The basic definition of the State is that it is a monopoly of power over a territory, through legitimized (or as statists would say, actually legitimate) force. Anarchists add to this basic definition the fact that it is, like all institutions which deal in power (of whatever kind), hierarchical.
And yes, I do include “anarcho-capitalists,” voluntaryists, and other right-wing extremists in the category of statists. They still believe in a State, but their justification is absolute property rights instead of democratic elitism (as I’ve previously noted). The common pretense of these right-wing types to being anti-government, anti-statists, or even anarchists, is just that, a pretense. Sadly, thanks to the confusion that these types are hell-bent on sowing, it is necessary to reiterate this.
It is possible to define statism from a different angle, not as a belief in an institution but as a particular sort of prejudice. The prejudice can be expressed as such:
“People are self-interested, corrupt, and/or downright evil: you can’t count on people to do the right thing. That’s why we need a State composed of people whose job it is to redirect some of people’s energies towards the common welfare and common goals.”
This is a very persuasive argument, but its force lies not in its logic, but with how well it meshes with our current forms of democratic elitism. After all, the elites are ostensibly democratic (in practice, this is mostly not true), and not tyrannical, because their aim is not to exploit people but to help them. And democracy, which gets the credit for things like the welfare state and workplace laws (which were passed against the will of a large proportion of the democratic elite, not because of the democratic elite), can therefore pretend to exist for the common welfare.
The argument is illogical for many reasons. First of all, there is an origin problem (which I’ve discussed before, for example): if people are so self-interested or corrupt that they can’t do the right thing, then how did an organization (the State) arise that embodied the virtues of long-term planning and common goals? Where did these come from? Second, we do not know of any hierarchy where concentration of power causes more compassion to flow from the superiors to the inferiors. Concentration of power tends to have the opposite effect: the more power we have on others, the more we use that power for our own interests.
Compounding the illogic is the belief that the State is a “servant of the people” and is “accountable through democracy.” How can an institution which supposedly serves the common welfare against individuals who only seek their own self-interest be accountable to those same individuals? So this statist view is profoundly contradictory and ultimately must be incoherent, if it is to be logical at all.
I was talking to someone about the “magic hierarchies” concept. As it turns out, she worked in a hospital. I just kept asking her, which function of a hospital necessitates subverting people’s values? She could not answer this, but kept repeating that people just couldn’t run a hospital. But people do run hospitals. The fact that they do so as part of corporate or State hierarchies doesn’t change the fact that actual people are doing everything that is done in a hospital. The fact that some people control the rest is not necessary for any action that takes place in a hospital. Why would you need to subvert people’s values to run a hospital? People already want and need good hospitals.
So this woman was, in a sense, prejudiced, although it’s not a prejudice that we recognize or label. And I think this prejudice is unrecognized precisely because it lies at the core of statism, and is therefore so common that we don’t even look at it. In its more extreme form, it’s the “people are innately sinners/evil/corrupt” belief. In its general form, it consists of believing that “people” are incapable of self-management (for whatever reason), but that politicians and CEOs are somehow superior to them because they are capable of using their power to manage others fairly and efficiently, something that “people” could never do.
Somehow politicians are superior to “people.” But under democracy, we, the unenlightened ones, vote them into power. So apparently “we the people” are too stupid to manage ourselves but we’re smart enough to figure out which politicians are enlightened enough to do so. That makes about as much sense as saying that I don’t know anything about quantum physics but I can vote on which physicists have the “correct” interpretation of quantum physics.
The prejudice is also false. There have been plenty of societies and organizations based on self-governance. Historical evidence does not support the claim that self-governance does not work. The current self-managed businesses (like the recuperated factories in Argentina, or Mondragon corporation) are not failing. The evidence shows that self-management is at least as good as hierarchical management, and it does not involve subjecting anyone’s values.