FEAR OF EQUALITY, PART 11. Our Enemy, the State

Alfred Jay Nock: Equality is an “utterly untenable popular perversion”
Alfred Jay Nock: Equality is an “utterly untenable popular perversion.”

The modern conservative movement, specifically its libertarianneoliberal wing, has its modern-day pop stars, grand masters and philosophical pillars who have formed and provided clear direction and shape to its doctrines and beliefs. Some of them are more wellknown than others. William F. Buckley, Jr., Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, Ron Paul, Hayek and von Mises, et cetera. Some of these libertarian pillars originate from the more obscure past, yet still casts an influential shadow well into the 21st century. Alfred Jay Nock may not be as well-known today as he was during the middle of the 20th century, but his influence was profound during his lifetime as an author, social critic, educational theorist and anarcho-capitalist, and his thought has become embedded into the philosophical DNA of the modern libertarian-neoliberal movement.

While I find the collective brain trust of conservatism and neoliberalism (let’s dispense with the term “libertarian,” since its aims, definition and direction have been absorbed completely and successfully by the neoliberal project) somewhat wearisome and intellectually dishonest, one is bound to find points that are interesting and worthy of discussion. And that can be said of Nock’s views, of which many points are debatable, are at least coherent and soberminded. In particular, his biting critique of the academic system as it existed during his lifetime deserves to be considered here.

 Nock’s Theory of Education

Nock published his book A Theory of Education in the United States because he was troubled by the inadequacies of the educational system he observed as it existed in the 1930s. Nock had problems with the premise that the educational system presented to society. “Bring your children,” he claimed the system promised, “and we will put them through this process under the sanction of an egalitarian and democratic theory. It did not work.”

For Nock, there were very striking reasons why he considered the educational system to be a failure. (Remember, the era when he made his observations occurred in the 1920s1940s). The major fails appeared on the fault line of unsupported and illconceived premises based on sentimentality and poorly defined and confusing terms of art (more on this later). Nock identified three points of failure.

 The first point was the theory of equality. “All children,” the system told society,should be able to be educated equally.” Nock claimed this theory failed because reality suggests otherwise. [1]

Depending on class, environment and quality of teaching and parenting, it is inconceivable that a child in the impoverished Deep South (for instance) could acquire the same quality of education as a child blessed to be born into the moneyed coastal elite. Obviously, there are differences between academic achievements between schools, let alone within a room of students, as some of them will learn at a greater rate than others. Nock says that this inequality among the populace did not go unnoticed by the Founding Fathers. In fact, Nock, who studied the life of Thomas Jefferson, claimed that according to Jefferson’s written letters, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence was very concerned how to manage the educational talent in the several states and came up with an academic scheme that today sounds fantastical and a bit demented by today’s standards. [2]

Nock says that educational equality was obviously never taken seriously, least of all by the elites that owned the country. Thus, the theory that all children are able to be educated equally is based on a false definition of egalitarianism that is based on a mythic and cultural sentimentality. When class and money are concerned, the myth of educational equality is further decimated. Nock correctly observed that education was clearly a class prerogativea privilege afforded by class and wealth.

The second point of failure that Nock observed was the myth of Democracy. To begin with, Nock had serious problems with democracy, period. In an article entitled, The Criminality of the State published in 1939, Nock cried,

““Democratic State practice is nothing more or less than State practice. It does not differ from Marxist State practice, Fascist State practice, or any other. Here is the Golden Rule of sound citizenship, the first and greatest lesson in the study of politics: you get the same order of criminality from any State to which you give power to exercise it; and whatever power you give the State to do things for you carries with it the equivalent power to do things to you.”

Furthermore, Nock added these disdainful words, “Democracy is animated by a hatred of elitist authority.” In regard to the previous point about educational equality, Nock incorrectly surmises that democracy “it must aim at no ideas above those of the average man.” I am tempted to consider this quote a bit of a rhetorical flourish, but Nock isn’t usually taken to make statements he doesn’t wholeheartedly believe. Nock believed that the democratic state was at war with itself and against the individual.

