Society Versus State in Seven Epochs
I perceive political history as Murray Rothbard and Albert Jay Nock perceived it: as a struggle between free society and the state.1 I do not pretend to be an impartial observer of that struggle. As an amateur historian I aim to be what Lord Acton called a "hanging judge", freely condemning acts of evil, as well as extolling acts of virtue. In my analysis of history, I aim to "hang" the criminals who fill the ranks of the state, commiserate with their victims, congratulate the free men who manage to escape their grasp, and extol the moral men who strive against them.
Mainstream historians, in spite of pretensions of impartiality, often, in practice, have a similarly judgmental view of history. However, they reserve their hangman's noose for relatively free men, and extol princes. An excellent example of this is in Egyptology. Ancient Egyptian history is divided up by western scholars into "Kingdoms" and "Intermediate Periods".2 The Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms are eras during which all of Egypt was united under the yoke of a single pharaoh. The First and Second Intermediate Periods are eras when state power, while not extinguished, was diminished and localized. The implication of this naming scheme is that Pharaonic rule is the "normal" condition of the land, and that periods of political decentralization are merely awkward transitions. Most Egyptologists characterize the Intermediate Periods as unhappy, chaotic times, hardly worthy of mentioning. And they extol the "Kingdoms" for their unity of purpose and the splendor of their royalty. Never mind the crushing of the individual required for such unity. And never mind how much rapacity was required to squeeze enough wealth from the people to fund the opulence of the Pharaonic court.
Ramses II of Egypt
In my division of history into political epochs, I will take the exact opposite tack as does the Egyptologist. I will characterize eras of advancing freedom as the "normal" periods. Instead of "Kingdoms", my "normal" periods will be called "Freedoms" (and I will use the Egyptologist's "Old, Middle, and New" scheme). I will term eras dominated by swelling states as numbered "Intermediate Periods", in order to rightly mark them as aberrant and perverse.
I list my epochs below. Next to each epoch, I also provide two "markers" to bookend each age. Each marker is a geographic location which represents a high point characteristic of its age: one at each age's beginning and one at each age's end.
The Old Freedom: From the First Society to the Halaf Culture
It has been argued that man has only risen from the depths of squalor upon becoming “civilized”, that is, upon coalescing into a civitas, or state. Thus mainstream history textbooks hail the origination of government as a crucial step in the “march of progress.” However, great prosperity is the fruit of society, not the state. And society antedates the state.
Civilization first arose in Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers”.3 However, many societal advancements associated with “civilization” antedated the state in that region.4 Paleolithic families commerced with people as far away as Anatolia and Palestine many millenia before the rise of the Sumerian city-states. Village life arose in Mesolithic times. And the Neolithic agricultural revolution and introduction of pottery got underway quite nicely under stone age anarchy.
Three successive (though overlapping) proto-historical cultures arose in northern Mesopotamia: the Hassuna, Samarra, and Halaf cultures. All three made great strides in art, trade, and the technologies of agriculture, building, implements, pottery, and even irrigation.5 And not one of them showed any signs of having a central government. The Hassuna culture developed stamp seals, an important development in the protection of private property and in trade, as well as a precursor to the written language. The Samarra culture invented irrigation with which they produced amazingly abundant harvests, as evidenced by the remains of capacious granaries. The Halaf culture even had cobbled streets and specialized centers which mass produced a distinctive pottery (which has been called by the French antiquarian Georges Roux, “the most beautiful ever used in Mesopotamia”1) for peaceful exchange abroad. Pre-state Mesopotamian society was accomplishing wondrous things for itself.
An Iranian Granary
The First Intermediate Period: From Eridu to Hastings
Then something happened. Several Halafian towns were for some reason depopulated.6 And their exquisite pottery was replaced by a cruder style: a sure archaeological sign of cultural displacement. A very different people, the Ubaid culture, had come from the south and supplanted the Halafians. The Ubaid culture had shrines, altars, offering tables, and enormous temples: sure signs of a priestly elite. And their temples consistently grew in size and grandeur as the ages went by: a sure sign of consolidating priestly power. It is highly likely that the people of this culture are the famous Sumerians themselves in their proto-historical form. If so, then the cult which originated in the Ubaid temples is the very tradition which evolved into the monstrous temple-states of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria. The north Mesopotamian tradition of freedom that lasted for a millennium and a half was replaced by the systemic deceit and coercion of the state.
