Nia Frome

On the Abolition/Preservation of the State

The army among whose troops there is less fighting carries off the victory over the opposing host.
 — Karl Marx, 1847. [1]


The Trilemma

What is the general trend of history, and what do communists have to do with it?

There are three ways you can answer the first question. One possibility is optimism: things are getting better. Another is pessimism: things are getting worse. Or perhaps both of these are mistaken, mere ideological vestiges of a more superstitious age, and things aren’t getting better or worse.

The first option is associated with naivety and wishful thinking. The second is associated with depression and reactionary politics. The third, since it doesn’t commit any of these errors, seems to be the most hard- and clear-headed. These are the realists. Since no compelling mechanism has been identified that might give all of history — that notoriously stochastic process — a determinate trajectory, the most prudent position to take, the realists reason, is that of rigorous disbelief in any such trajectory.

The realists do not assign any importance to what’s “right.” Their ontology is an ontology of force: whoever can and will do something does it, and the rest of us are only spinning comforting fictions if we call it “wrong.” But isn’t it a certain kind of comfort to believe that what’s right can have no real purchase on what happens? If there were such a thing as right, distinct from what is, then that would constitute an obligation, an inconvenience. You might have to act differently than you were planning to. Right bites, like a gear. To erase, at a stroke, what ought to be from one’s worldview is to collapse it into what is and to thereby naturalize everything that exists, place it beyond right and wrong. This is itself a form of wishful thinking: the just world hypothesis. Victim-blaming operates along the same lines. Rather than engaging in the effete moral condemnation of the aggressor, the victim-blamer asks what the victim did to cause their victimization. They do this because it makes them feel better, because it gives them a sense of control over uncontrollable events. Here we see an ontology of force: there is nothing stopping an aggressor except your countermeasures, and those are on you.


The name most associated with such thinking is Niccolò Machiavelli. Everyone knows Machiavelli’s teachings that might makes right, that the ends justify the means. He is admired (or condemned) as the founding father of realism and, sometimes, modern materialism. It is possible to interpret Machiavelli as saying that history is too contingent and aleatory to permit any kind of generalization about historical tendencies — this is what Althusser thinks. But it’s not what Machiavelli says. He tells the Prince that “A man who becomes ruler through the help of the nobles will find it harder to maintain his power than one who becomes ruler through the help of the people.” This is owing to a basic asymmetry between the nobles and the people: “the people do not want to be dominated or oppressed by the nobles, and the nobles want to dominate and oppress the people.” [2] All of this adds up to the fact that holding onto the loyalty of the nobles is more costly to the Prince, and less reliable, than holding onto the loyalty of the people.

What Machiavelli’s done here, far from installing the reign of absolute contingency, is identify a statistical law, akin to the second law of thermodynamics, that says that a stronger state will tend to have a lower and deeper class basis. This should come as no surprise — whoever squanders human potential the least is best positioned to use it as a resource, and human potential (or, as capitalist ideologues tendentiously call it, “human capital”) is the single most important resource any power can command. Over time, these differentials become determinant in contests between powers. They are encoded in culture, revered, fetishized — they take the name “rights.” At this point it becomes possible to tell the story in an idealist way, giving all credit to these rights, which seem to advance by their own power, when in fact the only power is that of human beings organized in some particular way and their collective labor. But it’s just as wrongheaded to claim that these rights are mere fictions, that they play no explanatory or causal role whatsoever. Historically, might does make right, in the sense that it invents a discourse to justify itself in highfalutin terms, but this is by no means the end of the story — as time wears on, might becomes increasingly dependent on right, to the point where it has to beg it to stick around, or else be easily killed.


Machiavelli isn’t the only thinker who points the way from cold prudential reason to warm and squishy normativity. Another notorious realist, Thomas Hobbes, does the same. Here what’s at issue is the authority of the sovereign. Hobbes, who’s trying to re-found the authority of the absolute monarch on a secular basis, has to menace his readers with the terrifying prospect of life without a law-giver, his famous “state of nature,” in which “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Sounds terrible, right? Ergo we need to entrust some Leviathan with absolute power over life and death to see to it that we can live sociable, rich, pleasant, cultivated, long lives, otherwise why would anyone keep their promises or do the right thing when the wrong thing was more convenient? [3]

The most popular left-wing take on Hobbes is that he’s a bad guy, that the Leviathan is a decent stand-in for capitalism or the capitalist state, and that it needs smashing. Alternatively, one could argue that true sovereignty of the kind that typifies the Leviathan is a logical impossibility, that, existentially speaking, there is no exit from the state of nature. A third tack would be to read the state of nature as capitalism and the Leviathan as communism, a historically unprecedented and epoch-making form of progressive absolutism, the long-heralded tyranny of the majority. This last fits best with my argument from Two Cthulhus[4] but it’s hard to square Hobbes’ idea of absolute authority with a collective proletarian sovereign. How are the masses supposed to collectively wield an absolute right to dispose of the lives of others? The obvious worry is that the communists will only erect another individual dictatorship modeled after feudal absolutism and call it proletarian.

Let’s take a look at the second argument, the one that claims that no would-be sovereign ever truly establishes themselves as legitimate in the way required by Hobbes’ theory. [5] This theory is based on the seemingly infinite gap between merely prudential (cynical, self-interested, bowing to firepower) obedience and that which stems from real consent, i.e. a genuine alienation of one’s judgment in favor of the sovereign’s. According to Hobbes, the latter has to happen on a large scale for sovereignty to obtain, because the sovereign can’t be everywhere all at once putting his finger on the scales, providing direct incentives. Hobbes provides no account of how we magically bootstrap ourselves out of the realm of prudential reason and into (what he understands as) morality. Which means that the sovereign’s supposedly absolute right to coerce people, and their supposed moral obligation to obey him, is utterly contingent on something that the sovereign cannot coerce out of them: consent. The whole Hobbesian system hinges on the economic and ideological problem of manufacturing consent — that is, love, or love of duty. This makes the sovereign’s position really quite precarious, not at all the Leviathan we were imagining him as. It turns out that the masses were the deciding factor all along, that the power of sovereignty, to whatever extent it was real, was one they summoned into being by exercising their own capacity to love and obey. It’s nothing new, then, to ask the masses to collectively wield an absolute right to dispose of the lives of others — all that’s really at stake is whether they admit to their always already existing responsibility in the maintenance of some particular order.

Hobbes identifies an anxiety on the part of the state: can it get people to love duty? He also establishes this question as the fundamental indicator of a state’s fitness. This implies, again, a statistical law, and an arrow of time: in competition between states, those that tend to prevail will be those that have succeeded in inculcating a love of duty in their subjects. If we imagine a stern English general as the embodiment of duty, then “love of duty” will strike us as worlds apart from a love of right or social justice. But the reason we moderns hold “duty” in such low regard is precisely because of these kinds of historical divergences, the stupidity and cruelty of really existing duty-complexes. Injustice stains duty, weakens it, makes it implausible and unappealing as a virtue. For every stern English general there were countless English workers who couldn’t give two shits about duty, and for good reason — the state wasn’t theirs.


Consider Max Weber’s influential definition of the state: a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. [6] But what distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate use of force? “Legitimate” here is doing almost the same thing as “monopoly” — what matters is whether the violence being done is supreme, unquestionable and unanswerable. “Legitimate” means terminal, unrevenged. If you’re in a vendetta, a cycle of violence, you’re not legitimate. Only that party which can do violence as the final word, without fear of retribution, possesses legitimacy. What this means is that, once again, the deciding factor is the masses, and their squishy moral feelings, specifically their feelings about which violence “requires an answer.” Legitimacy flows from their decision to just drop it.

So how much does it cost to buy a person off? Because — let’s be real — that’s what happens. Any state has to find a way to keep its people docile, and that means creating incentives that make it palatable for them, en masse, to tolerate its bullshit. Their bellies must be kept relatively full. Their hearts must be hardened against the state’s official enemies. Their squishy feelings about right and wrong must not excite them to the level of open confrontation with the state, which tends to overstep the bounds of conventional morality. It’s a delicate balancing act that is further complicated by the requirement of economy — that is, the state’s budget, its finite resources. For its own legitimacy, the state prefers gullible subjects, people who are low-maintenance, easily played. But it also needs them to be skilled and savvy in innumerable ways, to have initiative and ambition, to be earners. The temporary expedient of allowing a few people to do intellectual labor while the rest are consigned to manual labor has been frequently adopted throughout history, but it’s proven unstable. Class is a constant provocation, a structural blindness and indifference on the part of the ruling class towards the prevailing human experience, that of the poor. It is an inexhaustible wellspring of idealism, superstition, and mutual hostility. A class society is a society divided against itself. This introduces another wrinkle into the equation: envy.

Greed is Good

“Keeping up with the Joneses” is generally viewed as a private, conservative, depoliticizing, suburban neurosis. It’s a form of envy, but we imagine it happening between social equals, making it intra-class envy. Inter-class envy, also known as class resentment, is, by contrast, simply revolutionary consciousness. And yet these two categories, seemingly worlds apart, can morph into each other with surprising fluidity. How many times have socialists been accused of merely being in it for the free stuff? All it takes is a few bad months and my well-off neighbor starts to look more and more like an opportunistic kulak. A primate that sees another get a nice tasty grape will not be satisfied unless and until they get a grape that’s just as nice and tasty. No one can conspicuously consume without raising everyone’s expectations, making it harder to buy them off. Sometimes this envy can grow to such a fever pitch that all the poor desire is to see bad things happen to the rich. This just raises their asking price further.

People that are hard to please are also hard to use. Marx uses a curious phrase in Capital when talking about the rate of surplus value, s/v: he calls it an “exact expression of the degree of exploitation of labor power by capital.” [7] But capitalist exploitation also has a qualitative interpretation, as an unnatural use of labor, a use contrary to its nature. [8] Labor power’s natural end, on this interpretation, is enjoyment or use-value, but capitalism puts it to the infinite accumulation of surplus value. When workers demand more and raise their asking price, v, the rate of surplus value, s/v, shrinks (ceteris paribus). What does this mean from the perspective of the qualitative interpretation? That interpretation has the downside of implying an absolute gulf between exploitation and non-exploitation that cannot be remedied by any quantitative change. But this violates our intuition that a job that pays out a bigger proportion of the value-added to the workers, v/(s+v), is less exploitative. The Rosetta Stone here is the relative power of workers and capitalists within the firm. Both the quantities and quality of exploitation depend on this balance of power. Insofar as workers gain power relative to capitalists, this will be expressed by a lower s/v, a higher v/(s+v), and a reduced divergence between labor’s natural ends and the ends to which it is put on the job. People’s feelings about what they’re doing will matter more; fewer useless or harmful products will be made; standards and practices will depend on the workers’ multidimensional priorities and not just the one-dimensional priority of capitalists to maximize profit.

Those people on whom all legitimacy depends, the masses, can only become more and more entitled as they come to realize their outsize importance. Materialism, in both the good philosophical sense and the bad consumerist sense, tend to impose more just behavior on the state that would survive. We have seen that, whether we part from Machiavellian, Hobbesian, or Weberian premises, the end result is the same: the strength and authority of the state ultimately derive from the normative attitudes of its subjects — what they will tolerate, what their idea of justice is, what they feel like they deserve, how hard it is to buy them off — and the state’s ability to do right by them. The demands of economy push the state towards ever-greater awareness of the importance of not making unforced errors like pissing people off needlessly or squandering their potential. It can’t satisfy the people’s rising demands unless it makes masterful use of its human resources. The Leviathan’s tentacles are its eyes — people who carry out the orders of the state and bring it information so that it can give better orders. This participation is contingent on those people viewing that authority as legitimate, the final word. That legitimacy suffers insofar as the state is seen to be sadistic, arbitrary, or incompetent. An unassailable state would be so just, reasonable, and competent that such doubts would never arise.

In fact, we should expect states that don’t optimize for these virtues to be picked off over time — might disdains right to its peril. [9] Their fragility derives from a divergence or contradiction between the state’s interests and those of the subjects who constitute its real strength. Every political revolution in history has seized upon such an opening. The key issue is always loyalty or sovereignty or legitimacy or monopoly — it’s clear that these terms only name different aspects of the same underlying vulnerability. The state needs loyalty, needs to produce it, needs to jealously defend it, but has to do so on a shoestring budget, with ample use of misdirection and showmanship.


