What exactly is the “system” that we are fighting?
The system is the state, a complex mechanism that includes government, capitalism, patriarchy and imperialism. It will not go away until we force it to.Eric Laursen
Originally published by Roar Mag. Written by Eric Laursen.
“The system” is back. And it is high time we talk about it again.
Fifty years ago, in the days of the Vietnam War, the counterculture and widespread questioning of government, a lot of prominent writers, not to mention day-to-day activists, used this bit of shorthand to describe the power they were fighting against. Today, in the era of dark money, neoliberal capitalism, police impunity and US American forever wars, we still need a way to think coherently about these problems, about the forces that produce them and we need to figure out how to fight back — without lapsing into some left version of QAnon.
In Robert Reich’s new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, the system is essentially an oligopoly of rich capitalists and business owners who abuse democracy to protect and expand their interests. In economist Richard D. Wolff’s The Sickness Is the System, published late last year, it is capitalism itself, which he says is approaching a terminal crisis point.
Naomi Klein, promoting her new book for young activists, How to Change Everything, does not offer a specific definition, but she names it over and over. “It’s the system literally just continuing to do business as usual that brings us to collapse,” she says, referring to the climate crisis. “The system itself is a failure. The system itself needs to change.”
As the subtitle of Reich’s book implies, he does not think the system is necessarily something evil. It just does not work the way we want it to. And this can be fixed. Klein says the system is “a failure.” Then she says it can be changed. But can it? And if so, why would it want to be?
Answering these questions and finding a way forward is urgent, because humanity faces three enormous challenges: first, the advancing and interrelated catastrophes of climate change and ecological destruction; second, increasing economic inequality and concentration of power; and third, the need to adjust to a vast increase in human migration that for the first time is turning the entire globe into a genuinely multicultural society. The first could render the earth uninhabitable. The second devalues human labor and, with it, the value of human beings outside a narrow, favored group. The third could result in either a richer human world than we have ever had or a violent new regime of racial exploitation and exclusion.
The system has failed to address these challenges, at times deliberately refusing to do so. Working within the system has not worked, and we are all running out of time to replace it with something that does. Yet, the system is set up to foreclose any possibility of working outside it. Reforming it is not enough. Overthrowing it is not enough, if that just means setting up something similar in its place. We need to find a way to escape it.
The State is the system
What does it mean to “escape” the system? It means liberating ourselves from the mindset that induces us to accept it and reproduce it. This starts with better understanding what we are escaping from. Maybe the system is something else, something that has been under our noses all along. Let’s call it the modern state.
The modern state — with a capital S — does not refer to individual states, but rather to the entire system they form a part of: the political, social, economic and cultural order we live under, including capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism and racial and gender hierarchies, all working together as a single, complex mechanism. We can think of it as a vast operating system for ordering and controlling functions and relations among human society, economy, populations, and the natural world, analogous to a digital operating system like Windows, Unix or MacOS.
An operating system is defined by Wikipedia as “system software that manages computer hardware, software resources, and provides common services for computer programs.” Like the state, it is one of the defining creations of the modern world. The chief characteristic of an operating system is that it enables a computer to operate quickly and efficiently and to multitask; “distributed” operating systems can also network multiple computers together and cause them to function as one.
Like a state, an operating system “governs” the programs and applications under it and networked with it, as well as, to some extent, the individuals who avail themselves of these tools and resources. It defines us in relation to itself, and each other, as “users,” and can reward us, reject our requests, or even bar us from access according to its needs. It can also monitor and surveil us. Referring to giant metaplatforms like Android and Apple, the German sociologist Philipp Staab observes: “Their own systems are continuously optimized for maximum convenience, to reduce the need to switch to another system. On the other hand, they make it as difficult as possible for users to use certain services outside their own ecosystem.”
This is our starting point for understanding the system — that is, the modern state. Its central feature is the legal, administrative and decision-making structure we refer to as “government.” But the modern state is a much larger, more complex phenomenon, a comprehensive means of organizing and exercising power that, once it is launched, expands to cover more and more aspects of existence according to a direction and logic of its own.
“The state could never be the means for any special or definite end, as liberalism conceived it to be,” the German anarchist Rudolf Rocker wrote in his classic, Nationalism and Culture; “it was rather, in its highest form, an end in itself, an end sufficient for itself.”
At the same time, and again like a computer operating system, the modern state is not a material object or entity. The various pieces of “hardware” we associate with it — big, imposing neoclassical government buildings, military bases, roads, monuments — are merely material containers and symbols of the immaterial reality. An operating system is software, a collection of embedded commands that direct a machine called a computer. The modern state, too, is “software”: a collection of ideas, doctrines, commands and processes that direct the deployment of human beings and their deployment of physical resources.
