As Albert Jay Nock argued in the 1930s, and Robert Nisbet in the 1960s, the state plays a zero-sum game: It desires to assume all power over society, even to the point of taking the place of the Church as the glue that holds all together, and thus it renders society obsolete in the long run.
Historian and sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) was arguably the single greatest theorist regarding the nature of the state in the 20th century. From 1953 until his death in 1996, his views were held as almost sacrosanct by the American public. Oddly, like Russell Kirk, though, his reputation faded when he passed from this earth. Still, for nearly forty years, Nisbet reigned as a vital and great public intellectual, equal then to men such as Milton Friedman, George Will, Ralph Nadar, and John Galbraith.
Back to his views on state and society: Not only did he explore the state in all of its manifestations and natures, but he offered a dramatic distinction between what is our society and what is the state. Society, for Nisbet, consisted of a myriad of various spontaneous, natural, and chosen associations, groups, friendships. These were, for Nisbet, what Edmund Burke had labeled our “little platoons.” They arose from specific moments and specific manifestations, unique in placement, but universal in substance. Typically, religion has served as the glue for all of these institutions.
The old communities—tribe, clan, joint family, and guild—were held together to a very large extent by sacred, even religious, bonds. The towns of the Middle Ages, which are sometimes, perhaps uncritically, praised as ideal communities, sheltered the lives of their citizens by religious, civic, and economic associations, each of which aspired to be a kind of enlarged family, and was small enough to arouse deep personal loyalty. The reason why religion has figured so prominently in social history is that in any community a feeling of meaning, of shared purpose, is essential to the prosperity of the community. Religion, traditionally, has been the vessel in which most of the shared meanings and purposes of the deeper sort have been carried. But, it must be emphasized, religion is not indispensable so long as there is some other pattern of meanings and purposes which will do the same thing.
These social institutions created the true social bonds that hold us together, person by person, family by family, and generation by generation. Such a society of competing associations, institutions, and authorities allows for the true freedom of society and the creativity of individuals.
To this we must say firmly, however, that the state which possesses the power to do things for people has also the power to do things to them. Freedom cannot be maintained in a monolithic society. Pluralism and diversity of experience are the essence of true freedom. Therefore even if the state were able to meet the basic problems of stability and security through its own efforts, we should have to reject it as the solution simply because of our concern for the problem of freedom.
States, though, in contrast to societies, separate themselves from their contexts, their times, and their situations to become something autonomous and, then, superior.
A part of society but also apart from society, the state exists uniquely as the one agency that claims to have a monopoly on force and sovereignty. He is worth quoting at length:
What we call political philosophy is so overladen in the West with euphemism, panegyric, and idealization that anyone might be forgiven for occasionally failing to remember just what this philosophy’s true subject is: the political state, unique among major institutions in its claim of absolute power over human lives.
Yet, for Nisbet, the history of the state is the history of propaganda, and it has striven, from its origins through the present, to stay one or two steps ahead of those it governs, justly or not.
Euphemisms for the state drawn from kinship, religion, nature, reason, mechanics, biology, the people, and other essentially nonpolitical sources have been ascendant for so long in Western history that it is downright difficult to keep in mind that the state’s origin and essential function is, as philosopher David Hume pointed out in the 18th century, in and of force—above all, military force. What procreation is to kinship and propitiation of gods is to religion, monopolization of power is to the state.
Sometime in the 1970s, Contemporary Authors asked Nisbet about the books that had had the greatest influence on his thinking. He stated without hesitation, “The books that have had the greatest influence on [my] work are Frederick J. Teggart’s Theory and Processes of History, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution, and Albert Jay Nock, Our Enemy, the State…. These permanently shaped my mind when I read them the first time thirty or so years ago… and I still draw heavily from them.”
In that same decade, Nisbet told a young George Nash that Nock had influenced him not only through his 1935 anti-New Deal creed, Our Enemy, the State, but also through his celebrated autobiography, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, which Nisbet had, during World War II, “practically memorized.”
As I’ve had the chance to mention before, Nock played a much larger role in the formation of post-war Conservatism than many scholars (conservative, progressive, or liberal) have acknowledged. Russell Kirk, Frank Chodorov, William F. Buckley, and Nisbet each vied for the claim that he best represented the legacy of Nock, who had passed away suddenly in 1945. While Kirk and Buckley could lay claim to imitating Nock’s writing style, Nisbet, of the four, took to heart most seriously Nock’s complex arguments on state and society.
Unlike society, in which all can gain and progress, the state plays a zero-sum game, according to Nock (and, subsequently, according to Nisbet). “Just as the State has no money of its own, so it has no power of its own,” Nock explained on page one of his 1935 book. “All the power it has is what society gives it, plus what it confiscates from time to time on one pretext or another; there is no other source from which State power can be drawn.”
As the State grows, the social atrophies to the point—Nock claimed, echoing the arguments of Alexis de Tocqueville—in which members of society no longer even think of trying to solve their own problems, but, rather, automatically and reflexively turn to the State for solutions.
Both Nisbet and Nock find this sad state of affairs very human, but also very counter to the American tradition of strong societies that take care of alcoholism, crime, homelessness, and mental illness. In its expanded role, the State becomes a kind of Nanny, a mothering hen. Further, as the State grows, it reshapes the rules of society, giving itself the advantage in all conflicts with parts (or wholes) of the population. As Nock understood it in the 1930s, and Nisbet in the 1960s, the State desired—whether it openly admitted this or not—to assume all power over society and thus render society—and its myriads of conflicting authorities (in and through which the human person found freedom)—obsolete in the long run. Indeed, the State wanted to take the place of the Church as the only glue that holds all together. This was just as true, both Nock and Nisbet feared, in collectivist societies, whether they called themselves republican, fascist, or communist.
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The featured image is a detail from “Destruction” (1836), the fourth painting in the series “The Course of Empire,” by Thomas Cole (1801–1848), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.