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Friday, January 21, 2005

The Proposal for A Flourishing State

For those blissfully unacquainted with the South African MA by research (Mphil in other parts of the world), it's rather simple. One thesis of approx. 50,000 words, one supervisor, no essays, no classes, no exams, no seminars or workshops. Anyway, this is the Proposal...

What if the ancient Norse prophecy was true, what if it has come to pass that, “Brothers fight and slay one another, children deny their own ancestry...this is the age of wind, of wolf, until the very day when the world shall be no more.”[1] Looking back on the 20th Century, with its unending catalog of State-sponsored butchery, with unchecked and irresponsible methods of resource extraction amounting to a hundred years of ecological gang-rape, should give a critical observer room for reason to believe that, despite officialdom's protests to the contrary, Valhalla has been vacated. Morality has been tossed aside like a bloody tampon in a prophecy come true.

The same critical observer, looking at the current state of affairs, with yet another African country riding the genocide whirlwind, where freedom is anything but on the march, could not be blamed for wondering why human beings 'chose' and continued to stay with such a seemingly violent and repressive form of social organisation, the State.

Looking forward to a not too distant future, a time when Ocean Tasty Bites®™ (reconstituted jellyfish with krill) would be a rare delicacy for the genetically engineered elites in their climate-controlled villas overlooking plains smog-laden shanty-towns and barrios filled with consumers stoked on interactive TV, whatever soma in vogue that year, and spruced up stories about Horatio Alger, our critical observer just may start scanning the skies, seeking to thumb a ride out of here on the next passing flying saucer.

Political philosophy—the domain of critical observers and, occasionally, revolutionaries—begins with the question, why a State at all, why not another form of social organisation? Why not anarchy?

A Flourishing State will seek to answer the question, 'Is the State legitimate?', which is a fairly important question to ask and one which will require a bit of explanation; i.e. what does it mean for a State to be legitimate? What does it mean for a State to be justified?[2] For example, Christopher W. Morris puts forth an argument that states are legitimate (in a substantive sense, not a mere legal sense, see below) if they are just and reasonably efficient.[3] Morris is not alone in defining legitimacy: The traditional approaches to legitimacy hold that a legitimate State is one that its subjects are obligated to obey it. And, another modern approach to legitimacy is David Copp's position a legitimate State is one that has the right to rule[4]. Given these three approaches, an explanation what is entailed in a legitimate State is not beyond possibility. At present, the actual criteria for and the definition of a legitimate State (i.e. a legitimate State is one that A, B, etc.) are undergoing further research and reflection, and this process will be part of the actual thesis production.

However, it must be pointed out that A Flourishing State will not be interested in seeking to establish if State A or if State B is legitimate, as Morris's argument seems to be able to do. It will seek to establish whether a State (in its many different forms) can ever be legitimate, in which case, for example, the State is legitimate by definition insofar as it is a just and reasonably efficient form of social organisation.

And neither is A Flourishing State interested in legitimacy in the legal sense. States, as will be briefly pointed out in the thesis, often give themselves legal legitimacy through sleight-of-hands such as constitutions. This legal legitimacy doesn't answer the wider question of why a State at all—a State claiming to be legitimate because of it declares to be so is a hardly compelling reason to climb down from the barricades—and, anyway, totalitarian dictatorships (complete with death camps) can be given a legal legitimacy by mere virtue of having a constitution.

If there is a compelling reason to form and continue in States, it would seem to have to be a moral reason; i.e. the answer to, 'Is the State legitimate?', has to be ground in ethics. Arguments for and against the State's legitimacy fall under four broad ethical traditions; 1) Utilitarianism, 2) Eudemonia or Perfectionism, 3) Egotist/Hobbesian, and 4) Natural Rights. A Flourishing State will examine just one of the arguments, that of eudemonia. Why? Partly because it is the path less trod (even though Aristotle was the founding father of western philosophy). The other approaches have received a fair amount of attention since, well, Hobbes and Locke's day. The problems of Hobbesian style arguments (arguments involving contracts, tacit, express and hypothetical) have been known since David Hume's famous critique. In regards to utilitarianism, Godwin made a compelling case against the State in Enquiry Concerning Political Justice back in 1793, despite his unrealistic alternative form of social organisation. Locke, Kant and, more recently, Nozick have all done a fair amount of work on the Natural Rights approach to determining the legitimacy of the State, and have received an equal (if not more) amount of argument.

However, there also seems to be something quite compelling about Aristotle's (and his intellectual descendants') argument: Human beings cannot flourish, cannot be all that they can, as virtuous agents outside of the State. It is the State best provides the necessary conditions (wealth, security, education, friends, opportunity) for human beings to flourish. Since living the good life is a good (maybe the best) thing and if organising human societies into States is the best method of obtaining the good life, then this a very strong reason to declare the State legitimate; i.e. the State would be just and, presumably, able to deliver at a cost lower than the gain.

While this argument will be examined in A Flourishing State, both in relation to the State and alternative forms of social organisation (where the question just well may be, can human beings flourish in the State of Nature? If so, then why the State and all of its inconveniences?). Out of all the possible anarchic forms of social organisation, A Flourishing State will examine primitivism, anarchocapitalism, anarchosyndaclism, and technoanarchism. First, each of these anarchistic alternatives will first be defined and then examined in terms of its ability to promote human flourishing relative to that of the State’s ability. But, before either the State or its anarchic alternatives can be examined, it might help to know what the State actually is.