Where did this “Ubaid” culture start and how? It seems likely that that culture, and the state itself first arose in Eridu (my full argument for this is in my post Cradle of the State. Eridu is the oldest Sumerian city known to archaeologists. And it is the first place in which evidence of the “Ubaid” culture is found. In fact, the early phase of the Ubaid period is known as “Eridu”.
The archaelogical site of Eridu reveals that a series of successively larger temples was built on the same spot, starting with a simple, tiny one-room building, and ending with a vast sprawling proto-ziqqurat.7 This is the first instance in the archaeological record in which any kind of heavy centralization of power is evidenced by a few buildings being dramatically larger than the rest. And one can see that centralization of power growing as each successive temple is built with ever greater opulence, while the surrounding buildings stay humble.
At some point, a separate palace is constructed one kilometer north of the temple site. This palace site, the earliest known in the world, also undergoes a series of upgrades through the ages. However, most of the palace levels were not archaeologically recoverable. Level 2 is the most complete. It bears resemblances to palaces in the city-state and later holy site of Kish. It is distinguished from temples in the absence of altars and the presence of gates, chambers, courtyards, guard’s rooms, and living quarters.
Perhaps this palace, and palaces in general, developed as a residence for top priests, who evolved into kings. Alternately, perhaps the priests gave some local uneducated ruffian command of the army, so they would not themselves need to get in harms way. This “general” acquired a power-base of allegiance of his own among the soldiers, and evolved into a king, then demanding his own lavish quarters.
Eridu’s place on the King’s List also indicates that it was something of an empire. The King’s List is known to have only included kings whose cities reigned over (or were at least hegemonic over) the entire region of “Sumer-and-Akkad”. This jibes perfectly with the fact that the Ubaid culture which first arose in Eridu was later found throughout the region. And given how, throughout history, the most centralized nation-states have also been the most war-thirsty, it seems very likely that the priest-kings of Eridu would not be satisfied with completely subjugating only the local population. And also seems very likely that an all-powerful central cult-state, with the ability to dragoon its young men into war, would be able to put under the yoke village after peace-loving village as it marched up the Euphrates.
The Standard of Ur
Early on in the history of the state, there was an incomplete division between the state's muscle (centered around the king in his palace and the armies he led) and its brain (centered around the priest-technocrats in their temples). As we see in the first palaces having been spin-offs of the first temples in ancient Eridu, this may have happened in the very first state. This specialization led to a limited degree of rivalry, but for the most part Throne and Altar worked hand-in-glove to enslave and fleece the populace.
To understand the import of this development in human history, one must understand the nature of this phenomenon called the state.
There has always been thuggery: assault, plunder, and enslavement. But mankind has natural safeguards to defend against thuggery: including the ability to recognize justice, and the ability to join together with other decent people to implement justice.
There has always been deceit: slander, fraud, and indoctrination. But mankind has natural safeguards to defend against deceit as well: reason, skepticism, and the senses.
However, with the advent of the state, mankind's defenses was overwhelmed by a devastatingly effective partnership between thuggery (the Throne) and deceit (the Altar). The state has always been a maleficent symbiosis of violent criminals (the Throne) and propagandizing/brainwashing intellectuals (the Altar).8 The Altar fosters the Throne through twisted sophistries which establish a false legitimacy and engineered consent to disarm our natural safeguards against thuggery. The Throne fosters the Altar through compulsory indoctrination and through using its ill-gotten gains to directly corrupt intellectuals, all of which disarms our natural safeguards against deceit.
