Our Enemy, The State, Ch. 5, Sec. IV

by Albert Jay Nock, 1935



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Out of this idea proceeded what we know as the "party system" of political management, which has been in effect ever since. Our purposes do not require that we examine its history in close detail for evidence that it has been from the beginning a purely bipartisan system, since this is now a matter of fairly common acceptance. In his second term Mr. Jefferson discovered the tendency towards bipartisanship, [18] and was both dismayed and puzzled by it. I have elsewhere [19] remarked his curious inability to understand how the cohesive power of public plunder works straight towards political bipartisanship. In 1823, finding some who called themselves Republicans favouring the Federalist policy of centralization, he spoke of them in a rather bewildered way as "pseudo-Republicans, but real Federalists." But most naturally any Republican who saw a chance of profiting by the political means would retain the name, and at the same time resist any tendency within the party to impair the general system which held out such a prospect. [20] In this way bipartisanship arises. Party designations become purely nominal, and the stated issues between parties become progressively trivial; and both are more and more openly kept up with no other object than to cover from scrutiny the essential identity of purpose in both parties.

Thus 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 and 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. The anti-Federalist party took office in 1800 as the party of strict construction; yet, once in office, it played ducks and drakes with the constitution, in behalf of the special interests that it represented. [21] The Federalists were nominally for loose construction, yet they fought bitterly every one of the opposing party's loose-constructionist measures--the embargo, the protective tariff and the national bank. They were the constitutional nationalists of the deepest dye, as we have seen; yet in their centre and stronghold, New England, they held the threat of secession over the country throughout the period of what they harshly called "Mr. Madison's war," the War of 1812, which was in fact a purely imperialist adventure after annexation of Floridian and Canadian territory, in behalf of stiffening agrarian control of the political means; but when the planting interests of the South made the same threat in 1861, they became fervid nationalists again.

Such exhibitions of pure fetichism, always cynical in their transparent candour, make up the history of the party system. Their reductio ad absurdum is now seen as perhaps complete--one can not see how it could go further--in the attitude of the Democratic party towards its historical principles of state sovereignty and strict construction. A fair match for this, however, is found in a speech made the other day to a group of exporting and importing interests by the mayor of New York--always known as a Republican in politics--advocating the hoary Democratic doctrine of a low tariff!

Throughout our post-constitutional period there is not on record, as far as I know, a single instance of party adherence to a fixed principle, qua principle, or to a political theory, qua theory. Indeed, the very cartoons on the subject show how widely it has come to be accepted that party-platforms, with their cant of "issues," are so much sheer quackery, and that campaign-promises are merely another name for thimblerigging. The workaday practice of politics has been invariably opportunist, or in other words, invariably conformable to the primary function of the State; and it is largely for this reason that the State's service exerts its most powerful attraction upon an extremely low and sharp-set type of individual. [22]

The maintenance of this system of fetiches, however, gives great enhancement to the prevailing general view of the State. In that view, the State is made to appear as somehow deeply and disinterestedly concerned with great principles of action; and hence, in addition to its prestige as a pseudo-social institution, it takes on the prestige of a kind of moral authority, thus disposing of the last vestige of the doctrine of natural rights by overspreading it heavily with the quicklime of legalism; whatever is State-sanctioned is right. This double prestige is assiduously inflated by many agencies; by a State-dazzled pulpit, by a meretricious press, by a continuous kaleidoscopic display of State pomp, panoply and circumstance, and by all the innumerable devices of electioneering. These last invariably take their stand on the foundation of some imposing principle, as witness the agonized cry now going up here and there in the land, for a "return to the constitution." All this is simply "the interested clamours and sophistry," which means no more and no less than it meant when the constitution was not yet five years old, and Fisher Ames was observing contemptuously that of all the legislative measures and proposals which were on the carpet at the time, he scarce knew one that had not raised this same cry, "not excepting a motion for adjournment."

