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The Rise of the Great but Abstract Evil

August 10, 2009

Tags Big GovernmentWorld HistoryInterventionismOther Schools of Thought

[The Rise and Decline of the State • By Martin van Creveld • Cambridge University Press, 1999 • 439 pages]

Martin van Creveld's outstanding book traces the origin, growth, and decline of what Nietzsche termed, "that coldest of all cold monsters, the state."

By "state," our author means something more limited than do contemporary libertarians. To libertarians, the state is a person or group exercising a monopoly over coercion in a territory. Van Creveld has something less broad in mind.

The state … is is an abstract entity which can be neither seen, nor touched. The entity is not identical with either the rulers or the ruled … it is a corporation in the sense that it possesses a legal persona of its own, which means that it has rights and duties and may engage in various activities as if it were a real, flesh and blood, living individual. … Understood in this way, the state – like the corporation of which it is a subspecies – is a comparatively recent invention. (p. 1)

On the surface, this sounds like a topic of interest only to legal and political theorists. Why should the rest of us care about it? As our author makes clear, the rise of the state in his sense has had disastrous consequences for human life and liberty. Any effective movement for a free society must fully understand this enemy.

Before the 17th century, political rule was personal. The Greek city-states and the Roman Republic most closely approached the modern distinction between public and private affairs; but even here, for example,

[I]n Rome and possibly elsewhere, each time a levy [for troops] was held the men had to be sworn in afresh – not to the Republic, it should be noted, but to the person of the commanding consul. (p. 30)

Personal rule was far from ideal, since people found themselves totally at the mercy of the rulers. Two illustrations, taken from the end of the pre-state period, show how rulers viewed their subjects.

The frequent comparison [between subjects] … and a flock of sheep – owned as the latter are by their shepherd and raised for his benefit – speaks for itself. It was only after ascending the throne in 1660 that Louis XIV arrived at the point where he could distinguish between his own glory and the good of the état that he headed. (p. 127)

I should myself be inclined to a more nuanced view of Louis XIV – by the end of his reign Louis doubted whether he had the right to impose new taxes. But van Creveld's main point cannot be challenged: in some sense, subjects belonged to the king. (Incidentally, Louis XIV ascended the throne in 1643, not 1660.)

As one might expect under a proprietary notion of rule, warfare also bore a strongly personal character.

Rulers such as Charles V, Francis I, and their contemporaries fought each other to determine who would rule this province or that. The personal nature of their quarrels is indicated by the fact that the Emperor repeatedly offered to fight his rival in a duel. (p. 159)

One might at first sight think the various systems of personal rule disastrous for individual liberty and welcome their demise. If personal rule "neither was able, or indeed attempted, to guarantee the security of either the life or the property of individuals," (p. 54) should we not welcome the state? Surely, one might think, nothing could be so bad as personal rule of this sort.

And yet, in medieval and early-modern Europe, a greater scope for individual freedom existed than has in modern times. The power of a monarch to dominate his subjects met checks from every side. Local lords, independent or semi-independent towns, the emperor, and the church could be played off against the king – and against one another – to give subjects refuge from oppression.

Furthermore, premodern rulers lacked the skill of their latter-day successors to extract resources from their subjects. Governmental inefficiency is all to the good, so far as the cause for liberty is concerned.

Our author contends that a twofold process disrupted the premodern conception of rule. First, the notion of the state as an abstract entity apart from the ruler developed. According to the leading theorist of the new notion, Thomas Hobbes, the state's law knew no bounds: it need recognize no competing source of authority, whether church or emperor. Van Creveld remarks,

Hobbes deserves the credit for inventing the "state" … as an abstract entity separate both from the sovereign (who is said to "carry" it) and the ruled, who, by means of a contract among themselves, transferred their rights to him. … Bound by no law except that which he himself laid down (and which, of course, he could change at any moment), Hobbes's sovereign was much more powerful than … any Western ruler since late antiquity. (p. 179)

(Incidentally, our author sees Machiavelli as a premodern figure, not the herald of a new age. He still occupied himself with the personal.)

