The Nature of the State

A king does not claim the power of life and death over his subjects because he can telekinetically crush a person’s heart. He has that power because when he says the word, everyone else gangs up against whomever he indicates, some by actively restraining and harming him, but most by refraining to interfere.

How easily could institutional injustice persist if it was understood that the social order was simply an unquestioned assumption? Suppose the king said frankly, “I want this person murdered; and although it is of course totally irrational that I uniquely should expect to have such requests obeyed, you all had better go along with it because I have a hierarchy of soldiers, each of whom has a better prospects if he remains part of it than if he takes a chance on some alternative system, and for that reason they’re ready to single out and kill anyone among themselves or the rest of you who suggests we organize ourselves any differently; and they will do this long before any contest to my hegemony has enough people behind it that anyone can realistically expect better odds by joining it than by staying where he is, no matter he is presently.” This might seem like a pretty intimidating speech the first few times, but as long as people understood that their position was simply the wrong end of a Nash equilibrium, could the king be expected to stay in power much longer?

No, and the reason it could not is that the security of the system depends upon the conformity and fervor of people’s belief about it, which are more easily fostered by myth than with the truth. Therefore, the king and his ministers do their best to preclude rational discussions of their legitimacy. This would invite challenge by making their control seem arbitrary. The king is claimed to be steward of the gods, avatar of the people, first among equals, or something similar. None of these theories addresses the real issue.

The state exists because people obey it, and people obey it because they expect everyone else to obey it. They obey because the disobedient are few enough that they put themselves in real danger from the ruling order by disobeying. This would be true whether the ruling order was a feudal serfdom, a military dictatorship, or a direct democracy. Furthermore, it is the only reason required. It is the necessary and sufficient condition to explain the obedience of the people and the adherence of everybody to the rules by which the state operates.

Imagine that there is a group of people standing nearby to one another, each holding a stick. Every 10 minutes, they hit themselves in the face with their sticks. They also hit anyone nearby who did not hit himself, or who failed to punish someone who didn’t hit himself or who otherwise should have been punished. It doesn’t matter why they started doing this, but it is now habitual with them. Furthermore, they are all standing in a fog, so none of them sees that it is only the neighbors of a malefactor who enact the punishment. “There is a creature below the fog that punishes us if we don’t follow the rules about when and whom to strike,” they tell one another. That creature is the state.1

The way to stay secure in such a society is to harmonize with everyone else. This explains why powerful leaders and centralized governments are required for large societies. The easiest way for a people to harmonize with one another is to rely on a conductor. They need to be nicely synchronized in order to minimize the punishment they inflict on one another, given the violent pattern they all enact by habit. This explains why the leaders are imputed such power when they are really just people like anyone else. Without them, people would not be in harmony, and consequently would be punishing one another and being punished far more than necessary. The leader wards off the creature under the mist.

The government and its leaders are epiphenomenal. The state is a destructive but self-promoting pattern of social interaction. It is a pattern of behavior that involves punishing others who do not follow it. People must promote the pattern or they will be punished, and that means they must punish others who are not promoting it. The way to defeat the state is to stop the pattern.

The Regression of the State

The state has a mythology supporting it. This could be something about a social contract, founding fathers, divine right, or Zeus lending Athena his Aegis. The myth may sound irrational and crazy, but it does not have to make sense. All it must do is remind the people what they must do to harmonize with everyone else so as to avoid punishment. The myths are mnemonic devices, not serious attempts to learn the truth.

The myth of the state is a confabulation that is constructed to make sense of the pattern of pain and fear that was experienced the previous day. It purports to explain the origin of the state in the past, but really it explains the experience today; for it informed people on how they should treat one another today so as to avoid the pain of yesterday.

