Anarchist FAQ/Why do anarchists oppose the current system?/2.4

B.2.4 How does state centralisation affect freedom?Edit

It is a common idea that voting every four or so years to elect the public face of a highly centralised and bureaucratic machine means that ordinary people control the state and, as a consequence, free. In reality, this is a false idea. In any system of centralised power the general population have little say in what affects them and, as a result, their freedom is extremely limited.

Obviously, to say that this idea is false does not imply that there is no difference between a liberal republic and a fascistic or monarchical state. Far from it. The vote is an important victory wrested from the powers that be. That, of course, is not to suggest that anarchists think that libertarian socialism is only possible after universal suffrage has been won or that it is achievable via it. Far from it. It is simply to point out that being able to pick your ruler is a step forward from having one imposed upon you. Moreover, those considered able to pick their ruler is, logically, also able to do without one.

However, while the people are proclaimed to be sovereign in a democratic state, in reality they alienate their power and hand over control of their affairs to a small minority. Liberty, in other words, is reduced to merely the possibility "to pick rulers" every four or five years and whose mandate (sic!) is "to legislate on any subject, and his decision will become law." [1]

In other words, representative democracy is not "liberty" nor "self-government." It is about alienating power to a few people who then (mis)rule in your name. To imply it is anything else is nonsense. So while we get to pick a politician to govern in our name it does not follow that they represent those who voted for them in any meaningful sense. As shown time and time again, "representative" governments can happily ignore the opinions of the majority while, at the same time, verbally praising the "democracy" it is abusing (New Labour in the UK during the run up to the invasion of Iraq was a classic example of this). Given that politicians can do what they like for four or five years once elected, it is clear that popular control via the ballot box is hardly effective or even meaningful.

Indeed, such "democracy" almost always means electing politicians who say one thing in opposition and do the opposite once in office. Politicians who, at best, ignore their election manifesto when it suits them or, at worse, introduce the exact opposite. It is the kind of "democracy" in which people can protest in their hundreds of thousands against a policy only to see their "representative" government simply ignore them (while, at the same time, seeing their representatives bend over backward ensuring corporate profits and power while speaking platitudes to the electorate and their need to tighten their belts). At best it can be said that democratic governments tend to be less oppressive than others but it does not follow that this equates to liberty.

State centralisation is the means to ensure this situation and the debasement of freedom it implies.

All forms of hierarchy, even those in which the top officers are elected are marked by authoritarianism and centralism. Power is concentrated in the centre (or at the top), which means that society becomes "a heap of dust animated from without by a subordinating, centralist idea." [2] For, once elected, top officers can do as they please, and, as in all bureaucracies, many important decisions are made by non-elected staff. This means that the democratic state is a contradiction in terms:

"In the democratic state the election of rulers by alleged majority vote is a subterfuge which helps individuals to believe that they control the situation. They are selecting persons to do a task for them and they have no guarantee that it will be carried out as they desired. They are abdicating to these persons, granting them the right to impose their own wills by the threat of force. Electing individuals to public office is like being given a limited choice of your oppressors . . . Parliamentary democracies are essentially oligarchies in which the populace is led to believe that it delegates all its authority to members of parliament to do as they think best."


The nature of centralisation places power into the hands of the few. Representative democracy is based on this delegation of power, with voters electing others to govern them. This cannot help but create a situation in which freedom is endangered—universal suffrage "does not prevent the formation of a body of politicians, privileged in fact though not in law, who, devoting themselves exclusively to the administration of the nation's public affairs, end by becoming a sort of political aristocracy or oligarchy." [4]

This should not come as a surprise, for to "create a state is to institutionalise power in a form of machine that exists apart from the people. It is to professionalise rule and policy making, to create a distinct interest (be it of bureaucrats, deputies, commissars, legislators, the military, the police, ad nauseam) that, however weak or however well-intentioned it may be at first, eventually takes on a corruptive power of its own." [5]

Centralism makes democracy meaningless, as political decision-making is given over to professional politicians in remote capitals. Lacking local autonomy, people are isolated from each other (atomised) by having no political forum where they can come together to discuss, debate, and decide among themselves the issues they consider important. Elections are not based on natural, decentralised groupings and thus cease to be relevant. The individual is just another "voter" in the mass, a political "constituent" and nothing more. The amorphous basis of modern, statist elections "aims at nothing less than to abolish political life in towns, communes and departments, and through this destruction of all municipal and regional autonomy to arrest the development of universal suffrage." [6]

Thus people are disempowered by the very structures that claim to allow them to express themselves. To quote Proudhon again, in the centralised state "the citizen divests himself of sovereignty, the town and the Department and province above it, absorbed by central authority, are no longer anything but agencies under direct ministerial control." He continues:

"The Consequences soon make themselves felt: the citizen and the town are deprived of all dignity, the state's depredations multiply, and the burden on the taxpayer increases in proportion. It is no longer the government that is made for the people; it is the people who are made for the government. Power invades everything, dominates everything, absorbs everything."


As intended, as isolated people are no threat to the powers that be. This process of marginalisation can be seen from American history, for example, when town meetings were replaced by elected bodies, with the citizens being placed in passive, spectator roles as mere "voters" (see next section). Being an atomised voter is hardly an ideal notion of "freedom," despite the rhetoric of politicians about the virtues of a "free society" and "The Free World"—as if voting once every four or five years could ever be classed as "liberty" or even "democracy."

