Skip to comments.Bambi vs. Godzilla (a history of the growth of the State, and its potential collapse)
Posted on 05/14/2012 11:59:00 PM PDT by JerseyanExile
US House of Representatives. Note twin fasces flanking the flag
The growing powerlessness of the modern state reflects the abdication of its erstwhile governing classes; and it is at least probable that in its wake there will follow not the blessings of increased liberty but a long transitory brutal period of insecurity and terror.
John Lukacs, The Passing of the Modern Age
The Age of the State
The absolute, divine-right monarch had been unknown during medieval times, which preferred its kings weak and nominal; but royal absolutism ensured peace and security; and those are bourgeois virtues, par excellence. So the rise of the bourgeoisie meant the rise of the monarchs. Strong monarchs were even seen as democratic champions of the people against unruly barons.
And with the monarchs came the Totalizing State. The self-governing chartered corporations of the Middle Ages free towns, universities, guilds, companies of players were brought under State regulation or control. The scope of State authority continued increasing even after the bourgeoisie turned against the monarchs. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that democratic despotism would be more extensive and more mild.
The supreme power then covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting.
The result would be governments that would interfere more habitually and decidedly with the circle of private interests than any sovereign of antiquity could ever do.
Alexis de T
In fact, it is worth quoting the estimable de Tocquville at length (feel free to browse or skip). He is here describing the Europe of his day (that is, during the presidency of Andy Jackson):
In the centuries of aristocracy before our time, the rulers of Europe had been deprived of or had voluntarily given up many of the rights inherent in their power. Less than a hundred years ago in most of the nations of Europe there were private persons or almost independent bodies who administered justice, raised and maintained soldiers, levies taxes, and often even made or interpreted the law. The state has everywhere reclaimed for itself alone those natural attributes of sovereign power. In all matters of government, the state allows no intermediary between itself and the citizens, but directs them in matters of general concern itself. Far from criticizing this concentration of powers, I merely point it out.
In Europe at that same time there were many secondary powers representing local interests and administering local affairs. Most of these local authorities have already vanished, and the rest are tending quickly to disappear or to fall into a state of complete subordination. From one end of Europe to the other seignorial privileges, the liberties of cities, and the powers of provincial governments have been or soon will be destroyed. ....
[T]hese various rights which have been successively wrested in our time from classes, corporations, and individuals have not been used to create new secondary powers on a more democratic basis, but have invariably been concentrated in the hands of the government. Everywhere it is the state itself which increasingly takes control of the humblest citizen and directs his behavior even in trivial matters.
In Europe in the old days almost all the charitable institutions were managed by individuals or corporations. They are now all more or less under government control, and in several countries, are administered by the government. The state almost exclusively undertakes to supply bread to the hungry, assistance and shelter to the sick, work to the idle, and to act as the sole reliever of all kinds of misery.
In most countries now education as well as charity has become a national concern. ...
It is also safe to say that now in almost all Christian nations, Catholic as well as Protestant, religion is in danger of falling under government control. ....
The sovereign's power having spread, as we have seen, over the entire sphere of previously existing authorities, is not satisfied with that, but goes on to extend in every direction over the domain heretofore reserved for personal independence. A multitude of actions which formerly were entirely free from the control of society are now subject thereto, and this is constantly increasing.
Reflecting Walker Percy's observation that at this most crowded era, man feels most alone and isolated, de Tocqueville foresaw:
I wish to imagine under what new features despotism might appear in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, living apart, is almost unaware of the destiny of all the rest. His children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he stands alongside them but does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself; if he still retains his family circle, at any rate he may be said to have lost his country . . . Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike, its aims were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances. Why can it not remove them entirely from the bother of thinking and the troubles of life?
Keep some of those thoughts in mind. "Everywhere it is the state itself which increasingly takes control of the humblest citizen and directs his behavior even in trivial matters." That the alienation of the individual, his "alone-ness," is a consequence should be obvious.
As for "In all matters of government, the state allows no intermediary between itself and the citizens," where have we heard that before? Oh, yes.
