This article written by Olli Tammilehto was published in Balloons 1/1992 (an English language magazine of the Japanese consumer movement).  It is based on a talk given in an international seminar organized by the Finnish solidarity and forest movements. A Finnish version of the article was published in Ydin 7-8/1991. Republishing the article is desirable. However, first you should consult the author.

State, Internationalism and
Citizens' Movements

During this century the main focus of any popular or citizens' movement has usually been a state - be it national, regional, continental or global. Even internationally orientated movements, like third world solidarity movement, concentrate usually to reform the foreign policy of the state where the members happen to live, or to influence inter-governmental organizations, or coalitions of states, like UN and its auxiliary organizations. Granting for important exceptions, movements are not generally genuinely international.

It hasn't been always like this. Before the first world war movements in Europe were not so much bounded by national boundaries and their were focusing more to the international capitalistic system and, earlier, to the church.

Now a typical movement wants to reform the state either from outside as a pressure group, or from the inside as a party. In many countries movements want to establish new nation-states. Of course state is now present everywhere and in modern societies it encroaches every aspect of our life. But this is not the only reason for the "state-fixation". Behind it is some kind of utopia of a good and democratic state which would fulfil all of its members wishes. For outside world the Nordic countries have had the honour to play in the role of the nearest approximations of this utopia.

The form of government in the so-called Nordic democracies is indeed a result of the activity of many popular movements during the past century. But the societies of these countries are a far cry from the original aspirations of these movements. They are not ruled by the people but by economic, bureaucratic and party elite. They do not satisfy people's innermost needs but use dissatisfaction and uneasiness to sell a massive amount of compensations.

Already twenty years environmental movements have been rather strong in the Nordic countries. Even though the most visible garbage have been swept under the carpet, ecological reconstruction of our societies hasn't proceeded notably. Their success has been mainly in hindering many destructive projects, most importantly the construction - or even planning - of many hydro-electric and nuclear power plants.

Why focusing to the state has so often given wrong kind of results: new types of elite groups instead of real democracy, new types of pollution instead of ecological recovery?

Lewis Mumford's insight may be helpful in answering this: the state was the first machine. It is a machine consisting of humans. This "mega-machine" achieved one of its apexes already in ancient Egypt and Babylon. We have learnt to admire the effectiveness and the achievements of these state-machines, be it building the pyramids or getting a man onto the moon.
 But for what purposes are the mega-machines designed and constructed - now and in ancient times? Clearly the aim has been to mobilize natural and human resources from all over the country or the empire and to reorganize and concentrate them so that they would be readily available to the governing elite or to their allies: merchant or industrial capitalists. To achieve this end the machine had to be organized hierarchically.

The feelings and the sensitivity of the humans making the parts of the machine were a dangerous disturbing factor: they might have lead one to think that the resources should be left intact. To avoid these defects in the smooth functioning of the machine, the human cogs had to be made to obey only the orders and rules coming from above and not to care about local situations. Somehow the "engine driver" had to make the human parts to short cut much of their sensibilities. In ancient empires this was done mainly by brute force and by using slaves. In modern times more sophisticated ideological and psycho-dynamical means were available.
 In medieval monasteries under strict clock-bound division of life into physical labour and spiritual devotion, mechanical and social technology and  corresponding philosophical categories and personality structures were developed. From these roots and under the demand of the new mega-machine being constructed it was possible in the 17. century to design a full-blown mechanical philosophy: the whole universe was now nothing but a big clock-like mechanism; animals were machines and so were human bodies.

A personality ideal of a man whose body is cut out from himself got new legitimacy and the realization of the ideal in upbringing and education was encouraged. Men who were "inherently" insensitive to the environment and to the sufferings of their fellow beings, and who loved order and discipline of an abstract scheme more than life were created.

Now the builders of the modern mega-machine had access to a great number of well-lubricated cogs who (which?) were ready to rotate smoothly without any need of intervention by brute force or by deprivation of liberty. The result was a state more effective than ever to realize the ends for which it was designed: to concentrate the resources and the power.

But is this machinery a universal machine, dreamt by many machine-theorists ever since Leibnitz? Is it capable and effective in any task given to it?

