Animosities can linger after they make any sense. But sometimes their persistence is less perverse than it seems. Almost as soon as its existence was secured, the twentieth-century welfare state began showing signs of wear and tear. Business visionaries celebrated the laissez-faire possibilities that would emerge from its demise. Futurologists such as Alvin and Heidi Toffler joined writers of science fiction like Neal Stephenson in predicting what would replace it.
Leftists working in the great nineteenth-century traditions often seemed hopelessly out of date amid the excitement stirred by this “post-national” future, whether they were focused on overthrowing the capitalist state or dispensing with centralized government altogether. Anarchists in particular found themselves keeping strange bedfellows, seemingly in agreement with the titans of the marketplace that the state must be abolished.
But the post-9/11 era has given the lie to the notion that states are obsolete. Even when they are imbricated in supra-national organizations like the European Union, nations are proving surprisingly resilient in retaining their monopoly on legitimate force, whether in the form of their militaries or the police forces they oversee. While the United Nations does conduct operations of a military character, they are explicitly designated as “peacekeeping”. For more aggressive responses, in which killing people is considered a justifiable means to a political end, the nation state is still required.
Governments also play a key role in facilitating private enterprise, playing favorites with some corporations while impeding others. Although it is highly unlikely that their withdrawal from the economic sphere would bring about the level playing field that libertarians dream about, there is no denying that they make it harder even to approach its realization. Simply put, the nation state is in the business of promoting inequality, which it reinforces with the threat of violence.
That’s why slogans like the one you see here, on a sticker spotted earlier this year in the EU capital of Brussels, are not as nostalgic as they might at first seem. Sure, the state might not be what it used to be during the height of Fordism. But it continues to be a potent adversary for anyone who truly seeks to change the global socio-economic order.
“The state will remain our enemy until its death” is not a provisional rallying cry, soon to be supplanted by one better suited to the realities of post-nationalism, but a long-term program of resistance. Because, let’s face it, so long as we have capitalism to contend with, we are going to have to contend with the state as well.
Commentary by Charlie Bertsch. Photograph by Joel Schalit.