As the new notion of state and sovereignty took hold, the importance of the ruler as a person declined. Sometimes, as with Louis XV, the king took little part in affairs of state. He spent "almost half of his time hunting and the rest with Madame de Pompadour" (p. 138). Even a monarch who took a very active role in government, Frederick II of Prussia, described himself in 1756 as "the first servant of the state" (p. 137).

"The state as an abstract entity took on bodily form and was revealed, in the world wars of the 20th century, to be an all-devouring monster."

Once more, though, the question arises, what is so bad about regarding the state as an abstract entity? To grasp van Creveld's answer, one must consider the second part of the twofold process he describes. In the early modern period, "the relationship between … the state and its citizens was based not on sentiment but on reason and interest" (p. 190). Under this conception, a citizen would meet undue demands with reluctance or outright resistance.

If, however, emotion could be mobilized for the new abstract entity, what our author calls a "Great Transformation" was in the offing. Jean Jacques Rousseau acted as the prime theorist of the new order. In his view, everyone must be subordinated to the "general will" which embodied one's patrie or community. "Patriotism – the active submission to, and participation in, the general will – becomes the highest of all virtues and the source of all the remaining ones" (p. 192).

With Rousseau, though, we have not yet reached the modern state in its culminating form. He took the patrie to be local. But when, after the French Revolution, various writers identified the general will with the nation, the process that led to disaster was complete.

How so? Let us see what we have amassed. We have an abstract entity, staffed by a professional bureaucracy, to which all citizens in a nation had to give themselves without limit. And what was the purpose of the new entity? War, fought with unprecedented manpower and armaments and without restraint.

To accomplish its purpose, the state gradually seized total control of the monetary system. (Van Creveld is, with Murray Rothbard, one of the few historians who sees the centrality of this control.) In the book's central passage, our author notes that

[the] states having finally succeeded in their drive to conquer money, the effect of absolute economic dominance on the states themselves was to allow them to fight each other on a scale and with a ferocity never equalized before or since. … The concentration of all economic power in the hands of the state would not have been necessary, nor could it have been justified, if its overriding purpose had not been to impose order on the one hand and fight its neighbors on the other. (pp. 241–2)

A seemingly recondite concept, the state as an abstract entity took on bodily form and was revealed, in the world wars of the 20th century, to be an all-devouring monster.

Of course, the blessings of the new order had to be spread beyond Europe. Most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America proved no match in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the newly armed Leviathans, and van Creveld tells the story of imperialism in a grisly chapter. In the book's best-written passage, our author remarks that

[the imperial] system was cheap to run, the number of white administrators usually being only one per 70,000–100,000 natives; as Winston Churchill … might have said, never did so few keep down so many with the aid of so little. (p. 319)

Are we doomed to sacrifice our lives to these Moloch states until civilization is destroyed? Van Creveld thinks not: he maintains that the state has now entered a period of decline. The horrors of full-scale nuclear war have deterred states from total conflict; and, with the demise of massive wars, the state has lost its raison d'être. Further, financial exigencies have almost everywhere mandated cutbacks in welfare states.

Our author, surprisingly, does not view the collapse of the state as altogether desirable. He writes that

on balance, the dangers and the opportunities are probably about equal. Neither is the retreat of the state to be regretted, nor will tomorrow's world be either much better or much worse than the one which is even now fading into the shadows. (p. 421)

Most readers, I suspect, will think our deliverance from the cancer of the state, if indeed van Creveld is right about this, is grounds for rejoicing.

Mr. van Creveld's book displays great learning over many fields besides the author's specialty of military history. I note a few questionable points: It is certainly false that in Christianity, "God, after all, is believed to possess no fewer than three different bodies" (p. 178). The pontifex maximus was not always the chief authority over Roman religion (p. 27). In the United Provinces, there was no single position of stadhouder. The office was provincial, but the House of Orange took them all over (p. 116).

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