The State is anti-societal; some would say sociopathic. It is elitist; it is riven by affiliation with a “Core Identity Group” contraposed to the Other; in most countries, the State provides and secures the basis for capitalism to flourish, separating the population into a few haves and multitudes of have-nots. While capital flows more-or-less freely across borders, workers are at a disadvantage since they do not enjoy the same freedom of movement. Eric Laursen, in his book The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State, discusses the aforementioned and other intricacies of the State and why anarchists find the State abhorrent.
The Operating System identifies the starting point for understanding the State being its legal, administrative, and decision-making structure — the government. (p 60) The State is the government; its writes the laws; its police, festishized by mass media, enforce the laws while shielded from accountability for their actions by qualified immunity. Prejudice forms the underbelly to the State and, hence, its “vested interest in maintaining if not promoting sexism, gender inequity, homophobia, and transphobia.” (p 177)
That the State is regressivist, that it promotes elitism and eschews diversity, that it is anti-democratic is made clear: “Today, the State is well on its way to creating, for the first time in human history, a worldwide monoculture tied to a uniform economic model and a single pattern of governance by a self-selecting global elite.” (p 26) But the masses are inculcated to believe the State is a necessity. (p 27)
In chapter 4, Laursen points to the European origin and cultural domination of the State. (p 84) It is a big monoculture that is hegemonic. (p 111-112) Yet, it was acknowledged in chapter 3 that not all States are the same; there are different “Versions of the Operating System.”
The State is an out-of-control abomination. Laursen quotes political theorist Chandran Kukuthas who points out that while the State is a human creation, it has evolved into something ungovernable by humans. (p 11) Among the crimes of the State are warring, genocide, racism, elitism (the State is organized hierarchically, although not necessarily by meritocracy1 ), and setting up barriers to certain humans: the Others.
For example: “The State does not contain Indigenous peoples who’ve never accepted the rule of a state and never adopted a functional role within it.” (p 23)
Nineteenth century European anarchists were staunchly opposed to any type of authoritarianism, especially the State, and held the conviction that capitalism couldn’t be abolished without the simultaneous abolishment of the State. (p 15) This probably holds true for most anarchists today.
Opposition to authoritarianism forms the backdrop for Laursen to inordinately beam his criticism at the State on China. The “authoritarian, one-party China” even gets lumped together with the “absolute monarchy” in Saudi Arabia and with the theocratic Islamic State (ISIS). (p 150) The error here is that one is led to presume that all forms of authoritarianism are the same and that all are equally anathema. Moreover, authoritarianism seems to be applied, more or less, specifically to non-western States. However, which State is not by definition authoritarian?
Is The Operating System Sinophobic?
Especially in recent years, China has been under unceasing criticism by the West and western mass media. The Operating System is also relentless throughout for its criticism of China. No State should be above criticism, but such criticism must be factually accurate and substantiated by whoever generates the criticism. I find that The Operating System fails miserably to substantiate its claims against China. When it does provide endnotes or footnotes for its claims, The Operating System diminishes its verisimilitude by citing western corporate media sources for such claims.
In the second chapter, “The State and COVID-19,” Sinophobia2 becomes palpable. Laursen states, “… the virus emerged in China…” (p 31 — no substantiation) Usually, when I find myself in doubt about proffered information, I look for substantiation to support a contention. Did SARS-CoV-2 originate in China? China state media, CGTN, has challenged that depiction presenting evidence that it arose simultaneously in France and before that in the United States: “A legitimate Question: when did COVID-19 first appear in the U.S.?” The Chinese state media’s evidence can be challenged, but at least CGTN provided evidence which Laursen did not.
Viruses can arise from various locales on the planet. The Spanish flu arose in the US; the Ebola virus arose in Africa; the H1N1 swine flu pandemic arose in Mexico. Pinpointing the source of a pandemic may seem uncritical, but Laursen followed up the sourcing of COVID-19 to China by writing that “China has developed possibly the most thorough and minutely controlling state system in the world.” (p 31) Criticism of China continues in the next paragraph: “Arguably, China was slow to address the underlying conditions that allowed the virus to spread, increasing the odds of a breakout epidemic…” The peer-review medical journal The Lancet did not find China to be slow. It found, “While the world is struggling to control COVID-19, China has managed to control the pandemic rapidly and effectively.” [italics added] The words that I italicized point to uncertainty by Laursen. Laursen provides no evidence or rationale to support his contention.
