JRR Tolkien on the Danger of Centralized Political Power
At the recent Mises University, Jeff Deist and Ryan McMaken recorded a live edition of Mises Weekends focused on radical decentralization and addressing some of the points raised against it. While in this conversation and in many others related to it intellectual titans like Mises and Rothbard are invoked to support the decentralist view, many libertarians unfortunately fail to call upon one of the most articulate critics of centralized political power with unparalleled intellectual and cultural influence; JRR Tolkien. While Tolkien is no doubt a popular figure among many libertarians, an unfortunate unfamiliarity with his work on a deeper intellectual level often prevents his enormous cultural influence from being brought to bear against the forces of statism and centralization.
There is no need to wonder about Tolkien’s political leanings, as he made them quite explicitly clear in a 1943 letter to his son Christopher Tolkien (who would later edit a great many of Tolkien’s posthumous works) he wrote “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy.” In the same letter Tolkien continued that “Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”
With such political sentiments, it is hardly surprising then that Tolkien incorporates a disdain for centralized power and a warning about its seductive nature in his work. In The Lord of the Rings, perhaps Tolkien’s best known work, the story traces the journey to destroy the One Ring of Power and chronicles the various effects the potential to wield this power can have. Tolkien does not attempt to hide the nature of the Ring, its purpose is clearly labeled upon itself:“One ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” The One Ring is just that, one, singular, representative of a unitary will that imposes itself upon all.
Sauron, the creator of the One Ring, is unambiguously evil, driven by a desire to impose his will and dominate all others. Yet, Tolkien’s message does not simply end with the idea that power should not rest in the hands of clearly evil tyrants, but rather penetrates much deeper into why centralized power by its very nature is too dangerous to exist.
One of the first characters to fall prey to the temptation of the Ring’s power is the wizard Saruman. Saruman’s reasoning for wanting power is quite simple and is certainly a sentiment that we hear everyday from the DC class. “The time of the Elves is over” he tells fellow wizard Gandalf, “but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the wise can see.” Such an attitude is all to common when it comes to the actual and aspiring members of the governing class who believe that they know best and are justified in imposing their kind hearted plans upon everyone else. Whether it is social democrats who believe they can plan the economy, or neo-conservatives who believe they can plan the entire world order and engage in “building” entire nations at the point of the gun in the Middle East, the world is full of wannabe Saruman’s fully convinced of their own wisdom and infallibility.
Tolkien examines in great psychological depth the process by which ordinary people end up abusing power, most poignantly in his creation of the Ring Wraiths; men who were once mighty kings who over time became subdued to Sauron’s will after accepting the nine rings of power gifted to men. Tolkien expert Dr. Thomas Shippey has said that “the Ringwraiths are Tolkien’s most original and distinctive image of evil” in part because they represent the danger that power poses in the hands of anyone, even oneself. Shippey calls this process by which ordinary people who begin with good intentions end up becoming corrupted and twisted as they acquire power the “wraithing process.” The use of the adjective “twisted” is quite intentional, as the word “wraith” stems from words such as wreath and writhe which are both twisted things. The etymology of “wraith” also draws upon the important element that wraiths are more defined by shape than by substance. According to Shippey, what fills this shape is ideology with power.
The suspicion is that people make themselves into wraiths. They accept the gifts of Sauron, quite likely with the intention of using them for some purpose which they identify as good. But then they start to cut corners, to eliminate opponents, to believe in some ‘cause’ which justifies everything they do. In the end the ‘cause’, or the habits they have acquired while working for the ‘cause’, destroys any moral sense and even any remaining humanity. The spectacle of the person ‘eaten up inside’ by devotion to some abstraction has been so familiar throughout the twentieth century as to make the idea of the wraith, and the wraithing-process, horribly recognizable, in a non-fantastic way.1
The dangers of the wraithing-process by which ordinary people end up becoming consumed by ideological power and committing atrocities are known all too well to anyone familiar with the bloody history of the 20th Century, a century in which, with bureaucratic efficiency, millions were exterminated in the ideological crusades of the USSR, Nazi Germany, and Communist China among others. According to Shippey, Tolkien’s portrayal of evil through the wraithing-process “is a curiously distinctive image of evil, and… a very unwelcome one because what it says is it could be you and under the right circumstances, or I should say the wrong circumstances, it will be you.”
While there is still much left to unpack from Tolkien’s prodigious body of work, one of his central theses is very clear: centralized power is too dangerous to be allowed to exist. If concentrated power exists people will be corrupted by it. This important point cannot be ignored in arguments for decentralization.
- 1. Shippey, Tom J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century pg. 125