Like an operating system, it networks together institutions, organizations and less formal groups including government but also many others: corporations, banks, other financial institutions and other underpinnings of capitalism; nonprofit and charitable institutions; so-called civil society groups and political parties; and even basic units like families and households. Other institutions and groupings that form part of the modern state furnish cultural and even paramilitary support to the social order, strengthen organized religion and reinforce racial and gender stratification: for instance, the extreme wings of the nativist Alternative for Germany; the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in India; and the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan, the National Rifle Association, militia groups, the Proud Boys or the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States.
Who “controls” this particular operating system? It is conceived, designed and built by human beings; once the operating system is launched, however, the system begins to mold the individuals who refine and build on it, channeling their efforts and directing them to expand in certain directions according to the guidelines and constraints it imposes. Future developers and designers all have the same job, essentially, however different their specific projects: to build and reproduce the operating system.
Similarly, the modern state is conceived and set in motion by humans; once it is established, it absorbs, regulates and extracts value from more and more of society’s activities. The Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, who generally used “government” and “state” interchangeably, put it this way: “The government, though springing from the bourgeoisie and acting as its servant and protector, tends, as with every servant and every protector, to achieve its own emancipation and to dominate whoever it protects.”
While their views differ on matters like war, peace, social welfare and race relations, a vast array of individuals and social strata, from capitalists and intellectuals to engineers and clerks and laborers, are all engaged in the same task: to build and reproduce the modern state. To turn a well-worn assertion on its head, if you are not against the state, you are for it.
Growth at all costs
But this still does not tell us why we need to get rid of the modern state. What has this system of social organization done to us that we need to escape it?
The modern state’s imperative is faster and faster economic growth, which is necessary to extend its control both deeper into its territory and population, and outward until it covers the entire planet. Perpetual economic growth requires capital: more and more of it. A feedback loop emerges: the state’s demand for capital to grow the economy catalyzes and accelerates economic expansion, which makes the society as a whole more complex and in greater need of management, which makes the administrative and security apparatus of the state larger and more essential, which further increases its demand for capital.
The three human crises we mentioned earlier — climate change, economic inequality and mass social disruption leading to mass migration — are the cumulative product of this self-perpetuating process. In different ways, a multitude of headline-making disasters trace back to it: the deadly gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984; the massive oil spill from British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in 2010; Purdue Pharma’s promotion of highly addictive opioids; and the negligence that resulted in two Boeing 737 Max jets crashing and killing 346 people in 2019. Last but not least, there is the COVID-19 outbreak, stemming from aggressive human penetration into animal habitats and whipped into a pandemic by the shockingly incompetent response of the modern state.
In the pursuit of economic growth and the power it confers, however, anything goes. One of the most important functions of the modern state, in fact, is to normalize violence by leaders. As a result, the greatest spasms of violence in human history have all occurred during the era of the modern state. Worldwide, deaths from conflict, both in absolute numbers and as a share of world population, rose steadily — and then exploded in the 20th century, when almost 110 million died, representing more than 4 percent of the entire human population. These include the dead from the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which the modern state unveiled one of its most distinctive gifts to humanity — nuclear weapons — and the massive and systematic attempt by the Nazi state to annihilate the European Jews. By comparison, the 19th century produced eight million dead in battle, and the 18th, which saw the first conflicts that could arguably be regarded as world wars, a “mere” four million.
But the modern state (along with state violence) is not just a barrier to the kind of world we want to have — it is what we have instead. The modern state has trained us to think of it as a substitute or perhaps a shorthand for the collective or the community, as the vehicle through which we work together and make decisions as a society, the provider of our common education and culture, our mechanism for caring for the less fortunate, our bulwark against violence. Any group or organization that attempts to compete or offer an alternative therefore must be absorbed or superseded or else tagged as an enemy and destroyed by the state.
The message is simple; the state is what we have, the only viable way to achieve the goals of community. The modern state’s determination to foreclose any avenue for escape ranks just after the pursuit of economic growth at any cost as one of its prime objectives.
Shaking off the modern State
The modern state is still with us in part because it is adept at sweeping conflicts, contradictions and injustices under the rug of public discourse. But the modern state itself has created crises it is not equipped to address and that can no longer be hidden: climate change, pandemics, rising inequality, social disruption arising from economic globalization. If these problems are to be solved in a way that is not inconceivably brutal, we will have to address them outside the framework of the modern state.