Nock refers to and holds the view that has been shared by the elite from the beginning that the masses are merely self-serving idiots in need of guidance from the more intellectually advanced minority. Greek intellectual tradition of Western civilization has this ruling class template embedded in its core logicso embedded it is ubiquitous and taken for granted.[3], The result is a society at war with itself, engaging within a dynamic struggle between opposing currents of an internal conflict and anxiety within society.

The middle class anxietywhich is always fearful of sinking into poverty, mistrust, loathes and actively hates the ruling elites that offer the masses sustenance. This guidance more often than not metamorphosed into outright enslavement and exploitation of the masses.

This failure of democracy is linked to the previous point of educational equalityfor Nock, it is a false premise that education can be applied democraticallyin other wordsin equality. Democracy is a fiction, according to Nock, and does not in fact, exist on any level except through a cultural narrative based on sentimentality and confused language, which results in counterfeit versions of equality, democracy and literacy.

Nock stresses that this confusion of terms has also been laden with sentimental notions and specious logic, producing imitation (and devalued) definitions of equality, democracy and literacy. The masses become victimized by a predatory monetary system that is linked to a tyranny of ideas about equality and democracywhile remaining perversely loyal to the inequitable system that has enslaved and disempowered them. This misplaced cultural loyalty ironically closes down any attempt to adjust and abolish the current system. In this way, Nock feared democratic states were destined to authoritarianism.

The third point of failure was that it was assumed that what was considered best for the child was best for the country, and that a literate society was the goal for a highly functional state. However, the mass of society over time became more illiterate and less able to process information.

It is telling that thiscritique Nock made in the 1940s is still applicable today, as literacy rates continue to fall well into the 21st century. The promise of creating an informed literate class failed. Obviously, the educational system failed to create a literate citizenry. Nock observed that the crucial distinction between education and training had evaporated, and the assumption that all children could be educated equally was a mistaken one, as Nock considered the mass of humanity as “barbarians” unworthy and incapable of bettering their intellectual powers. Nock referred to the elite capable of superior mental ability as the “Remnant,” and Nock placed his faith in that small group since it was his opinion that this elite was largely responsible for the advancements made in any society. What could one really expect from a barbarian?

Nock concluded at the end of A Theory of Education, that although he was stridently opposed to statecontrolled compulsory education, he allowed that most people are able to be trained to perform various vocational tasks, but like his hero, Thomas Jefferson, only a few could be of real service for the country due to their superior intellect and power of thought. It was in this intellectual elite that Nock placed his hopes, as it was his view that the course of the country’s destiny was shaped and directed not by the barbarian masses, but by this superior intellectual elite.

Society’s Lies

Within the arena of human relationships, humanity has devised two strategies to address the human being’s need for survival: that is labor in exchange for labor, and appropriating the labor from others through force or exploitation.

One of the major influences on Nock’s world view was the social critic and anarchist, Franz Oppenheimer, who was of the opinion that the State engaged in wholesale robbery. Nock wholeheartedly shared this view as well [4]. It is unclear whether Nock shared Oppenheimer’s view that Capitalism’s exercise in exploitation was the key for generating the State’s wealth, but it is known that Nock held a generally favorable view of capitalism.

Nock’s radical individualism necessarily made him a staunch anti-collectivist. In his view, the common man was too finite, flawed and stupid to create a utopia. Besides, the State was dedicated to subverting the individual’s will in service of the State, thus making the State the poorest vehicle imaginable for addressing and providing solutions for the problems in society. The State held all the cards, and revolution only offered a change of a system of oppression. Nock saw that the State manipulating public opinion through slippery, sentimental and confusing language, especially more so with the media’s power to make any statement mean anything. Others have noticed this feature in governance, although the perspectives and conclusions may pull apart different dimensions and analysis. Kenneth Rexroth claimed:

 “Since all society is organized in the interest of exploiting classes and since if men knew this they would cease to work, and society would fall apart; it has always been necessary, at least since the urban revolutions, for societies to be governed ideologically by a system of fraud.”[5]

 

Rexroth called this system of fraud, thesocial lie.” According to the Classical Liberal narrative, the “social contract” born of the period of European Enlightenment had replaced the previous world order commonly known as the “divine right of kings.” Oppenheimer (and Rexroth, for that matter) considered the social contract little more than a myth, or in Rexroth’s words, “an eighteenth-century piece of verbalism.” The status quo is maintained by the anxiety produced within these internal conflicts we mentioned earlier (the resentment, fear and loathing directed towards the elite by the masses, and the perverse loyalty felt by the populace towards the ideological narratives justifying the exploitation).

