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The State as a Human Cage

by Andreas Exner Monday, Feb. 03, 2014 at 2:54 PM

"Personal performance" always depends on the work of past generations and state interventions. The 1% stylize inequality as a motor to innovation, growth and development. Exploding inequality is the end to public spirit and interdependence.


Questions to Ourselves

By Andreas Exner

[This article published on March 20, 2013 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.streitzuege.org/2013/menschenkaefig-staat.]

Refugees are speaking after decades of silence and quiet suffering. They protest and are not forced into the darkness any more. The brave march of refugees to Vienna in the fall of 2012 camped before the votive church and began a hunger strike that made us reflective. How great is the misery caused by the Austrian state everyday? Who is responsible for this? In a problem we quickly ask about the cause.


The question about the causes of refugee suffering begins with the question why people flee and what do they flee from. This question is easy to answer. People strive for a good life and a good life is impossible in wide parts of the world. Strictly speaking, there is not even a good life in Austria. However we are privileged in Austria beyond our imagination. Even worse, the high consumption level of people in Austria is based on the low consumption level in Africa, Latin America and Asia. If everyone consumed equally much, the consumption level would have to be lower for ecological reasons.

Lower consumption does not mean lower quality of life. This depends above all on social equality and free access to goods and services.

It is very logical that people try to reduce social inequality and overcome the barriers set to their purchasing power by fleeing to where the fruits of their labor landed: in Austria, for example. Since political conditions are relatively calm here, the authority of the state does not appear as blatant as in the countries where torture is the rule rather than the exception as in Austria. This is also true for refugees today like generations of persons from Austria before them who migrated into a better life, for their survival or their freedom.


Why is this simple connection so rarely recognized? One essential reason is the ideology of work and “honest work.” The high productivity level typical for cheap goods and high purchasing power in the global comparison actually depends on the work of past generations. This high productivity manifests in machines, in a social infrastructure that can only be operated with resources reaching Austria from outside. Seen materially, we are materially completely helpless except for the cheap iron deposits in Africa, the oil in the Middle East and the world market factories in China with their unrivalled cheap workers.

On the other hand, the ideology says everyone is the creator of their happiness and that “whoever achieves more earns more.” This is blatant nonsense. How can the enormous income differences be explained with “personal performance”? Nevertheless this ideology is firmly in the saddle because it is confirmed day after day in schools, factories and the media. In the example of scholastic success, people do not see that a large part is determined by the origin of a person and nothing usually depends on individual qualities. People do not see that income is based on the success of past struggles around collective bargaining agreements, working hours and social benefits and hardly on personal performance. People do not see that wealth today cannot be based on “personal performance” since society and the system of producing wealth is incredibly complex and mechanized, much more than the sum of the parts.

“Personal performance” played a role on the field of a feudal farmer and is still crucial for the survival of an African farmer. But “personal performance” has no real significance in Austria – except in an ideological sense.

This ideology systematically fades out that “our prosperity” was based on decades of expulsion, exploitation and destruction of societies outside Austria and Europe. The industrial revolution in Europe would have been inconceivable without grain from North America and India that fed the working class in the 19th century. This grain was lacking farmers in India who died in hundreds of thousands, as Mike Davis documents to our horror in his book “The Birth of the Third World.” This grain displaced the bison herds on which Native Americans were dependent. This basis of “our prosperity” today covered many other foods and organic raw materials.

That “our prosperity” basically rests on forced labor and destruction of millions of people during National Socialism is nearly always repressed. Austria was a relatively backward country with comparatively small developed industry. National Socialism first created the foundations of the “economic miracle.” That sounds paradoxical because the large-scale bombardment of residential areas and the hunger after war are joined in the general understanding with the defeat of the NS-regime and the population supporting it. However the industrial facilities were not fundamentally damaged and only that counted.

Thus the scandal of “Austrian prosperity” is negated on all planes. In a high-handed overbearing way the privilege of having landed completely undeserved at the top of the global status hierarchy is ascribed to birth and “personal performance.” This did not happen with stupidity or ignorance. Only in this way is it possible to hallucinate refugees as somehow coming “from outside,” as though “they” have nothing to do with “us,” as though their movements were inexplicable and “we” are more or less generous hosts. That is a slap in the face of reality.