To do that, we first have to free our minds of the state. We must lose the false assumption that the material advances made over the past 500 years — and anything humans might achieve in the future — could only have been made within the ambit of the state. Government — the institution to which civil rights leaders, civil libertarians, union organizers, feminist and LGBTQ activists, and immigrants seeking asylum have appealed for so many years to do the right thing and give them justice — is, ultimately, the biggest obstacle in their struggle. This is a hard truth for people who have lived their entire lives within the operating system called the state and cannot conceive of a pathway to justice that does not pass through it.
Next, we need to devise ways to take back institutions like juries, schools, childhood and old-age benefits systems, and public or social housing so that they once again reflect the principle of mutual aid, creating autonomous services that provide for households’ essential needs rather than sanctifying the dominion of the modern state.
This may not be as difficult as it sounds, since under neoliberalism, so many social services have been whittled down or privatized, offering people less reason to remain loyal to a system that leaves them without essential support. Re-energizing mutual aid and scaling it up outside the state gives individuals and communities direct democratic control of these initiatives, further instilling the habit of managing themselves rather than letting an elite do it for them — and it is absolutely necessary if we are not to simply rebuild the modern state once again.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, which began setting up councils that placed power directly in the hands of local communities in the months after the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, offer an example of how to think about this. The movement’s foundational document was “The Organization of Local Councils,” by the Syrian economist and anarchist Omar Aziz, who died in the Assad regime’s prisons two years later. It set forth three main goals:
- To support human beings in managing their lives autonomously, without state institutions or structures (even if this autonomy is not complete);
- To create space for collective expression that can reinforce cooperation among individuals and that can encompass more necessary tasks as political engagement grows; and
- To incite social revolutionary activities on a regional level while unifying supporting structures.
While the modern state covers more of the globe than ever before and has absorbed the vast majority of the world’s population, it is still not universal; Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, the Bolivian highlands and in the territories liberated by the Zapatistas in Mexico continue to organize based — at least in part — on traditional approaches to agriculture, production and community.
What this tells us is that Indigenous communities can and do reclaim their culture and organize around it successfully, even in the world of the modern state. In the process, they open up new methods of social, political and economic organization for all of us and reveal that the one-size-fits-all model we have been accustomed to is not inevitable.
The second thing we notice is that many of these other methods rely very little on leaders and leadership, yet offer effective strategies for making important decisions. The third thing that reveals itself is that less prescriptive approaches to social organization are more consonant with the nature of human society, which tends toward pluralism.
And if we examine our own history deeply enough, we realize that every important advance in working people’s material well-being and political status, from free public education to decent pay and dignity for industrial workers to racial equality, has been thanks to social movements that first formed outside the state and in opposition to its power structure. These advances were lost when those social movements atrophied or were subsumed by the state.
Seizing the current moment
Direct action is the tool that enables us to put all of this together: directly challenging the modern state, organizing outside it and learning from other social structures and resistance movements, past and present. This can take any number of forms: the general strike, the boycott, hacktivism, occupying land or facilities belonging to the government or private business. Direct action can sidestep the state completely — setting up a cooperative farm or factory, creating an autonomous community off the grid, squatting in an abandoned building, farming a vacant city lot — so long as people are prepared to defend the community’s right to practice it. Either way, direct action prepares us to both think and act outside of and in contradiction to the state and capitalism every single day.
The current moment is promising because, for perhaps the first time and in part thanks to the increasing interconnectedness of every national economy, it is no longer individual states that are failing to perform in these three areas; it is the state itself, and the system of states that supports it. In the face of global warming and the COVID-19 pandemic, the modern state has failed to provide security. As nearly every country becomes more multi-ethnic and multicultural, the state has failed to expand its definition of identity and has actually narrowed the space for people to have a voice. By clinging to neoliberal policies, it has reduced vast portions of humanity to poverty and precarity, further destabilizing them socially and geographically.
Shaking off the modern state, then, requires both organizing locally and connecting local with global struggles to find solutions to the problems for which the state has abdicated responsibility. It also means being prepared for the worst.
The modern state has spent centuries creating a vast web of control, assimilation and identity. Like any living organism, it will fight to preserve itself at all costs. This will include both a physical and a psychological dimension: violent repression as well as strong appeals to the identities the state creates for us, fostering fear of the unknown and of each other. There will almost certainly be an armed struggle at some point as activists confront a violent reaction and the majority of the population either stays loyal to the present system or else stops cooperating with it.
But the modern state — the system — will not go away until we force it to.
Eric Laursen is a writer, activist and organizer living in western Massachusetts. His latest book is The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the State (AK Press). This article is adapted from Laursen’s new book.