Capitalism is a War Machine

The invention of property

The classic definition of a state is a group of institutions that successfully organizes “a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” The state is an abstract, a principle, a social construct, a network of relationships. Government is the organization, usually a hierarchy and a bureaucracy, which physically enforces this monopoly and determines whether any given use of violence is legitimate or illegitimate. As any conservative will tell you, the state’s primary role is “national security” — the state must maintain itself against existential threats. This is traditionally known as raison d’État, or “reason of state.” It follows that the state must reproduce itself, so the state must serve as enforcer of the economic system of its territory.

Most prominently, the modern state fulfills this role by using its monopoly on violence to enforce property law. Colin Ward defines the state as “a political mechanism using force, and to the sociologist it is one of many forms of social organization. It is, however, ‘distinguished from all other associations by its exclusive investment with the final power of coercion.’ And against whom is this final power directed? It is directed at the enemy without, but it is aimed at the subject society within…War is the expression of the state in its most perfect form: it is its finest hour.” The state’s exercise of force against external threats and its internal use of force are two sides of the same coin; and when one method fails to maintain the state’s power, it will turn to the other method.

The regime of state and property was first developed by the Romans, as described by Ellen Meiksins Wood: “Unlike other imperial states whose overbearing power tended to impede the development of private property, the Roman Empire consolidated the rule of property as an alternative locus of power apart from the state. This combination of imperial state and strong private property was reflected in the Roman law, which produced both a distinctive conception of absolute private property (dominium) — very different from the loose conceptions of possession characteristic, for example, of the ancient Greeks — and also something approaching a notion of sovereignty (imperium) — a public right of command attached to civil magistrates and then the emperor — which distinguished Roman ideas of the state from the Greek idea of the polis as simply the community of citizens. While the conception of dominium and imperium had roots in the Republic, they developed in tandem and came to fruition in the administration of the Empire by means of the alliance between property and state.”

The Roman property concept was incidentally revived by the Catholic Church in the eleventh century. Many legal scholars, most prominently Harold J. Berman in Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, “trace the origins of capitalism in Europe to the institutional reforms of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), who tried to separate the church from secular authority, and, at the same time, to centralize power within the church. To govern the newly independent church entity, these Gregorian reforms gave rise to the new canon law, which shortly thereafter served as a model for new secular legal systems, including laws establishing and governing the activities of other corporate groups, and laws controlling trade activities (lex mercatoria). These secular laws, it is argued, allowed the establishment of the economic institutions and practices that eventually led to capitalism.” This was the legal forerunner for the modern state as the consolidation of political and economic power, following the Imperial Roman model.


The war machine

Modern hierarchies are bound together, both in their present relationships, and in their origin. The entangled oppressions that continually divide and conquer us have persisted for centuries. The divide-and-conquer strategy requires the creation of categories, often binaries: man/woman, faithful/heathen, white/black, citizen/foreigner, traditional/modern, straight/gay, and so on. These binaries are, primarily, political fictions. Feminist writer Silvia Federici points out, the “project of domination…can sustain itself only by dividing, on a continually renewed basis, those it intends to rule.” This is one of the core arguments of Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch: “primitive accumulation,” the origin of capitalism, was “above all an accumulation of differences, inequalities, hierarchies, divisions, which have alienated workers from each other and even from themselves.” The deepening and entanglement of patriarchy, states, capitalism, and bigotry were not coincidental, but the product of a process by elites consolidating their power. Howard Zinn describes such elite coordination as “not a conscious conspiracy, but an accumulation of tactical responses.”

Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish Women’s Movement organizer, describes the result: “Dualisms like man-woman, state-society, human-nature aim to portray hierarchical relationships as natural. What Thomas Hobbes called ‘homo homini lupus est’ to legitimize the unchallengeable leviathan called the state, is practiced big-brother style in our modern times.” (Homo homini lupus est was a Roman proverb meaning “A man is a wolf to another man.” Frans de Waal, a primatologist, points out that both wolves and humans are extremely social species. The proverb is based on inaccurate Western myths about wolves.)

Against this massive fraud, solidarity is our weapon. The violent imposition of these hierarchies were resisted from the start, and that resistance continues to this day. By better understanding how these hierarchies were constructed together, we can sharpen our arguments against the system of modern hierarchies, and better develop our methods of self-defense against its attacks.


This system began to come together in parts of the 15th-century Mediterranean region and western continental Europe, consolidated and developed existing hierarchies, and imposed itself around the world by blood-soaked conquest. The system is dynamic and adaptive, but from the beginning peoples’ actions have succeeded in slowing, stopping and even overthrowing it. Partly, the system was a counter-revolution to the intensity of anti-feudal struggles in the Late Middle Ages. Divisions were combined and recombined by rulers and managers over many generations of trial-and-error, reacting to generations of resistance. A particular relationship of oppressions developed in a small region and were globalized by colonialism. This system has its origins in war, as I will describe below; war is a critical component of this system; and this system constantly wages war against the dispossessed of the world; which is why, for short, I refer to this system as “the war machine.”

Contrary to its founding myths, capitalism did not naturally develop from the activities of peaceful traders, hardy pioneers and genius inventors. Rather, capitalism was only possible if imposed by force of arms: “capital’s economic power cannot exist without the support of extra-economic force; and extra-economic force is today, as before, primarily supplied by the state…capitalists ultimately depend on coercion by the state to underpin their economic powers and their hold on property, to maintain social order and conditions favorable to their accumulation.” The origin of the word “capitalism” points to the entanglement of capitalism with hierarchy, slavery, war, and states. “Capital” comes from the Latin word capita, which means “head,” referring to heads of livestock and slaves: a person’s movable wealth. Capita is also the root-word of “cattle,” “chattel,” and “capitol” (head of government, first used in 1699 to refer to the Virginia state houses, and first used for the U.S. Capitol in 1793 by Thomas Jefferson).

Ellen Wood defines capitalism as “a system in which all major economic actors are dependent on the market for their basic requirements of life. Other societies have had markets, often on a large scale; but only in capitalism is market dependence the fundamental condition of life for everyone.” The enclosure of the commons across Europe, the conquest of the Americas, and the kidnapping of slaves from Africa — all by the force-of-arms of early modern states — both provided the primary “start-up capital” of capitalism, and created the conditions for capitalism to define our society.

The modern state, in turn, has always been the servant of war and capitalism, making it an ineffective tool for reform or liberation. This system incorporated patriarchy and invented white supremacy, and globalized both, using gender and race to justify a vast program of conquest, dispossession and genocide.

Many claim that human life has progressively improved since the “Dark Ages.” But upon examination, this narrative of linear progress breaks down. The Late Middle Ages were a period of broad anti-feudal struggle, and wages were greatly boosted by the labor scarcity that followed the Black Death of 1346-1353. Silvia Federici describes how “for a broad section of the western European peasantry, and for urban workers, the 15th century was a period of unprecedented power…a standard of living unparalleled until the 19th century…by the end of the 15th century, a counter-revolution was already well under way at every level of social and political life.” State formation and conquest certainly made life worse for most peasants and indigenous peoples at the time. Nelson Mandela commented that “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.” This sets up a big question for us: how did poverty, slavery and apartheid, as well as patriarchy and militarism, become endemic in the modern era?


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