The Modern State is the Mafia

mafia license plate

William T. Cavanaugh‘s seminal 1995 essay “A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State” seeks to dismantle the myth of the modern secular state as the peacemaker who stepped onto the scene a few hundred years ago to quell religious violence. Instead, Cavanaugh argues, the so-called Wars of Religion were in fact the birth pangs of the modern state. The peacemaker narrative was simply a solid bit of early PR to cover up the violent ambitions of the nation-state. He adds that

to call these conflicts “Wars of Religion” is an anachronism, for what was at issue in these wars was the very creation of religion as a set of privately held beliefs without direct political relevance. The creation of religion was necessitated by the new State’s need to secure absolute sovereignty over its subjects. (399)

But the truly quotable part of this essay comes in quite a bit later, when Cavanaugh compares the state to the mob:

In an article entitled “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” sociologist Charles Tilly explores the analogy of the State’s monopoly on legitimate violence with the protection rackets run by the friendly neighborhood mobster. According to Tilly “a portrait of war makers and state makers as coercive and self-seeking entrepreneurs bears a far greater resemblance to the facts than do its chief alternatives: the idea of a social contract, the idea of an open market in which operators of armies and states offer services to willing customers, the idea of a society whose shared norms and expectations call forth a certain kind of government.” States extort large sums of money and the right to send their citizens out to kill and die in exchange for protection from violence both internal and external to the State’s borders. What converts war making from “protection” to “protection racket” is the fact that often States offer defense from threats which they themselves create, threats which can be imaginary or the real results of the State’s own activities. Furthermore, the internal repression and the extraction of money and bodies for “defense” that the State carries out are frequently among the most substantial impediments to the ordinary citizens’ livelihood. The “offer you can’t refuse” is usually the most costly. The main difference between Uncle Sam and the Godfather is that the latter did not enjoy the peace of mind afforded by official government sanction.

This analogy not only works well, it penetrates to the heart of the matter. We’re all victims of extortion. The only way out is to cease to fear the (very real) threat of violence on the part of the state. And I can think of no more powerful way to do so than to be radically identified with the death and resurrection of Jesus, where we no longer fear the ability of the state to destroy our bodies. This is what 1 Jn 4:18 is talking about when it says that “perfect love drives out fear.”

(When quoting above, I am using the page numbers in the original Modern Theology article. Jesus Radicals has a Cavanaugh resources page where you can grab this essay [minus page numbers, unfortunately] along with a few others by him.)

2 responses to “The Modern State is the Mafia”

  1. Cavanaugh is fantastic. He’s been sitting on my “to read” list for far too long.

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