Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 3

by Albert Jay Nock, 1935



Back: Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 2

Or skip back to:



In considering the State's development in America, it is important to keep in mind the fact that America's experience of the State was longer during the colonial period than during the period of American independence; the period 1607-1776 was longer than the period 1776-1935. Moreover, the colonists came here full-grown, and had already a considerable experience of the State of England and Europe before they arrived; and for purposes of comparison, this would extend the former period by a few years, say at least fifteen. It would probably be safe to put it that the American colonists had twenty-five years' longer experience of the State than citizens of the United States have had.

Their experience, too, was not only longer, but more varied. The British State, the French, Dutch, Swedish and Spanish States, were all established here. The separatist English dissenters who landed at Plymouth had lived under the Dutch State as well as the British State. When James I made England too uncomfortable for them to live in, they went to Holland; and many of the institutions which they subsequently set up in New England, and which were later incorporated into the general body of what we call "American Institutions," were actually Dutch, though commonly--almost invariably--we credit them to England. They were for the most part Roman-Continental in their origin, but they were transmitted here from Holland, not from England. [1] No such institutions existed in England at that time, and hence the Plymouth colonists could not have seen them there; they could have seen them only in Holland, where they did exist.

Our colonial period coincided with the period of revolution and readjustment in England, referred to in the preceding chapter, when the British merchant-State was displacing the feudal State, consolidating its own position, and shifting the incidence of economic exploitation. These revolutionary measures gave rise to an extensive review of the general theory on which the feudal State had been operating. The earlier Stuarts governed on the theory of monarchy by divine right. The State's economic beneficiaries were answerable only to the monarch, who was theoretically answerable only to God; he had no responsibilities to society at large, save such as he chose to incur, and these only for the duration of his pleasure. In 1607, the year of the Virginia colony's landing at Jamestown, John Cowell, regius professor of civil law at the University of Cambridge, laid down the doctrine that the monarch "is above the law by his absolute power, and though for the better and equal course in making laws he do admit the Three Estates unto Council, yet this in divers learned men's opinions is not of constraint, but of his own benignity, or by reason of the promise made upon oath at the time of his coronation."

This doctrine, which was elaborated to the utmost in the extraordinary work called Patriarcha, by Sir Robert Filmer, was all well enough so long as the line of society's stratification was clear, straight and easily drawn. The feudal State's economic beneficiaries were virtually a close corporation, a compact body consisting of a Church hierarchy and a titled group of hereditary, large-holding landed proprietors. In respect of interests, this body was extremely homogeneous, and their interests, few in number, were simple in character and easily defined. With the monarch, the hierarchy, and a small, closely-limited nobility above the line of stratification, and an undifferentiated populace below it, this theory of sovereignty was passable; it answered the purposes of the feudal State as well as any.

But the practical outcome of this theory did not, and could not, suit the purposes of the rapidly-growing class of merchants and financiers. They wished to introduce a new economic system. Under feudalism, production had been, as a general thing, for use, with the incidence of exploitation falling largely on a peasantry. The State had by no means always kept its hands off trade, but it had never countenanced the idea that its chief reason for existence was, as we say, "to help business." The merchants and financiers, however, had precisely this idea in mind. They saw the attractive possibilities of production for profit, with the incidence of exploitation gradually shifting to an industrial proletariat. They saw also, however, that to realize all these possibilities, they must get the State's mechanism to working as smoothly and powerfully on the side of "business" as it had been working on the side of the monarchy, the Church, and the large-holding landed proprietors. This meant capturing control of this mechanism, and so altering and adapting it as to give themselves the same free access to the political means as was enjoyed by the displaced beneficiaries. The course by which they accomplished this is marked by the Civil War, the dethronement and execution of Charles I, the Puritan protectorate, and the revolution of 1688.

This is the actual inwardness of what is known as the Puritan movement in England. It had a quasi-religious motivation--speaking strictly, an ecclesiological motivation--but the paramount practical end towards which it tended was a repartition of access to the political means. It is a significant fact, though seldom noticed, that the only tenet with which Puritanism managed to evangelize equally the non-Christian and Christian world of English-bred civilization is its tenet of work, its doctrine that work is, by God's express will and command, a duty; indeed almost, if not quite, the first and most important of man's secular duties. This erection of labour into a Christian virtue per se, this investment of work with a special religious sanction, was an invention of Puritanism; it was something never heard of in England before the rise of the Puritan State. The only doctrine antedating it presented labour as the means to a purely secular end; as Cranmer's divines put it, "that I may learn and labour truly to get mine own living." There is no hint that God would take it amiss if one preferred to do little work and put up with a poor living, for the sake of doing something else with one's time. Perhaps the best witness to the essential character of the Puritan movement in England and America is the thoroughness with which its doctrine of work has pervaded both literatures, all the way from Cromwell's letters to Carlyle's panegyric and Longfellow's verse.

