Some Basics of State Domination and Public Submission

Familiarity may indeed, as the saying goes, breed contempt, but it also breeds a sort of somnolence. People who have never known anything other than a certain state of affairs—even an extraordinarily problematic state of affairs—have a tendency not to notice it at all, to relate it, so to speak, as if they were sleepwalking through it. Such is the situation of modern people in relation to the state. They have always known it, and they take it completely for granted, regarding it as one might regard the weather: whether it brings rain or sunshine, lightning bolts or soothing spring breezes, it is always there, an aspect of nature itself. Even when it proves destructive, its destruction still qualifies as something akin to “acts of God.”

We relate to the state in this sleepwalking fashion, however, not because doing so is hardwired in our genes, but because our conditions of life and our long historical accommodation to living under the state’s domination predispose us to react to it in this oblivious manner. People who have lived in other circumstances, however, have reacted quite differently. Only when human populations adopted settled agriculture did they prove amenable to state domination. During the vastly longer epoch of human existence in small hunting and gathering bands, the state was impossible: people had few if any nonperishable stores of wealth to be plundered, and if someone attempted to impose state-like domination on a band, its members simply ran away, putting as much distance between themselves and the exploiters as necessary to escape the would-be state’s predation. (See, for example, James C. Scott’s recent analysis in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.)

For the past 5,000 to 10,000 years, however, ultimately for nearly all of the world’s people, the state has existed as an ever-present predator and all-around abuser of human rights, its power to dominate and plunder propped up by its adroit exploitation of people’s fears, many of which have been of the state itself, others of external threats to life and limb from which the state purported to protect its subjects. In any event, nearly everyone eventually became incapable of even imagining social life without a state.

For the few who have succeeded in wrenching themselves out of this dreamlike condition in relation to the state, however, two main questions come rushing to mind:

(1)   Who do these people—that is, the state’s kingpins, Praetorian guards, bootlickers, and key private-sector supporters—think they are to treat us as they do?

(2)   Why do nearly all of us put up with the state’s outrageous treatment?

These questions can easily form—and indeed already have formed—the core of countless books, articles, and manifestos. Although nothing even approaching a consensus has emerged, it seems fairly clear that the answers to question (1) have much to do with the widespread prevalence of wicked, arrogant people with a comparative advantage in violence and the bamboozlement of their victims. Faced with the fundamental choice between what Franz Oppenheimer called the economic means of getting wealth (by production and exchange) and the political means (by robbery and extortion), members of the ruling classes have opted decisively for the latter. Pope Gregory VII (1071-85), the leader of the momentous Papal Revolution that began during his papacy and ran its course over a span of nearly fifty years (even longer in England), minced no words when he wrote (as quoted by Harold Berman): “Who does not know that kings and princes derive their origin from men ignorant of God who raised themselves above their fellows by pride, plunder, treachery, murder—in short by every kind of crime—at the instigation of the Devil, the prince of this world, men blind with greed and intolerable in their audacity.” It is possible, of course, that some political leaders have sincerely believed that they had a just basis for their domination of their fellows—nowadays especially the belief that an electoral victory is equivalent to divine anointment seems to have many under its spell—but such self-deception does nothing to alter the realities of their situation.

As for why we submit to the state’s outrages, the most persuasive answers have to do with fear of the state (and nowadays, for many, fear of self-responsibility as well), with  apprehension about sticking one’s neck out when other victims may fail to join forces with those who resist first and, probably most important, with the ideological “hypnosis” (as Leo Tolstoy characterized it) that keeps most people from being able to imagine life without the state or to understand why the state’s claim to intrinsic immunity from the morality that binds all other human beings is the purest bunk.  If an ordinary individual may not morally commit murder or steal, neither may the individuals who compose the state; and, of course, private individuals may not delegate their rights to rob or murder to the state because they have no such rights in the first place. Like Tolstoy, many writers have recognized that the ruling classes work very hard to imbue their victims with an ideology that sanctifies the state and its criminal actions. In this regard, one feels compelled to agree that many states historically have been amazingly successful in this quest. Thus, under the Nazis, ordinary Germans thought they were free, just as today ordinary Americans think they are free. The capacity of ideology to blind people and incline them toward the Stockholm Syndrome seems to have few limits, although a regime such as that of the USSR, which locked the mass of the people in persistent poverty, may find that its attempts to produce ideological enchantment in its subject victims eventually produce progressively diminishing returns.

Thus, an astute, if ever shifting, combination of arrogant force and impudent fraud may be seen as the prime ingredients the state employs in its multifaceted efforts to induce somnolence in its subject victims. Of course, a certain amount of cooptation adds essential spice to the mix, and so all states make some efforts to give back to their victims a morsel of the bread it has snatched from them. For this gracious gift, they are generally ever so grateful.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
Beacon Posts by Robert Higgs | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst