Anarchist FAQ/Why do anarchists oppose the current system?/2.5

B.2.5 Who benefits from centralisation?Edit

No social system would exist unless it benefited someone or some group. Centralisation, be it in the state or the company, is no different. In all cases, centralisation directly benefits those at the top, because it shelters them from those who are below, allowing the latter to be controlled and governed more effectively. Therefore, it is in the direct interests of bureaucrats and politicians to support centralism.

Under capitalism, however, various sections of the business class also support state centralism. This is the symbiotic relationship between capital and the state. As will be discussed later (in section F.8), the state played an important role in "nationalising" the market, i.e. forcing the "free market" onto society. By centralising power in the hands of representatives and so creating a state bureaucracy, ordinary people were disempowered and thus became less likely to interfere with the interests of the wealthy. "In a republic," writes Bakunin, "the so-called people, the legal people, allegedly represented by the State, stifle and will keep on stifling the actual and living people" by "the bureaucratic world" for "the greater benefit of the privileged propertied classes as well as for its own benefit." [1]

Examples of increased political centralisation being promoted by wealthy business interests by can be seen throughout the history of capitalism. "In revolutionary America, 'the nature of city government came in for heated discussion,' observes Merril Jensen . . . Town meetings . . . 'had been a focal point of revolutionary activity'. The anti-democratic reaction that set in after the American revolution was marked by efforts to do away with town meeting government . . . Attempts by conservative elements were made to establish a 'corporate form (of municipal government) whereby the towns would be governed by mayors and councils' elected from urban wards . . . [T]he merchants 'backed incorporation consistently in their efforts to escape town meetings.'" [2]

Here we see local policy making being taken out of the hands of the many and centralised in the hands of the few (who are always the wealthy). France provides another example:

"The Government found. . .the folkmotes [of all households] 'too noisy', too disobedient, and in 1787, elected councils, composed of a mayor and three to six syndics, chosen among the wealthier peasants, were introduced instead."


This was part of a general movement to disempower the working class by centralising decision making power into the hands of the few (as in the American revolution). Kropotkin indicates the process at work:

"[T]he middle classes, who had until then had sought the support of the people, in order to obtain constitutional laws and to dominate the higher nobility, were going, now that they had seen and felt the strength of the people, to do all they could to dominate the people, to disarm them and to drive them back into subjection.

[. . .]

"[T]hey made haste to legislate in such a way that the political power which was slipping out of the hand of the Court should not fall into the hands of the people. Thus . . . [it was] proposed . . . to divide the French into two classes, of which one only, the active citizens, should take part in the government, whilst the other, comprising the great mass of the people under the name of passive citizens, should be deprived of all political rights . . . [T]he [National] Assembly divided France into departments . . . always maintaining the principle of excluding the poorer classes from the Government . . . [T]hey excluded from the primary assemblies the mass of the people . . . who could no longer take part in the primary assemblies, and accordingly had no right to nominate the electors [who chose representatives to the National Assembly], or the municipality, or any of the local authorities . . .

"And finally, the permanence of the electoral assemblies was interdicted. Once the middle-class governors were appointed, these assemblies were not to meet again. Once the middle-class governors were appointed, they must not be controlled too strictly. Soon the right even of petitioning and of passing resolutions was taken away -- 'Vote and hold your tongue!'

"As to the villages . . . the general assembly of the inhabitants . . . [to which] belonged the administration of the affairs of the commune . . . were forbidden by the . . . law. Henceforth only the well-to-do peasants, the active citizens, had the right to meet, once a year, to nominate the mayor and the municipality, composed of three or four middle-class men of the village.

"A similar municipal organisation was given to the towns. . .

"[Thus] the middle classes surrounded themselves with every precaution in order to keep the municipal power in the hands of the well-to-do members of the community."


Thus centralisation aimed to take power away from the mass of the people and give it to the wealthy. The power of the people rested in popular assemblies, such as the "Sections" and "Districts" of Paris (expressing, in Kropotkin's words, "the principles of anarchism" and "practising . . . Direct Self-Government" [5]) and village assemblies. However, the National Assembly "tried all it could to lessen the power of the districts . . . [and] put an end to those hotbeds of Revolution . . . [by allowing] active citizens only . . . to take part in the electoral and administrative assemblies." [6] Thus the "central government was steadily endeavouring to subject the sections to its authority" with the state "seeking to centralise everything in its own hands . . . [I]ts depriving the popular organisations . . . all . . . administrative functions . . . and its subjecting them to its bureaucracy in police matters, meant the death of the sections." [7]

As can be seen, both the French and American revolutions saw a similar process by which the wealthy centralised power into their own hands (volume one of Murray Bookchin's The Third Revolution discusses the French and American revolutions in some detail). This ensured that working class people (i.e. the majority) were excluded from the decision making process and subject to the laws and power of a few. Which, of course, benefits the minority class whose representatives have that power. This was the rationale for the centralisation of power in every revolution. Whether it was the American, French or Russian, the centralisation of power was the means to exclude the many from participating in the decisions that affected them and their communities.