But the merchant-State of the Puritans was like any other; it followed the standard pattern. It originated in conquest and confiscation, like the feudal State which it displaced; the only difference being that its conquest was by civil war instead of foreign war. Its object was the economic exploitation of one class by another; for the exploitation of feudal serfs by a nobility, it proposed only to substitute the exploitation of a proletariat by enterprisers. Like its predecessor, the merchant-State was purely an organization of the political means, a machine for the distribution of economic advantage, but with its mechanism adapted to the requirements of a more numerous and more highly differentiated order of beneficiaries; a class, moreover, whose numbers were not limited by heredity or by the sheer arbitrary pleasure of a monarch.

The process of establishing the merchant-State, however, necessarily brought about changes in the general theory of sovereignty. The bald doctrine of Cowell and Filmer was no longer practicable; yet any new theory had to find room for some sort of divine sanction, for the habit of men's minds does not change suddenly, and Puritanism's alliance between religious and secular interests was extremely close. One may not quite put it that the merchant-enterprisers made use of religious fanaticism to pull their chestnuts out of the fire; the religionists had sound and good chestnuts of their own to look after. They had plenty of rabid nonsense to answer for, plenty of sour hypocrisy, plenty of vicious fanaticism; whenever we think of seventeenth-century British Puritanism, we think of Hugh Peters, of Praise God Barebones, of Cromwell's iconoclasts "smashing the mighty big angels in glass." But behind all this untowardness there was in the religionists a body of sound conscience, soundly and justly outraged; and no doubt, though mixed with an intolerable deal of unscrupulous greed, there was on the part of the merchant-enterprisers a sincere persuasion that what was good for business was good for society. Taking Hampden's conscience as representative, one would say that it operated under the limitations set by nature upon the typical sturdy Buckinghamshire squire; the mercantile conscience was likewise ill-informed, and likewise set its course with a hard, dogged, provincial stubbornness. Still, the alliance of the two bodies of conscience was not without some measure of respectability. No doubt, for example, Hampden regarded the State-controlled episcopate to some extent objectively, as unscriptural in theory, and a tool of Antichrist in practice; and no doubt, too, the mercantile conscience, with the disturbing vision of William Laud in view, might have found State-managed episcopacy objectionable on other grounds than those of special interest.

The merchant-State's political rationale had to respond to the pressure of a growing individualism. The spirit of individualism appeared in the latter half of the sixteenth century; probably--as well as such obscure origins can be determined--as a by-product of the Continental revival of learning, or, it may be, specifically as a by-product of the Reformation in Germany. It was long, however, in gaining force enough to make itself count in shaping political theory. The feudal State could take no account of this spirit; its stark regime of status was operable only where there was no great multiplicity of diverse economic interests to be accommodated, and where the sum of social power remained practically stable. Under the British feudal State, one large-holding landed proprietor's interest was much like another's, and one bishop's or clergyman's interest was about the same in kind as another's. The interests of the monarchy and court were not greatly diversified, and the sum of social power varied but little from time to time. Hence an economic class-solidarity was easily maintained; access upward from one class to the other was easily blocked, so easily that very few positive State-interventions were necessary to keep people, as we say, in their place; or as Cranmer's divines put it, to keep them doing their duty in that station of life unto which it had pleased God to call them. Thus the State could accomplish its primary purpose, and still afford to remain relatively weak. It could normally, that is, enable a thorough-going economic exploitation with relatively little apparatus of legislation or personnel. [2]

