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Jun 1, 1976

Nisbet, “The Twilight of Authority”

“Nisbet views the anarchists as the major philosophers who successfully answer advocates of centralization of the state and collectivism.”

Robert Nisbet’s important new work begins with the analysis that modern society is characterized by the cultivation of power shaped by military forms. (“Over everything hangs the specter of war.”) War and militarization of society are the means of transcending domestic divisions and economic contradictions. “If there were no other indicator, the impact of war and of the military on the West, especially since about 1940, would be sufficient.” However, Nisbet insists that the roots of this development started early in history:

But what I want to point out in this section is the vital affinity between war and the Western state. The state is born of war and its unique demands. Those social evolutionists who have tried to derive the political state as a development from kinship—that is, as the emergent of household, kindred, or clan—have simply not recognized the issues involved. The first political figure in history is not the patriarch but military leader. The history of every people of which we have record demonstrates that the first and greatest of all role-conflicts in history is that between head of household and clan on the one hand and, on the other, military chieftain.

Nisbet quotes Randolph Bourne that war is the health of the state, and he sees this as logical since “the state was nothing more, basically, than an institutionalization of the war-making power.” From war he derives the communist concept. It was the war band, not the kinship community, from which the system of communism developed.

Ancient military government achieved its highest form in the state capitalism or the bureaucratic warfare-welfare state of imperial Rome. Although the Roman Empire fell by internal resistance from native populations and the migrating populations that settled within it, imperial concepts reemerged in European society in the late Middle Ages. Roman law was adopted as the mechanism by which the centralized political states of Europe were brought into existence during the Renaissance. “Roman Law of the Empire is at bottom the law necessary to keep armies constantly in the field, properly supplied and replenished in the battles which were fought at every outpost.” Noting the revival of Roman law in European universities, Paul Vinogradov noted that it was “bound to appeal to the pioneers of the state conception, to ambitious emperors, grasping territorial princes, reforming legists, and even clerical representatives of law and order.” Nisbet sees in Roman law the distinctively Western idea that law rather than being a “reflection of social reality is a powerful means of accomplishing reality, that is , of fashioning, making it.” Traditionally law is not made—there is no legislative function—but discovered, transmitted among jurists. The prefeudal English common law is part of that tradition, and Nisbet suggests greater attention should be given to legal scholarship highlighting the strong Roman law influences in England. Certainly, there were strong institutional, especially taxing, influences from the Late Roman imperial forms of the Byzantine and Arab institutions of Norman Sicily.

I find myself in disagreement with Nisbet’s failure to distinguish between Roman public law land private law. Private law contributed to the development of contract and its requirement of freedom from restraint and willing assent. Its logical development is the negation of the concept of the state arid its sovereignty, Roman public law was what built the modern state. It was built by the destruction of nonstatist medieval society by the use of the weapon of sovereignty. The medieval associations, kinships, communities, and customary relationships were dismembered and destroyed to create the modern state. “Such entities had nothing but memory and tradition in most instances to vindicate their right to their being and their holdings, land included. Never mind the diverse motives behind enclosures and other acts of expropriation; these ranged from capitalist cupidity to political aggrandizement. The important point is that such acts were legitimized, often even inspired, by prinicples of Roman Law.”

The purpose of this destruction of medieval entities was to better tax. Lands were taken from kinship groups and associations that traditionally had immunities from taxation and were placed in the hands of government supporters in lieu of payments from taxes and as a source of future taxes. Everyone was made a subject of the state in order to better tax them. Roman public law negated the individualism that was protected by the medieval immunities of kinship and associational groups.

Nisbet associates rationalism with Roman public law. By this he means the rationality and calculation by which state sovereignty achieved its objectives of taxing the money and the persons of the population for state-making, and especially state war-making. In order to undertake war, for which Roman law was most advantageous, new models of economic organization were necessary. “Marx himself was struck by the fact that the earliest manifestation of the capitalist wage system lay in the kinds of military organization which succeeded the knighthood… .

“Under FDR, the wedding of the military and academic communities was completed.”

