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Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Conclusion

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To dub Hobbes a conservative thinker is, in a manner of speaking, a misnomer, a modern-day projection which makes sense only once we adopt modern-day political categories which were hardly appropriate or even in use in Hobbes’ own time. And when examined through the lenses of his own time, Hobbes comes across as a revolutionary thinker, revolutionary for having foreseen, amidst what was still by and large a feudal society, the operations of the market as setting the tone for all future relations among the members of the commonwealth. Unlike Adam Smith, however, for whom the formation or the existence of the commonwealth as a political entity were unproblematic, in the workings of the invisible hand and the unfolding laissez-faire mode of social relations, Hobbes saw a unique opportunity to anchor the state as the supreme political institution for all times. Through his ingenious concept of political obligation, Hobbes establishes the supremacy of the state in terms of the consenting subject: (a) market relations make everyone equally insecure and subject to power grab by any one individual or group of individuals; (b) it is therefore in everyone’s interest to relinquish their God-given sovereignty by vesting same, both individually and collectively, in the institution of the state; (c) this act of consent, also referred to as “social contract,” constitutes a political obligation on the part of the consenting subjects to abide by the dictates and the authority of the state.

In a sense, Hobbes was first in the long line of modern-day theorists to advocate what has come to be known as statism, the unchallenged authority of the state as the supreme political institution, irrespective of the personalities involved or the idiosyncrasies of the office holders, be they kings, the king’s men, or the elected officials. And his justification was, only the state offered each and everyone the requisite measure of protection not only from one another but, just as importantly, from themselves: it protected the individual from the vagaries of human nature.

How does one move, however, from Hobbes’s grand schema to what passes nowadays for the conservative and/or liberal viewpoint? One point of departure is Edmund Burke, his famous treatise against the excesses of the French Revolution being a case in point: a conservative viewpoint is always a form of reaction, and Burke’s pamphlet fits the bill to a T. Another one, if one reaches further back, are the ideas of the French Enlightenment thinkers, the ideas which paved the way to the French Revolution. And in this respect, Hayek may have been right to single out Rousseau as the object of his venom; where he was wrong, however, was in crediting the latter with socialist leanings and mindset. In an obvious attempt to discredit liberalism by arguing for such a linkage, Hayek only discredited himself.

If Burke was the presumptive father of modern-day conservatism, John Stuart Mill may be said to represent the alternative viewpoint. And if one disregards here Mill’s utilitarian streak, one can point to some of his polemical writings concerning the flagrant abuses in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution; in particular, to his uncompromising stand against child labor practices of the day and his steadfast support for worker unions and extending the original franchise. As a matter of fact, the entire liberal/socialist tradition of post-industrial England can be traced to these efforts.

In any case, in the last two examples we see liberalism on the march and in the vanguard, as it were, reacting in the first instance to the excesses of the Age of Faith and inaugurating in its stead the Age of Reason; and in the second, to intolerable conditions which accompanied the initial stages of industrialization, whereas conservatism appears content to react back. And perhaps this is the right dynamics in that it captures the correct sequence of historical events, modern or ancient, the unfolding of human progress throughout history, whereby liberal attitudes and mindset are always in the lead, clamoring for change, whereas conservatism tends to be associated with a voice of reaction.

Of course in the larger, more comprehensive sense, conservatism was always understood to stand for upholding the status quo, which usually meant the established order that favored the interests of the ruling class. And in that, extended sense of the term, John Locke was a conservative; and so were our founding fathers, for having set land ownership as one of the prerequisites for political franchise, let alone for having supported the institution of slavery. By the same token, Hobbes wasn’t a conservative even though property ownership was one of the cornerstones of his political schema: for Hobbes, property and possessions meant power; and human desire for amassing either wasn’t connoting any kind of value for him, merely a fact of life.

(Likewise with modern-day conservationists, whether with respect to energy or environment. It’s rather ironic that those who most proudly lay claim to the title are more bent on destroying the environment for the sake of profit than those who are keen on preserving it; yet it’s the latter who are the despised liberals. It’s all a matter of values.)

