“The Mafia taken to task for human rights abuses!”

Check out this video from Amnesty’s UK branch:

In the wake of the whole Beijing Olympics protest thing, I wanted to blog about some ideas in hopes of re-framing the issue. Here goes:

States = Organized Crime

States are “quintessential protection rackets, with the advantage of legitimacy,” according to the extraordinary scholar Charles Tilly, who died just a few days ago.  Indeed, government works by claiming and maintaining access to all the means of violence within a certain area and concomitantly extorting a protection fee from its subjects. (This idea is from Tilly’s “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime” available here as a PDF.)

Tilly focuses his analysis on the war-like states of Europe circa 1600.  He writes, “Power holders’ pursuit of war involved them willy-nilly in the extraction of resources for war making from the populations over which they had control and in the promotion of capital accumulation by those who could help them borrow and buy. War making, extraction, and capital accumulation interacted to shape European state making. Power holders did not undertake those three momentous activities with the intention of creating national states – centralized, differentiated, autonomous, extensive political organizations. Nor did they ordinarily foresee that national states would emerge from war making, extraction, and capital accumulation.

Instead, the people who controlled European states and states in the making warred in order to check or overcome their competitors and thus to enjoy the advantages of power within a secure or expanding territory. To make more effective war, they attempted to locate more capital. In the short run, they might acquire that capital by conquest, by selling off their assets, or by coercing or dispossessing accumulators of capital. In the long run, the quest inevitably involved them in establishing regular access to capitalists who could supply and arrange credit and in imposing one form of regular taxation or another on the people and activities within their spheres of control.”

According to this theory, proto-state leaders competing with one another gradually monopolized violence  and secured access to capital as a necessary part of this process. The state arose quite accidentally as more and more territory fell under the state makers’ control.  As students of England’s history know, these activities met with resistance from feudal lords, landed gentry, and other nobility– the resistance of the aristocracy shaped the institution of Parliament, among others. Tilly writes, “internal struggles such as the checking of great regional lords and the imposition of taxation on peasant villages produced important organizational features of European states: the relative subordination of military power to civilian control, the extensive bureaucracy of fiscal surveillance, the representation of wronged interests via petition and parliament.”

Now this isn’t the case in today’s post-colonial states, where the means of violence are already centralized and resistance was generally never allowed to take shape.

I’d posit that the pattern of Ancient Chinese state making was fundamentally similar to that of the Modern European variety, even if the circumstances were very different.  The long, long history of the undefined “Chinese” state can be thought of productively as gangs continually trying to encroach upon one another’s action. The Empire which resulted, when warring mini-states finally capitulated, featured an extraordinarily efficient bureaucracy and tribute system and very low tolerance for dissent in the ranks.

So it’s not surprising to me that the Chinese government, following its 20th century reincarnation of the Emperor, tortures people.

If you agree with the idea that nation states are fundamentally protection rackets, then you shouldn’t be surprised either.

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