The Throne needs the Altar. The ruled always outnumber the rulers, so a reign predicated on bald criminality (like a protection racket) would quickly be overthrown. To maintain its power, a regime must transmute murder into justice, tribute into taxation, and slavery into citizenship in the minds of its subjects. To do that, it needs intellectuals.
The Altar needs the Throne. Elaborate scams based on lies and manipulations (like cults) are difficult to maintain. Eventually some people begin to see through the lies and speak out. To keep its hold on its flock, an elite must be able to silence or coerce dissenters. To do that, it needs thugs.
The state put man in chains, but also under a spell. The former could not hold man without the latter.
It is highly worth mentioning that in the pre-state cultures of Mesopotamia, while there were signs of religion on a household level, there were no temples, and no signs of an official cult.9
The close-knit symbiosis between Throne and Altar known as "Caesaro-Papism" characterized all states throughout ancient history10, from the Egyptian Pharaohs who reigned as living incarnations of the god Horus, to the Athenian Democracy which executed Socrates for impiety, to the Roman imperial cult of Sol Invictus, to the literal Caesaro-Papism of the Byzantine Empire.
Why did the advent of the state follow so closely on the heels of the Agricultural Revolution? Before then, there was not enough food to support both productive slaves and unproductive masters. But the unprecedented advent of vast surpluses of food had the unfortunate side-effect of making human slavery more viable and more tempting to would-be slavers.
The First Intermediate Period is characterized by relatively free peoples (often characterized by both the conquerors and later historians as "barbarians" or "backwards peoples") being overrun by militant centralized states: northern Mesopotamian villages overrun by Sumerian armies; Beoetian villages overrun by Theban phalanxes, Gallic villages overrun by Roman legions, Saxon villages overrun by Carolingian knights. The last great event of this kind in this period was the Norman Conquest of England, decided at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Norman Knights Charging an English Shield Wall (from the Bayeux Tapestry)
The Middle Freedom: From Canossa to Runnymede
The first great sundering of the historic partnership of Altar and Throne occurred 11 years after the Battle of Hastings when Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV trekked barefoot to the Castle of Canossa in Italy in a hair-shirt to beg Pope Gregory VII to lift his excommunication.11 In humbling the emperor, the Pope heralded the Papal Monarchy of the High Middle Ages.
The Walk to Canossa
But this Papal Monarchy did not go on to become an empire. The Church was powerful and independent enough to counter and limit the power of European monarchs, but not enough to become a full empire itself. The fragmentation of power that the church imposed upon Catholic Europe emboldened nobles and clerics against kings, lesser nobles against greater nobles, and peasants and burghers against lords. This unprecedented breakdown of Caesaro-Papism set Catholic Europe on a course widely divergent from the rest of the world.12 Caesaro-Papism and the despotism it made possible persisted in medieval and early modern times throughout the east, even including Orthodox Russia and Byzantium. It is the history of political fragmentation shared by all of Catholic and post-Catholic Europe and its colonies that most distinctly sets "the west" apart from the rest of the world.
The relative freedom made possible by political decentralization led to the industrial and commercial revolution of the high middle ages13 which is egregiously ignored by contemporary popular history. During the middle ages, water and wind mills peppered Europe like never before. The increased energy thus harnessed and its automaticity had an explosive effect on productivity. Cereals grains were processed with unprecedented efficiency. The greater heat of medieval furnace technology initiated the true iron age, during which quality iron was available for widespread use for the first time. There were huge improvements in agricultural technique, including in field rotation. The medieval harness unleashed the motive power of the horse in agriculture, which dramatically increased productivity. Scientific husbandry at monastery sheep farms led to an explosion in wool productivity. All this happened, and much much more.