Everything within the state; nothing outside the state; nothing against the state. - Benito Mussolini
Fascism is alive and well; but it is the soft fascism described by de Tocqueville, not the hard fascism with the spiffy uniforms. Fascism (or "national socialism" except that the German variety ruined the name) differs from international socialism in its resolution of the class struggle. Instead of a rising of the proletariat (led, of course, by the privileged Vanguard), fascism conceives of a brilliant, popular LEADER who embodies in his very person the aspirations of his People. Like the fasces, which by wrapping a bundle of sticks together makes the whole bundle stronger than the individual stick, the LEADER unifies the classes so they work together for the betterment of the nation. And -- no fooling -- for hope and change. (See Lukacs The Last European War, Part II, Chapter III. Yale Univ. Press, 1976)
This is done through rules and regulations, enforced uniformity, and government-led cooperation. (As in: cooperate or else.) More elaborate examples of this include Mussolini's "syndicates" and Hilary Clinton's proposed "health care alliances." They "rationalize" unruly free market capitalism and "wasteful competition" by allocating market share to each provider.
Starting ca. 1870, the States of Europe assumed power over the two fundamental principles of private life: the formation of marriages and the education of children. State-run secular schools with mandatory attendance date from this time: Austria (1869), England (1870), Switzerland (1874), the Netherlands (1876), Italy (1877), Belgium (1879), and France (early/ mid 1880s). German public schools were secularized around this time also. State-run schools naturally glamorized the State, and the net result was throngs of people cheering the onset of World War One.
Likewise, Austria instituted civil marriage in 1868, and the idea spread to Italy (1873), Switzerland (1874), the German Empire (1875), and France (1881). Today, we have forgotten that people once married without a State permit. By the early 1900s, the State even proposed to decide who could marry whom based on Darwinian principles, although eugenics got a bad reputation shortly after and is now on hold, then it decided marriages could be dissolved on a whim, currently, it is musing on something called same-sex "marriage." (Marriage, like education, suffered the fate of anything run by the State.)
[Greenblatt writes:] Human insignificancethe fact that it is not all about us and our fateis, Lucretius insisted, good news. Indeed it is good news for Harvard professors, and for anyone else in positions of power. As materialism disenchants, the principles and norms and standards by which we can hold the powerful accountable melt away. -- R.R.Reno, Book Review of Greenblatt's The Swerve
The barrera is there for a reason. Ask the bull.
Curiously, libertarianism has abetted this emptying out of the public square, in which the Rugged Individual and the Total State now face each other across an empty plain littered by the ruins of all the other organizations that used to buffer them from each other: local states and cities, churches, guilds, families, and so forth. In the process, the old Catholic notion of Social Justice has been emptied out. Whereas it once meant that each level and pocket of society received what was its just due -- individual, family, town, church, union, university, and so on -- it now means "an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny." The lone individual now faces the omnicompetent State with no shield or barrera.
It's Bambi vs. Godzilla.
"It was perhaps equally important that the existence and prestige of the Church prevented society from being totalitarian, prevented the omnicompetent state, and preserved liberty in the only way that liberty can be preserved, by maintaining in society an organization which could stand up against the state." - A.D. Lindsay, The Modern Democratic State
A funny thing happened on the way to the Total State
What comes next, Big Brother? Maybe not. A funny thing happened on the way to the Total State. It began to fade away. Lukacs in 1970 cited several reasons for this:
1. The impotence of technology. Large super-scientific States with massive arsenals found themselves in the position of hunting bumblebees with an elephant gun. And they no longer dared, as Napoleon had, to line up the cannons and fire on rioters.
2. The democratization of warfare. The resistance movements of WWII presaged popular warfare carried out by small private groups. It had already been proven that no State could prevent incursions by air. In 1970, Lukacs wrote that they would be unable to prevent foreign incursions by land. I am not thinking only of guerrilla and commando raids, he wrote, I am thinking of the sudden migratory pressure of large populations, sloshing across frontiers. The result will be a blurring of the line between war and peace: fighting may diminish or intensify at times, but will never entirely cease. States will be unable to negotiate and enforce a peace because there will be no State authority with which to negotiate.
3. The deterioration of sovereignty. Toward the end of the Modern Ages, Popular Sovereignty began to subvert the State as the main legitimizing authority. Both Hitler and Mussolini claimed their authority directly from the People, not from the constitutions of Italy or Germany. Even tyrants now stage election kabuki to claim rule in the name of the People.