Furthermore, everyone has an incentive to propagate the myth because it is genuinely successful at helping people to avoid the pain that would result from disharmony with one another. Consequently, everyone expects the myth to be propagated and that everyone will continue to believe it tomorrow. This is the source of their expectations that the pattern will continue tomorrow. The learned pattern of behavior motivates the production of the myth and the myth creates expectations of tomorrow.

The myth evolves over time because the pattern of behavior can change slightly and randomly from day to day. Since the myth is the cause of people’s expectations of tomorrow, a change to the myth changes the nature of the state. Myths can change rapidly if someone is able to invent or reinterpret them in compelling ways.

I know a particularly striking example comes from Chinese history. In China AD 22, a prophesy had somehow got around that a man named Liu Xiu would be emperor. A farmer named Liu Xiu decided to use this prophesy to his advantage. He started a rebellion and used the prophesy to give it credibility. In AD 25, he ascended the throne as Emperor Guangwu. He convinced people to expect a self-fulfilling prophesy that he would be emperor. He created a state by using a myth to his advantage.

His strategy can be generalized. Expectation management is the basis of all propaganda. If people can be convinced, for whatever reason, of a self-fulfilling prophesy, then the prophesy will come about. The great powers persist by convincing people that their doctrine is more than a doctrine. The state should be expected to evolve to stifle the imagination of its agents and subjects as much as possible, particularly along lines that may lead to questioning the state's validity. It will be characterized by pomp, ritual, and hypnotic chanting, which describes every political ceremony and nearly every political speech in history.

Social Reality

The strength of the state is the perception of strength. No matter how vast and powerful it appears, the state can always be destroyed in a moment. Therefore, the way to defeat this monster is to create expectations of its demise. If everyone were to be convinced today that tomorrow state will be gone and that different rules will prevail, then no one would have a reason to propagate the pattern. From that moment on, the state would be gone. All that is required is a change in expectations, and this is where all anarchist strategy must be focused.

The philosophical stance that treats the state’s power as something strong and solid, almost like a physical obstacle, I call social realism. The philosophical stance which sees the state as a self-propagating meme I call social idealism. To a social realist, the state is strong and powerful. To a social idealist, the state is frail and might fall at any moment—possibly for no logical reason at all.

No one chooses to be a social realist. It is inherently a position that one holds in ignorance. Most people do not know how to make choices that would improve their liberty. To become a social idealist therefore requires that people learn to think in new terms. People who lack certain mind-tools are incapable of making choices which require them in order to be framed meaningfully. When they are presented with such choices, they are unable to recognize them. Their understanding of the choices they have available suggests that the social order is impervious to their efforts.

To the social realist, the social idealist sounds like he is saying that we can remove a mountain in our way by blinking and imagining it is gone. The social idealists see conventions as tools that should be altered to suit ourselves. They are leaders. They demonstrate new ways of doing things. They create the reality of the social realists.

I see three overall avenues to attack the state that are available in a social idealist framework. The first is to decrease the severity of the rules until they are no longer noticeable. This does not mean directly engaging the state. Remember, the state is epiphenominal; engaging it does not address the root of the problem. Instead, this is done by teaching people to become more individualistic.

The more that they develop their own personalities and specialized economic niches, the more oppressed they will feel by rules imposed upon them. The more different they become from one another, the more general must be the principles of their cooperation. The less that people can be characterized by group memberships, the less their society will tolerate special rules dividing people into classes. They will, therefore, become more and more inclined toward the nonaggression axiom. Consequently, they will learn to interact harmoniously with people who act very differently from themselves and will be in less and less need of a conductor to keep them in sync.

The second is to invent a competing set of rules to those which produce the state. They would also have to be self-propagating, but without the requirement of centralized coordination. These would have to be rules that were extremely good at propagating themselves because the group of people obeying them must always be able to attract more followers.

These new rules would spread from some initial person who first taught them, like crystallization of a supercooled liquid from a tiny “seed” crystal, or like the spontaneous symmetry breaking of the early universe. It is not necessarily the case that such a powerful system of rules exists, but I think that is what Bitcoin is, especially when combined with the other subversive ideas from the cypherpunk movement.

