What’s the Difference between a State, a Nation and a Society?

The state

There are two definitions of states. The first, and original, one is the same as the one in the phrase “status quo ante bellum” meaning “the state of things before the war” -> “as before” or “as usual”. The same literal definition is found in a sentence like “Look at the state of your hair, it’s a right mess!” This type of state encompasses the whole of something, it’s a description of the combined state of everything involved; a totality or summation; the sum total.

The other state is a specific organization. Currently there are a couple of hundred such organizations, e.g. Sweden, France and Egypt. There are many micro-states, but whereas China is recognized by about 200 other states, most micro-states are only recognized by each other. Whether something is truly a state thus becomes a question of consensus. A state can also consist of other states, just like Germany consists of 16 Länder. There is no objectively true definition of a state but the main feature of modern states is territory. Whereas most organizations own a piece of property, the state owns everything within its territory even when someone else also owns it. E.g. even if you must do as McDonald tells you when you’re on his premises, ultimately you both have to do as the state tells you. As the authority of the state is subject to change, this relationship is not always obvious and not always realized. There are micro-states which are completely virtual as well, so even territory is just part of the definition by convention.

The specifics of states offer no help when it comes to the delimitations of a definition as history is full of monarchies, counties, duchies, grand duchies, free cities, federations, confederations, personal unions, the European Union, the United Nations and the list goes on. The Papal State and the Islamic State can both be described as religious states, the main difference being that the latter is not considered a state by most people, in fact they are considered an anti-state organization, i.e. illegal or terrorists. This label is doubly ironic because the first terrorists were the leaders of the French Republic, i.e. a state. The Christian churches own enough land to form another state, but these pieces are spread out and subject to other states. It’s probably not right to consider the Catholic Church a virtual state either.

Either way, another important feature of a state is military/police. In theory a state can have territory and laws, but nobody to enforce the law or the borders. In theory a state can have a military and laws, but no territory. Well, that might require changing the not-currently-existing-anyway definition, but we can easily imagine a nomadic army that forces its laws upon everyone they encounter (like that of Genghis Khan) or only enforces them with regard to its own members, regardless of any geographical considerations.

So, I hear you ask, doesn’t that mean that the smallest common denominator for all states is the legal framework, the constitution, the laws? Well, a law is just a sentence or a document regulating the workings of the organization, which is no different than the rules in a church or corporation. The states do have millions of enforcers in the form of armed police and military with weapons that can (and have in the past) killed hundreds of thousands of people with the push of a single button. However, in principle this is just a larger version of the rules and their enforcement in any organization or relationship and “THE LAW” may appear to you in capital letters, but its words are no more real than the soft-spoken “I love you” in the dark.

Self-proclaimed anarchists must realize that it is not organizations or relationships as such that must be destroyed, or that the words that form their glue should be erased, nor indeed that organizations must never take physical locations into consideration or enforce their words. Anarchism is foremost a general critique of these organizations, pointing out when they fail. The next question we must answer is how to organize instead, how to relate to each other. Anarchism is mainly a criticism though and not as focused on providing a detailed alternative.


The Society

Currently democracy is the word people use to describe good states. It means people rule and implies that all humans have power in the state. The fact that very few people have most of the power is willfully ignored by those same few who wish to remain said few and who use this rhetoric to maintain the status quo. Although anarchism is heterogenous when it comes to suggesting alternatives, most anarchists agree that representative democracy is mostly a bad idea. As an organization based on violence, territory and representation is the mainstream idea of a good state and indeed a good world, anarchists oppose the state in these general terms. However, instead of saying anarchism is about getting rid of all this, it makes more sense to me to say that anarchism is an organization theory (and/or relationship theory) and a critique of current organizing principles rather than simply a rejection.