The model the military provided industry and state alike in its regimented masses of individuals, its use of barracks, its ingrained discipline, its secularism, and its whole envisagement of society as a kind of inverted pyramid of power was made all the easier to communicate by the residual concepts of Roman Law.” Since Roman law’s value was to strengthen the state’s taxing power to support the military, the state developed the earliest large scale industrial establishments to furnish military and naval weapons.

Nisbet sees a connection between intellectuals and war since the Renaissance. “The state originated in circumstances of war and has never been very far from the planning or the execution of war. Politically minded intellectuals have been perforce military intellectuals in substantial degree, a fact sufficiently attested to by a long and imposing line of Western intellectuals that includes Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Marx.” Politically minded intellectuals support power which is the cause of disorder. But Nisbet seeks the reason for nonpolitically minded intellectuals’ support for war. Further analysis should be given to possible connections between literary subjectivism and intellectuals’ “fascination with the kinds of leadership, heroism, and unity we are more likely to find in war than in peace.” He believes that intellectuals are upset by the profits, competition, and tensions of day-to-day living and of the marketplace, which they see as antagonistic to the subjective leadership and heroism they admire. But heroism is based on power, so there is “individualism” of power. Everyday life is not exciting or heroic, so the individualism of peaceful existence is denied the title individualism; by negating the individualism of peaceful existence, by regimentation and taxation, a heroic “individualism” of power can be created around crises. Nisbet concludes: “when it comes to a choice between the banality and anti-heroic nature of the market place and the heady opportunities of crisis, especially military crisis, the decision is not hard to’ make. Most certainly when there is an Augustus, Cromwell, Napoleon, Churchill, or FDR to serve.”

Nisbet concentrates on the politicalization of the American intellectual since World War I, compared to which he finds nothing similar in the western world. He holds that the West’s “first real experience with totalitarianism” began with “the American war state under Woodrow Wilson.” The war was essentially a remodeling of American society—the manufacture of a new nation—with the actual combat a secondary feature. Historic American concepts of individualism, local autonomies, and traditional roles were replaced with collectivism, centralism, efficiency, and exciting national goals. Radicalism and liberalism before World War I were directed toward individualism and autonomy; World War I brought a reform movement dedicated to Centralism and collectivism. The traditions of voluntary association, grass roots and pluralism, “ranging from anarchist utopianism to the special form of socialism that characterized, for example, Eugene Debs and the editors of The Masses, disappeared with the war. A very different spirit, rooted in the centralized power of the national government and which in a sense took war-society minus war as its ideal of planned economy, replaced the older one. It is easy to see this new intellectual pattern developing slowly through the 1930s.”

Nisbet seeks to discover the role of the intellectuals in the manufacture of a new nation and why they accepted that role:

For America to have moved from a position of isolationist pacificism so suddenly to the kind of passionate intensity of collective purpose that was so evident by 1917 can be explained only by, first, devotion of a great many intellectuals and artists themselves to war and, second, by their unique capacity for whipping up similar devotion on the part of ever larger aggregates of the population… . Wilson badly needed the assistance of the intellectuals, for opposition to American entry was formidable in almost all parts of the country… . If an army was to be manufactured for export to Europe in a war that a very large number of the American people considered none of America’s business, then a new nation had to be manufactured: economically, politically, culturally, and, not least, psychologically. A whole new set of mind must be created on a mass level. And if popular consciousness was to be transformed, there must be superbly articulated instruments fashioned for this herculean labor. Who but intellectuals# could have fashioned, could have become, these instruments? To this day I think few people, even American historians, have an adequate conception of what took place in the intellectual class, and between the intellectual class and the American pub he, from 1917 to about 1920.

World War I under Wilson created a romance with war and with crises, relations, and structures connected to war. Industries, railroads, telephone, and the crucial Atlantic cables were taken over by the federal government. Conscription, price, profit, and wage controls were imposed, and the right to strike and organize was limited. Free press and free speech were inhibited; sedition trials were widespread. “World War I was America’s first plunge into a form of socialism or near-socialism (or, as many astute and informed minds came to realize later, after the word had become available through Mussolini’s Italy, Fascism or near-Fascism), and it may be assumed that opportunities were abundant for intellectuals.” Nisbet underlines the World War I origins of New Deal agencies and administrators, and the “extraordinary likeness” of the New Deal and Nazi Germany due to the common World War I experience on which both drew. “In terms of frequency of use of [war] symbols by the national government not even Hitler’s Germany outdid our propagandists.”