Austria is light years away from the “generous host.” In truth Austria supports a system that murders people at the borders drawn to screen off those whom it exploits and plunges into misery.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say our situation today is similar to the situation on the eve of National Socialism. This does not mean the night will inevitably follow the eve. But the situations resemble each other.

Today we experience a state repression and more and more monitoring that is continuously intensified in a climate of growing racism. People regarded as “foreign” are deported again today – and not first today. They are crammed into prisons, denied basic social right6s, stigmatized and publically humiliated. Therefore the means used against National Socialism, sheltering illegalized migrants, supporting flight and helping the persecuted go underground or in hiding. The neoliberal state is a threat.


The historian Immanuel Wallerstein refers to the contradiction that all persons can leave the country but not everyone has a right of entry. But whoever leaves the country but cannot enter may not de facto leave the country. Thus he lives in a cage. We or, more exactly, the Austrian state, establishes this cage.

Doesn’t this cage lock us up? Doesn’t it force us into a life that is constantly controlled by a supposed higher power, the state? What does this have to do with freedom, joy, lightness, social equality and a good life?

Many will argue the state may not be optimal but we cannot have anything better. Without authority, no society would be imaginable. But what does the state do for us that non-governmental organizations could not do? What would we miss without the state that only the state can do? The famous sociologist Max Weber emphasized the legitimate monopoly of physical force constitutes the state. No function of the state can only be rendered by a state. No state is needed for universities, health facilities, media, administrative services and social security. The capitalist economy that is based on general competit6ion between businesses needs the state because it undermines its own foundations. It would not produce any infrastructure if it were only restrictedly profitable. The state is a rule machine that is relatively separated from entrepreneurs and wage-earners. It can act relatively independent of these classes. This special political form, the state, first makes possible the system of competition.

In a self-managed society, there is no separated machine of power. Such a society would not need an army, police, prisons, state security, “combating terror,” “social work” or unemployment administration – nothing that constitutes the state. A society that does not sow terror does not need to “fight terror.” A society that does not produce any “social cases” does not need any “social work.” A society that does not generate any criminals does not need a prison. A society not based on war does not need an army.

Even in capitalism, countries with relatively high social equality are more peaceful inwardly and outwardly. The arrest rates are lower and the criminal justice system resembles social support, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett graphically describe in their book “The Spirit Level.” In a society without the state, there may be borderline cases where physical force is inevitable in the sense of taking-in-custody, for example. However force would be reserved for extreme cases in interpersonal relations, for personal protection but not for the protection of private property and the competition system as in capitalism through punishment and oppression.


In the opinion of some, refugees should be selected according to whether they “bring something to the economy” or not. However the capitalist economy is the cause of the growing social inequality and the oppression in so many countries forcing and driving people to flee. Capitalism “selects them out.” In Austria, they are “selected” again. This contempt for humankind continues with direct continuity to National Socialism.

Another position emphasizes the South must “develop” itself. If the economy there grows powerfully, people will be better off. Until then we must continue of necessity a restrictive immigration policy, meaning – though usually not admitted – maintaining deadly borders and racism which ideologically justifies those borders. This “development” has obviously failed. A hope for development is like a mirage – a cheap mirage since it has the function of relieving from the responsibility that we bear for the global misery. If “development” were possible or desirable, it would not release us from the necessity of practicing solidarity and accommodating the needy.

A sensible position in the refugee debate cannot aim at a supposedly better administration of misery. Engagement for concrete social improvements for refugees must be joined with a basic rejection of state structures. Both approaches strengthen each other. Only the one who focuses on the causes of refugee misery can bring about concrete improvements. Such improvements are always a step to driving back the state.

Free movement for everyone would help soften the social inequality that rests on the locking up and locking out of people in nation states. More equality would do good for all of us and would overcome the causes of flight at their root.

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