John Galt’s Broadcast

The third route is to reduce confidence in the state until it is no longer expected to last. If everybody’s expectations could be simultaneously disrupted, then the state could be ended instantly. If everyone believed that on the following day, everyone else would follow different rules, then it would be in their interests to follow suite. It would be like an explosion that extinguishes a chain reaction, such as what is used to put out oil fires. It need not come in response to any other event; it could just happen.

To go back to the analogy of the people in the room who habitually hit themselves with sticks, this strategy might be enacted if someone ducked under the mist for a few minutes and then claimed to have dispatched the creature. If he was convincing enough that everybody believed that they would no longer be punished for disobeying the rule, then they would drop their sticks and the entire pattern would cease.

Rather than a reduction in the coercion of the state, this represents a reduction in the idea of the state. This could be done by finding a compelling new mythology to tell people, as in the “hero” who claimed to have killed the mythical creature. However, I do not think there is any mythology as compelling as the truth: that the state only survives because of expectations of its survival. The more that this truth is told, the more frail it seems; the more frail it seems, the less that it is expected to continue; the less it is expected to survive, the lower are its odds of survival. The state can be destroyed by nothing more than sedition, without any overt act.

As long as power of the state appears to be embodied in men surrounded by armies, spies, and experts in every field, the more secure the state appears. As long as it appears to be a big show that will only continue performing as long as it continues to fool people, the less secure it seems. The decline will be visible in its performance. The less cohesive it is, the less cooperative are its parts, and the more its individual members loot it, the more clearly do they communicate their own lack of expectations in it.

The process of dissolution may take place only gradually, but the process by which it happens must be a series of changes to people’s expectations. Hence, concrete events do not end people’s trust in the state, but rather the interpretations given to those events.

In fact, there is no logical necessity for any event other than the message itself. One can change people’s expectations about the state simply by teaching them to think differently about it. If one could convince people of not only that, but of the effectiveness of the message at teaching other people the same thing, one could spark a trend that ends the state. That a message has made many people consider the possibility of the collapse of a state makes such a collapse more probable. That many people have realized this makes collapse again more probable, and so on. Thus, the effect of the message compounds itself the further ahead people think about its effect on its other readers.

It would be quite a rhetorical feat, but it is not impossible that this could be done with a single message. This is kind of an odd scenario that might be found in science fiction, but it becomes more likely the more complex society becomes and the more that people are consequently induced to think clearly about social processes. More likely, however, is that there would not be any single message to which most of the blame could be attributed. On the other hand, perhaps I have already set the process in motion with this essay.


  1. A similar parable was presented in the book Hamel, Prahalad, 1996. It has proven so popular, perhaps because people sympathize with it, that it has evolved into an urban legend. However, the there was never any real experiment like this and the original source does not present it as anything more than a parable. The full story is as follows:

    4 monkeys in a room. In the center of the room is a tall pole with a bunch of bananas suspended from the top. One of the four monkeys scampers up the pole and grabs the bananas. Just as he does, he is hit with a torrent of cold water from an overhead shower. He runs like hell back down the pole without the bananas. Eventually, the other three try it with the same outcome. Finally, they just sit and don’t even try again. To hell with the damn bananas. But then, they remove one of the four monkeys and replace him with a new one. The new monkey enters the room, spots the bananas and decides to go for it. Just as he is about to scamper up the pole, the other three reach out and drag him back down. After a while, he gets the message. There is something wrong, bad or evil that happens if you go after those bananas. So, they kept replacing an existing monkey with a new one and each time, none of the new monkeys ever made it to the top. They each got the same message. Don’t climb that pole. None of them knew exactly why they shouldn’t climb the pole, they just knew not to. They all respected the well established precedent. EVEN AFTER THE SHOWER WAS REMOVED!





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