I accept a loose notion of the social contract and accept that there are limits on my behaviour imposed on me for the benefits of all – including the payment of levies (taxes) for the provision of services to us all, even if I might prefer those services to be delivered in a different way. I further accept a loose notion of representative democracy as a means of determining and regulating (i.e. governing) those services and levies.However, the notion or idea of the “state” is a problem.
It descends, through Hegel, from 16th century (and earlier) royalism: a mythos which persists explicitly in Britain and many other nations with hereditary monarchs, and which persists, tacitly, in (probably) all other places, even if a monarch has been replaced with some other “head of state”. We need to separate the concept of the “state” from “government”. States are late elaborations of kinship networks and are essentially exclusive to some degree (race, creed and territory are all regular components of the notion of the state). Government, on the other hand, is a set of concrete institutions administering the collection of levies and delivery of services. Many statists employed in governments (is that all of them?) like to conflate the notion of the state with the government. But, to leap to a simplistic conclusion: the state is an utterly unnecessary evil, but government of some sort is probably a necessary one – and might not even have to be thought of as essentially evil, even if all its current manifestations are. Further, I am happy to vest the “ownership” of many resources and facilities in a “government” – but not a “state”. But, here is where the journey of a thousand miles problem (the fall from grace) creeps in.
In a contribution to a book chapter, “Academic literacy in the 21st century” (Ingraham, Levy, McKenna & Roberts 2007), I wrote:
… a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This aphorism is often repeated in contexts where uncertainty is impeding progress. The phrase is popularly attributed to Mao Zedong before the Long March. But, if he ever used it it would have been with full knowledge of how it would have played with his army. The phrase comes from a long tradition of Daoist thought. The “journey of a thousand miles” is not just about getting started, it is about the return to “wholeness”. The single step is the first imperfect human act that breaks the perfect whole and thus necessitates the journey.
The Christian analogue is the doctrine of “original sin” (the fall from grace) and the journey to redemption. As the King James puts it “Enter ye in at the strait [narrow] gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat (Matthew 7:13). As we so often see see, the single step is easy; the thousand-mile journey is not.
The “single step” in my argument, here, is accepting not that there should be limits on my actions and those of others (i.e. coercion), nor is it the step separating the “state” from “government”. The single step is that I myself want to set the limits on the limits to my action. That is, I want to govern my own governability. I am happy to pay tax to support education, or rubbish collection, say; I do not want a fly-tipping free-for-all. I am happy to coerce and to be coerced around certain things. But, my fall from grace, indeed humanity’s fall from grace (arguably) is the different limits of tolerance that we all have and the desire of each one to set everyone else’s limits at or near one’s own. That is the step that separates us.
Given a situation where those who have power/wealth:
- have acquired it through their ability to harness resources within a frame of governance conflated with and abetted by states; this is basically theft
- use their power/wealth intentionally or unintentionally to inflict suffering on others (i.e. coerce others to suffer)
- and, turn to brute force to preserve or extend their power
- and, turn to much more subtle forms of coercion (advertising, party politics, religion, indeed the myth of the state, etc) to preserve or extend their power
I suggest that it is right to coerce those people to surrender their power. But under what frame of governance might that right be exercised (indeed coerced)?
The challenge seems to be first to see that governance and government are not the state. That is to see that there is nothing essential in the notion of the state. In this sense I am an anarchist. I do not acknowledge even the existence of states, except as mythic constructs in service to power/wealth.
But, I do want a frame of governance within which I act in concert with others to provide services for all, to alleviate suffering and promote all that life, liberty and pursuit of happiness stuff. Vesting power/wealth within a frame of governance is better than vesting it in individuals. In this sense I am not an anarchist. [space here for long out take on the “commons”]
It further seem to me that everyone should have an equal say in shaping that frame of governance.
Given the 1,000 mile problem, it doesn’t seem to be simply a question of scale or localism. It is not as though every decision around the globe should be taken by parish councils or street committees. Climate change is a test case for this. But, neither do we need global governance frameworks to decide where to put a pelican crossing. However deciding at what scale what kinds of decisions should be taken requires some governance framework above each smaller level in order to determine whether to aggregate or to disaggregate the coercion. That is all governance frameworks need to govern their own governability.
Ingraham, B. et al., 2007. Academic Literacy in the 21st Century. In G. Conole & M. Oliver, eds. Contemporary perspectives in e-learning research: themes, methods and impact on practice. Open and Flexible Learning. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor and Francis.