Who or What Is the Enemy?
There is a scene in the movie Barfly where a woman turns to the main character and says “I can’t stand people. I hate them. Do you hate them?”
He turns to her and drawls, “No, but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.”
By his own report, Albert Nock didn’t like people very much. “Someone asked me years ago if it were true that I disliked Jews, and I replied that it was certainly true, not at all because they are Jews, but because they are folks, and I don’t like folks.”
He never cried as a child, and as a young man he had a ferocious temper, so it’s hard to imagine that he came by his distaste for mankind as a result of a stalwart dedication — endlessly rejected and attacked, as is generally the case — to improving the lot of his fellow citizens. Nock did not lose faith with mankind and end up bitter; he started off bitter, so it cost him much less to clearly see the follies of those around him.
So before you start this book, fair warning is in order.
Our Enemy, the State is founded on a pessimism so deep, so profound, and so bottomless that it is as if we are Pandora, opening the creaky, face-blasting chest of demons, and finding at the bottom not a glowing spirit of hope, but a grey bag of words that, when we touch them, dissolve us into blowing ash.
Nock builds this case slowly, carefully, and relentlessly. He divided general decision-making into social power and state power. The expansion of state power, he argued, always comes at the expense of social power, resulting in a continual escalation of statism, until the inevitable fascist or totalitarian collapse. He differentiates between the state (which Nock always capitalized: “the State”) and “government”; the state is theft and exploitation, while government is the spontaneous problem solving that always arises in the absence of centralized coercion.
Nock also understood that, like all animals, people always want something for nothing — and there’s no better way to get something for nothing than to manipulate the credulous masses into surrendering liberty and risk to the almighty political machinery of the state. As he repeatedly points out, people always forget that when you ask the state to do something for you, it will always end up doing something to you.
The state is founded on conquest and confiscation — this much is understood about the ancient world by most educated people, but Nock makes a powerful case that the same principles drove the foundation of the American Republic as well. The British ban on westward expansion stalled the insatiable greed of land speculation, and this drove the Founders — rabid speculators almost to a man — to risk political independence.
The unraveling of the myth of the noble founding of America opens the door — a trapdoor, really — to a special kind of despair faced by those who recognize that high moral language is almost always a cover for endless subterranean pickpocketing.
Moralists generally hope that when evil is exposed, good people rally to beat back the darkness; however, when high moral language is invented and used by evil to cover itself — and greedily accepted by those hoping to profit from the injustices of state power — then the robbers of mankind hold all the weapons — physical, emotional, and linguistic — and all hope is effectively lost.
As Nock points out, no revolution has succeeded in the West since the mid-19th century, and none can be expected to succeed anytime soon. No less an authority than Lenin himself is quoted as saying that no revolution can be expected to succeed unless the soldiers and the police are discontented, and nothing of the sort appears imminent anywhere across Western civilization — particularly when soldiers and policemen so depend on the state for rent-seeking wages, bloated pensions, and health care freebies.
Due to the implacable irrationality of mankind, Nock viewed the escalating expansion of state power as more a force of nature than the effect of ignorance. When considering the idea of a society free of centralized coercive oligarchies, he wrote:
“Perhaps, some aeons hence, if the planet remains so long habitable, the benefits accruing to conquest and confiscation may be adjudged over-costly; the State may in consequence be superseded by government, the political means suppressed, and the fetishes which give nationalism and patriotism that present execrable character may be broken down. But the remoteness and uncertainty of this prospect makes any thought of it fatuous, and any concern with it futile.”
Why should we read his book, then, if it holds no hope of change?
Nock answers this in the book itself, but I would like to add a few more reasons.
First, in elegant prose (and sentences so long that they left this audiobook reader gasping for breath), Nock dismantles the myth of the historical social contract, and eviscerates the Jeffersonian delusions that the state was instituted to protect citizens — and says that anything that releases us from the foggy grip of propagandistic pseudohistory deserves great praise.
Second, Nock’s pessimism is bitter, but bracing: Those of us thirsty for activism in the cause of liberty must embrace his challenge, which is that the time is far from right and the minds of our fellow citizens far from open — both being conditions required for any substantial social change.
Nock also helps point us in the right direction — or least away from the wrong direction — by reminding us that just as the state has no money of its own, nor has it any power of its own, it only has the power our delusions give it. This essential insight redirects us from railing against the Olympian storm clouds of lofty political power, and reminds us that the state is a mere effect of the beliefs of those around us, thus focusing our efforts horizontally — which is to say productively — rather than vertically. Railing against politics is like throwing the helium balloons of our hopes into a hurricane.
The state is designed for class exploitation and predation, and so cannot be reformed. This would be like trying to turn outright murder into self-defense after the fact.
If we cannot reform the state, can we enlighten our fellow citizens? Well, in Nock’s day — as in our own — people so strenuously resist reason, thought, and evidence that the true source of the state’s power — mere human delusion — can no more be overturned than the state itself. Exploitation rests on power, power rests on self-deception, and both are as absolute as gravity.
As the old saying goes, we have met the enemy, and he is us.
Nock’s deep cynicism often provokes a scornful backlash: “Surely, things cannot be so hopeless!” However, Our Enemy, the State has the enormous benefit of having been published almost 60 years ago. In Nock’s day, the state that, he so feared, lay in the future now largely lies in our past. We have endless wars, indefinite detentions, state-sanctioned torture, a prison population in America exceeding the ratio of prisoners in Stalin’s gulags. The list is well-known, virtually endless, and a tragic confirmation of the validity of Nock’s “cynical” view of our capacity to avoid political catastrophes. In politics, realism is merely cynicism plus time.
I hold no more hope than he does for reforming the state, or enlightening the general population, but we do have access to powerful opportunities for change that Nock could barely have imagined.
First, of course, is the great Gutenberg we call the Internet, which has smashed the barriers between production and consumption for all who think.
Secondly, the emerging science of brain and child development has given liberty activists a powerful opportunity to lay the foundations for a truly free and peaceful society. If, as most research seems to indicate, the state is a mere effect of the family — and, in particular, early childhood experiences — then by reforming childhood, we reform all aspects of society, including the state. The state is dominance, exploitation, violence, and manipulation: Children raised without punishment, without discipline, and without spanking or yelling will not become criminals or politicians — but I repeat myself — and will no more speak the language of subjugation and dominance than they will Elvish or Klingon.
The ultimate reformation is that of childhood. As Wordsworth said, “The Child is the father of the Man,” we might equally say that childhood has been, and will always be, the future of our species.
The task of rebuilding first requires unbuilding, and there are few better experts at demolition than Albert Jay Nock.
Host, Freedomain Radio
Original article appears on Laissez-Faire Today