Marginalisation of the people is the key control mechanism in the state and authoritarian organisations in general. Considering the European Community (EC), for example, we find that the "mechanism for decision-making between EC states leaves power in the hands of officials (from Interior ministries, police, immigration, customs and security services) through a myriad of working groups. Senior officials . . . play a critical role in ensuring agreements between the different state officials. The EC Summit meetings, comprising the 12 Prime Ministers, simply rubber-stamp the conclusions agreed by the Interior and Justice Ministers. It is only then, in this intergovernmental process, that parliaments and people are informed (and them only with the barest details)." [8]

As well as economic pressures from elites, governments also face pressures within the state itself due to the bureaucracy that comes with centralism. There is a difference between the state and government. The state is the permanent collection of institutions that have entrenched power structures and interests. The government is made up of various politicians. It's the institutions that have power in the state due to their permanence, not the representatives who come and go. As Clive Ponting (an ex-civil servant himself) indicates, "the function of a political system in any country . . . is to regulate, but not to alter radically, the existing economic structure and its linked power relationships. The great illusion of politics is that politicians have the ability to make whatever changes they like." [9]

Therefore, as well as marginalising the people, the state also ends up marginalising "our" representatives. As power rests not in the elected bodies, but in a bureaucracy, popular control becomes increasingly meaningless. As Bakunin pointed out, "liberty can be valid only when . . . [popular] control [of the state] is valid. On the contrary, where such control is fictitious, this freedom of the people likewise becomes a mere fiction." [10] State centralisation ensures that popular control is meaningless.

This means that state centralism can become a serious source of danger to the liberty and well-being of most of the people under it. "The bourgeois republicans," argued Bakunin, "do not yet grasp this simple truth, demonstrated by the experience of all times and in all lands, that every organised power standing above and over the people necessarily excludes the freedom of peoples. The political state has no other purpose than to protect and perpetuate the exploitation of the labour of the proletariat by the economically dominant classes, and in so doing the state places itself against the freedom of the people." [11]

Unsurprisingly, therefore, "whatever progress that has been made . . . on various issues, whatever things have been done for people, whatever human rights have been gained, have not been gained through the calm deliberations of Congress or the wisdom of presidents or the ingenious decisions of the Supreme Court. Whatever progress has been made . . . has come because of the actions of ordinary people, of citizens, of social movements. Not from the Constitution." That document has been happily ignored by the official of the state when it suits them. An obvious example is the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, which "didn't have any meaning until black people rose up in the 1950s and 1960s in the South in mass movements . . . They made whatever words there were in the Constitution and the 14th Amendment have some meaning for the first time." [12]

This is because the "fact that you have got a constitutional right doesn't mean you're going to get that right. Who has the power on the spot? The policeman on the street. The principal in the school. The employer on job. The Constitution does not cover private employment. In other words, the Constitution does not cover most of reality." Thus our liberty is not determined by the laws of the state. Rather "the source and solution of our civil liberties problems are in the situations of every day . . . Our actual freedom is determined not by the Constitution or the Court, but by the power the policeman has over us on the street or that of the local judge behind him; by the authority of our employers; . . . by the welfare bureaucrats if we are poor; . . . by landlords if we are tenants." Thus freedom and justice "are determined by power and money" rather than laws. This points to the importance of popular participation, of social movements, for what those do are "to create a countervailing power to the policeman with a club and a gun. That's essentially what movements do: They create countervailing powers to counter the power which is much more important than what is written down in the Constitution or the laws." [13]

It is precisely this kind of mass participation that centralisation kills. Under centralism, social concern and power are taken away from ordinary citizens and centralised in the hands of the few. This results in any formally guaranteed liberties being effectively ignored when people want to use them, if the powers at be so decide. Ultimately, isolated individuals facing the might of a centralised state machine are in a weak position. Which is way the state does what it can to undermine such popular movements and organisations (going so far as to violate its own laws to do so).

As should be obvious, by centralisation anarchists do not mean simply a territorial centralisation of power in a specific central location (such as in a nation state where power rests in a central government located in a specific place). We also mean the centralisation of power into a few hands. Thus we can have a system like feudalism which is territorially decentralised (i.e. made up on numerous feudal lords without a strong central state) while having power centralised in a few hands locally (i.e. power rests in the hands of the feudal lords, not in the general population). Or, to use another example, we can have a laissez-faire capitalist system which has a weak central authority but is made up of a multitude of autocratic workplaces. As such, getting rid of the central power (say the central state in capitalism or the monarch in absolutism) while retaining the local authoritarian institutions (say capitalist firms and feudal landlords) would not ensure freedom. Equally, the abolition of local authorities may simply result in the strengthening of central power and a corresponding weakening of freedom.


  1. Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 122 and p. 123
  2. P. J. Proudhon, quoted by Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, p. 29
  3. Harold Barclay, Op. Cit., pp. 46-7
  4. Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 240
  5. Murray Bookchin, "The Ecological Crisis, Socialism, and the need to remake society," pp. 1-10, Society and Nature, vol. 2, no. 3, p. 7
  6. Proudhon, quoted by Martin Buber, Op. Cit., p. 29
  7. The Principle of Federation, p. 59
  8. Tony Bunyon, Statewatching the New Europe, p. 39
  9. quoted in Alternatives, no.5, p. 19
  10. Op. Cit., p. 212
  11. Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 416
  12. Howard Zinn, Failure to Quit, p. 69 and p. 73
  13. Zinn, Op. Cit., pp. 84-5, pp. 54-5 and p. 79