Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 1, Sec. II

by Albert Jay Nock, 1935



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In the United States at the present time, the principal indexes of the increase of State power are three in number. First, the point to which the centralization of State authority has been carried. Practically all the sovereign rights and powers of the smaller political units--all of them that are significant enough to be worth absorbing--have been absorbed by the federal unit; nor is this all. State power has not only been thus concentrated at Washington, but it has been so far concentrated into the hands of the Executive that the existing regime is a regime of personal government. It is nominally republican, but actually monocratic; a curious anomaly, but highly characteristic of a people little gifted with intellectual integrity. Personal government is not exercised here in the same ways as in Italy, Russia or Germany, for there is as yet no State interest to be served by so doing, but rather the contrary; while in those countries there is. But personal government is always personal government; the mode of its exercise is a matter of immediate political expediency, and is determined entirely by circumstances.

This regime was established by a coup d'Etat of a new and unusual kind, practicable only in a rich country. It was effected, not by violence, like Louis-Napoleon's, or by terrorism, like Mussolini's, but by purchase. It therefore presents what might be called an American variant of the coup d'Etat. [3] Our national legislature was not suppressed by force of arms, like the French Assembly in 1851, but was bought out of its functions with public money; and as appeared most conspicuously in the elections of November, 1934, the consolidation of the coup d'Etat was effected by the same means; the corresponding functions in the smaller units were reduced under the personal control of the Executive. [4] This is a most remarkable phenomenon; possibly nothing quite like it ever took place; and its character and implications deserve the most careful attention.

A second index is supplied by the prodigious extension of the bureaucratic principle that is now observable. This is attested prima facie by the number of new boards, bureaux and commissions set up at Washington in the last two years. They are reported as representing something like 90,000 new employes appointed outside the civil service, and the total of the federal pay-roll in Washington is reported as something over three million dollars per month. [5] This, however, is relatively a small matter. The pressure of centralization has tended powerfully to convert every official and every political aspirant in the smaller units into a venal and complaisant agent of the federal bureaucracy. This presents an interesting parallel with the state of things prevailing in the Roman empire in the last days of the Flavian dynasty, and afterwards. The rights and practices of local self-government, which were formerly very considerable in the provinces and much more so in the municipalities, were lost by surrender rather than by suppression. The imperial bureaucracy, which up to the second century was comparatively a modest affair, grew rapidly to great size, and local politicians were quick to see the advantage of being on terms with it. They came to Rome with their hats in their hands, as governors, Congressional aspirants and such-like now go to Washington. Their eyes and thoughts were constantly fixed on Rome, because recognition and preferment lay that way; and in their incorrigible sycophancy they became, as Plutarch says, like hypochondriacs who dare not eat or take a bath without consulting their physician.

A third index is seen in the erection of poverty and mendicancy into a permanent political asset. Two years ago, many of our people were in hard straits; to some extent, no doubt, through no fault of their own, though it is now clear that in the popular view of their case, as well as in the political view, the line between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor was not distinctly drawn. Popular feeling ran high at the time, and the prevailing wretchedness was regarded with undiscriminating emotion, as evidence of some general wrong done upon its victims by society at large, rather than as the natural penalty of greed, folly or actual misdoings; which in large part it was. The State, always instinctively "turning every contingency into a resource" for accelerating the conversion of social power into State power, was quick to take advantage of this state of mind. All that was needed to organize these unfortunates into an invaluable political property was to declare the doctrine that the State owes all its citizens a living; and this was accordingly done. It immediately precipitated an enormous mass of subsidized voting-power, an enormous resource for strengthening the State at the expense of society. [6]




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.. [3] There is a sort of precedent for it in Roman history, if the story be true in all its details that the army sold the emperorship to Didius Julianus for something like five million dollars. Money has often been used to grease the wheels of a coup d'Etat, but straight over-the-counter purchase is unknown, I think, except in these two instances.

.. [4] On the day I write this, the newspapers say the President is about to order a stoppage on the flow of federal relief-funds into Louisiana, for the purpose of bringing Senator Long to terms. I have seen no comment, however, on the propriety of this kind of procedure.

.. [5] A friend in the theatrical business tells me that from the box-office point of view, Washington is now the best theatre-town, concert-town, and general-amusement town in the United States, far better than New York.

.. [6] The feature of the approaching campaign of 1936 which will most interest the student of civilization will be the use of the four-billion-dollar relief-fund that has been placed at the President's disposal--the extent, that is, to which it will be distributed on a patronage-basis.