Republic comes from res publica meaning public affairs or matters/things concerning people. In a way, the literal definition of republic is actually the best definition of society. Society is humanity and all things related to humans, creating a humanisphere (which is also the title of a book by anarchist Joseph Déjacque) but while society may seem like a useful term (some even believe that social constructs are the only real things, for comparison c.f. Maya/Brahman) the concept of a society has no more theoretical significance than a concept like ‘badgerity’ which could thus mean “all badger relationships/all things related to badgers”. Everyone likes to think they’re special of course, but you have to believe in something uniquely metaphysical about humans to theoretically distinguish humans from “the rest” of the universe (more on “the rest” in the following blog post on subjectivity.)

Republic was the word of the day during the French Revolution, today we label the revolutionaries classical liberals. Imperialism still held dominion during the first century of liberalism/republics, forcing the states to imitate empires, accepting a less-than-global entity, then conscription of commoners to fight other commoners (this was the price to pay for the right to vote in one such less-than-global entity), then a tax on wages to fund the war between the same commoners of said entities and finally even women got to vote in some states after the huge failure we now call WW1, fomenting democracy as we know it. In the second century of republics nothing has changed, the status quo has been maintained despite the Red Scare and despite the Germans taking the concept of this new entity too far.

Society, sociology, socialism and community, commune and communism come from words meaning “follow” and “going together”. Comte, Hegel and Marx all shared this idea of the state as including everyone, like the first definition of state I presented. It is this totalitarian conceptualization of society that informs the mainstream political analysis today. However, just as we shouldn’t just take the religion of abstract capital value for granted and ritualistically sacrifice our labour in the hope of being blessed by the banks, and shouldn’t just accept territory-based violence as moral, we shouldn’t accept this idea of society either. There’s more to reality than humans; the organizations and relationships we must consider go beyond the subjective realities of humans and our affairs. Marx tripped on the edge of humanity, failing to incorporate non-human relationships, all that lies beyond human affairs, into his economic theories, mistakenly reducing the religion of capital to the value of human labour.


The Nation

The nation was the group that evolved to meet the demands of the modern state in the 19th century out of the collapsing form of empires based on royal families. It did so in competition with the labour-based societies and international commune (c.f. the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights) where the basis of the grouping is the human species (and in Marxism this is based on labour power being the human species-essence). Socialism however never recovered from its defeat in 1914, despite e.g. national-socialism and Stalinism. What happened in 1914 was that a socialist [sic!] shot the emperor’s son, and the European emperors, who were brothers and cousins most of them, decided to pit the workers of their different empires against each other to avoid a class war. However, they used nationalist propaganda to divide the workers, propaganda which had begun with the conscription for the newly formed French Republic a century earlier. Consequently imperialism was defeated, not by socialism, but by nationalism and the nation-state has been the dominant form of society ever since.

In the 19th century, usurping the divine emperors, nationalism joined people together using a common language (and it was pointed out that God gave language to humans and not to other species [sic!] because the replacement for the sun king had to be heavenly anointed as well (would’ve worked with a labour power species-essence as well if it was God-given)). It is easy to figure that the extensive texts involved in the state organization and its juridical paper management combines well with a shared language. The fact that languages don’t have borders did not stop the military from shoe-horning people’s tongues into mechanical droning with their bayonets. Dialects, sociolects, bilingualism, hybrids and spectrum within and across borders, creoles, pidgins, lingua francas, stages in learning etc. are all ignored or battled by nationalists when reality doesn’t fit their desires. People obeyed orders and their descendants not only do as they were told, but they even think as if there were no alternatives to these words on paper.

Today, the nation-state is being rebranded under civic nationalism, which means that the bureaucracy of the state is the basis of the group identity rather than other traditional ways of grouping nations. As the creeping normality of the nation-state embodies us all, nation has come to mean country, blurring geographical concepts together with symbolic traditions and cultural abstractions; am I part of this nation because of my genetic heritage, my language, my traditions, my place of birth even though this nation didn’t even exist at that place at that time? People can no longer understand that things exist outside the capital religion market or that society is not a real thing, just an abstraction based on the assumption that humanity exists in a separate dimension from the rest of reality. To even suggest fundamentally changing relationships/organizations to the point where all sentient beings are taken into consideration makes one a radical.


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