The merchant-State, on the other hand, with its ensuing regime of contract, had to meet the problem set by a rapid development of social power, and a multiplicity of economic interests. Both these tended to foster and stimulate the spirit of individualism. The management of social power made the merchant-enterpriser feel that he was quite as much somebody as anybody, and that the general order of interest which he represented--and in particular his own special fraction of that interest--was to be regarded as most respectable, which hitherto it had not been. In short, he had a full sense of himself as an individual, which on these grounds he could of course justify beyond peradventure. The aristocratic disparagement of his pursuits, and the consequent stigma of inferiority which had been so long fixed upon the "base mechanical," exacerbated this sense, and rendered it at its best assertive, and at its worst, disposed to exaggerate the characteristic defects of his class as well as its excellences, and lump them off together in a new category of social virtues--its hardness, ruthlessness, ignorance and vulgarity at par with its commercial integrity, its shrewdness, diligence and thrift. Thus the fully-developed composite type of merchant-enterpriser-financier might be said to run all the psychological gradations between the brothers Cheeryble at one end of the scale, and Mr. Gradgrind, Sir Gorgius Midas and Mr. Bottles at the other.

This individualism fostered the formulation of certain doctrines which in one shape or another found their way into the official political philosophy of the merchant-State. Foremost among these were the two which the Declaration of Independence lays down as fundamental, the doctrine of natural rights and the doctrine of popular sovereignty. In a generation which had exchanged the authority of a pope for the authority of a book--or rather, the authority of unlimited private interpretation of a book--there was no difficulty about finding ample Scriptural sanction for both these doctrines. The interpretation of the Bible, like the judicial interpretation of a constitution, is merely a process by which, as a contemporary of Bishop Butler said, anything may be made to mean anything; and in the absence of a coercive authority, papal, conciliar or judicial, any given interpretation finds only such acceptance as may, for whatever reason, be accorded it. Thus the episode of Eden, the parable of the talents, the Apostolic injunction against being "slothful in business," were a warrant for the Puritan doctrine of work; they brought the sanction of economic interest into complete agreement, uniting the religionist and the merchant-enterpriser in the bond of a common intention. Thus, again, the view of man as made in the image of God, made only a little lower than the angels, the subject of so august a transaction as the Atonement, quite corroborated the political doctrine of his endowment by his Creator with certain rights unalienable by Church or State. While the merchant-enterpriser might hold with Mr. Jefferson that the truth of this political doctrine is self-evident, its Scriptural support was yet of great value as carrying an implication of human nature's dignity which braced his more or less diffident and self-conscious individualism; and the doctrine that so dignified him might easily be conceived of as dignifying his pursuits. Indeed, the Bible's indorsement of the doctrine of labour and the doctrine of natural rights was really his charter for rehabilitating "trade" against the disparagement that the regime of status had put upon it, and for investing it with the most brilliant lustre of respectability.

In the same way, the doctrine of popular sovereignty could be mounted on impregnable Scriptural ground. Civil society was an association of true believers functioning for common secular purposes; and its right of self-government with respect to these purposes was God-given. If on the religious side all believers were priests, then on the secular side they were all sovereigns; the notion of an intervening jure divino monarch was as repugnant to Scripture as that of an intervening jure divino pope--witness the Israelite commonwealth upon which monarchy was visited as explicitly a punishment for sin. Civil legislation was supposed to interpret and particularize the laws of God as revealed in the Bible, and its administrators were responsible to the congregation in both its religious and secular capacities. Where the revealed law was silent, legislation was to be guided by its general spirit, as best this might be determined. These principles obviously left open a considerable area of choice; but hypothetically the range of civil liberty and the range of religious liberty had a common boundary.

This religious sanction of popular sovereignty was agreeable to the merchant-enterpriser; it fell in well with his individualism, enhancing considerably his sense of personal dignity and consequence. He could regard himself as by birthright not only a free citizen of a heavenly commonwealth, but also a free elector in an earthly commonwealth fashioned, as nearly as might be, after the heavenly pattern. The range of liberty permitted him in both qualities was satisfactory; he could summon warrant of Scripture to cover his undertakings both here and hereafter. As far as this present world's concerns went, his doctrine of labour was Scriptural, his doctrine of master-and-servant was Scriptural--even bond-service, even chattel-service was Scriptural; his doctrine of a wage-economy, of money-lending--again the parable of the talents--both were Scriptural. What especially recommended the doctrine of popular sovereignty to him on its secular side, however, was the immense leverage it gave him for ousting the regime of status to make way for the regime of contract; in a word, for displacing the feudal State and bringing in the merchant-State.

