Avoiding Ever-Growing State Power in Today’s World

Avoiding Ever-Growing State Power in Today’s World. By Paul Kingsnorth.

As our ruling class and administrative state have become less competent and plainly greedier, many have lost faith:

Call me a cynic or an anarchist, but these days I find it impossible to trust anything which comes to me with a seal of authority stamped upon it. I’m not defending this as a healthy response. But it is an increasingly common one, even — and perhaps especially — among people who were trained from birth to follow the rules.

I was once one of those people. I’m a lower-middle class, suburban British bloke from Generation X, who was brought up to believe that the system broadly worked and was mostly fair, at least for people like me. The government did its best, though sometimes the wrong people got in; the police were here to help; there were career ladders and housing ladders, and if you worked hard and behaved responsibly and paid your taxes, then society would reward you for it.

Of course, this was a partial story, as all stories are. Plenty of people would have cackled cynically at it from the start, while others, including me, disabused themselves of it by degrees. … But the last few years taught me that I was still too naive …

As I say, it’s not just me. The loss of faith across the West in our institutions, leaders and representatives in recent years has been radical.

The covid response was the last straw, because it revealed the true nature of the ever-growing state:

But it was the pandemic — or rather, the response to it — that changed everything for me. I hadn’t been prepared see, in my allegedly free and democratic country, a merger of corporate power, state power and media power in the service of constructing a favoured narrative, of the kind which had previously only characterised totalitarian regimes.

What the Covid regime brought home to me was that I had not, despite what I believed, really understood the real nature of power until I saw it exercised in its raw form over my life. Specifically, I had not understood the power of the state.

Nothing has the power or reach of a modern state. Its sheer scale and strength gives it the ability to corral, organise, define, measure and control its population in a manner that is unmatched in human history, and that power only grows and deepens. …

As it grows, it will tell stories that justify its existence. Democracy, liberty and progress are some of the more recent banners beneath which state power has gathered, but there have been others: racial or ethnic homogeneity, human equality, religious purity. All of these stories have the potential to unite a people around a state core.

Globalism:

What happens, then, when large and powerful states, along with the transnational institutions and corporations they promote and protect, are all driving towards the same goal: the universalisation of an American-style “global economy” and its associated culture? This has been the story of the world since 1945, and the result is the world’s first truly global system. …

Old strategies to escape the state:

What is the correct response to the problem of power, and the reach of the state? Avoid it? Hide from it? Confront it? Ignore it? All of these? Or something else? Can we escape the state and live differently? If so, how? …

Standard-issue historical accounts of “development” … are really the history of state-making, written from the state’s point of view: they pay no attention to “the history of deliberate and reactive statelessness”. Yet that history — whether of hill tribes, runaway slaves, gypsies, maroons, sea peoples or Marsh Arabs — is global and ongoing. Taking it into account, says Scott, would “reverse much received wisdom about ‘primitivism’”. Instead, we would read a history of “self-barbarisation”: a process of reactive resistance, of becoming awkward, of making a community into a shape that it is hard for the state to absorb, or even to quite comprehend. …

Like laissez-faire capitalism, or aristocracy, the state — which has only existed for the last 1% of human history — did not simply “evolve” as some logical phase of human “development”. It was created, by the use of raw power, through land seizures, slavery, enforced labour and taxation.

For this reason, escaping from state power and creating different ways of living in the “shatter zones” was an attractive option. Those zones were usually to be found in hard-to-reach places; in Southeast Asia, this meant the hills and mountains. Their peoples — the “tribals” or “Adivasi” or “savages” — would not, in most cases, be entirely cut off from lowland life; they would often trade with urban centres, for example, and some would raid them, too, if they got the chance. But they would keep their distance, wary of being corralled by the state machinery. …

The historian Malcom Yapp invented a wonderful term for this kind of dispersed culture of refusal: jellyfish tribes. In Scott’s words, jellyfish tribalism is “a process of defending cultural and economic autonomy by scattering” to “make the group invisible or unattractive as object of appropriation”. The Berbers of North Africa, faced with colonisation by the Arabs, had their own way of putting this: divide that ye be not ruled. Lois Beck, who studied tribal culture in Iran, pointed to the same tactic in use there: “Large tribal groups divided into smaller groups to be less visible to the state and escaped its reach.”

What can we do?

All of this points to some potential ways forward for those who fear the continued expansion of the increasingly globalised, technocratic state today. The challenge, it seems to me, is to move beyond pat political formulations of “resistance” … To think about becoming barbarians by choice. To begin to build parallel systems — economies and cultures — which are hard to assimilate, and have a robustness to them which can last. To construct “cultures of refusal”. …

What hope of any kind of alternative life in a hyper-connected, monitored, digital age? Even if we wanted to retreat to the margins to build our own community, how many of us could do it? And what would make that community more robust than the last counter-cultural wave of “intentional communities”, which sprang up after the Sixties, and failed to create utopia?

This is why I find the notion of the jellyfish tribe so intriguing. Any attempt at building utopia will fail — but utopia should never be a goal. Some form of free survival is the goal; survival in order to uphold the values of a true human life. …

What kind of barbarian do I want to be?

In ancient China, the state distinguished between two different kinds of barbarian outsider: the raw (sheng) and the cooked (shu). A 12th-century document detailing the relationship of the Li people with the Chinese state speaks of the “cooked Li” as those who have submitted to state authority and the “raw Li” as those who “live in the mountain caves and are not punished by us or do not supply labour”. But while the raw Li were clearly enemies of the state, the cooked Li were not exactly friends either. State officials “suspected them of outward conformity while slyly co-operating with the raw Li”. …

What we see here, then, is two potential escape routes: one outside, one inside. Shatter zones do not have to literally be in the hills: they can be within our homes and even within our hearts. My heart soars whenever I hear of some remote monastery or surviving rooted community with no online access or even electricity, whose people know exactly where they stand: outside the state, the better to see God and experience creation. Such places are the work of the raw barbarians, and we need more of them. …

But most people are cooked barbarians. We are, to different degrees, in the state but not of it. Perhaps we look like good citizens on the outside. But if we coalesce as a jellyfish tribe, we can begin to dissociate ourselves from the state, while creating alternatives to it. Plenty of people are already doing this. They create cultures-within-cultures, parallel economies and ways of living. Like small furry mammals running unnoticed beneath the feet of the tyrannosaurs, we can thus build our own little worlds on the margins and wait for the coming of the meteor, which we can already see coming in the very un-sustainability of technological modernity. …

In the age of Starlink, eyeball scans, AI bots and digital passports, it is getting harder and harder to find anywhere to hide. But humans are creative. There are countless practical ways in which cultural refusal can manifest in our everyday lives. I am a writer, for instance, who is currently watching the publishing industry being taken over by political puritans who are purging incorrect thoughts from the shelves, while rooting around in the past for baddies to cancel. I can whine about this, or I can support or start new publishers on the margins who do things differently.

hat-tip Stephen Neil