If John Stuart Mill or the Encyclopedists could be said to accurately represent the beginnings of the modern liberal tradition, then we wouldn’t be too far off to say that liberalism is an offshoot of an impulse, a most noble impulse at that. Defending the underdog, the downtrodden, the heavy-burdened and the heavy-laden – what could be nobler or finer than that? In fact, underneath the entire liberal tradition there runs the undercurrent of a theme, the theme of empathy, the latent leitmotif. If not always translatable to direct identification, at the very least it surely connotes the taking of a stand, espousing a cause, fighting for justice. Again, no human emotion could be finer or more satisfying. The question we must therefore ask, what became of this impulse? Why has a political philosophy that’s clearly an expression of it, both in terms of intent and the sought-after results, become bankrupt? What led to its eventual change of status from a vibrant political philosophy to mere ideology?

In the course of these essays, I alluded to a number of historical developments which were hardly foreseen by the chief architects of the modern state, both in the old world and the new, developments which have forever changed the contours and the general complexion of the institution which rose in the wake of the old and crumbling Western monarchies, constitutional as they may have been, the modern-day statehood.

I’m referring of course to developments which culminated in the establishment of universal franchise having become de rigueur, as it were, a virtual standard for any self-respecting modern state with any pretensions to being democratic, the most important developments of them all, that is, including the resulting fallout. And what spearheaded this push towards universal franchise and all it had come to entail was the concept of rights: the right to vote, the right to assemble, the right to be treated with dignity irrespective of race, ethnic origin or gender; in short, both civic and civil rights, the former, namely, citizen’s rights, paving the way for the latter. And while ‘tis true that none of these gains have been won without bitter struggle, it’s also true that none would have been possible or conceivable without rights spearheading the struggle and serving as the banner.

Rights emerge thus as the key concept of political philosophy known as liberalism, as the cornerstone of that philosophy, as its crowning achievement and its claim to glory. Without rights or any meaningful talk of rights, liberalism would be bereft of its core meaning, an empty shell with neither rhyme nor reason, which is why its enemies are so intent of late on replacing that language with talk of entitlements; it’s certainly not the same. So once again we must ask: How did liberalism manage to squander the superior position it once had and relinquish the high ground? What had become of its once noble impulse and follow-through, its moral tour de force? By all reasonable accounts, it should have continued unchallenged, a vibrant political philosophy bar none, a philosophy besides which had amassed an impressive record, unmatched by any other in history, in the ceaseless human struggle for dignity and freedom from oppression. How is it that this once ultra-revolutionary thought-belief-value system, the hope of humankind, has become bankrupt, no longer a political philosophy one could live by but an apology, not a system of knowledge or a means of understanding human events, political or otherwise, but ideology, no longer a living reality but a myth?

I’ve already alluded in the course of these essays to some of the reasons, but it bears repeating until it sinks in. With winning universal franchise along with other kinds of rights, it became incumbent upon the state, soon to become a liberal, full-fledged welfare state, to enforce those rights, at least de jure if not de facto. The state had become thus the ultimate guarantor of those rights, there being nothing else to take its place, no other institution or entity that could possibly discharge the duty of enforcement. Liberalism had come to depend thus upon the state as the ultimate instrumentality and the indispensable centerpiece, not only from the standpoint of preserving the gains that have already been won, but also in terms of being able to advance its progressive agenda. Ultimately, therefore, its fate, its state of affairs, its outreach, its general well- or ill-being, have all become intricately connected to, alas, inseparable from, the affairs and the general well-being of the state. The long and the short of it is, liberalism ended up advocating statism; it had in fact become synonymous with statism, because only in the state and actions by the state could liberalism see any kind of answer or the solution.

But therein lies the rub. Whereas it is conceivable that under the most ideal of circumstances, the state could be looked upon through such rose-colored glasses and deemed capable of discharging its most solemn duty, which is to act in the interest of justice for all, such circumstances are certainly not in effect today; and it’s very doubtful they ever were. Only a global kind of empire, such as Alexander the Great had once envisaged, would be capable of so acting, there being no conceivable threat to it from without or from within. But the truth of the matter is, no modern state, however powerful, even if it’s an acclaimed superpower, is that independent. In the interest of their own survival, they’re all forced to be jockeying for position and comparative advantage. Fact of life, you may say.

