The State As Oppressor?

Backbencher May 31, 2013 1
The State As Oppressor?

Can the state be said to be an oppressor?

The view that the state is an oppressor would be held by two particular ideologies: anarchism (which stems from anarchia – defined as no rule), which argues that the state is the ultimate oppressor through four particular characteristics set out by Miller: and Marxism, which contends that the state is solely concerned with radiating dominant ideology which keeps the proletariat (workers) in a false class consciousness.

Marx vehemently argues that the bourgeoisie exploit the proletariat through methods of alienation, stating that the workers are alienated from both the opportunity to claim the true fruits of their labour, as well as being alienated from ever being able to own their own land, which would enable them to enjoy the product of the labour.

Therefore, goes the argument, the proletariat are shackled to myths (of meritocracy) in which they will never be able to truly achieve, but keeps them within the dominant class’ control due to the ignorance of futility in and on which the workers efforts are focussed. This demonstrates that the proletariat is oppressed into accepting their ‘role’ within society, which Marx sees as just a small mechanism in the obtaining of surplus value (maximum profit for minimum expenditure).

Miller identifies four key areas which anarchists (of all schools of thought) believe constitute the state oppressing individuals within society (and thus needing to be abolished). These four characteristics are:

  1. Sovereign – the state’s role to define rights and obligations:
  2. Compulsory – the mandatory obedience demanded by the state to those obligations:
  3. Monopoly on force – the state and only the state has ‘the right’ to use force against citizens: and
  4. Distinct body – that the state is a ‘higher’ entity above society.

These four areas, Miller (and anarchism as a whole) claim, are not the duty of the state, and are merely acts of oppression and unnecessary dominance over its citizens.

Sticking with the anarchist perspective, one of the schools of thought overseen by (the umbrella theory of) anarchism is philosophical anarchism, which was put forward by Godwin, who posited that any imposition made by the state (for example, laws) was a form of oppression, as it did not fit in with what he describes as private judgment.state

Private judgment, in his view, dictates that the individual and the individual alone knows what’s best for him/her, and for anyone else to claim that they know better is absurd. How can anyone else tell me what is best for me, when they aren’t me and don’t know me? Godwin strongly disputes the state’s right to impose anything upon individuals, as he argues that the state merely responds to how the majority wants things – which, like it or not, is merely the majority oppressing the minority.

This viewpoint was also famously held by J S Mill, as he argued that the state held the potential to comprise a tyranny of the majority: just because the majority of individuals believe something, that alone does not make it right. If for example, the majority of people believed rape to be perfectly acceptable and shouldn’t be illegal, then, per the statist argument, rape would be made legal. This illustrates that the majority may not merely impose on the minority, but oppress the minority into believing what they, the majority, believe – which may not be right at all, thus demonstrates that the state is an oppressor.

Another utilitarian, Bentham, put forward the ‘hedonistic calculus’ to support the notion of private judgment, which is a form of pleasure/pain ratio analysis. In other words, if something gives you +10 pleasure but someone else +9 pain, it is the morally correct thing to do that act as it gives +1 pleasure overall, which, for Bentham, is the most important thing.

With this in mind, Godwin therefore simplifies this calculus and advocates act- utilitarianism – the maximum happiness for the individual (rather than the most people). An example of act-utilitarianism (and the calculus) can be found in the case of bullying. If the bully gets +10 pleasure by punching his victim in the face, and his victim feels +9 pain from the punch in the face, it leaves a +1 of pleasure and is therefore the moral thing to do. Godwin uses this example to argue that, despite things appearing immoral, only the individual himself can define morality, contrary to being oppressed by the state.

On the other hand, is it conceivable to think bullying is moral? How can it possibly be moral for another individual to inflict pain upon someone else to any extent and thereby uphold things such as intimidation (of the bully) and discrimination (against the victim)? This leaves anarchism vulnerable, as we would then need an entity to uphold morality for the individual, which would bring back the state – which is a circular argument. The state would then take upon a role of telling other people what is moral, even if some individuals don’t agree with it: is that not oppression?

This leads on to the conservative ideological standpoint of ‘techne’ – which is the belief that ruling is a skill/art and cannot be done by just anyone. Plato demands that techne is a necessary and sufficient condition of ruling, as he puts forward his idea of the ‘philosopher-ruler’, which dictates that only a philosopher who has obtained the form of the good (knowing what ‘good’ really is) may rule over a state, and may impose laws in order to help set free his/her citizens from the shackles of injustice/ignorance, even if the citizens did not want it.

But this is therefore paternalism in action, as to make decisions in people’s best interests is the state’s role, as the citizens themselves don’t know it. This therefore highlights that the state is and has to be an oppressor, if only the philosopher-ruler knows what is truly best for individuals.ID-10081079

Sticking with the notion of conservatism, Hobbes too advocates a paternalist ruler, contending that within the state of nature (before society and rule) man is brutish and violent. Individuals therefore enter into the social contract (the fictional contract between man and society) out of fear (the fear of having violent inflicted upon them), and reap the benefits of safety, security and stability.

However, this comes at a price. The leviathan (ruler) is the strongest of all men and tells the state’s citizens what’s right for them, regardless of whether they agree or not (once again supporting Plato). Hobbes therefore argues that oppression is necessary for the citizens, as without it man degenerates into the previous state of nature characterised by ‘might is right’, and once again lives in constant fear of attack: thus the state is, and has to be, an oppressor, as too much freedom is a dangerous thing.

Rousseau argued that ‘too much freedom is a dangerous thing’, giving the example of addiction. If we take drugs, for example, then we may have the freedom to take cocaine for the first time: however our freedom is then surrendered to addiction, which will more than likely lead to death.

This highlights to his mind that the state does have to be an oppressor to some degree, although as a socialist Rousseau’s emphasis must be on equality and justice. With this in mind, then, Rousseau argues that if any individual undermines the community of equality then they will be forced to be free (from society and from the community). This ‘forcing to be free’ from society is a necessary form of oppression, states Rousseau, as without it, society would crumble at its core. Therefore the state is and needs to be an oppressor to protect society, but oppression is only acceptable if it is for protection.

If we take an entirely different perspective on this, then Rawls insists that the balance between oppression and freedom is pivotal. The state requires both freedom AND oppression. He argues this through his theory of justice, by stating that individuals pre-society need to sit behind the veil of ignorance (not knowing their future/past experiences, beliefs, knowledge etc) in the original position, and maximise the minimum (redistribution and justice for all of society).

Rawls states this would work perfectly, as no individual would know if they’d be wealthy or poor, and therefore would give fair and just help to the poor, just in case they themselves came to be included among their number. This would not be solely for redistribution purposes, but also for making the laws which would be upheld by the state as a whole. Therefore negative liberty (freedom from interference) is necessary for the individual to flourish, but only, however, within a framework set out by individuals in the original position (which in effect amounts to the state). This therefore limits the level of oppression the state may enforce, but doesn’t rule out oppression when it comes to upholding the laws agreed upon from behind the veil of ignorance.

Judging by the evidence, both oppression AND negative liberty are required, as both too much oppression and too much freedom are dangerous things. Too much oppression alienates and dominates its citizens, while too little oppression (freedom) leads to the degeneration of society into frivolous violence and, ultimately, death. Therefore, the state is an oppressor, but only within a framework in which negative liberty is upheld, as oppression is only necessary when upholding the laws and agreements made behind the veil of ignorance.

Reece Warren

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