Thursday, September 4, 2014

The State Grows Up

I return to Martin van Creveld’s book, “The Rise and Decline of the State.”  In this section, Creveld deals with the transition of government from being centered on the ruler’s person to being centered on the “state.”  The period covered is 1648 to 1789.

For this, perhaps an introduction will be helpful:

…the real story of the absolute state is not so much about despotism per se as about the way in which, between 1648 and 1789, the person of the ruler and his “state” were separated from each other until the first became almost entirely unimportant in comparison with the second.

Building the Bureaucracy

The foundation necessary in effecting this transition was a functioning – almost autonomous – bureaucracy.  The term “bureaucracy” was coined by Vincent de Gourmay as a pejorative – to be added to the forms of government identified by Aristotle: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. 

During the period under consideration, the outstanding change was the one which led from indirect rule by feudal lords to direct government exercised by salaried officials on the king’s behalf.

This included the transition of those who looked after the royal domains into those responsible for government administration.  It should be kept in mind that – certainly for much of medieval Europe – the king’s “domain” (for lack of a better term) extended no farther than land he directly owned.  Other nobles would have pledged allegiance to this king, but in no way did this make their land thereafter the king’s in the sense of a state.  This changed in the new Europe, so much so that whereas historically borders were marked by the boundary of a stream or location of a tall tree, borders were important and marked on the ground; professional surveyors were deployed.

Offices were no longer held by priests or aristocrats; often, offices were sold to the highest bidder – with the return on investment to come via rights attached to the office – in essence, the office was private property.  Nothing prevented one person from holding more than one office.

The establishment of this bureaucracy increased the need for fixed rules; entrance examination were developed and administered.  The modern census was born, and the paperwork – oh, the paperwork!  Statistics were kept – the primary purpose being for taxation.

The Spanish bureaucracy developed into the most advanced in Europe; the Prussian bureaucracy the largest in proportion to the population.  The king became largely superfluous: “Your majesty himself is nothing but a ceremony.”

…the system they built was essentially one of enlightened bureaucratic despotism tempered by the will of the upper classes…an ultramodern, highly centralized, salaried government apparatus….

The more powerful and centralized the bureaucracy – even when encouraged by the ruler in order to control the land – the more it took control out of the ruler’s hand. 

As Hegel recognized, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the point had been reached where the bureaucracy itself became the state, elevating itself high above civil society and turning itself into the latter’s master.

No surprise here….

Monopolizing Violence

It shouldn’t be assumed that the people went along easily:

To make good on its pretensions the state had to increase the instruments of violence at its disposal until there was nobody left capable of talking back…

For this, the monopolization of violence was necessary.  War, in medieval time, was a personal matter – almost a family feud; battles amongst the nobles.  Now, this was changing toward an act only legitimate for the impersonal state.  The rulers no longer marched with the military; the military was staffed by a permanent corps of officers – now able to stand outside of the society from which they came.  The commoners were conscripted.  The first “police” forces were established.

With the establishment of the regular armed forces, the police (both in and out of uniform), and prisons, the proud structure of the modern state was virtually complete.

The monopolization of legalized violence; as with any monopoly, the producer wins, the customers lose.

No Peasant Left Behind

It became important that every person was tied to one state or another – opting out could not be allowed.  One must be a citizen of one or another state.  The worst condition was to be stateless – always subject to deportation, denied work.

The Intellectuals

This transition did not come without an intellectual and philosophical foundation: Machiavelli played a part – since he viewed man as cowardly and treacherous, rules for government cannot be the same as those which apply inside a house; by putting God aside, he also did not have to be bothered with justice and right.

Barzun offers perspective on Machiavelli; he sees not so much fault with the proposed ends – instead, it is the means that has the critics worked up:

It is the means Machiavelli proposes for achieving princehood and staying in power that have caused the furor.

Barzun expands on Machiavelli’s views on man:

“Italians are cowards, poor, and vain.”  This badness must be used to create not good conditions but tolerable ones: both morality and immorality must contribute.

Given this view:

The prince must be honest and decent as far as he can and he must certainly uphold the precepts of Christian ethics.  He must be just and if possible popular.  But he had better be feared than loved.  He dare not let ethics keep him from doing whatever evil must be done to preserve himself and the state.

