Brian Morris: The Myth of the Liberal State

Brian Morris

Brian Morris

Brian Morris is one of those authors whose writings, regrettably, I was unable to fit into Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. He surely deserved a place in Volume Three, The New Anarchism (1974-2012). He has written too many books to list here, but from an anarchist perspective his most noteworthy include Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (1993), Ecology and Anarchism (1996), Kropotkin: The Politics of Community (2004), Pioneers of Ecological Humanism (2012), and Anthropology, Ecology, and Anarchism: A Brian Morris Reader (2014). The following is a piece Brian Morris wrote for the English anarchist paper, Freedom, in 1993, in which he handily disposes of the Oxford academic David Miller’s claims that some kind of state is necessary to achieve and maintain economic prosperity, distributive justice and peace.

Morris anthology

A Critique of Liberal Social Theory

David Miller’s useful book on ‘Anarchism’ [1984] was an attempt – so he assured us – to rescue anarchism from the dustbin of history.  He felt anarchism was an important political tradition and had something of value.  It could teach us about the abuses of power, and about the possibilities of free social relationships.  Miller, as a market socialist, advocated three specific values; economic efficiency, distributive justice and the control of “anti-social” behaviour.  In terms of these values, anarchism was declared not to be a viable political option.  He argued that without a market system and the nation state these values were simply not attainable.  Hence Miller’s advocacy of market socialism, otherwise known by its more familiar name of welfare capitalism.

Yet when we look at the real world, beyond the cloisters of Nuffield College, what do we observe?  None of Miller’s esteemed values are anywhere in evidence.

Take economic efficiency.  What do we find?  Poverty, malnutrition and famine throughout much of Africa and Latin America.  There is ecological degradation, increasing desertification, destruction of forests and woodlands, depletion at all levels.  Much of this is due to so-called “development”; to the intensification of agriculture, and to the economic maraudings of multinational capital in search of profits.  Judged in terms of economic efficiency, capitalism – the market economy – is a complete and utter failure, and a serious threat to human survival.

As for “distributive justice”?  What do we find?  Corruption, injustice, and obscene and blatant social inequalities everywhere.  Land holding and the ownership of productive capital, as well as access to the media, are everywhere maldistributed.  Thus, for example, we find in Peru that 10 per cent of the landowners own 93 per cent of the agricultural land.  We find that between 1982 and 1985 the Sudan exported millions of tons of sorghum – in order to feed animals in the richer countries – while at the same time thousands of peasants in southern Sudan were dying of hunger.  People in extreme poverty, without access to land, without any visible means of support and often without even a roof over their head, are to be seen throughout the world living in juxtaposition to extremes of luxury and wealth.  If anything there is, and always has been, an obverse correlation between capitalism and “distributive justice”.  For where commodity production prevails or intrudes, social inequalities invariably increase or are generated.  The green revolution in India has not only been a breeding ground for civil unrest and violence, but, as Vandana Shiva and others have written, has lead to INCREASING social inequalities.

Morris Kropotkin

As for the nation state keeping the peace, or curtailing “anti-social” behaviour, what do we, in reality, find?  Exactly the opposite.  The state is THE source of violent repression, of social and political harassment, and of the curtailment of civil liberties everywhere.  Militarism is rife throughout the world, and the oppression of people by state functionaries, usually on behalf of commercial interests, is the norm.  As Vithal Rajan puts it, in referring to India: if a tiger is poached, the international community is loud in its disapproval: but if the police shoot ten tribal people defending their customary rights to the forest it is frequently not even considered an offence, and is certainly not reported in the international press.

David Miller, like other liberals, has a rather quaint idea that governments are essentially neutral and benign institutions, serving to protect us from “anti-social” people.  The reality is rather different: such institutions are there to support and protect private property and capitalist interests.  This is clearly brought out in David Powell’s recent study of the coal industry in Britain, appropriately entitled “The Power Game”.  The book clearly states which side the state was on in the bitter struggles between labour and capital during the years of industrialism.  At the periphery of the capitalist system, the state is not an institution that protects people; it is one that they need protection from.  The state is organized violence and the reason that power has a capillary effect in modern society – as Foucault argued – is not that there are no centralized institutions but to the fact that the state is now so powerful.  It is infrastructural – penetrating social institutions – as well as overtly coercive and despotic.  The state is incompatible with liberty as is capitalism as an economic system.  Nowadays it is difficult to disentangle the two, and a form of state capitalism prevails.

There is no evidence for the supposed correlation between capitalism and freedom which liberal scholars like Friedman, Hayek, Gray and Fukuyama are so fond of stressing.  John Hall and John Ikenberry in their Open University Book on “The State” (1989) assert that early modern Europe was characterized by an intrinsic link between commerce and liberty (52).  Such a distorted reading of history is only possible if one completely oblates the fact that not only was there little liberty in Europe for working people during this period, but also the “commerce” of which they speak entailed rapacious mercantile trade, genocide and slavery.  Capitalism, as Ngugi Wa Thiongo notes, “came to the world dripping with blood”.  It hardly needs mentioning that some of the most important liberal scholars – like Hume and Locke – were personally implicated in the slave “trade”, worthy though they may have been in other respects.  There has never been a correlation between capitalism and liberty if capitalism is seen for what it is; namely a world system that is intrinsically exploitative of people and of the natural environment.

As a political scientist David Miller has little interest in ecology.  Even people who see themselves as radical ecologists – writers like Arne Naess, Paul Ekins, and Robyn Eckersley – and who are alive to current problems relating to “social justice” and “ecological sustainability”, embrace, when it comes to offering some vision of an alternative future, the kind of welfare capitalism long ago suggested by liberal scholars.  Their vision is no different from that of Miller.  They are thus advocates of the “market” as the best way of allocating resources – and assume that it will simply cease to be exploitative of people and of nature.  The state, they believe, will simply transform itself into a benign institution, one that will provide “macro-controls” on the market – protecting ecosystem integrity, social justice and equality, as well as curtailing excessive concentrations of economic power.  A political vision that is hardly new or radical: it just provides scholarly colleagues with an up-date on liberal theory taking into account the global ecological and economic crisis.  It is an attempt to “green” liberal political theory, just as, at another level, multinational corporations are engaged in greening the retail business.

Brian Morris, Freedom (1993)

Morris pioneers of ecological humanism

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