Thus, when World War II arrived, the intellectuals were fully in support of American intervention, and with it, the full militarization of the American mind. The art of information management developed during the New Deal was completed during World War II. “FDR’s clandestine investigation through the FBI of political opponents on the matter of America’s entry into the war after 1939 was only one of several distinctly transpolitical acts.” Nisbet considers the emergence of the transpolitical a significant American development. Americans, having experienced the effects of statist foreign policy under England, saw after the American Revolution that they must avoid foreign entanglements and war if they were to avoid all the aspects of statism that Nisbet so graphically describes arising in modern Europe. Having embarked on the war cycle, the military society took on all the attributes of traditional European statism. In place of the right of dissent, the unitary state concept held that the ruler could do to domestic enemies what rulers traditionally could do to foreign enemies. War became the model for domestic political debate. This is the transpolitical Nisbet describes as having reached high intensity during the Vietnam War.

Under FDR, the wedding of the military and academic communities was completed. Nisbet uses the example of Project Camelot in Chile to show how academics helped military intelligence plan secret activities to prevent the success of those opposed by the American and Chilean military establishments. The academics held that “the Army was an ideal instrument for bringing reform, humanitarianism, and democratic culture to the underprivileged abroad.” High academics were involved from the beginning of America’s involvement in Vietnam and were at the forefront of the escalation of involvement under Kennedy and Johnson. Then, when the war became unwinnable, high academics broke with support of the war in the face of opposition in the universities. Nisbet asks, “Would this hand-washing, this collective self-purification, ever have taken place had there been not the New Left? I am wholly skeptical that it would.” Those high academics were derived from the Old Left, which saw in the political state a religious sacredness. Nisbet sees in the New Left of the 1960s and the broader youth culture that has become a leading influence on the at-large population an anti-political, antibureaucratic radicalism like nineteenth century radicalism and unlike the bureaucratism of the Old Left. With the failure of the post-World War II New Conservatism and of Chicago School economics to challenge political bureaucratism, Nisbet saw the New Left as challenging the politicalization of mind in America. The New Left “also spurned, at least in the beginning, the political centralization and bureaucratization which had become hallmarks of the left up to that point. Not Marx but Proudhon was king; or if Marx it was the ‘humanistic’ Marx of the Paris years that the New Left welcomed, not the Marx of Capital or Criticism of the Gotha Program.”

The current conservative movement is found wanting by Nisbet: “The prospects for conservatism are hardly bright. It became great by virtue of its fight for capture of power, central power.” Nisbet contrasts the Actonian “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” with conservatism’s emphasis on aggression. He finds it defined more “by what adversaries do and say than by anything that comes from philosophy or principles.” He feels that conservatism has been fatally wounded by passivity to the moral delinquencies of the government. “Can one imagine either a Burke or a Nock being other than revolted by every aspect of Watergate, its flouting of morality and its consecration of arbitrary power?”

In his opposition to current conservatism, Nisbet praises traditional conservatism, originating with Edmund Burke, which reacted against the rationalism and abolition of privileges advocated by liberals. He emphasizes conservatism’s defense of social pluralism and of the traditional family, religion, community, and institutions that preceded the eighteenth century revolutions. “During the past two centuries mankind has undergone the most traumatic social change it has experienced since the beginnings of settled culture in the Neolithic age. I refer to the decline—even disappearance in spreading sections—of the local community, the dislocation of kinship, and the erosion of the sacred in human affairs.” He believes that the revolutions of the late eighteenth century have had incalculable destructive effects on traditional life: “Very different, however, has been the case since the onset of the two great revolutions of modern times: the democratic and the industrial at the end of the eighteenth century. Unlike all preceding changes in human history, these revolutions went below the superstructure of society, went right to man’s most ancient and cherished sources of identity. With the rise of the factory system and the mass electorate, there was inevitably a wrenching of the individual from his accustomed family, local, and religious contexts,” The deferential society which was rooted in feudal privileges was destroyed. Modern man, his society and his culture were totally transformed:

The increasing isolation of the individual in electorate and marketplace carried with it a large literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that, in effect, justified it. An individualistic psychology found the basic springs of human stability, of motivation, and of freedom in the biologically inherited nature of man. Economics, with its celebration of enlightened self-interest and what Adam Smith called ‘the instinct to truck and barter,’ its envisagement of society as little more than a scene of conflicting individual forces, and its general neglect of the moral and the social, was a perfect intellectual analogy to what was going on in the institutional sphere. Moral philosophy took refuge in a highly individualistic utilitarianism… . There were exceptions, among them Burke, Coleridge, Hegel, and Tocqueville, but they were few.