The Magna Carta, signed in 1215 in Runnymede was a check on royal power that was most characteristic of this relatively free and highly prosperous age.14
John of England signs Magna Carta
The Second Intermediate Period: From Anagni to Versailles
Unfortunately, 70 years after Runnymede, European saw the coronation of a monarch who would prove to be the herald of an age of absolute monarchy. Philip IV of France (known as "the Fair" for his good looks) committed a wide number of atrocities (bringing on the Hundred Years War, expropriating and expelling the French Jews, expropriating and murdering the Knights Templar, imposing crippling taxes on the vitally important fairs of Champagne).15 But the most significant of these was his arrest of Pope Boniface VIII in 1303.16
As the culmination of an intense power struggle between the King and the Pope (particularly over the king's desire to tax the clergy), Boniface excommunicated Philip. Philip responded by sending two thousand mercenaries to the Papal palace at Anagni. The mercenaries plundered the palace, and captured the Pope, nearly murdering him. Although rescued by locals, the Pope developed a fever shortly after this incident, and died. Within a few years, the Papacy was relocated to Avignon, a French-dominated territory, and was relegated to slavishly generating moral authority for the French crown by rubber stamping its atrocities. Just as the humiliation of a monarch at the hands of a Pope at Canossa signaled the beginning of an age of relative freedom and prosperity, so did the humiliation of a Pope at the hands of a monarch at Anagni ring that age's death knell.17
Sciarra Colonna Slapping Boniface VIII
Philip the Fair was followed by many European monarchs who continued to bully, fleece, and manipulate the Church, thereby vastly increasing their power over the rest of society. Caesaro-Papism was back; Throne and Altar were reunited. In the 14th century, the Avignon Popes continued to serve as puppets of the French Crown. But even after the Papacy returned to Rome, the Church was a fundamentally different institution. In country after country, it was either driven out by the Protestant Reformation, which many monarchs embraced and promoted as a movement which gave them more power (also, many of the Reformation's spiritual leaders, including Martin Luther, believed not in religious freedom, but in the crown acting as head of the national church18), or subjugated. In the 15th century, the Inquisition, a department of the Church, served slavishly as a bloody tool of the Spanish Crown. In the 16th century, Henry VIII drove the Catholic Church out of France to expropriate its wealth and set up his own state church. In the 17th century, cardinals served as veritable viziers for the French Crown. The procession toward absolute monarchy culminated in the "Sun King": Louis XIV of France who completely subjugated the French nobility and clergy and who brought nothing but impoverishment, war, and repression to his people Monarchs throughout this age used their newly untrammeled power to engorge themselves, via taxes and corveys, on the surpluses made possible by the advances of the High Middle Ages. After the centuries of phenomenal economic growth called the High Middle Ages, the 14th century was a time of retrogression, and the 15th and 16th centuries were times of relative stagnation.19
The New Freedom: From Munster to Manchester
However, the march of absolute monarchy would not go unchecked. Europe had already tasted the fruits of freedom, the seeds of which were deeply sown, especially in the towns. In the 17th century, the Dutch burghers revolted against the despotic Spanish Crown. Decades of struggle paid off when, in 1648 the Treaty of Munster was ratified, establishing the independence of the liberal states of the Low Countries.20
Citizens of Amsterdam celebrating the Peace of Münster
This was followed by the English Civil War. This revolution and the conflicts following it dramatically weakened the English state, which made possible the Industrial Revolution in that country.21 An Age of Revolution followed which was largely a series of attempts in other western nations to copy the success of the English experiment. Free trade and property rights were shown to be the key to prosperity. In country after country, revolution or the threat of revolution paved the way for economic liberalization (especially the abolition of serfdom), which paved the way for industrialization, which paved to the way for greater increases in human prosperity than had ever been known.22 The apogee of the liberal tradition in Europe was perhaps the career of Richard Cobden.23 Cobden was a leader of the Anti-Corn Law League, which was formed in Manchester, and which succeeded in repealing the last great vestige of the protectionism of the previous epoch. As an MP later in life, Cobden also negotiated a sweeping free trade treaty with France. The heroic activism of Richard Cobden made food and countless other goods more affordable for countless of his fellow humans. More than any ruler with "the Great" attached to his name, Cobden was truly a benefactor of mankind.