In fact, such popular terms of electioneering appeal are uniformly and notoriously what Jeremy Bentham called impostor-terms, and their use invariably marks one thing and one only; it marks a state of apprehension, either fearful or expectant, as the case may be, concerning access to the political means. As we are seeing at the moment, once let this access come under threat of straitening or stoppage, the menaced interests immediately trot out the spavined, glandered hobby of "state rights" or "a return to the constitution," and put it through its galvanic movements. Let the incidence of exploitation show the first sign of shifting, and we hear at once from one source of "interested clamours and sophistry" that "democracy" is in danger, and that the unparalleled excellences of our civilization have come about solely through a policy of "rugged individualism," carried out under terms of "free competition"; while from another source we hear that the enormities of laissez-faire have ground the faces of the poor, and obstructed entrance into the More Abundant Life. [23]

The general upshot of all this is that we see politicians of all schools and stripes behaving with the obscene depravity of degenerate children; like the loose-footed gangs that infest the railway-yards and purlieus of gas-houses, each group tries to circumvent another with respect to the fruit accruing to acts of public mischief. In other words, we see them behaving in a strictly historical manner. Professor Laski's elaborate moral distinction between the State and officialdom is devoid of foundation. The State is not, as he would have it, a social institution administered in an anti-social way. It is an anti-social institution administered in the only way an anti-social institution can be administered, and by the kind of person who, in the nature of things, is best adapted to such service.




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.. [18] He had observed it in the British State some years before, and spoke of it with vivacity. "The nest of office being too small for all of them to cuddle into at once, the contest is eternal which shall crowd the other out. For this purpose they are divided into two parties, the Ins and the Outs." Why he could not see that the same thing was bound to take place in the American State as an effect of causes identical with those which brought it about in the British State, is a puzzle to students. Apparently, however, he did not see it, notwithstanding the sound instinct that made him suspect parties, and always kept him free from party alliances. As he wrote Hopkinson in 1789, "I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addition is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all."

.. [19] Jefferson, p. 274. The agrarian-artisan-debtor economic group that elected Mr. Jefferson took title as the Republican party (subsequently re-named Democratic) and the opposing group called itself by the old pre-constitutional title of Federalist.

.. [20] An example, noteworthy only because uncommonly conspicuous, is seen in the behaviour of the Democratic senators in the matter of the tariff on sugar, in Cleveland's second administration. Ever since that incident, one of the Washington newspapers has used the name "Senator Sorghum" in its humorous paragraphs, to designate the typical venal jobholder.

.. [21] Mr. Jefferson was the first to acknowledge that his purchase of the Louisiana territory was unconstitutional; but it added millions of acres to the sum of agrarian resource, and added an immense amount of prospective voting-strength to agrarian control of the political means, as against control by the financial and commercial interests represented by the Federalist party. Mr. Jefferson justified himself solely on the ground of public policy, an interesting anticipation of Lincoln's self-justification in 1861, for confronting Congress and the country with a like fait accompli--this time, however, executed in behalf of financial and commercial interests as against the agrarian interests.

.. [22] Henry George made some very keep comment upon the almost incredible degradation that he saw taking place progressively in the personnel of the State's service. It is perhaps most conspicuous in the Presidency and the Senate, though it goes on pari passu elsewhere and throughout. As for the federal House of Representatives and the state legislative bodies, they must be seen to be believed.

.. [23] Of all the impostor-terms in our political glossary, these are perhaps the most flagrantly impudent, and their employment perhaps the most flagitious. We have already seen that nothing remotely resembling democracy has ever existed here; nor yet has anything resembling free competition, for the existence of free competition is obviously incompatible with any exercise of the political means, even the feeblest. For the same reason, no policy of rugged individualism has ever existed; the most that rugged individualism has done to distinguish itself has been by way of running to the State for some form of economic advantage. If the reader has any curiousity about this, let him look up the number of American business enterprises that have made a success unaided by the political means, or the number of fortunes accumulated without such aid. Laissez-faire has become a term of pure opprobrium; those who use it either do not know what it means, or else wilfully pervert it. As for the unparalleled excellences of our civilization, it is perhaps enough to say that the statistics of our insurance-companies now show that four-fifths of our people who have reached the age of sixty-fiive are supported by their relatives or by some other form of charity.