everything else about the State, the tools and techniques become both more sophisticated and more pervasive over time. The hard and soft powers of the State are everywhere today, in ways that they never were in past centuries,

Agency: If an operating system is an analogy for the State, what would be a digital analogy for your idea of achieving an anarchist society?

Eric: We already have one, in open-source systems, such as Linux, at least in its ideal form. But the problem with digital is the same, really, as with any other institution or product of the State. The digital world was conceived and designed by the government-private sector collaboration that’s at the center of the State. It was built to achieve the goals of that partnership, not to set us free or create a global community, as some tech barons like to claim. So it’s not a question of knowing how to make the digital culture we want, rather than letting the tech barons harness us to the production of economic value. As long as the State exists, it will try to frustrate our efforts to do so, in this area as in so many others. So that we accept the State’s profiteering, intrusive, domineering vision of the digital future instead. We don’t have to, but reclaiming an open-source digital culture will take the equivalent of an online social revolution.

Agency: What do you hope for readers to take away from your new book?

Eric: That depends on the reader. If you’re an anarchist, I hope my contribution encourages you to think about and develop your own ideas about the State. As anarchists, we’re ideally suited to analyze and understand this thing, because anarchism is the only stream of political thought that doesn’t take the State as a given. We’re the only ones who don’t automatically look for ways to solve the world’s problems through the State, who don’t assume that a complex society somehow needs the State to organize itself.

If you’re not an anarchist, I hope The Operating System provides a fresh way to look at the way the State organizes us, and articulates some of the inherent problems with the system it imposes. And I hope it encourages non-anarchists to think more broadly about solutions to the problems facing human beings and the earth. We’re taught to think that any collective solution to our problems that doesn’t include the State and capital is an impossible form of utopianism. In reality, the State and capital are what stand in our way.

Agency: What needs to shift in society in relationship to how people think about and relate to the State?

Eric: To start with, we’re accustomed to think of government and capital as two separate things, usually existing in tension with each other. There are tensions, of course, but what I’ve tried to show is that they’re really two parts of one unitary system, which I call the State with a capital S, that’s geared to manage all the resources of the earth—including human lives—in a relentless quest to build wealth: everything else be damned.

But it’s also seductive; it provides us humans with a 360-degree model for living our lives. Why bother to think outside the State, when the State makes it so easy for us to just accept the system as it is? But that of course is exactly why we have to learn to think outside the State. The State isn’t just an obstacle to the kind of society we’d like to have; it’s what we have instead.

We already know what we have to do, and to some extent we’re already doing it: identifying nodes of resistance, and forming networks between them so that we can recognize and organize around the commonalities between, for example, Standing Rock and Brazil’s Movement of the Landless, the farmers’ revolt in India and Black Lives Matter, Greta Thunberg’s guerrilla fight against climate summiteers and the struggle to abolish the police. One of the common threads of the history of the modern State, for instance, has been a relentless war on the Indigenous and on minority communities. Their struggle to save themselves is everyone’s struggle who doesn’t want the State to achieve its monocultural vision. So that’s absolutely critical—as is making all these connections and alliances.

Eric Laursen lives in Massachusetts. He is an anarchist organizer, writer, and scholar. Eric has been active in movements against war and imperialism and for global economic justice for many years and is an organizer of the annual New York City Anarchist Book Fair. He is the author of the new book The Operating System: an Anarchist Theory of the Modern State (AK Press).

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