October 5, 2000

Strakon Lights Up, No. 78

Our state of mind

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In Belgrade today, a window opened that offers us a glimpse of something mysterious and wonderful. It won't remain open very long, and even while it's open it won't reveal much about the future of Serbia and Montenegro. But it does reveal much about the nature of all states.

It's not the storming and firing of Parliament by the uprisen people, although seeing smoke pour out the windows of such devil's workshops always makes a lovely picture. Nor is it the seizing of the local Ministry of Truth by the insurrectionists, though that, too, is always a heart-warming spectacle. I'm referring instead to a more elemental phenomenon, one that allowed that storming and firing and seizing to take place. According to eyewitness reports broadcast by Fox News today, many of the paramilitary political police assigned to central Belgrade dropped their weapons, doffed their helmets, and joined the people.

I've previously explored the question of political legitimacy, concluding that it's a trickier matter than I'd thought, at least as it applies to the mature American totalitarian state. Many Americans have lost interest in and respect for their traditional republican ceremonies, whose reeking corruption can no longer be perfumed, but in other ways they have wedded themselves to the state more closely than ever before. The Yugoslav people are at an earlier stage of development, the stage at which most of them still equate democracy with freedom. If Milosevic is successfully overthrown, as now seems likely, they will continue to move from a collapsing form of Impolite Totalitarianism to entry-level Polite Totalitarianism. At the present stage of nascent democracy, the Yugoslavs seem to have absorbed the traditional understanding of democratic legitimacy so long promoted by the West.

That being so, I'm sure that some, maybe most, of Milosevic's stormtroopers did what they did today because they had decided that the Milosevic regime was no longer legitimate. But their reasons aren't really that important. What's important, and revealing, is what they did — for whatever reasons they did it — and how powerful it was.

Regimes can succumb in several ways — foreign conquest, catastrophic pandemic, unforeseen socio-economic collapse, natural disaster. In countries that are neither Polite Totalitarian nor under the thumb of a Polite Totalitarian empire, even traditional revolution is still possible, whereby revolutionaries exerting main force overthrow ruling classes that are still coherent and not demoralized. But those political earthquakes offer us much less insight into the nature of the state than the window that was opened in Belgrade today when the stormtroopers changed sides.

As I wrote in Dark Suits and Red Guards,  politicians and bureaucrats are nothing but soft men in suits. They themselves have no guns. They depend on the obedience of hard men who do have guns but who are situated further down in the hierarchy. Those hard men obey the soft men above them for various reasons — not only out of a presumption of legitimacy but also out of careerism, or national-statism misunderstood as patriotism, or the psychic rewards of strutting about in uniform and pushing people around, or simply fear of what others may think about them or do to them.

When those reasons are no longer satisfactory, when the mystique of obedience comes apart and the hard men lay down their weapons, as they did in Belgrade, the amazingly paradoxical character of any state is laid bare. Even the mighty American leviathan, engineered and re-engineered over decades to be invulnerable to popular revolution, would dissolve in moments, like the dark clouds of a nightmare upon waking, if our American hard men should put down their weapons or, better yet, turn them against the soft men who presume to rule us.

I won't claim that's any more likely than a successful revolution. Nor will I claim that a successor leviathan wouldn't arise tomorrow, given the corruption and degradation of the people. But isn't it fascinating that something so unlikely should also be so easy? That leviathan is at once so mighty and so fragile?

What we can see through the window opened in Belgrade today doesn't show us how to free ourselves from external oppression. But it might help free us from internal oppression to remember that leviathan, despite all the strenuous mystification practiced by its servants, is not a natural entity but only a mental construct. The physical mass of airplanes, ships, tanks, and missiles; the hulking stone edifices, whirring computers, and roaming secret-police vehicles; the countless dossiers, tax records, and volumes of laws and regulations — they aren't the state. The state exists only in our mind.

We may have to act like slaves, when leviathan looms over us, but we don't have to think like slaves. Understanding that fact isn't a substitute for liberation; in our time and in our place, it is liberation.

October 5, 2000

Published in 2000 by WTM Enterprises.

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