Nonetheless, Laursen is equally scathing of the US response to the pandemic; the $500 billion for the newly jobless, a pittance compared to that offered to businesses.
While Washington often complains that it has no money for social spending; safety-net programs or old-age pensions, in reality this is nonsense: its power to spend and to support the economic units it values is unlimited. The difference is who the State deems worthy of support. (p 54)
Laursen tars most large countries with the same brush of a “disastrous government response” to COVID-19 (China, the US, Russia, Brazil, etc). (p 41 ) Contrariwise, the peer-review journal Science noted early on that “China’s aggressive measures have slowed the coronavirus.” The New England Journal of Medicine reported a “Rapid Response to an Outbreak in Qingdao, China.” Canadian Dimension headlined: “The difference between the US and China’s response to COVID-19 is staggering.”
The Operating System gloms on to the western bugbear accusing China of persecuting ethnicities in its autonomous provinces: “Tibetans and Uighurs suffer [empire building] as Beijing encourages Han Chinese to establish themselves in Tibet and Xinjiang…” (p 79 — no substantiation) First, Xinjiang and Tibet are regions in China where the US and its CIA have long sought to stir up ethnic revolt against Communism.3 Second, a longtime student of China, Godfree Roberts, wrote that Tibetan fear of Han Chinese vanished when they noticed that the Han were just trying to eke out a living. Most Han Chinese did not thrive and left within a few years.4 Third, China liberated Tibet from serfdom under the lamas. Some Tibetans still regard Mao Zedong as their emancipator; they say their life is better now than under the Dalai Lama; and Tibetans remain free to practice their religion.5 Fourth, the Chinese government has sent tens of thousands of anti-poverty workers to Xinjiang who identified opportunities for the people of Xinjiang, improved infrastructure for access to markets, had major corporations relocate to Xinjiang, and Beijing moved whole universities to Xinjiang.6 Is this empire building? It was building up the Xinjiang economy. Yet Laursen charges that Beijing was underwriting the “ethnic Chinese colonization of Xinjiang.” (p 106) Laursen does not substantiate this claim, but offers an explanation: “[E]conomic rationalizations, are mostly rationalizations.” (p 106) This explanation is far from compelling. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has put the people first throughout the country. It stems from the ancient Chinese philosophy of the Mandate of Heaven — something hard to dismiss as just a rationalization.
Laursen cites the Wall Street Journal to build a case for “cultural erasure” against Uyghurs by “demolishing some eighty-five hundred mosques” in Xinjiang. (p 106, 154) This erasure, contends Laursen, has been the intent since the days of chairman Mao Zedong. (p 125 — no substantiation) A comparison of respect for the sanctity of mosques in China with western states such as France and the US refutes the disinformation that The Operating System proffers. In the case of mosque and building demolitions in Xinjiang, it is about improving living and safety standards, a process into which Uyghurs have input and choices.7
Laursen charges that China uses government surveillance to manage and control population (p 148 — no substantiation). No one denies the prevalence of CCTV cameras, but what is not delineated is what is meant by “manage” and “control” of the population.
Laursen warns that China’s social-credit program collects data on individuals which can lead to blacklisting for ‘untrustworthy’ persons. (p 102) This plays into the western mass media demonization of data collection in China while ignoring that the West, as revealed by Edward Snowden (p 147), does the same. (p 138-140) That is what the CIA, NSA, Facebook, and social media do.
From first-hand experience, my impression is that most Chinese people like the social-credit program. Imagine that! Being rewarded for paying bills on time, being able to book rail tickets, tickets to attractions easily online. For those people who refuse to pay bills, child support, fines, or engage in other untrustworthy activities, the question is: should or shouldn’t they be revealed and compelled to make amends? Most Chinese seem of the opinion that they should be compelled.8
Laursen complains about the blurring of lines between State and capital in providing “nominally private” security for the Belt and Road Initiative while noting the staff are veterans of the People’s Liberation Army. (p 108) Laursen sources the discredited right-wing Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal.
The author writes of protests against Beijing’s increasing encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy. (p 110) Encroachment? Hong Kong is not sovereign; it is part of China. One country-two systems remains in place. Moreover, Beijing allowed Hong Kong to deal with the protestors/rioters:
What about the protests/riots that have resumed in Hong Kong? What triggered those protests? Some citizens were opposed to extradition of alleged criminals? How has China responded to rioting, sabotage, terrorism, separatism, and even murders by the so-called protestors? Hong Kong is a territory having been a under British colonial administration from 1841 to 1997 when it reverted to mainland China as a special autonomous region; it must be noted that once the original demands [of the protestors] for rescinding the extradition bill were met, the goal posts of the NED-supported protestors transformed into a purported democracy movement.