All of which makes it impossible for a state, any state, to act as it should, as it ought to, even as it might like to act. Its ability to act, let alone to act judiciously, is thereby severely impaired by it having to tend to its own interests. And in its own interest, the state will thus be forced to support the ruling class, capitalism, private property, whatever it takes and whatever else is entailed, while paying lip service to justice and playing both ends against the middle. Another fact of life.

Therein, I say, lies the failure of liberalism, the once vibrant political philosophy, along with its legacy, the gains already won and its promise, so much promise. And the failure is, its intricate connection to the affairs of the state: as the state goes, so does liberalism, which well nigh strips liberalism off its moral force, its forte, and disables it from voicing a moral critique of the system in place (if for no other reason that the state itself is immoral).

Macpherson says pretty much the same thing, albeit without the added benefit of the anarchistic thesis:

The dilemma of modern liberal-democratic theory is now apparent: it must continue to use the assumptions of possessive individualism, at a time when the structure of market society no longer provides the necessary conditions for deducing a valid theory of political obligation from those assumptions. Liberal theory must continue to use the assumptions of possessive individualism because they are factually accurate for our possessive market societies. Their factual accuracy has already been noticed, but the point will bear repetition. The individual in market society is human as proprietor of his own person. However much he may wish it to be otherwise, his humanity does depend on his freedom from any but self-interested contractual relations with others. His society does consist of a series of market relations. Because the assumptions are factually accurate, they cannot be dropped from a justificatory theory. But the maturing of market society has cancelled that cohesion, among all those with a political voice, which is a prerequisite for the deduction of obligation to a liberal state from possessive individualist assumptions. No way out of the dilemma is to be found by rejecting those assumptions while not rejecting market society, as so many theorists from John Stuart Mill to our own time have done on the ground that the assumptions are morally offensive. If they are now morally offensive they are none the less still factually accurate for our possessive market societies. The dilemma remains. Either we reject possessive individualist assumptions, in which case our theory is unrealistic, or we retain them, in which case we cannot get a valid theory of obligation. It follows that we cannot now expect a valid theory of obligation to a liberal-democratic [and I would add “immoral”] state in a possessive market society (275).

And what of “rights,” the once central concept and heart of the liberal-democratic theory? Must we abandon it also?

The first thing to say is that just like justice, alas, much more so than in the case of justice, the concept of rights is context-dependent. In other words, it wouldn’t make much sense to talk of rights in a truly egalitarian or classless society: it’s only a society which is lacking in the aforementioned respects that provides the proper occasion for any meaningful talk about rights. Only an imperfect society legitimizes such a talk.

Needless to say, these remarks apply to our conception of justice (as well?) insofar that any talk of justice, too, makes sense and is made legitimate only in an unjust society. Justice, however, is a general and ideational concept, our ever-shining city upon the hill, and I’m afraid it’ll never fall into disuse. “Rights,” on the other hand, are not only context-dependent; they’re also context-specific.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that “rights” is but a transitory and remedial kind of concept, somewhat akin to what we usually mean when we speak of bootstraps, of pulling ourselves by our own bootstraps: once done, we must discard them just like we’d discard a scaffold or a prop once we’re done with it. In short, we need to look beyond rights, to a concept that’s lasting, the subject of the next series of essays.

Meanwhile, it should be apparent by now that the usefulness of the liberal-conservative distinction, as it is being employed nowadays in modern political parlance, is highly exaggerated. Liberalism may have once served as a beacon of light, the promise of a brighter future and better tomorrow, but that time is no longer. Both, it seems, support the modern state, the system of private property, and all that it entails. And in light of the pivotal assumptions they share in common, the distinction verges on becoming obsolete.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • 17 – Les Slater, Sep 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm:

    I observe what appears to me as a tendency to see ‘human nature’ as static and also negative. I find ‘human nature’ to be prime in our ability to overcome the negative social consequences of the rule of capital.

    Far from being horrified by political parties and the state, I find them an ever increasing necessity before we can get to a point where they can then recede and whither away.

    As of the middle of the 20th century, some fairly important states had made, and tried to enforce, totalitarian claims. (Mussolini’s formula was ‘Everything within the state; nothing outside of the state; nothing against the state.’) I don’t see how the state can go much further than that, or how it leads anywhere except to more of itself. Violence begets violence, fraud begets fraud, and so on.

