I recently found Our Enemy the State, by Albert Jay Nock, under a chair in my kids’ playroom–I must have bought it long ago and misplaced it. I flipped the book open to a chapter: “Politics and Other Fetiches,” and despite the unpromising chapter heading I was immediately riveted. Although written in 1935, Our Enemy the State provides an eye-opening analysis of the true nature of the State. This short book–only 88 pages–is packed with huge concepts, historical analysis and staggering observations which reveal to the reader not only that the State is a tool designed solely to bestow privilege, but also that one’s own social conditioning runs deep. In particular, Nock’s discussion of the American colonial period forced me to realize that the ideological myth of the State still defines important aspects of my understanding of history. (This is a humbling admission from a dyed-in-the-wool anarcho-capitalist such as I!)
Our Enemy the State is divided into six chapters, each with a subject that could easily fill a volume, but I will only touch briefly on the major points.
Social Power vs. State Power. Nock explains that the balance between social power and State power is a zero-sum game and that no gain of State power can occur without a commensurate depletion of social power. He explains that people begin to expect the State to replace society in every aspect and the balance of power shifts ever-Stateward until people fail to recognize social power at all.
Nock offers a few examples to demonstrate the transition from social to State power:
- Citizen’s arrest–true law exists outside of the State and is known to all and enforceable by all. The right of one citizen to arrest another for malfeasance (fraud, theft, assault, murder) is a vestige of social power.
- Fighting fires–there was a time when anyone who saw a fire would stop to help fight it, now almost everyone assumes the State will do it. (State power has supplanted social power to such an extent in this regard that, according to reason magazine, Great Britain is considering removing fire extinguishers from buildings so people are not tempted to fight fires themselves!)
- Charity–instead of giving one’s spare change to someone who is down on his luck, one often thinks when approached by a beggar, “The government took the quarter I would have given you and said they would take care of you. Go see them about it.”
The Government, the State and Class. Nock distinguishes government from the State and claims that without State-bestowed privilege society would not be ordered along class lines. Nock differentiates government and the State utterly, emphasizing that the two concepts do not represent a difference of degree–the State is not government-run-amok–but a difference of kind–the State is a different animal altogether, actually contrary to legitimate government. According to Nock,
There are two methods or means, and only two, whereby man’s needs and desires can be satisfied. One is the production and exchange of wealth; this is the economic means. The other is the uncompensated appropriation of wealth produced by others; this is the political means. …The State…is the organization of the political means.
It is the political means, organized under the legitimizing mantle of the State, that results in classes: the privileged (or parasite class) and the exploited. Legitimate government, on the other hand, is a purely negative institution emerging in society solely to protect individuals from being harmed by others.
Nock further explains the evolution of the State and the classes it created:
The primitive exercise of the political means was, as we have seen, by conquest, confiscation, expropriation, and the introduction of a slave-economy. The conqueror parceled out the conquered territory among beneficiaries, who thenceforth satisfied their needs and desires by exploiting the labor of the enslaved inhabitants. The feudal State and the merchant-State, wherever found, merely took over and developed successively the heritage of character, intention and apparatus of exploitation which the primitive State transmitted to them; they are in essence merely higher integrations of the primitive State.
Nock elaborates that the feudal state–consisting of a Church hierarchy plus a titled group of hereditary, large-holding landed proprietors—gave way to the merchant-State through which the merchants gained hold of the mechanism of the State and converted the exploited class from the peasantry to the industrial laborer. In support of this view, I note that the exploited class is created by the State’s coercive methods, not by the free association of individuals. To wit, in England, serfs were legally tied to their land for centuries, following which labor unions were illegal from the middle of the 14th century to the middle of the 19th century. Today, the system is much more subtle and efficient: the exploited class are neither serfs nor forced laborers, but tax slaves who cannot earn a living without remitting a portion to the parasite class.
