To what extent is any state an instrument of oppression. (50 marks)
Anarchism holds the primary view that the state oppresses its citizens. They believe that we are all capable of living together peacefully in a society without authority. According to anarchists, the state is oppressive because humans are naturally free and equal but the state takes this away from them and therefore oppresses them. The belief is that true freedom can only be obtained with the abolishment of the state and the rejection of power. Furthermore, the fact that we did not consent to the state (we were simply born into it) then we have no political obligation to obey the laws and uphold their society. Two other main views that the state can be an instrument of oppression are held by Marxists and Liberalists.
The Marxist view is that the superstructural features of the state (e.g. legal and political institutions, social consciousness, morality, religion etc.) only serve the interest of the dominant class and reinforce the oppressive power structures. Furthermore, Liberalism states that the role of the state should be limited to protecting the life, liberty and property of the individuals (Locke’s Law of Nature) and this can only be achieved when the state is a neutral umpire in affairs. If the state ever goes beyond this then its power becomes oppressive.
The anarchists criticise the state by saying that it is, by its nature, authoritarian, it employs centralised power structures and claims a monopoly on legitimate violence (this means that if anyone else apart from the state were to use violence to, for example, protect themselves then this is classed as illegitimate and they can be punished for this). Anarchism outlines the following reasons as to why the state should be abolished and replaced by social organisations: the state is sovereign and claims complete authority to define the rights and obligations of the citizens, the state is compulsory and all citizens are forced to oblige and the state is a distinct body (which means that its roles and functions are separated from others) and those who make up the government tend to form a distinct class. This forms the most fundamental reason why the state should be abolished with is that the state violates and undermines liberty.
One could argue that the state is useful because they provide protection from individuals against others and co-ordinate productive work. Furthermore, Hobbes puts forward the view that because human nature is naturally egotistic, anarchy would give free reign to exploit each other and that without laws human society would descend into a war of all against all with everyone serving their own interests and not co-operating. However, anarchists argue that for both of these essential functions, we do not need the state. We need some form of collective body or bodies, but these need not claim sovereignty and need no more power than what is required for their specific function. They can be voluntary, with people allowed to join or leave as they choose. There need not be just one body providing these functions as these could be competition between associations and they could be run by everybody together. Overall, the anarchist view is not entirely convincing. They seem to have misunderstood human nature and think too highly of how humans would behave and co-operate with a governing body to direct them.
Marxism holds a similar view of the state as an instrument of oppression but proposes another way around this. It states that the state and its superstructural features only serve the interests of the dominant class and it reinforces oppressive power structures. They believe that liberal and conservative ideological justifications of the state only reflect the dominant class’s interests. Marxists believe that oppression stems from exploitation. They say that the state exploits its subjects in two main ways: it extracts profit from workers by paying them less wages than what their labour is worth and they alienate individuals from the means of production, products of their labour and any sense of community or private ownership. They believe that this stops genuine freedom and therefore the state becomes oppressive.
Furthermore, the exercise of political power is against our natural rights. We all have natural right to freedom which the state removes. Nobody can justly subordinate to another’s authority without their consent and since we were either born into the state and therefore did not ask to be involved and do not have to obey the laws or because no state can obtain the consent of all the citizens then its use of power must therefore be illegitimate and oppressive. The solution proposed by Marxists is that of communism. Pure communism states that there will be no state, no money, no private property and no crime. They believe that humans are malleable and can grow, develop and realise their potential through their relationships with each other. The view is that humans will live co-operatively in a society without the state.
However, Marxism seems to have an idealistic view of human nature and misunderstands that people would not work together and live peacefully. Furthermore, history has shown us that communism simply doesn’t work as a leader will always be needed to start a revolution and from then on they will become the state which we would have consented to and therefore would not be oppressive. Overall, the Marxist view makes good points on how the state is oppressive but the alternative of communism would simply bring us around to a state that we have consented to through our support of the revolution and therefore this state would not be oppressive.
Liberalism believes that the state should be limited to protecting the life, liberty and property of individuals (Locke’s Law of Nature). They propose that the state should become a neutral umpire which is only there to stop you causing harm to others. Anything beyond this and the state becomes oppressive. The state becomes oppressive when it legislates within the private sphere (e.g. when it becomes concerned with our moral improvement, when it adopts a paternalistic concern for the welfare of the citizens, when it over-regulates the economy or when it outlaws freely chosen economic transactions.
They believe that the use of coercion by the state goes beyond what is needed to ensure good order as their laws are excessive and punitive. Furthermore, the way that the state intervenes in the private life of its citizens (by, for example, criminalising private affairs such as drug use) means that it does not act as a neutral umpire and is oppressive because it restricts the individuals freedom to do what they want with their private life.
In conclusion, the state is naturally oppressive to the individual’s freedom and the fact that we haven’t consented to it yet still have to follow its laws further restricts this. However, the alternatives to the state would not work (as history has shown us with Marxism, for example). Furthermore, Hobbes seems to have an accurate view on human nature (that we are all self-interested) and therefore, regardless of whether the state is oppressive, we need it to protect us from harming each other. In this sense, the state is not oppressive because it actually protects our life, liberty and property (even if we haven’t consented to it and do not want to live by its rules it is still there to help us).