But interesting as these two doctrines were, their actual application was a matter of great difficulty. On the religious side, the doctrine of natural rights had to take account of the unorthodox. Theoretically it was easy to dispose of them. The separatists, for example, such as those who manned the Mayflower, had lost their natural rights in the fall of Adam, and had never made use of the means appointed to reclaim them. This was all very well, but the logical extension of this principle into actual practice was a rather grave affair. There were a good many dissenters, all told, and they were articulate on the matter of natural rights, which made trouble; so that when all was said and done, the doctrine came out considerably compromised. Then, in respect of popular sovereignty, there were the Presbyterians. Calvinism was monocratic to the core; in fact, Presbyterianism existed side by side with episcopacy in the Church of England in the sixteenth century, and was nudged out only very gradually. [3] They were a numerous body, and in point of Scripture and history they had a great deal to say for their position. Thus the practical task of organizing a spiritual commonwealth had as hard going with the logic of popular sovereignty as it had with the logic of natural rights.

The task of secular organization was even more troublesome. A society organized in conformity to these two principles is easily conceivable--such an organization as Paine and the Declaration contemplated, for example, arising out of social agreement, and concerning itself only with the maintenance of freedom and security for the individual--but the practical task of effecting such an organization is quite another matter. On general grounds, doubtless, the Puritans would have found this impracticable; if, indeed, the times are ever to be ripe for anything of the kind, their times were certainly not. The particular ground of difficulty, however, was that the merchant-enterpriser did not want that form of social organization; in fact, one can not be sure that the Puritan religionists themselves wanted it. The root-trouble was, in short, that there was no practicable way to avert a shattering collision between the logic of natural rights and popular sovereignty, and the economic law that man tends always to satisfy his needs with the least possible exertion.

This law governed the merchant-enterpriser in common with the rest of mankind. He was not for an organization that should do no more than maintain freedom and security; he was for one that should redistribute access to the political means, and concern itself with freedom and security only so far as would be consistent with keeping this access open. That is to say, he was thoroughly indisposed to the idea of government; he was quite as strong for the idea of the State as the hierarchy and nobility were. He was not for any essential transformation in the State's character, but merely for a repartition of the economic advantages that the State confers.

Thus the merchant-polity amounted to an attempt, more or less disingenuous, at reconciling matters which in their nature can not be reconciled. The ideas of natural rights and popular sovereignty were, as we have seen, highly acceptable and highly animating to all the forces allied against the feudal idea; but while these ideas might be easily reconcilable with a system of simple government, such a system would not answer the purpose. Only the State-system would do that. The problem therefore was, how to keep these ideas well in the forefront of political theory, and at the same time prevent their practical application from undermining the organization of the political means. It was a difficult problem. The best that could be done with it was by making certain structural alterations in the State, which would give it the appearance of expressing these ideas, without the reality. The most important of these structural changes was that of bringing in the so-called representative or parliamentary system, which Puritanism introduced into the modern world, and which has received a great deal of praise as an advance towards democracy. This praise, however, is exaggerated. The change was one of form only, and its bearing on democracy has been inconsiderable. [4]




Next: Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 3, Sec. II

Or skip ahead to:




.. [1] Among these institutions are: our system of free public education; local self-government as originally established in the township system; our method of conveying land; almost all of our system of equity; much of our criminal code; and our method of administering estates.

.. [2] Throughout Europe, indeed, up to the close of the eighteenth century, the State was quite weak, even considering the relatively moderate development of social power, and the moderate amount of economic accumulation available to its predatory purposes. Social power in modern France could pay the flat annual levy of Louis XIV's taxes without feeling it, and would like nothing better than to commute the republican State's levy on those terms.

.. [3] During the reign of Elizabeth the Puritan contention, led by Cartwright, was for what amounted to a theory of jure divino Presbyterianism. The Establishment at large took the position of Archbishop Whitgift and Richard Hooker that the details of church polity were indifferent, and therefore properly subject to State regulation. The High Church doctrine of jure divino episcopacy was laid down later, by Whitgift's successor, Bancroft.Thus up to 1604 the Presbyterians were objectionable on secular grounds, and afterwards on both secular and ecclesiastical grounds.

.. [4] So were the kaleidoscopic changes that took place in France after the revolution of 1789. Throughout the Directorate, the Consulship, the Restoration, the two Empires, the three Republics and the Commune, the French State kept its essential character intact; it remained always the organization of the political means.