The English word “state” has two different uses: (1) a synonym for civilization in which a settled people organize structures to solve their problems, the only political community excluded from this use would be nomadic tribes; (2) a specific form of organization with a bureaucracy, a hierarchy, constitutions, elections, and as a separate sphere apart from society, that is, the modern nation-state. Although all anarchists have a commitment to critiquing structures of domination, anarchists focus their target on the state in different ways. Some anarchists, such as anarcho-syndicalists, seems to mostly call into question the second sense of the term. While other anarchists, such as modern green anarchists, call into question both senses of the term. Since there is a separate section on the site dealing with “civilization,” this section will deal mostly with the second sense of the term: the modern nation-state.
Throughout most of human history, people have been bound together not to territorial nation-states but by loyalties to family, clan, tribe or religion. Merely living on a piece of land did not mean a person or group was bound to be loyal to a particular kingdom or state. If a person committed an offense, in order to find a way to bring about recompense, you would have had to inquired what family or clan or feudal ties that person had, because different laws applied across the same territory. It was not a government that had sovereignty over a territory that defined loyalty, therefore, but relationships. And there was no such thing as a unified society in which all people across a wide swath of land were subjected to the same laws and had the same customs. All of this changed dramatically with the rise of the modern state, which really took off at the time of the Reformation.
The modern state claims a legitimate authority to monopolize violence over a given territory. Princes and elites combined forces, creating bureaucracies capable of analyzing data and enforcing rules across a wide swath of territory. They demanded and forced people to give up their primary loyalties to their families, clans or tribes and subject themselves to the rising state. They imposed uniform laws and currency, established a money economy through a process of urbanization, taxed the people to raise a national army that could wage war against external enemies and quell domestic rebellions, installed collaborators to monitor the population and report dissent and over-rode any local policy that might subvert the centralization and urbanization process. People were to become “patriotic.” As this process wore on, the states began to formulate myths, around which people could begin to see themselves as one people, as “nations.” Hence, the term “nation-state.” They defined themselves over against people living under another state and often developed national myths that purported that their “nation” had roots into antiquity.
This process did not go smoothly. People, used to being loyal to their families and tribes, resisted this process. For example, from 1489 to 1553 heavy taxes fueled six major rebellions in England and French peasants engaged in hundred of anti-tax riots during the 1620’s and 1630’s. Not only outright revolt but also weapons of the weak—“sabotage, foot-dragging, concealment, [and] evasion”—created “one of the most rebellious decades in European history.”
Many of these communities and groups that resisted were called or called themselves “anarchists.” During the English Civil War (1642–51), the Levellers organized along egalitarian lines and advocating a direct democracy, were called “switzering anarchists.” More than the Levellers, the Diggers, whose most articulate spokesman was Gerrard Winstanley, embodied what would later become anarchism. The Diggers, seized land that had been taken by the state and worked it (that is they “dug” the land, hence the name “Diggers”) and held it in common. The French Revolution (1789) contained an explicit anarchist element that did not succeed. The Enragés, comprised of individuals such as Jacques Roux, a priest, claimed that there was a vast difference between revolution and state power, the latter being something to abolish. Father Roux had long taught the French peasants to resist state authority and rich landowners by burning down their storehouses if they sought to tax them.
Thus anarchism as a political movement began in a particular historical period in reaction to the centralizing, bureaucratizing, capitalism of modern state making. Anarchism looks far beyond the power of capitalism and states, to critique all systems of domination, but it cannot be rightly understood without understanding that it grew up in tandem with and in opposition to state power.