Bodin “derived the proposition that the most important duty of any ruler was…to lay down the law.”  He should also decide war and peace.  Bodin wanted to endow the worldly sovereign with the qualities of God – and set him in His place.

Again, from Barzun:

For France, Bodin is sure that a division of powers, a so-called mixed government, will not work.  Sovereignty is not divisible….

Hobbes and Leviathan do not go unmentioned – defining “the state as an “artificial man,” separate from the person of the ruler.”  He can be credited with inventing the “state” as an entity separate from the ruler.  His purpose “was to endow politics with the kind of precision hitherto attained only by physics.”  Therefore, man was defined as a machine – to be acted upon. 

Hobbes would place no limits on the lawmaking of the state; divorced from both God and nature, the state was free to do…anything. The power was virtually infinitely more than anything even dreamed of under even the most despotic regimes of old.

Barzun comments on Hobbes:

Hobbes saw man in the state of nature as an aggressor; man is a wolf to man.  Unless controlled, he and his fellows live a life that is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.”  From these premises reason concludes that government must be strong, its laws emphatic, and rigorously enforced to prevent outbreaks of wolfish nature against other men.

For Hobbes, the only viable state is one headed by an absolute ruler and lawgiver.

Locke offered what could be considered a direct rebuttal of Hobbes.  While also describing the state as an entity separate from the ruler, he examined Hobbes’ notion that man was an evil creature.  What should be avoided at all costs was this idea of absolute government.  Government should be based on consent, confirmed regularly by elections.

Barzun describes Locke’s premises:

As in Hobbes, it springs from the state of nature… The reasoning goes like this: Man in Nature has every right that his individual power affords – no limits, no prohibitions.  But this violent free-for-all proves inconvenient, so he enters into an agreement with his fellows to set up and authority that will restrain violence and settle disputes.  That is the social compact.  Once established and generating laws, this arrangement is binding on everyone forever, unless the sovereign – a person or group – misuses the authority conferred.

[Locke’s] universal rights come down to three: life, liberty, and property.

Perfecting the State

Creveld identifies the period 1789 to 1945 as the time when the state was held as the ideal:

Even as the state was reaching maturity around the middle of the eighteenth century, however, forces were at work which were about to transform it from an instrument into an end and, later, a living god.

Ideas initially developed by French, Swiss, and German intellectuals…

…were harmless enough.  But before long they spread to the masses, causing them to take on an aggressive, chauvinistic tone that boded ill for the welfare of humanity.

During this time, the size and scope of the state grew significantly:

…in terms of percentages, neither the number of soldiers enlisted nor the amount of taxes levied by the “absolute” state even approached the burdens imposed by its democratic, liberal, twentieth-century successors.

The control of money was the key to this growth:

…once the state had become so powerful that it was able to determine what did and did not count as money, the financial restraints which had always limited the actions of previous rulers also dropped by the wayside.

Creveld notes as a result the Napoleonic wars and the total wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

The Great Transformation

By “The Great Transformation,” Creveld means to suggest that the state has evolved into the absolute – a living god.  He identifies several intellectuals that gave cover to this, but focuses in some detail on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. 

Whose “reason” directed the affairs of society and man? 

For an answer [Hegel] turned from the personal God of Christianity to the impersonal Spirit of History or Weltgeist, thus setting up a secular religion whose high priest was, needless to say, was Hegel himself.

This “reason” was not attributed to humanity as a whole or to the individuals that made it up; it was attributed to the political community or state in which they lived.

Hegel was unhesitant in pointing to the state as the community’s highest, indeed sole, representative.

Disciplining Mind, Body and Soul

Creveld describes the establishment of internal police, government funded and controlled education, and the co-opting of the church.

The state’s transformation from an instrument to an ideal could never have taken place if it had not also reinforced its grip on society far beyond anything attempted by its early modern predecessor.

He describes these changes in various European states – differing in detail, but not direction: Napoleonic establishment of internal police, German efforts in consolidating education; Russian nationalization of the church.  He goes on to describe the extremes to which this control was extended in the twentieth century – for example, the police state of the Soviet Union.

All sought to achieve the same end, namely to make sure that no person and no institution should be in a position to resist any “lawful” demands made on it by the state. The torture chamber and the concentration camp merely completed the work that the classroom had begun:

What did you learn at school today
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn at school today
Dear little boy of mine?
I learnt our country is good and strong!
Always right and never wrong!
I learnt our leaders are the best of men!
That’s why we elect them again and again.
What did you learn at school today…

Conquering Money

By conquering money, all limits on what the state could consume were removed.