Two possible objections:

1) If loyalty/sovereignty/legitimacy/monopoly (LSLM for short) is always already created by the people, why can’t we say that the state is already fully identical to society, and therefore that no change is needed, or even possible?

The idea that LSLM is created by the people is an abstraction. What actually happens is that people enact LSLM in many different specific ways. Sometimes this is as simple as not rioting. Sometimes it’s more complicated, like gathering information for the state, or carrying out its orders. That LSLM always analytically derives from the people doesn’t mean that their participation is causally effective in shaping state policy. The latter depends on social or institutional progress towards greater democracy, which increases information flow upward and inward. It’s similar to the weird status of abstract labor in Marxism — abstract labor is both a transhistorical abstraction that we can use to describe even pre- or post-capitalist work and a real abstraction that becomes socially efficacious only in capitalism.

2) We’ve been assuming throughout that there is some need for the state to exist in the first place, but wouldn’t it be better for the statists to just… stop? Why must they continually choose the worse, knowing that they could choose the better?

The answer to objection 2) is provided by another famous theorist of the state: Lenin. A state exists because it serves the particular interests of a ruling class. In the absence of a state, but in the presence of such an interested class, you can bet your ass that a state will be formed, because that interested class stands to benefit. It turns out the divergence between interests that constitutes the principal cause of states’ fragility is also what ensures their existence. The tendential identity between a state’s resilience and its popularity or democracy is what ensures that, in the long run, the state will wither away. Right, or justice, consists in the state’s understanding, its ability to assign to each thing precisely its due. Class is an obstruction of this understanding, an ignorance, a one-way mirror dividing one part of society from the other. Whichever Leviathan achieves maximum integration between the greatest number of tentacles will see best, know best, and act best. It will become invincible exactly insofar as it is invisible. This is right’s revenge on might.

Communists are in the odd position of working to hasten an outcome they know in advance to be inevitable. Some clever individuals have pointed out that this ought to sap their revolutionary determination, as belief in the inevitability of communism is logically inconsistent with active partisanship on its behalf. So much the worse for logic, then, because believers have made every socialist revolution in history, while the clever individuals have made zero. It’s true that straddling the is/ought divide the way we do opens us up to criticism: no matter what we’re doing, we can be accused of mechanical materialism or voluntarist idealism, of excessive or insufficient patience, of being out of step with history. A realist understanding of forces and costs and an emotional understanding of suffering and injustice do not always immediately coincide, even though, in the limit, they converge on the same result. This means we are burdened at all times with a parallax view. No one likes a know-it-all; soothsayers unsettle. Marxism’s opponents seized on its prophetic character early on as proof of its basic religiosity and unscientificness. But as we’ve seen, the paradigm that purports to surpass Marxism in its rigor and hardheadedness, the one that doesn’t subscribe to any wooly ideas about the direction of history, ends up proving the necessary moral arc of the universe towards justice. That is, once it outgrows the baseless assumption of an immediate identity between might and right, and allows for their relationship to include a little more back and forth.


While the “realist” (we have no choice but to use scare quotes now) immediately equates might with right, obliterating the latter (and making things extremely easy for themselves), the “rationalist” posits an unbridgeable gulf between might and right, so as to force the communists to abandon one or the other. This strategy, long known as Hume’s guillotine (for severing hearts from heads), recently took a new name: the Orthogonality Thesis. Coined to describe a concern about artificial intelligence, the Orthogonality Thesis states that intelligence is orthogonal to (that is, completely independent of, uncorrelated with) goals. Here intelligence = power = might and goals = normativity = right. The thesis is meant to express a worry about the possibility that Skynet might want to kill us, but as Elizabeth Sandifer (et al.) has observed, this is really just a reskinning of an old worry about God’s indifference to human suffering. [10] It is derivative, that is, of real human suffering, and expresses despair of its overcoming. The “rationalists” are pessimists committed to the supreme reality of tragedy. This explains their attraction to racism, eugenics, monarchy, eschatological paranoia, and liberalism (among other things).