It was during this epoch, that America was "conceived in liberty". While certainly flawed, the American republic held a deep strain of liberalism, which was for the most part ascendant throughout its first hundred years of existence. This strain can be seen running through such American groups as the libertarian religious non-conformists of the colonial period (led by Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson and Samuel Gorton)24, the Anti-Federalists (led by Patrick Henry)25, the Republicans of the late 18th century (led by Thomas Jefferson)26, the "Old Republicans" of the early 19th century (led by John Randolph)27, and the Democrats of the middle 19th century (led by Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren28. However, this strain was indelibly corrupted by the abhorrent practice of slavery.
The Third Intermediate Period: From Berlin to Manhatten
Unfortunately liberalism was not the only current in the revolutionary movement. The success of liberalism in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was largely due to the fact that its ends happened to temporarily coincide with the ends of another movement: the bourgeoning democratic movement. From the late 17th century onward, power in European society moved inexorably, but gradually, from the few to the many. At first this was a highly liberal trend, because it involved destroying the state-fostered privileges of the few and unshackling the many. This occurred primarily when power was expanded to the middle classes, whose main interest was the protection of property rights. But as power expanded further to the proletariat, the populist trend continued beyond liberalism, and moved into shackling the few and establishing state-sponsored privileges for the many.
The subjugation of liberalism to democracy could be seen in France in the Jacobin Terror of the First Republic29, the "National Workshops" of the Second Republic30 and in the Paris Commune31. The logical culmination of this trend was reached in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia32. The "dictatorship of the proletariat" in communist Russia led to calamitous famine and widespread murder.33
The man who most skillfully harnessed the rising tide of people power was Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of Prussia and, later, of the German Empire.34 Initially considered by reformers to be a chief enemy of the people, he became a populist darling when his despotic policies of taxation, conscription, and state schooling led to startling military victories against Austria and France. Bismarck also introduced enormous "social insurance" schemes. Thus did Bismarck draw the German people into trading their freedom for booty and the dole, and in so doing, invented the modern warfare/welfare state. Bismarck welded together Prussia and the confederate German states into a single, militant, nationalistic, paternalistic, populist super-state which would, in the 20th century, twice try to overrun all of Europe. The German state was a portent of how the rest of Europe would eventually "modernize." Bismarck's "success" greatly impressed the Englishman Lloyd George, who would later bring Prussian welfare statism to England.35
This age also saw a resurgence of Caesaro-Papism. Even in this age of democracy and science, Throne and Altar were alive and well. Only it was certain collectives of people (the majority, the proletariat, the Arian race, etc.) which was enthroned at the expense of others. And instead of subverting faith, intellectuals subverted "scientific" doctrines in order to weave apologia for their state patrons. For example, the "high priest" of economics in imperial Prussia was Gustav von Schmoller at the University of Berlin, which was boasted to be "the intellectual bodyguard of the House of Hohenzollern". Schmoller's Historical School of economics rejected the laws of classical economics because obeying them put too many trammels on the state.36
Bismarck (center, in white) looks on as Wilhelm I is proclaimed German Emperor
In America during the same generation, Abraham Lincoln, in the War Between the States obliterated political decentralization and began the American shift from laissez-faire to corporatism.37 This marked the shift in ascendency from liberalism to the statist strain in American political thought represented by the colonial Puritans (led by such men as Cotton Mather)38, the Federalists of the late 18th century (led by Alexander Hamilton)39, the "spoils system" Republicans of the early 19th century (led by John Quincy Adams)40, the Whigs of the middle 19th century (led by Henry Clay)41, and the Republicans of the late 19th century (led by Lincoln himself)42. The laissez-faire industrial, monetary, and trade policies of the America's first century began to give way to corporatism, aka state capitalism (subsidies for business, government intervention in money, and high tariffs and taxes).43 American corporatism further flowered in the regulation and "trust-busting" (really trust-fostering) of the Progressive Era.44 The most pernicious state-fostered trust of them all, a cartel of big banks given state power known as the Federal Reserve System, was established in 1913.45 In the 1920s, the Fed blew up the greatest peace-time economic bubble in history. The Federal government's response to the bursting of this bubble led to the Great Depression, the deepest and longest-lasting in American history.46 This crisis provided an excuse for the outright confiscation of the American citezenry's gold supply and the nigh-complete cartelization of American industry by Franklin D. Roosevelt.47 Under FDR, with the New Deal, America also jumped on the Bismarckian welfare state bandwagon which by then had already rolled across all of Europe.48
Overweening corporatism also impelled America into imperialism, beginning with the Spanish American War. This war began a century of corporatist-imperialist American wars (the two World Wars and all the American interventions in the Cold War) which flouted the Washingtonian principle of non-intervention and led hundreds of thousands of young men to their deaths, and many more to debase themselves in murdering others. American imperial policies abroad led inexorably to a crisis of freedom at home, culminating in the policies following 9/11. This crisis of freedom has been compounded by a Second Great Depression generated by massive fiscal and monetary "bailouts" following the bursting of a massive economic bubble blown up by the Fed. This crisis of freedom is where we find ourselves today.