The answer is clearly negative. The very design-principles of the state make it very ineffective, often completely unable to bring about the changes which are most important to movements with ecological and human values. If the idea is to give power concretely to the people, share the resources equitably and use them mainly locally, and to weave every human settlement and activity harmoniously into its specific natural environment, then insensitivity and generality principles of the mega-machine make it most inappropriate tool: it is as good as a chain-saw in cutting your nails.

To build human and ecological society we need almost exactly the opposite principles to those of state-machine: we need to maintain all the sensibilities of all the people and to organize from below.

But is that kind of non-hierarchical organizing possible? The long period under state rule has made many of us to believe that power-hierarchies belong somehow to the human nature. However, if you look at the human history in its entirety concentration of power is an unusual phenomenon. Among hunter-gatherers, the by-far most common form of human culture, it is almost non-existent and in many agricultural societies villages could maintain some form of self-rule.

Even under the mega-machine people have been able to preserve their ability to non-repressive organizing. Just the continuous springing up of new social movements is the clearest indication of that. At least in their initial phase movements are not hierarchical. And this seems to be no accidental feature: it may be that the whole energy of a movement comes from the radical and sudden reorganization of the relationships between humans and those inside them: people and their "body" and "soul" separated by the mega-machine come together once again.

Also the beginnings of a new society organized by many great popular movement have been organic rather than hierarchic. For example Paris of 1793 with a population of 700 000 was divided in 48 sections which were run by direct democracy. In Russia of 1917 self-rule by workers in factories was so strong an aspiration in the movement that even Lenin had to play lip service to it and thus to contradict his earlier statements.

Why then in spite of all the inherent tendencies of movements to form an alternative to the state they have adopted state-fixation? One reason is the ideology of western democracy: history is presented us as an ascent of western man from autocratic barbarism through ancient Greece and the American and French revolution to the present democracy with parliamentary system, more than one party and universal suffrage. This story is repeated once and again even though the democracy in many countries has degraded to a mere formality - so much so that many political theorists want to get rid of the original notion of democracy as a rule by the people and redefine the concept to mean just the western parliamentary system.

Another reason is that the modern state has access to many skills in dealing with movements. A developing movement as such is a threat to the mega-machine: it questions the necessity and rationality of humans to be inhuman cogs. The first reaction of the state and the mass-media supporting it is usually to try to isolate an incipient movement by labelling its members as crack-pots or terrorists. If this does not succeed an integration is started: the movement or its leading members are given money and positions in state organs. The temptation of suddenly increasing one's resources is often impossible to resist. But in the "loving" embrace of the state, movement is forced to adopt many practices of state bureaucracies. The result is that it looses its most important energy source: humans discovering themselves. Already state building Robespierre knew techniques of integration: he took over the citizens' assemblies of Paris by starting to pay remuneration to the secretaries and chairmen.

Now then, what does this long theoretical tale mean in practice? First of all, it doesn't mean that states should be left undisturbed to continue their mischief. Movements must go on in opposing many devastating project and they can be successful in blocking them as they have been earlier. Movements must also struggle against attempts by the state to curb the freedom of action. They must even try to enlarge the "civic space".

What my story means is that in most cases it is futile and self-defeating for movements to try to induce positive reforms in a state or in global state-like structures. The real chances of positive contributions by the movements lay in helping people to help themselves on the local level, maintaining and building structures of local self-rule, constructing ecological ways of livelihood and resource utilization. This building of an alternative society means also that villages, parts of a town, communities, communes or any other local group of people to make contacts to each other on regional, national, linguistic, ethnical, continental or global level, on the base of which mutually supporting networks, associations and federations can be build.

If the aims of a movement is something like this there is no need to streamline the internal structures of a movement to resemble those of a state. On the contrary, the "organic" structures of the initial phase are just what are needed. Therefore it can keep its main source of human energy. Thus, even if the ambition is greater than that of a "moderate", state orientated movement, also the resources may be bigger.

This local based strategy doesn't mean parochialism but its opposite. If you loose your illusions of a benevolent state, you must face the global character of our challenges directly: global environmental and nuclear threats, local disasters caused by global structures like trans-national companies, and ideological manipulation based on distorted images about how people in different parts of the world are living and what are the real causes of their problems and achievements. After realizing that under the ugly state structures there isn't any nurturing mother we are not left alone: after all there are millions of brothers and sisters all over the world with similar sufferings and concerns - and together we have enormous energy and power.

Page Top



Please send your comments on  this article to the address firstname(at)secondname.info

Back to Olli Tammilehto's home page