Somewhat surprisingly—given that political philosophy's traditional subject matter, from Plato on, has been about the State—definitions of the State in the philosophical literature seem to be far and few in between. In fact, whole undergraduate courses in political philosophy can be taught, quite successfully, without ever broaching the topic. Why? Maybe it doesn't occur to many of us to actually define what is so pervasive. Almost no one on this planet is free from the dominion of one State or another. We are all subjects of a State, baring the residents of failed states such as Somalia. We have all been brought up in States, been told to obey the State since childhood, life outside of a State has long since passed from living memory, and almost all of our political activities deal with governments and their policies; what is so basic has become invisible precisely because it is fundamental in our lives.

Enough jabber. What is a State? A State is a form of social organisation that essentially has:

a) a defined territory
b) a population
c) a government that has a claim to the use of force
d) a hierarchical structure.

This definition was arrived at by combining the definition in the Montevideo Convention of 1933 with a simplified form of Max Weber's classic definition regarding the successful claim of a monopoly on the use of legitimate force, and then adding the notion of hierarchy.[5]

Regardless, this definition will be elaborated on, the consequences of its four planks laid out, if you will excuse the pun, and then will be defended against rival definitions; for example, David Copp's definition that, “The state is the system of animated institutions that govern the territory and its residents, and that administer and enforce the legal system and carry out the programs of government.”[6]

This definition will also be used to show the difference between the State and the State of Nature, and some of the different forms of the State of Nature; tribes, warlords, empires, etc. Also at this point in the thesis the notion of anarchy in general will be presented (specific forms of anarchic social organisation will be discussed after the State has been subject to investigation, as previously mentioned), and Peter Kropotkin's 1910 definition in “The Encyclopaedia Britannica” most likely still holds true. This general definition will only help to frame the later discussion on primitivism, anarchocapitalism, etc. Essentially, this will help to distinguish anarchy as a State of Nature different from Hobbes's notorious State of Nature.

Armed with these definitions and an ethical theory (eudemonia), A Flourishing State will attempt to determine whether the State is legitimate and whether alternatives to the State are better equipped to promote human flourishing. In other words, A Flourishing State will consist of four parts:

1) An introduction explaining the central aim of the project, to determine whether the State is legitimate in terms of eudemonia and if an anarchic alternative is better suited to achieve human flourish. This introduction will clarify what it means for the State to be legitimate, explain the importance of alternative to the State, and provide a justification of the project (why this is a worthy subject of pursuit).

2) This second section will define the State, defend this definition, and explain the consequences of this definition. Furthermore, the State of Nature will be defined and some its many forms briefly examined.

3) In this part, the concept of human flourishing will be explained, what the argument for the State are, and if this holds, especially in regards to the definition of State as put out in 2.

4) The last part of A Flourishing State will attempt to determine if any of four anarchic alternatives (primitivism, anarchocapitalism, anarchosyndaclism, and technoanarchism) are superior forms of social organisation in regards to promoting the good life of human flourishing.

This is an important undertaking, for it strikes at the heart of all that we are. From birth to death, our lives are shaped by the State. It, and it alone, sets limits on our liberty. It demands strict obedience to the law, even to the point of demanding, at the point of a bayonet, that we wear a uniform, pick up a rifle and kill our fellow man. There seems to be something awfully suspicious about the current situation, and the mainstream liberal approach has been to invoke the mantel of reform; representative democracy over monarchy, bills of rights vs. arbitrary whims of dictators, socialism vs. capitalism, forty-hour week vs. serfdom, and so forth. All well and good, but what if the problem is in the actual basic structure, in our choice of social organisation, the State? Isn't that worth evaluating? True human flourishing might only be possible for individuals free from the State, not bound to it in life and death. For as Emma Goldman (a most critical observer) once said:

“Real wealth consists in things of utility and beauty, in things that help to create strong, beautiful bodies and surroundings inspiring to live in. But if man is doomed to wind cotton around a spool, or dig coal, or build roads for thirty years of his life, there can be no talk of wealth. What he gives to the world is only gray and hideous things, reflecting a dull and hideous existence—too weak to live, too cowardly to die. Strange to say, there are people who extol this deadening method of centralized production as the proudest achievement of our age. They fail utterly to realize that if we are to continue in machine subserviency, our slavery is more complete than was our bondage to the King.”[7]
[1]P. Grappin, “German Lands: The Mortal Gods” in Larousee World Mythology (New York: Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., 1965), pp. 363-83. Quoted in Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1991 rev. ed.), p. 17
[2]Justification and legitimacy in regards to States are kissing cousins, if not twins. The distinction will be made as clear as possible in A Flourishing State during the framing, the defining if you will, of the central question of the proposed endeavor.
[3]Christopher W. Morris, An Essay on the Modern State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 165
[4]To be exact, a legitimate state for Copp is one that has a cluster of Hohfeldian rights: 1) There is a sphere of privilege in which the State can enact and enforce laws upon its subjects, 2) Provided its laws are within 1) and are 'morally innocent', then the State has the power to make its subjects do whatever its laws state (the subjects have a pro tanto duty to obey), 3) The State has the privilege to restrict access to its territory, 4) The State has a claim of non-interference from its neighbors, and 5) A State's right to rule cannot be extinguished by internal or external parties (other states, individuals).
David Copp, “The Idea of a Legitimate State” in Philosophy & Public Affairs 28, no. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 45
[5]This last notion is sometimes overlooked in discussions on the State—maybe also because it is so pervasive—and may be the most troublesome for human beings seeking to flourish. The sort of hierarchy inherent in the State may just prove to be the greatest obstacle to human flourishing.
[6]David Copp, “The Idea of a Legitimate State” in Philosophy & Public Affairs 28, no. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 7
[7]Emma Goldman, “Anarchism: What it Really Stands For” in Anarchism and Other Essays (New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1917 rev. 3rd edition, found at



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