Has China responded with military force? No. With arrests of law-abiding journalists? No. With police brutality? Most observers will acknowledge that police have been incredibly restrained, some would say too restrained in the face of protestor violence.
The protestors, largely disaffected youth, as is apparent in all or most video footage, by and large employ random violence as a tactic, which they do not condemn. This was made clear by Hong Kong protest leader Joey Siu, during an interview with Deutsche Welle, who said she “will not do any kind of public condemnation” for the use of unjustified violence by protesters against residents who do not share their political views.
The anarchist author also compares the one-party China to Nazi Germany and fascist Italy stating that China is elitist. (p 121) It is true that the CPC effectively rules China, but it is inaccurate to say China is a one-party State, as there are many political parties in China. One could rightfully argue that the US and Canada are effectively one-party States since two business parties with little to distinguish them apart alternate to form the government. The Chinese political system is different in that unlike the bickering among business parties in Canada and the US, the CPC and other parties in China pull together for the good of the country and its citizens. Laursen, however, argues that two-party democracies are preferable to a one-party system because this provides a venue for “citizens to channel their preferences into effective vehicles for competition and governance.” (p 160) Laursen does acknowledge that the “real purpose” of the two-party system is “to block anti-capitalist and anti-State movements.” (p 162)
The root of the criticism of being a one-party State is seemingly directed at the State not being democratic. Australian journalist and author Wei Ling Chua challenges the western narrative on what constitutes democracy and finds the West is sorely behind in serving the needs of its people compared to China.9 Roberts writes compellingly on what constitutes genuine democracy:
While there is an obvious tension between the ideals of democracy and the realities of power, it is fair to say that governments that consistently produce the outcomes that their citizens desire are democratic, while those that consistently fail to produce the outcomes their citizens desire … are not. By that definition, China is clearly democratic and the United States is clearly not.10
Chinese citizens clearly seem pleased with their form of government. A recent York University-led survey of 19,816 Chinese citizens post-pandemic revealed trust in the national government at 98 percent.
Mega-projects are intertwined with being a State. Interesting to Laursen is that these projects were carried out by “representative democracies”11 as well as by “authoritarian states.” Interestingly, he points to the “subjugation and settlement of the American West” and the spreading neoliberalism worldwide as not being carried out by an authoritarian State. (p 155)
Laursen charges, “In Hong Kong in 2019, the Chinese government threw unprecedented force at large but peaceful prodemocracy demonstrations…” (p 169) First, the Chinese government “threw” no force at the demonstrations. Mainland Chinese security forces did not police the Hong Kong riots. Second, calling the demonstrations “peaceful” is risible disinformation.12 Third, the demonstrations were not about “prodemocracy.” The goal of the demonstrations morphed following attainment of the initial goal to prevent coming into law an extradition bill with mainland China, something Hong Kong has with the US and UK. Fourth, the funding of the protestors/rioters in Hong Kong traces back to the US and its notorious National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Surely Laursen is aware of the Propaganda Model propounded by anarchist professor Noam Chomsky and lead author Edward Herman in their much praised Manufacturing Consent. So why does he cite an oft discredited corporate media publication, the Guardian, to accuse China of sterilizing Uyghur women? (p 224) This is patently false given the burgeoning Uyghur population.
There are a litany of criticisms sprinkled throughout The Operating System about China. It causes one to wonder why this preponderence given that China is a State that has lifted all its population out of extreme poverty: no homelessness, no dumpster diving, no begging!
Overcoming the State
The modern State is an instrument of violence, war, conquest, repression, and counterinsurgency. The State can repress rebellion because it is above the law, and it uses the military to drive the economy. To gain rights, benefits, and respect for human rights, the population has had to rise up or revolt against the State. (p 88-89)
Yet Laursen finds that anarchists seemingly “shy away from directly addressing the State…” (p 16) Capitalism is an adjunct to the main target, as Laursen writes, “… the fundamental problem isn’t capital or the wage system, it’s the State.” (p 20)
By emphasizing direct action, anarchism reflects a growing disillusionment with the Sate and democratic government as engines of progressive change. (p 13)
The State is an onerous construct that serves the 1%-ers. So, of course, 99% of the people who care about such matters, should want to overthrow the Westphalian system of states. To accomplish this overthrow, Laursen calls for a revolution. To start, a revolution of the mind. People need to liberate themselves from business as usual. In this context, The Operating System considers the Green New Deal, degrowth, deglobalization, food sovereignty, maintaining safety nets, and a community of mutual aid. In other words, becoming more self-sufficient.