  • Interesting that you bring it up. Cindy, but my next series of essays will commence with “the Free Rider Problem,” albeit in a different, liberal-democratic context.

  • Cindy

    This is of interest to anarchists and communists, as well as to Glenn Contrarian.

    How Did Nanjie Village Overcome the Free-Rider Problem?

    To summarize, in a collective economy, the free-rider problem is not insurmountable. In a community with suitable conditions for repeated games, if the political and social environment creates and sustains mutually compatible, cooperation-inducing expectations, “one for all and all for one” will become a better strategy for everyone than “free ride.” As a consequence, the aggregate welfare of the community will be maximized. When the maximized total payoff is distributed fairly among the community members, the mutually compatible, cooperation-inducing expectations will be reinforced. Through such a feedback loop, a benign circle of good will and good behavior arises.

  • Cindy


    Know anything about this part of China?

    Residents push lawn mowers on a street in Nanjie village of Luohe city in China’s central Henan province September 24, 2012. Nanjie village, with more than 3,100 residents, is touted to be one of the remaining models of communist China, where the principles of morality and collectivism of the late Chairman Mao still strictly guide the people’s daily lives. Aside from free housing, healthcare, food rations and education, locals working in the village’s factories receive an average salary of 2500 yuan, about 400 dollars. The village’s return to communism came at the same time as the rest of the country opened up to the capitalist market in the mid 1980s. Mao is still highly revered in Nanjie, enjoying a god-like status. REUTERS/Jason Lee

  • cindy

    We largely become what we learn to become…Hitler could have danced on the aboriginal plains of New Guinea.

  • Got you.

  • Les Slater


    In my #17 I was addressing Anarcissie’s #13 and Macpherson, page #4.


  • I don’t how you get that impression, Les. Neither Christopher Rose nor I believe in the fixity of human nature but, at least from the evolutionary standpoint, view it as malleable. Even Anarcissie, the most pessimistic of the bunch, doesn’t seem to believe in it either, as evidenced. for instance, by her #2.

    As to the remainder of your comment, I’m rather ambivalent about the value you seem to attach to partisan politics. Quite the contrary, I think there is a definite need to start building alliances along different, more comprehensive principles than around single issues, which spells politics as usual. Especially in light of the dwindling working class, at least in the post-industrial West, I see a definite need for the working class to start identifying with the poor, the dispossessed, and the invisibles, with all humanity that is suffering, to attain what Kant had called “the Kingdom of Ends.”

  • Challenging comment, Chris. I only wish that some of my comrades-in-arms were equally critical.

    First, my reading of Hobbes, from the vantage point of history, is a different one. Writing in the aftermath of the Civil War and the beheading of Charles I, I see him as advocating the absolute sovereignty of the state, as opposed to that of a mere monarch. As to Locke, I grant that the prevalent opinion is that he’s one of the founders of liberal thought, but then again, compared, say, to the precursors of the French Revolution and their motto, “Libert�, �galit�, fraternit�,” Locke does come across as a conservative.

    My project is more ambitious than meets the eye. I should say that my use of the term “political” is neither normative or derogatory but more akin to Aristotle’s usage, “Man is a political animal,” whereby the activity of and engagement in politics is considered as it were the zenith, all-comprehensive and inclusive of all other social concerns

  • Les Slater

    I observe what appears to me as a tendency to see ‘human nature’ as static and also negative. I find ‘human nature’ to be prime in our ability to overcome the negative social consequences of the rule of capital.

    Far from being horrified by political parties and the state, I find them an ever increasing necessity before we can get to a point where they can then recede and whither away.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Well said. That’s why I included you as one of the ones I thanked for constructive criticism in my book.

  • Am not waiting for anything, Glenn. I well realize that, as in everything, there’s no wine before its time. All I’m trying to do is come up with a new paradigm, and the requisite concepts, to enable us to think in new and innovative ways about the human condition. So that when the time comes …

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    My criticism turns on the judgment that their political philosophy is a dead end. And as to your patting your on the back in regard to “a high standard of living” in the Bay Area and other places like it, I believe we’re running on fumes: call it a fallout from times of prosperity once in abundance but now long gone.