“The current conservative movement is found wanting by Nisbet.”

Nisbet has a strong antipathy to the conservatism of Plato, Machievelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Bentham, and Austin, which is based on political power. Although not convinced that the political state’s negation, individual autonomy, is possible, he is impressed by the liberalism of Locke, Smith, and J.S. Mill, with its emphasis on the free individual’s “liberation from political and military bonds.” It is against those bonds, the political community that is justified in Plato’s communism, that the tradition is associated that begins with Aristotle and continues through Nisbet’s major influences: Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Bodin, Burke, Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Proudhon, and Albert Jay Nock. Nisbet finds that these distinguished between social institutions and the political state, and saw freedom, not as emanating from a constitution, but from the strength of the social institutions resisting the state:

I believe this second tradition, stretching, as I saw, from Aristotle down to Burke, Tocqueville, Acton, and to some of the anarchists of the nineteenth century, is by far the more relevant to the needs of our own time… . There are two separate and distinctive manifestations in the nineteenth century of this second, social, tradition of Western thought. The first is conservative, the second is radical, but what they have in common is profound belief in the necessity of protection of the social from the political. Whether it is Burke and von Haller among conservatives, or Proudhon and Kropotkin among radicals, there is identical emphasis upon the values of localism, regionalism, voluntary association, decentralization of authority, and also identical fear of the political state, whether monarchical or republican in character.

Along with Wilhelm von Humboldt, J.S. Mill, and Acton, Nisbet gives particular praise to the French Catholic Liberals of the early nineteenth century, Lamennais, Lacordaire, Montalembert, Tocqueville, the study of whom has been almost a void among libertarians. (Important parallel reading would be Yehoshua Arieli’s Individualism and Nationalism in American Ideology, which I have been recommending for a decade.)

Nisbet views the anarchists as the major philosophers who successfully answer advocates of centralization of the state and collectivism. “In many ways the most interesting of all such groups in the nineteenth century is that which has come to be called the anarchist.” Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin emphasized the smaller patriotism of parish, guild, and cooperative association. “But in the works of the anarchist, from Proudhon’s day to ours, and nowhere stated more profoundly and encompassingly than in Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and Fields, Factories and Workships, it is precisely on the foundations of such groups, each with maximum autonomy of function and authority, that the edifice of the free society is to be built.”

I have doubts about the simplicity of the relationship of the growth of individualism and the growth of the state that Nisbet presents. The growth of state power did not lessen the effectiveness of communities, guilds, and families but incorporated them into the control structure of the state. For example, the patriarchal family may have been strengthened by the increase in state power. In place of the nonpatri-archial medieval family, the state gave full force of law to Hebraic patriarchy and set aside the antipatriarchy of Christ’s teaching of the primacy and equality of the conjugal couple. The “perpetual childhood” for women in the patriarchal family was a model for the “perpetual childhood” of the people imposed by the state. Whatever may have been the character of the pre-eighteenth-century-revolution communities, et cetera, however, Nisbet is correct to emphasize the importance of the voluntary associations of the nineteenth century not only in the solution of problems but in the development of strategies to resist the state.

Nisbet would like to see the rediscovery of the foundations of social science in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries wherein the self-regulating economy was paralleled by the self-regulating social process, which similarly excluded political intervention. From “Adam Smith, David Ricardo, August Comte, Haller, Mill, and Maine, down through Le Play, Durkeim, Geddes, Weber, Spencer, and Sumner” Nisbet presents the original social scientists for whom the state was an accidental institution of which one should be skeptical. In this, as in the other topics he discusses, Nisbet sets forth major channels of inquiry for his readers; his book is an outline for new ways of investigating modern society and modern thought. Reviewed by Leonard P. Liggio / Oxford University Press, 1975 / $10.95