Laursen knows that no modern state has ever been overthrown by a revolution — yet. For such a successful revolution to transpire, he says the State must have discredited itself in a large segment of the population. (p 18) According to the anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos, this already is the case.13 Indeed, this may be occurring now with the poor handling of the pandemic, an underwhelming response to climate change, and the persistence of systemic racism (look no further than the self-identifying Jewish State’s war crimes against Palestinians, supported by the US and Canada governments). Laursen notes that the State will not willingly disappear; it will have to be compelled to go away.
How? The revolution can be realized by the masses through a general strike, mutiny within armed forces, and the seizure of government facilities and key businesses. It won’t be easy. There are difficulties in bringing this about: among them are overcoming the inculcation of the “education” system (raising the question of whether critical thinking is genuinely encouraged in schools), the inability to disengage from fake news on corporate/state media and social media, and that consumers continue to shop at Walmart and big box stores.
Should a revolution succeed, the big question is how to defend an anarchy both domestically and from external attack. A tiny minority benefits extraordinarily to the detriment of the masses, and these morally bankrupt people have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the State and the capitalist system which places them at the top of the power hierarchy.
The Operating System is useful in understanding the anti-humanism of the State, why the State should be abolished, and steps toward seeking the abolishment of the State. However, I found that The Operating System derailed itself mightily when it went off track to repeatedly excoriate China, apparently without knowledge of the history of China at the hands of the West or considering the Chinese side’s rebuttals to allegations against it.
I agree with the central thesis of the State being harmful to the wider humanity, but I demur from the supposed lumping together of all big states in the basket of the bad. There are large, militarily powerful states that seek to expand their influence, exploit the wealth and resources of smaller, less militarily developed states. China is anti-imperialist. It eschews hegemony. Of course, the actions of China must be held to account with its words. Moreover, an understanding of why China does what it does is crucial. China is ringed by US military bases. The US and its allies work to destabilize China. China seeks a peaceful reunification with Taiwan that was dismembered from it by Japan, with the support of the US. In the meantime, China is caring for all its citizens, promoting the Chinese Dream, a dream that will benefit other countries. China pledges peaceful development and cooperation.14 Importantly, China promises to honor its commitments.
Mao Zedong was, arguably, an anarchist in sentiment:
Now to have states, families, and selves is to allow each individual to maintain a sphere of selfishness. This utterly violates the Universal Principle and impedes progress. Therefore, not only should states be abolished — so that there would be no more struggle between the strong and the weak — but families should also be done away with, too, to allow equality of love and affection among men.15
Current chairman Xi Jinping calls for the upholding of Mao’s thought. To this end, Xi delineates the mass line of the CPC:
Adhering to the mass line means following the fundamental tenet of serving the people wholeheartedly.16
- If meritocracy even exists
- As expressed toward the Chinese State and not toward Chinese individuals.
- Read Thomas Laird, Into Tibet: The CIA’s First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa (Grove Press, 2003).
- Godfree Roberts, Why China Leads the World: Democracy at the Top, Data in the Middle, Talent at the Top (Oriel Media, 2020): 233.
- Roberts, 232.
- Roberts, 305.
- Roberts, 179.
- Roberts, 107.
- Wei Ling Chua, Democracy: What the West Can Learn from China (2013). Review.
- Roberts, 155.
- The representatives in so-called representative democracies, by and large, do not represent their constituents and, hence these are not democratic.
- View “Another Hong Kong: Chaos in the streets.”
- Diagnostic of the Future: Between the Crisis of Democracy and the Crisis of Capitalism: A Forecast 2018, 2018. “… the fact that an important state [the US], followed by a growing body of others, is breaking apart an old and hallowed synthesis — turning the nation-state against universal equality — is incontrovertible evidence that the world system that has governed us up to now is falling apart.” location 131.
- Xi Jinping, The Governance of China (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2014).
- Mao quoting from memory Confucius’ Liyun by Kang Youwei. From Roberts, 305.
- Xi, “Carrying on the Enduring Spirit of Mao Zedong Thought” in The Governance of China.
This content originally appeared on Dissident Voice and was authored by Kim Petersen.