The main function of the state is to guarantee the existing social relationships and their sources within a given society through centralised power and a monopoly of violence. To use Malatesta’s words, the state is basically “the property owners’ gendarme.” This is because there are “two ways of oppressing men [and women]: either directly by brute force, by physical violence; or indirectly by denying them the means of life and thus reducing them to a state of surrender.” The owning class, “gradually concentrating in their hands the means of production, the real sources of life, agriculture, industry, barter, etc., end up establishing their own power which, by reason of the superiority of its means … always ends by more or less openly subjecting the political power, which is the government, and making it into its own gendarme.” [Op. Cit., p. 23, p. 21 and p. 22]
The state, therefore, is “the political expression of the economic structure” of society and, therefore, “the representative of the people who own or control the wealth of the community and the oppressor of the people who do the work which creates the wealth.” [Nicholas Walter, About Anarchism, p. 37] It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the state is the extractive apparatus of society’s parasites.
The state ensures the exploitative privileges of its ruling elite by protecting certain economic monopolies from which its members derive their wealth. The nature of these economic privileges varies over time. Under the current system, this means defending capitalist property rights (see section B.3.2). This service is referred to as “protecting private property” and is said to be one of the two main functions of the state, the other being to ensure that individuals are “secure in their persons.” However, although this second aim is professed, in reality most state laws and institutions are concerned with the protection of property (for the anarchist definition of “property” see section B.3.1).
From this we may infer that references to the “security of persons,” “crime prevention,” etc., are mostly rationalisations of the state’s existence and smokescreens for its perpetuation of elite power and privileges. This does not mean that the state does not address these issues. Of course it does, but, to quote Kropotkin, any “laws developed from the nucleus of customs useful to human communities … have been turned to account by rulers to sanctify their own domination.” of the people, and maintained only by the fear of punishment.” [Anarchism, p. 215]
Simply put, if the state “presented nothing but a collection of prescriptions serviceable to rulers, it would find some difficulty in insuring acceptance and obedience” and so the law reflects customs “essential to the very being of society” but these are “cleverly intermingled with usages imposed by the ruling caste and both claim equal respect from the crowd.” Thus the state’s laws have a “two-fold character.” While its “origin is the desire of the ruling class to give permanence to customs imposed by themselves for their own advantage” it also passes into law “customs useful to society, customs which have no need of law to insure respect” — unlike those “other customs useful only to rulers, injurious to the mass of the people, and maintained only by the fear of punishment.” [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., pp. 205–6] To use an obvious example, we find the state using the defence of an individual’s possessions as the rationale for imposing capitalist private property rights upon the general public and, consequently, defending the elite and the source of its wealth and power against those subject to it.
Moreover, even though the state does take a secondary interest in protecting the security of persons (particularly elite persons), the vast majority of crimes against persons are motivated by poverty and alienation due to state-supported exploitation and also by the desensitisation to violence created by the state’s own violent methods of protecting private property. In other words, the state rationalises its existence by pointing to the social evils it itself helps to create (either directly or indirectly). Hence, anarchists maintain that without the state and the crime-engendering conditions to which it gives rise, it would be possible for decentralised, voluntary community associations to deal compassionately (not punitively) with the few incorrigibly violent people who might remain (see section I.5.8).
Anarchists think it is pretty clear what the real role of the modern state is. It represents the essential coercive mechanisms by which capitalism and the authority relations associated with private property are sustained. The protection of property is fundamentally the means of assuring the social domination of owners over non-owners, both in society as a whole and in the particular case of a specific boss over a specific group of workers. Class domination is the authority of property owners over those who use that property and it is the primary function of the state to uphold that domination (and the social relationships that generate it). In Kropotkin’s words, “the rich perfectly well know that if the machinery of the State ceased to protect them, their power over the labouring classes would be gone immediately.” [Evolution and Environment, p. 98] Protecting private property and upholding class domination are the same thing.
The historian Charles Beard makes a similar point:
“Inasmuch as the primary object of a government, beyond mere repression of physical violence, is the making of the rules which determine the property relations of members of society, the dominant classes whose rights are thus to be protected must perforce obtain from the government such rules as are consonant with the larger interests necessary to the continuance of their economic processes, or they must themselves control the organs of government.” [“An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution,” quoted by Howard Zinn, Op. Cit., p. 89]