    You’re waiting on ‘…a dead end’, and our society is ‘running on fumes’. I’m not saying that you’re conservative, but your comment sorta reminds me of the apocalyptic warnings of conservatives for the past several generations – with the liberals are in charge, our nation/society/civilization is sure to collapse.

    So let’s put a name to this collapse that you’re waiting on, that you’re sure is going to arrive sooner or later. Let’s call it “Godot”.

  • Christopher Rose, Sep 27, 2012 at 3:10 am:

    ‘… Wouldn’t it be more progressive, indeed more anarchic, if political parties and their rigid dogmas were done away with and we were left with a new system of politics that had we the people as its core and focus? …’

    Political parties with rigid dogmas are an expression of tribialism, the strong tendency of human beings to form packs, groups, groups of groups, and so on; the dogmas, like smells, diets, signs, accents, flags and so on are displays of membership. This behavior is probably inscribed on the genes, and it’s not easy to get away from it. Possibly one could evolve a discourse, a ‘philosophy’, so to speak, which was a sort of solvent that would denature the more violent and oppressive aspects of tribalism; but then this would be another dogma, so it would have to provide for its self-destruction.

  • Although there is some food for thought here, Roger, I’m not sure that you haven’t somewhat misframed both Hobbes and Locke and thus miscast your argument.

    My understanding is that Hobbes championed absolute monarchism, which is not at all the same thing as the “supremacy of the state”.

    Furthermore, he was also that thing you constantly criticise bitterly, a liberal.

    Similarly, casting Locke as a conservative seems a bit if a stretch, to say the very least, as he is generally seen as one of the most influential innovators and supporters of liberalism.

    That said, I look forward to your future output about an “alternative political philosophy” with genuine interest but am troubled by your “key question”.

    I really don’t see why we should have allegiance or loyalty to any political entity; indeed, maybe political entities are precisely what is getting in the way of a better politics?

    Wouldn’t it be more progressive, indeed more anarchic, if political parties and their rigid dogmas were done away with and we were left with a new system of politics that had we the people as its core and focus?

    I don’t agree at all that it is part of our nature to form some such political fealty, and would argue that political parties are just as manipulative and controlling as monarchy or theism and the exact opposite of anarchy and freedom for people.

    The question ought to be far more ambitious and address how we can develop new, more sceptical and informed political processes that allow a better balancing of the conflicting needs for state management and control and advancing and protecting personal freedoms in an increasingly interconnected and complex world.

  • In any case, I’m going to turn in for tonite. I do appreciate, however, and most sincerely, you engaging me here. I sure hope that Cindy, troll and Anarcissie, not to mention other BC participants, will join in what may promise to be a vigorous dialogue.

  • I don’t believe I was doing that, Les, even though my theory and practice are not exactly in the kind of sync I’d wish them to be.

  • Les Slater


    What I mean by petty bourgeois Marxists are those that claim adherence to Marxism but due to the social milieu propagate bourgeois ideology.


  • I have no quarrel, Les, with the bulk of your comment, except for the last sentence.

    First, I have no idea what you mean by “the petty bourgeoisie Marxists,” and even if I did, it certainly doesn’t address me. And second, I don’t presume to be speaking for all anarchists, nor do I know many of them except on these here pages. Anarcissie is more qualified in that respect that I am. But what I am proposing is what ought to be an anarchistic thesis, or, if you find the term objectionable, a revolutionary thesis for this day and age.

  • Les Slater

    @3 – Roger,

    Early socialism was a reaction to some of the realities of capitalism. Marxism has two fundamental progressive foundations. One is the full embracing the the philosophy of change, including revolutionary change, expounded by Hegel. The second is the understanding that capitalism creates its own gravediggers. This all within a consistently materialist outlook.

    My perspective, from working directly on the front lines of the class struggle, here in Chicago and observing by various means this struggle elsewhere, I see the working class as central.

    I find anarchists and the petty bourgeoisie Marxists have in common the total lack of understanding of the revolutionary potential of the working class. And worse still, fear it and often hate it.


  • Les Slater

    @4 – Glenn,

    Interesting question. I think it has much more to to do with affluence as apposed to any superficial political leanings. Affluent communities tend to be nice places, especially for the affluent. Boston area is in general fairly affluent, and liberal. The Hyde Park area of Chicago is one of the affluent communities here and liberal. In general, you need financial means beyond what average person/household has to live in these communities.