The Orthogonality Thesis is echoed in fears of an omnipotent Big Brother, a state that knows all and wills only evil. Such a state is impossible. Intelligence requires information, which requires interpretation, which requires thinking, feeling humans, who have to be able to tell themselves a story about how what they’re doing is right. The difficulty this presents grows with the complexity of the information being interpreted. A sovereign that evilly desired total world domination would have to learn nuance, subtlety, a soft touch. They would have to manipulate people and command their loyalty and labor and ingenuity without provoking them to rebel, knowing the limits of coercion to secure consent. They would have to get to know their subjects intimately, to understand their particular needs and triggers. They would be obliged to become just.


Poverty and chauvinism are evil, not human power as such.

From a truly realist perspective, mistreating people is a liability; it’s a source of conflict, instability, and waste. It inhibits integration, cooperation, and innovation, making society harder to govern. It is a source of lumpiness and drag.

From a truly rationalist perspective, poverty and chauvinism are anathema to free thought, which finds itself stuck between the two poles of either justifying or criticizing such overweening institutions.

From a humanist perspective they are simply wrong, the very definition of wrong.

Abolishing these evils through the development of human power is the totalitarian telos of communism. It is this distant vanishing point that unites our efforts with those of communists throughout time and space. Whenever we point to heroic communist achievements elsewhere, nothing ensures that any glory will transfer over to us besides a credible promise that we share that same ambition. Likewise, whenever a communist points to their own party’s past achievements, nothing ensures that it will continue to serve the people besides a credible promise that the party still takes its bearings from that same star. Only ends can justify means. As exiles from the future, we are symbiotic with futurity; we live or die with it.

This explains the close affinity between communism and education. It can’t have escaped your attention that these “revolutionaries” do an awful lot of writing and explaining for a gang of bloodthirsty fanatics. Practically all they ever do is tell people to read more. Learning, like all work, is teleological, that is, end-governed, purposive. Unlike many other forms of work, though, learning increases one’s power. This has the effect of making one freer, more confident, and harder to please. Whoever would wrangle an educated person must be subtle about it. Through education, we are creating the incentives that will oblige state power to grow only in specific ways, like a bonsai tree. We are also building the capacity to devise new ways of organizing ourselves and our labor. This fundamental ingenuity of human beings is often cited by anarchists as proof that we can live without the state. But anarchists have no theodicy: why, if we are so capable, haven’t we already succeeded in putting an end to states? The answer must be historical and materialist. It must have to do with the level of development of social relations and the productive forces. If the state is to be done away with, the opportunity for doing so must be brought about over time, at least in part through coordinated effort towards that end. A movement, parting from existing premises, must connect that distant utopian goal to our present, seizing on tendencies that emerge organically from history. “Realism” is too stuck in the present to be truly realist. The only genuinely realistic solution, the only regime that cannot fall, is communism on earth.

  1. Karl Marx, 1847. Wage Labour and Capital. [web] 

  2. Niccolò Machiavelli, 1513-32. The Prince. [web] 

  3. Losurdo argues along similar lines for the necessity of some form of state and the undesirability of its withering-away in his interview with Ross Wolfe and Pam Nogales. [web] Rights, laws, and promises need professional enforcers, or else they will lose substance, he fears. But if rights merely index systematic differences in the cultivation of human potential, then they can take care of themselves. As we shall see, professionalization, i.e. the preservation of guild privilege, is far more precarious than rights. 

  4. “Cthulhu isn’t capital at all, but communism, as seen from the twisted perspective of the reactionary classes it condemns to the trash heap of history.” — Nia Frome, 2021. Two Cthulhus. [web] 

  5. This argument is taken from William Roberts’ Pessimism and Anti-State Politics [web] where it is called a “paradox in the theory of sovereignty” that ultimately demonstrates the “impossibility of exiting the state of nature.” 

  6. Max Weber at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [web] 

  7. Karl Marx, 1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1. 

  8. See: William Roberts in Suffering Exploitation: Violence and Natural Right in Marx’s ‘Capital.’ [web] 

  9. My argument here differs from Christopher Bertram’s International Competition in Historical Materialism [web], insofar as he strictly privileges the development of the productive forces (a tic he inherited from analytical Marxism) and fails to appreciate that a society’s cultivation of human potential, the fundamental productive and innovative force, depends just as much on its relations of production and even “superstructural” conditions. 

  10. Elizabeth Sandifer, 2016. Neoreaction a Basilisk: Essays on and Around the Alt-Right.