After four hundred years of bloody wars to make their respective boundaries match, the Nation and the State have begun to part company once more. Multi-national States disintegrated (Yugoslavia), divorced (Czechoslovakia), or devolved (the United Kingdom). The Scottish Parliament reconvened. Bretons, Basques, Flemings and Walloons began to question the legitimacy of the States they lived in echoing the Sudeten Germans of an earlier generation. The notion arose that politicians of one Folk could not represent citizens of another Folk, and that Rights apply to Folks rather than to individuals. Folkish Nationalism shifted from the right to the left.
Frequency of the term patriot in English language sources, per Google
Always remember that fascism was above all a popular movement against the bourgeois and had at first a great many admirers. Made the trains run on time, and all that. Remember, too, that in 1900 Argentina was accounted what we now call a "first world country." Then she went with Peron and fascism and today counts as a third world county.
The New Feudalism
Meanwhile, States began to farm out their services. Some were privatized or subcontracted (Maximus Canada operates health services in British Columbia.) Others were awarded as grants to NGOs (ACORN, Halliburton, Planned Parenthood, etc.) or spun off as quasi-governmental entities (Federal Reserve, USPS, Fannie Mae, etc.). Still other State powers were subsumed by supra-State organizations like the European Union or the United Nations. These moves bear a curious resemblance to the granting of fiefs.
But the natural impulse of a Popular State is to extend the idea of fairness through rules. This triggers circumvention, loop-holing, and gaming the system, which leads in turn to further rules to plug the holes. Eventually, the rules accumulate so that the normal citizen no longer understands how to deal with them. How exactly does one go about running for Congress or opening a small business? At this point the Popular Government as such begins to collapse.
The New Brownshirts, prepared to mob gatherings of the opposition
It has become possible to foment and even run a rebellion without ever crossing the border. The power of radio was seen already in WWII, but since then videotapes and the Internet have added to that capacity. Today, a demonstration or mob can be organized in a flash. It is naïve to suppose that the organizers will always be kinder, gentler people.
For SF writers, what will the future look like? Perhaps the modern State will run to completion and become to the Total State it always aspired to be, regulating or running everything within its territorial boundaries, telling people what sort of light bulbs they can use or how much water their toilets must hold, or even what products they must buy. But perhaps it will become something more like a holding company, providing a playing field within which it will license various NGOs to deliver what States used to deliver. Or both: They might subcontract the toilet police job. Meanwhile, the people living within its borders will self-identify not with the landlord State but with the Nation or Folk to which they feel they belong.
But the feebleness of enormously powerful states among themselves reflects their impotence within themselves. A few thousand students or farmers upset over a cut in their subsidies can defy governments armed with tanks and atomic bombs. Eventually, this will become common wisdom and a long transitory brutal period of insecurity and terror will set in. A New Dark Age.
But it was once a truism that the Mafia-controlled neighborhoods of New York were the most crime-free, and anyone can play the game of private warfare. The reaction against the anarchy may see a sort of alliance between governments, NGOs, and street gangs, as a new sort of feudal warfare becomes the norm.
+ + +
Barzun, Jacques. The House of Intellect. (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2002)
Chastek, James. On a cause of corruption in popular governments.
Chastek, James. On apocalypse scenarios. JustThomism (Jul 18, 2010)
"Darwin." Alone with the state. DarwinCatholic (May 4, 2012)
Lemieux, Fr. Denis. Fascism redux. Life With a German Shepherd (March 20, 2012)
Lukacs, John . The Passing of the Modern Age. (Harper & Row, 1970)
Lukacs, John. At the End of an Age. (Yale Univ. Press, 2002)
Percy, Walker. The Delta Factor in The Message in the Bottle(Picador, 1975)
Thank you for presenting this utterly fascinating article I would never have otherwise seen. And I believe this is the first time I have ever seen referenced Walker Percy’s Message in a Bottle on FR, a work I have consulted so frequently over the years. Thanks!
Oh, sure. Blame Lucretius!
Well, no. It was above all a popular movement against socialism/Bolshevism.
They also were against the bourgeois, but that was a secondary obsession.
Fascism was to be the THIRD WAY, neither capitalist nor communist.
original Bambi V. Godzilla short ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0dpk619oTM
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