    One of the characteristics of the people in these communities is they usually have been ‘educated’ in the ‘better’ of the schools available to the population at large. A good part of that ‘education’ is the instilling a sense of superiority, which is one of the hallmarks of modern liberals.

    Since this layer very seldom directly produces much but consumes much it follows that their comfort is at the expense of others.


  • Why should there be any relationship of the kind you allude to in your last sentence, Glenn? Besides, I have never said the liberals were dumb, only misguided. My criticism turns on the judgment that their political philosophy is a dead end.

    And as to your patting your on the back in regard to “a high standard of living” in the Bay Area and other places like it, I believe we’re running on fumes: call it a fallout from times of prosperity once in abundance but now long gone.

    America and the West are still in the throes of an economic crisis, and liberalism is not going to turn things around.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    In your previous article, I asked:

    Why is it that you consider the Bay Area – perhaps the most liberal part of America – a civilized part of the country when you’ve had nothing but ill to say about liberals? If we’re so terrible for society, wouldn’t it stand to reason, then, that the Bay Area would be one of the worst places in America to live?

    And you replied:

    I’m not a misanthrope, Glenn. I genuinely like people regardless of their political philosophy. Does that answer your question?

    Um, no, it does not, because I didn’t ask whether you liked them. I asked why it is that since you think that liberals are so terrible for society, why is it that life is so good in what is probably the single most liberal part of America? I mean, if we liberals were politically so bad, so terrible, so screwed up as you seem to believe, wouldn’t the failure of our political leanings be directly reflected in systemic failures in maintaining a high standard of living for the middle- and lower classes in left-leaning areas?

  • @1

    My understanding of the anarchistic thesis, insofar as nullification of the state is concerned, is that it’s deducible on both conceptual and empirical grounds: the state has been rendered incapable to serve as a concept it was designed to serve. Needless to say, any ideological position can be attended and accompanied by “an (emotional) reaction”; but that needn’t detract from its validity.

    By the way, I don’t think there need be any inherent contradiction between anarchism and Marxism; in fact, I should think that elements of Marxism are/ought to be an integral part of the anarchistic thesis, at least insofar as relations and organization of production are concerned. So perhaps, Les, yours is a Marxist reaction … just saying.

    As another aside, can’t we envisage the development of Marxism without the benefit or the accoutrements of the State? I should think we can.

    I do intend in the articles to follow to lay out the conceptual foundations of an alternate political philosophy, beyond liberalism. Whether it would be correct to identify this philosophy as anarchistic, it’s perhaps too early to say. The label one may care to affix to it, that, too, is of lesser importance than the soundness. So we shall have to wait and see.

    The key question which will drive the upcoming series of articles: To what political entity ought we owe our allegiance and loyalty, our political/moral obligation? I take it as axiomatic that it’s part of our human makeup, our basic need, to form and sustain some such allegiance. Again, the question is, what ought to be the proper object.

    The nation-state, in any case, no longer deserves it, that’s the anarchistic thesis. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

  • Anarchists show a way forward, as do many other ideologies. Since anarchists can’t reasonably compel non-anarchists to obey them and follow their ideas (that would be government) they have to wait until enough people come around to their theories voluntarily to make a difference to the general social order. We seem to be a long way from that point at the moment.

    However, history appears to show that even the most liberal states evolve toward habitual war, imperialism, and tyranny, as witness the poster child, and a variety of other models. People may eventually pick up on this fact, in which case anarchistic ideologies may become more interesting to them.

  • Les Slater

    Not too easy to figure what you’re getting at. One, I think important, clue is the following preface ‘Macpherson says pretty much the same thing, albeit without the added benefit of the anarchistic thesis:’ Without the added benefit of the anarchistic thesis!

    So, your perspective is that of the anarchistic thesis. You seem to be arguing that the state has evolved to the point that it can play no further progressive role. The problem with that thesis is that the anarchists show no practical way forward.

    Anarchism is NOTHING more than a REACTION to the working class not having demonstrated the use of the state to transcend the market, never mind use it as a progressive instrument to suppress the market.

    Reminds me of the liberals calling for gun control.