The State in Colonial America. Even Murray Rothbard in his huge work Conceived in Liberty seems to accept that the United States was founded on the concept of what Nock would consider legitimate government, but Nock doesn’t accept this premise. While the struggle between the anti-federalists and the federalists is widely represented as a struggle between those who would keep government at bay by decentralizing it and those who favored a strong and powerful federal government, Nock claims that the tension in early American politics actually represented a battle for privilege between the waning landed class and the waxing merchant class as the power structure shifted from one group of elites to another. In Nock’s words,
The colonists regarded the State as primarily an instrument whereby one might help oneself and hurt others; that is to say, first and foremost they regarded it as the organization of the political means. No other view of the State was ever held in colonial America. Romance and poetry were brought to bear on the subject in the customary way; glamorous myths about it were propagated with the customary intent; but when all came to all, nowhere in colonial America were actual practical relations with the State ever determined by any other view than this.
On Politics and Parties. In his analysis of politics, Nock begins by pointing out that it is men’s ideas that allow the State to exercise its control and nothing more. He points out that at one time the Church held sway over men’s minds so that no one would question it’s supremacy, now it’s the State that holds that position. Nock observes further that man thinks the State is himself and also that the State has some independent power to address problems more easily and at less cost than if he had to address them himself–as if somehow the State made a whole greater than the sum of its parts when of course the opposite is true! The whole is much less than the sum of its parts, the entity itself diminishing the worth and contribution of its members while at the same time siphoning resources to sustain itself. By way of example, Nock makes a point that’s as relevant today as it was when he wrote it 75 years ago:
Does social power mismanage banking-practice in this-or-that special instance–then let the State, which never has shown itself able to keep its own finances from sinking promptly into the slough of misfeasance, wastefulness and corruption, intervene to “supervise” or “regulate” the whole body of banking-practice, or even take it over entire.
Another example Nock brings up pertains to the huge boom-bust cycle of the railroads in the late 19th century. This example is used even today by Statists and inflationists in support of federal regulations and the Federal Reserve, falsely claiming that the free market (as exemplified by 19th century railroads) is more unstable than one manipulated by the State.
The fact is that our railways, with few exceptions, did not grow up in response to any actual economic demand. They were speculative enterprises enabled by State intervention, by allotment of the political means in the form of land-grants and subsidies; and of all the evils alleged against our railway-practice, there is not one but what is directly traceable to this primary intervention.
Nock is also spot-on and still relevant in his assessment of American political parties:
…the party system at once became in effect an elaborate system of fetiches, which, in order to be made as impressive as possible, were chiefly moulded up around the constitution, and were put on show as “constitutional principles.” The history of the whole post-constitutional period, from 1789 to the present day, is an instructive and cynical exhibit of the fate of these fetiches when they encounter the one only actual principle of party action–the principle of keeping open the channels of access to the political means. When the fetich of ‘strict construction,’ for example, has collided with this principle, it has invariably gone by the board, the party that maintained it simply changing sides.
Of course this remains the case as President Obama, a Democrat, recently signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, one giant leap forward in the government’s war against our civil liberties, and President Bush, a Republican, brought us both Medicare D, which at the time was the largest expansion of government-sponsored medicine since President Johnson, and the ban on incandescent lightbulbs.
The Remnant. Nock quotes Jose Ortega y Gasset on where our path will inevitably lead us:
…society will have to live for the State, man for the governmental machine. And as after all it is only a machine whose existence and maintenance depend on the vital support around it, the State, after sucking out the very marrow of society, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more gruesome than the death of a living organism. Such was the lamentable fate of ancient civilization.
But even with this future ahead of us, Nock recognizes that there is always a small segment of society, “the remnant,” whom he describes as follows:
…in every civilization, however generally prosaic, however addicted to the short-time point of view on human affairs, there are always certain alien spirits who, while outwardly conforming to the requirements of the civilization around them, still keep a disinterested regard for the plain intelligible law of things, irrespective of any practical end.
I would add only that in addition to keeping a “disinterested regard for the plain intelligible law of things,” the remnant must keep this law known and available for when it is needed for the foundation of a new society–perhaps, at last, a free and just one.
For more on Nock, check this out: Albert Jay Nock and Alternative History.