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The Metaphysics of Power

January 27, 2010

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[Libertarian Review (1974)]

On Power

Anyone concerned with individual liberty must begin to feel a deep sense of melancholy when he undertakes even a cursory examination of reason the history of the state apparatus. And it is sobering indeed to spend a few evenings reading Bertrand de Jouvenel's classic work on the subject: On Power: The Nature and the History of Its Growth.

The "power" of which de Jouvenel speaks is, as the translator J.F. Huntington tells us, "the central governmental authority in states or communities." De Jouvenel's central concern in this work is not a "journalistic" history of the state's growth, but, as he himself entitles the first section, "the metaphysics of power." But for a great deal of this work, de Jouvenel is actually discussing the psychology of the state's expansion of power, with such topics as "the social consequences of the warlike spirit," "political authority and parental authority," "formation of the nation in the person of the king," and "from parasitism to symbiosis." These are but random examples of themes.

To set the examination in perspective, consider a few facts culled from early portions of On Power. If we take the phenomenon of war to be a good indication of the scope of the state's power, and trace the history of the state apparatus form the eleventh or twelfth century, when the modern states began to take shape,

What at once strikes is that, in times which have always been depicted as much given to war, the armies were very small and the campaigns very short. The king could count on the troops mustered for him by his vassals, but their only obligation to serve his was for no more than forty days. He had on the spot some local militia, but these were troops of poor quality and could hardly be relied on for more than two or three days campaigning … War in those days was always a small-scale affair — for the simple reason that power was a small-scale affair and entirely lacked those two essential controls: the conscription of men and the imposition of taxes.

Indeed, until the time of Louis XIV, "conscription was unknown, and the private person lived outside the battle." And

if we arranged in chronological order the various wars which have for nearly a thousand years ravaged our Western world, one thing must strike us forcibly: that with each one there has been a steady rise in the coefficient of society's participation in it, and that the total war of today is only the logical end of an uninterrupted advance towards it — of the increasing growth of war.

De Jouvenel was writing at the end of World War II, which he notes

has surpassed in savagery and destructive force any yet seen by the Western world … In this war everyone — workmen, peasants, and the women alike — are in the fight, and in consequence everything, the factory, the harvest, even the dwelling house has turned target. As a result the enemy to be fought has been all flesh that is and all soil, and the bombing plane has striven to consummate the utter destruction of them all.

The scope of war, de Jouvenel shows, is proportionate to the growth of state power; indeed the growth of one goes hand in hand with the growth of the other — each reinforcing and expanding the other.

But war is not a major theme of On Power; it was, perhaps, only the occasion for de Jouvenel to reflect on the nature and history of power in the place. The book is a broad-ranging study, using examples and illustrations drawn from virtually every aspect of the history of the West from feudal times to our own day.

There are six broad sections:

  1. The Metaphysics of Power
  2. Origins of Power
  3. The Nature of Power
  4. The State as Permanent Revolution
  5. The Face of Power Changes, But Not Its Nature
  6. Limited Power or Unlimited Power?

And within these broad categories the author discusses such divergent topics as theories of sovereignty, the nature of revolutions, the growth of democracy, the breakdown of the feudal aristocracy, the development of absolute monarchy, the expansionist character of power, and power "as assailant of the social order."

Particularly interesting is de Jouvenel's discussion of the problem of sovereignty: he shows how every theory (such as divine right, or popular sovereignty) has had its origins in a desire to limit or restrict the scope of power, but that "in the end every single such theory has, sooner or later, lost its original purpose, and come to act merely as a springboard to power, by providing it with the powerful aid of an invisible sovereign with whom it could in time successfully identify itself."

Divine right, for instance, was transformed into a rationalization for absolute monarchy, though initially it was meant to subordinate state power to "divine" or "natural" law and to provide a check on state power through the countervailing power of the Church. The theory of popular sovereignty — which led to unlimited democracy — was initially proposed to give the people a "process of review" over governmental policies and personnel.

The rest of On Power is just as insightful, illuminating, and challenging, particularly in the sections in which de Jouvenel traces the processes by which central authorities have wrested power away from any opposition.

The State

But I have my disagreements. De Jouvenel gives insufficient space to the Oppenheimer thesis concerning the origin of the state in conquest, and he is not nearly enough concerned with the role of economic interests in promoting state power.

Moreover, he is concerned too much with power's "conflict with aristocracy and alliance with the common people;" this last is absurd in any but a superficial — rhetorical sense — the "common people" provide the loot and cannon fodder for the state and are its chief victims. But de Jouvenel's thesis is true in the sense that the state feeds off envy to marshal the support of the "common people."

Finally, de Jouvenel shares with most European classical liberals an anti-individualist bias. Rose Wilder Lane noted in The Lady and the Tycoon that the average European classical liberal has "not grasped our basic individualist principle at all, that his basic assumption is communist …. " I think that this is true of de Jouvenel, who sees the contemporary state apparatus as one of the "fruits of individualist rationalism," and speaks of "liberty's aristocratic roots."

The view of statism as the fruit of individualist rationalism, of course, is one which de Jouvenel shares with Russell Kirk and F.A. Hayek. It is particularly common among Europeans and European-oriented American conservatives. It is also false and stupid.

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In any case, On Power is a most profound work which digs deep into the nature of state authority and its growth, showing how the central authority in communities has come to almost unlimited power over the course of eight or nine centuries. And, needless to add, the subject is particularly timely today, in the aftermath of the Johnson and Nixon regimes, which have gotten some people at least superficially concerned with particular growths and abuses or power. De Jouvenel may help them to see things somewhat more in context, and his arguments should be carefully considered.

Whether you are trying to understand the problem of growing governmental power yourself or are trying to communicate it to others, On Power can be heartily recommended as a stimulating and profound tract.

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This review originally appeared in the Libertarian Review, Vol. 111, No. 10 (1974), pp. 2 and 8Download PDF

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