Draft on Emergent Repression, Power, and the State

Reflecting on anti-social violence and the history of repression has brought up a theme I’ve been thinking through in the past couple years. This draft is a placeholder for me to develop this further. A core feature of anarchist thinking is a critique of the State as a particular institution and structuring aspect of society. The logic and form of the state carry with them inherent repressive functions to society as a whole. Though an important insight, this picture is incomplete and even distorting if taken alone.

For one thing, the state itself doesn’t rely solely on its force to impose its repressive capabilities. Relatively little of the state’s brutal legacy is dolled out day-to-day by its police and military. Even beyond paramilitary forces acting in coordinated autonomy with the state, we ourselves enforce, impose, and reproduce repressive functions of the state amongst ourselves. We internalize and express statist relationships in our schools, workplaces, and homes. It isn’t that the state relies on this, but in fact it is built upon it. The fact that we affirm and reproduce the power of the state makes things like the police and military possible, because they would be unable to govern without our participation.

But the anarchist critique has a deeper and more important insight. The critique of repressive power for lack of a better term goes beyond the state itself, and gives us a way of understanding the state as an emergent product of statist social relations. Likewise repressive acts are emergent. They can emerge from decentralized social networks just as from hierarchical ones. Ethnic cleansing gives copious examples of the state being able to produce such events without always needing to directly carrying them out. It isn’t only the state that can produce such events; reactionary and repressive potentials exist throughout society and can emerge in the right conditions in a variety of situations. Reaction is more than a question of structure or tactics, but one of emergence and subjectivity.

Specifically subjectivity or the cognition of political actors is the growth of reaction (and liberatory action). As societies reproduce their organization and forces, these are mediated through the motivational values, beliefs, and ideas of their actors. Those mental states, conscious and unconscious, are themselves emergently adapting just as they are acting upon and changing their world. This process becomes naked when workers refuse to scab on another ethnicity in spontaneous solidarity without ever having met, or when men burn school buses with women students inside in reaction to advances for women in the universities.

Often the tools people use to understand political events come down to structure and strategy, obviously important matters. Still, strangely missing is an understanding of the perspective of political actors and how people come to be bloody thirsty genocidal maniacs or liberating militants in search of the general good. Viewed through the prism of emergence, that kind of agency can be traced through a more general functioning of society. With it comes a profound critique power that weaves together a fundamentally corrupt society and points to an understanding of how transformation is possible. Our agency and cognition are central to the evolution of political events. They facilitate, impede, and mediate the emergence of societies trajectory.


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