For example, the founding fathers of the American State were quite explicit on the need for centralisation for precisely this reason. For James Madison the key worry was when the "majority" gained control of "popular government" and was in a position to "sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens." Thus the "public good" escaped the "majority" nor was it, as you would think, what the public thought of as good (for some reason left unexplained, Madison considered the majority able to pick those who could identify the public good). To safeguard against this, he advocated a republic rather than a democracy in which the citizens "assemble and administer the government in person . . . have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property." He, of course, took it for granted that "[t]hose who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society." His schema was to ensure that private property was defended and, as a consequence, the interests of those who held protected. Hence the need for "the delegation of the government . . . to a small number of citizens elected by the rest." This centralisation of power into a few hands locally was matched by a territorial centralisation for the same reason. Madison favoured "a large over a small republic" as a "rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it." [8] This desire to have a formal democracy, where the masses are mere spectators of events rather than participants, is a recurring theme in capitalism (see the chapter "Force and Opinion" in Noam Chomsky's Deterring Democracy for a good overview).

On the federal and state levels in the US after the Revolution, centralisation of power was encouraged, since "most of the makers of the Constitution had some direct economic interest in establishing a strong federal government." Needless to say, while the rich elite were well represented in formulating the principles of the new order, four groups were not: "slaves, indentured servants, women, men without property." Needless to say, the new state and its constitution did not reflect their interests. Given that these were the vast majority, "there was not only a positive need for strong central government to protect the large economic interests, but also immediate fear of rebellion by discontented farmers." [9] The chief event was Shay's Rebellion in western Massachusetts. There the new Constitution had raised property qualifications for voting and, therefore, no one could hold state office without being wealthy. The new state was formed to combat such rebellions, to protect the wealthy few against the many.

Moreover, state centralisation, the exclusion of popular participation, was essential to mould US society into one dominated by capitalism:

"In the thirty years leading up to the Civil War, the law was increasingly interpreted in the courts to suit capitalist development. Studying this, Morton Horwitz (The Transformation of American Law) points out that the English common-law was no longer holy when it stood in the way of business growth . . . Judgements for damages against businessmen were taken out of the hands of juries, which were unpredictable, and given to judges . . . The ancient idea of a fair price for goods gave way in the courts to the idea of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) . . . contract law was intended to discriminate against working people and for business . . . The pretence of the law was that a worker and a railroad made a contract with equal bargaining power . . . 'The circle was completed; the law had come simply to ratify those forms of inequality that the market system had produced.'"


The US state was created on elitist liberal doctrine and actively aimed to reduce democratic tendencies (in the name of "individual liberty"). What happened in practice (unsurprisingly enough) was that the wealthy elite used the state to undermine popular culture and common right in favour of protecting and extending their own interests and power. In the process, US society was reformed in their own image:

"By the middle of the nineteenth century the legal system had been reshaped to the advantage of men of commerce and industry at the expense of farmers, workers, consumers, and other less powerful groups in society. . . it actively promoted a legal distribution of wealth against the weakest groups in society."


In more modern times, state centralisation and expansion has gone hand in glove with rapid industrialisation and the growth of business. As Edward Herman points out, "[t]o a great extent, it was the growth in business size and power that elicited the countervailing emergence of unions and the growth of government. Bigness beyond business was to a large extent a response to bigness in business." [12] State centralisation was required to produce bigger, well-defined markets and was supported by business when it acted in their interests (i.e. as markets expanded, so did the state in order to standardise and enforce property laws and so on). On the other hand, this development towards "big government" created an environment in which big business could grow (often encouraged by the state by subsidies and protectionism - as would be expected when the state is run by the wealthy) as well as further removing state power from influence by the masses and placing it more firmly in the hands of the wealthy. It is little wonder we see such developments, for "[s]tructures of governance tend to coalesce around domestic power, in the last few centuries, economic power." [13]