George W. Bush on the rubble of the World Trade Center
Future Freedom: From Ron Paul to Distant Futurity?
Will there be a Future Freedom? Might even Ron Paul herald a 7th epoch which will rise as the failures of statism become too intolerable to bear any longer? If he can bring down the Fed with his heroic actions in Congress and on the public stage, it would be a damn good start. It might sound doubtful, but as many 19th century tyrants could attest, revolution can sweep across a continent like a prairie fire. So the 21st century heirs of John Lilburne, Lysander Spooner, Frederic Bastiat, Richard Cobden, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard should never stop striving.
- History Begins at Sumer by Samuel Noah Kramer
- Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux
- Penguin Atlas of Ancient History by Colin McEvedy
- Penguin Atlas of Medieval History by Colin McEvedy
- Penguin Atlas of Modern History by Colin McEvedy
- Penguin Atlas of Recent History by Colin McEvedy
- Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt by Bill Manley
- A History of the Middle Ages by Crane Brinton, John Christopher, and Robert Wolff
- Charlemagne: From the Hammer to the Cross by Richard Winston
- How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas Woods
- The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel
- Medieval Feudalism by Carl Stephenson
- The Crusades by Richard A. Newhall
- A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman
- The Italian Renaissance by J.H. Plumb
- The Reformation by George L. Mosse
- Rise, Fall, and Renaissance of Classical Liberalism by Ralph Raico
- The Age of Louis XIV by Laurence Bradford Packard
- Europe Under the Old Regime by Albert Sorel
- A History of Britain by Simon Schama
- Conceived in Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard
- The Enlightened Despots by Geoffrey Bruun
- The French Revolution by Leo Gershoy
- How Capitalism Saved America by Thomas DiLorenzo
- Modern and Contemporary European History by J. Salwyn Schapiro
- Europe Since 1815 by Mitchell Garrett and James Godfrey
- John Adams by David McCullough
- Thomas Jefferson and His Time by Dumas Malone
- Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brand
- Rethinking Churchill by Ralph Raico
- World War I As Fulfillment by Murray N. Rothbard
- The Case Against the Fed by Murray N. Rothbard
- The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal by Robert P. Murphy
- The Ethics of Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard
1Rothbard, Conceived..., Volume 1
7 Reconstruction of Eridu, http://babel.massart.edu/~tkelley/v5.0/eridu/. This is an excellent HTML model of the archaeological site. I highly recommend taking this stratigraphic “tour” of Eridu. For more information see this excerpt from the Cambridge Ancient History (on Google Books).
10Rothbard, Conceived..., Volume 1
11Brinton et al
12Rothbard, Conceived..., Volume 1
14Brinton et al
16Brinton et al
17One should not read religious bias in this historical interpretation. Suffice it to say that this author is not himself Catholic.
19Rothbard, Conceived... Volume 1
20Raico, The Rise...
21Rothbard, Conceived... Volume 1
31Garret & Godfrey
33Garret & Godfrey
34Garret & Godfrey
44Rothbard, World War I...
45Rothbard, The Case...