Conclusion

What Nock didn’t realize or want to realize was that his critique equally applied to capitalism as well Anti-democratic crypto-authoritarianism. One wonders how Nock would view today’s corporate welfare state and how those commercial interests have essentially become “the government,” what with the 1% controlling the levels of power in Washington D.C.

In all of his criticisms about the adversarial nature of the State, Nock failed to comment on the incursion of corporate interests into the roles of government. Perhaps the intrusion of corporatism wasn’t as widely prevalent as it appears in modern times. On one hand as a staunch defender of free-market capitalism, Nock would be quite at home with the evolution of libertarian philosophy as it reaches into the 21st century and the neoliberal agenda of privatizing the social and natural resources. However, one can make a case that Nock would be greatly dismayed at the neoliberal program of empire-building and constant military involvement into the affairs of other countries. The free market ideals that Nock held so dear have morphed into crass casino capitalism where the free market has been replaced by a stateless, global economic cryptoauthoritarianism which owes its allegiance to no one and exploits for profit entire nations and peoples. Even the privatization of the world’s water supply has been targeted as fair game.

Nock may have been a harsh critic of equality and democratic values, but in all honesty, democracy had never allowed to organize itself in a way that would benefit everyone. Allow me to speak plainly: the foundation of the American State was organized by an elite of white men who saw themselves as the owners of the country, and was not above enslaving or destroying other cultures, races and women in order to build its unimaginable wealth for itself. Since colonial times, the evolution of capitalism has resulted in the corporate interests, and the governing State becoming oneit seems incredible that Nock, with all his intellectual powers and insight, couldn’t predict this. Maybe he had an inkling. Nevertheless, he chose not to acknowledge it out of a curious case cognitive dissonance.

The State doesn’t have to be our enemy but it could be is a Living Community based on the principle of mutual consent, mutual benefit, mutual prosperity bound together by acknowledgment that all of us have an equal share in the bounty this world has to offer.

 

Fear of Equality, Part 12: The Swinde of Fulfillment

 

NOTES

[1] “They did not pretend to believe that everyone is educable, for they knew, on the contrary, that very few are educable, very few indeed. They saw this as a fact of nature, like the fact that few are six feet tall. […] They accepted the fact that there are practicable ranges of intellectual and spiritual experience which nature has opened to some and closed to others.” Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, pg. 34 (1943)

[2] Jefferson’s ideal scholastic model consisted of a group of students passing through a series of institutional gauntlets, where students are culled at specific points: those that fail to reach the highest levels of accomplishments are sent home, while the top “geniuses” are selected to move into higher classes until only a few of the top scholars remain. Sounds like a colonial academic version of American Idol, doesn’t it? According to Jefferson, “by this means, 20 of the best geniuses (in each State, mind you), shall be raked from the rubbish annually.” Yes, the Father of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas “All men are created Equal” Jefferson considered his fellow countrymen to be nothing more than human trash, at least intellectually.

[3] Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were all held anti-democratic views, and insisted that the model society would require ruling by an intellectual elite, rigid social stratification, hierarchies and various divisions of labor.

[4]There are two methods, or means, and only two, whereby man’s needs and desires can be satisfied. One is the production and exchange of wealth; this is the economic means. The other is the uncompensated appropriation of wealth produced by others; this is the political means . . . the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation.  Nock, Our Enemy, The State 1935

[5] Interview with Kenneth Rexroth, from Lawrence Lipton’s The Holy Barbarians (Messner, 1959).

 

 

Advertisements

One thought on “FEAR OF EQUALITY, PART 11. Our Enemy, the State

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s