State centralisation makes it easier for business to control government, ensuring that it remains their puppet and to influence the political process. For example, the European Round Table (ERT) "an elite lobby group of . . . chairmen or chief executives of large multi-nationals based mainly in the EU . . . [with] 11 of the 20 largest European companies [with] combined sales [in 1991] . . . exceeding $500 billion, . . . approximately 60 per cent of EU industrial production," makes much use of the EU. As two researchers who have studied this body note, the ERT "is adept at lobbying . . . so that many ERT proposals and 'visions' are mysteriously regurgitated in Commission summit documents." The ERT "claims that the labour market should be more 'flexible,' arguing for more flexible hours, seasonal contracts, job sharing and part time work. In December 1993, seven years after the ERT made its suggestions [and after most states had agreed to the Maastricht Treaty and its "social chapter"], the European Commission published a white paper . . . [proposing] making labour markets in Europe more flexible." [14]

The current talk of globalisation, NAFTA, and the Single European Market indicates an underlying transformation in which state growth follows the path cut by economic growth. Simply put, with the growth of transnational corporations and global finance markets, the bounds of the nation-state have been made economically redundant. As companies have expanded into multi-nationals, so the pressure has mounted for states to follow suit and rationalise their markets across "nations" by creating multi-state agreements and unions.

As Noam Chomsky notes, G7, the IMF, the World Bank and so forth are a "de facto world government," and "the institutions of the transnational state largely serve other masters [than the people], as state power typically does; in this case the rising transnational corporations in the domains of finance and other services, manufacturing, media and communications." [15]

As multi-nationals grow and develop, breaking through national boundaries, a corresponding growth in statism is required. Moreover, a "particularly valuable feature of the rising de facto governing institutions is their immunity from popular influence, even awareness. They operate in secret, creating a world subordinated to the needs of investors, with the public 'put in its place', the threat of democracy reduced".[16]

This does not mean that capitalists desire state centralisation for everything. Often, particularly for social issues, relative decentralisation is often preferred (i.e. power is given to local bureaucrats) in order to increase business control over them. By devolving control to local areas, the power which large corporations, investment firms and the like have over the local government increases proportionally. In addition, even middle-sized enterprise can join in and influence, constrain or directly control local policies and set one workforce against another. Private power can ensure that "freedom" is safe, their freedom.

No matter which set of bureaucrats are selected, the need to centralise social power, thus marginalising the population, is of prime importance to the business class. It is also important to remember that capitalist opposition to "big government" is often financial, as the state feeds off the available social surplus, so reducing the amount left for the market to distribute to the various capitals in competition.

In reality, what capitalists object to about "big government" is its spending on social programs designed to benefit the poor and working class, an "illegitimate" function which "wastes" part of the surplus that might go to capital (and also makes people less desperate and so less willing to work cheaply). Hence the constant push to reduce the state to its "classical" role as protector of private property and the system, and little else. Other than their specious quarrel with the welfare state, capitalists are the staunchest supports of government (and the "correct" form of state intervention, such as defence spending), as evidenced by the fact that funds can always be found to build more prisons and send troops abroad to advance ruling-class interests, even as politicians are crying that there is "no money" in the treasury for scholarships, national health care, or welfare for the poor.

State centralisation ensures that "as much as the equalitarian principles have been embodied in its political constitutions, it is the bourgeoisie that governs, and it is the people, the workers, peasants included, who obey the laws made by the bourgeoisie" who "has in fact if not by right the exclusive privilege of governing." This means that "political equality . . . is only a puerile fiction, an utter lie." It takes a great deal of faith to assume that the rich, "being so far removed from the people by the conditions of its economic and social existence" can "give expression in the government and in the laws, to the feelings, the ideas, and the will of the people." Unsurprisingly, we find that "in legislation as well as in carrying on the government, the bourgeoisie is guided by its own interests and its own instincts without concerning itself much with the interests of the people." So while "on election days even the proudest bourgeois who have any political ambitions are forced to court . . . The Sovereign People." But on the "day after the elections every one goes back to their daily business" and the politicians are given carte blanche to rule in the name of the people they claim to represent." [17]


  1. Op. Cit., p. 211
  2. Murray Bookchin, Towards an Ecological Society, p. 182
  3. Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, pp. 185-186
  4. The Great French Revolution, vol. 1, pp. 179-186
  5. Op. Cit., p. 204 and p. 203
  6. Op. Cit., p. 211
  7. Op. Cit., vol. 2, p. 549 and p. 552
  8. contained in Voices of a People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove (eds.), pp. 109-113
  9. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p. 90
  10. Zinn, Op. Cit., p. 234
  11. Morton Horwitz, quoted by Zinn, Op. Cit., p. 235
  12. Corporate Control, Corporate Power, p. 188 -- see also, Stephen Skowronek, Building A New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920
  13. Noam Chomsky, World Orders, Old and New, p. 178
  14. Doherty and Hoedeman, "Knights of the Road," New Statesman, 4/11/94, p. 27
  15. Op. Cit., p. 179
  16. Chomsky, Op. Cit., p. 178
  17. Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 218 and p. 219