Sunday, December 13, 2009
The origins of the state
This notion of a "workers' state" continues to bother me (though my apprehensions may be misplaced). As I understand it, the state originated with Babylon, Sumeria, Lydia, and Assyria. The idea was to expropriate agricultural surplus from peasant communities and use it to feed standing armies, which could then be used to invade other peasant communities (a "virtuous circle" of military expansion). The expropriation was carried out (if memory serves) through the introduction of coinage -- i.e., a monetary economy -- which allowed for taxation and caused, inter alia, the instant impoverishment of the peasantry. Anyone in the neighborhood not organised along state lines quickly got invaded by these proto-states and incorporated into these structures. Thus, the state itself was born as a military entity, and organised to channel resources from peasants to armies, rulers, a priesthood, and an aristocracy. In passing, it goes without saying that the state has been in the hands of different oligarchies at different times -- military rulers (like Sargon, Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar in ancient times) or the modern capitalist bourgeoisie that we're lumbered with today. But regardless of the era and regardless of the nature of the ruling oligarchy, it has always served as an instrument of armed might, coercion and extortion. Whether it can ever be anything else -- such as a "workers' state" -- is what I'm wondering about.