The extension of the states’ control over society, which is the most prominent development of the years 1789 – 1945, could never have taken place had it not also acquired unprecedented financial means to back up its claims.

Once [the state had redefined the meaning of the commodity for payment], the financial constraints that had often held previous polities in check fell away, and the state’s road toward war and conquest was open.

Creveld describes the history – much wrapped around gold and silver (including bimetalism as a check); the government’s involvement limited to affixing a seal on the coin; the decentralization of producing coins during the Middle Ages.  Attempts at introducing paper money were introduced, in China and Persia, for example; these resulted in significant inflation.

After the decentralized period of the Middle Ages, money was produced not only by government but by also by private institutions – where even paper could be trusted if from the hands of a merchant but not the government.

Total War

Education and religion were captured.  Methods of discipline were established and made complete.  Nationalism was developed via parades and holidays.  The road to total war was paved – with the key point being the capture of money.  The Great War was marked with every government removing gold from backing the currency:

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 equaled before or since.

…the fact remains that modern means of death and destruction would never have been possible without the state….

Between 1939 and 1945…

…somewhere between 40 and 60 million people were killed with the aid of conventional arms; still not content with this, states continued the search for more powerful weapons… Such was the magnitude of the task that it could be accomplished only by the state…

The Apotheosis of the State

Born in sin, the bastard offspring of declining autocracy and bureaucracy run amok, the state is a giant run by pygmies.

And you thought Rothbard had a low opinion of this beast. 

Unlike Genghis Khan (as one of many-pre-state examples), the modern state is immortal – the state, by merely waiting, can outlast any “who dare cross its path.”  Creveld describes this transformation to god:

The seventeenth and eighteenth-century state had demanded no special affection on the part of its subjects, provided only its decrees were obeyed and its demands for money and manpower met; but now it could draw on nationalism in order to fill its emptiness and provide itself with ethical content. …the state turned itself from a means into an end and from an end into a god.

Creveld is no fan of democracy, either:

The main difference between “free” and totalitarian states consisted in the fact that the former chose their rulers by democratic elections.

That’s it. Not very exceptional.

Nor were the differences between the “totalitarian” and democratic” countries as great as people at the time liked to believe.  Other things being equal, those states whose regimes were most efficient in squeezing the last ounce of marrow out of their citizens’ bones went on to victory…

Clearly in the supposedly liberal west – and especially in the American manifestation – the extraction of marrow has reached its highest pinnacle; the subjects are fooled into thinking they work for themselves.

But if the “last ounce of marrow” has been squeezed “out of their citizens’ bones,” what is left?  What comes next?

This will have to wait for a future chapter in the book.


  1. Got the book. Just need to start reading it,thank you

  2. I just finished your four part review of Martin van Creveld's, "The Rise and Decline of the State." It is very good.

    I had this book in my saved list, but it is pretty far down the line. It seems like your discussion here holds up pretty well with where your positions are today. I wonder if there is anything you would feel needs to be added/modified/highlighted after 4 years.

    "Other things being equal, those states whose regimes were most efficient in squeezing the last ounce of marrow out of their citizens’ bones went on to victory" - Creveld

    That is so well put. We as libertarians cannot deny the military potential of states. Can a stateless decentralized army of volunteers and mercenaries, all else equal, defeat an invading army of a centralized state with the power to tax, print money, direct its economy, and conscript? I think that it can, but the only real world blueprints we have of success are at extremely high costs, usually coming in the form of unsuccessful and costly occupation due to radical guerrilla insurgency. Never, to my knowledge, however, has a high tech, Western society been in this position. The Boer Wars maybe come close.

    It is nice to think of the state in decline, and in a lot of ways, it really is. I think Lord Acton would describe a similar process as Creveld, except that he would probably attribute statehood to the various pagan emperors of antiquity (Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans, etc.). Maybe "state" is the wrong word, but I don't think you could argue that what people had during these periods was much like liberty.

    "Six hundred years before the Birth of Christ absolutism held unbounded sway. Throughout the East it was propped by the unchanging influence of priests and armies." - Lord Acton, THoFiA