In 1755, the Portuguese city of Lisbon was struck by a massive, deadly earthquake. As Deirdre McCloskey recently wrote, in the century that followed, three big ideas swept through Europe that would also shake the world. One of those ideas was fantastically fruitful, while the other two proved to be disastrously destructive.
First to sweep through was the bright idea of, in the words of Adam Smith, “allowing every man to pursue his own interest in his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.” In the first half of the 19th century, this idea became known as liberalism.
Then, just as liberalism began to transform the world, two pernicious ideas began to vie with it. Nationalism and socialism began to capture the imaginations of intellectuals and would eventually displace liberalism completely in the hearts and minds of the West.
Liberalism unlocked humanity’s creative potential, yielding the first ever rise of widespread abundance through industrial mass production. Nationalism and socialism unleashed humanity’s capacity for destruction, unleashing the first ever rise of industrial-scale mass murder.
The twin banes of nationalism and socialism followed the boon of liberalism remarkably quickly. To understand why, we must consider a fourth big idea that historically links the other three: the idea of the people’s state.
Liberty, the People’s State, and the Glorious Revolution
The ideas of individual liberty and of the modern people’s state emerged in close conjunction, because the two had a common enemy: the hereditary, divine princely state. In the old order, kings claimed absolute authority over their subjects by hereditary and divine right: by inheriting his crown from his predecessor and having his rule blessed by the church on behalf of God.
In 17th-century England, the proto-liberals called the Whigs challenged these pretensions, both with arms and arguments. The great manifesto of the so-called “radical Whigs” was John Locke’s 1689 work Two Treatises of Government. Against royal authoritarianism, Locke advanced the individual’s rights to life, liberty, and property. And against royal autocracy by divine and hereditary right, Locke drew an alternate picture of government as merely an instrumental institution, created by the people and for the people: that is, empowered by the public for the sole purpose of securing their individual rights.
According to Locke, the state is not the royal family’s private property. Whether democratic or not, proper government is a public institution: what we might call a people’s state. Anything else is not legitimate rule but tyranny.
In Locke’s view, the state is a servant of the people with a specific job. If that servant is not performing its function, or worse still, if it is deliberately trampling on the very rights it was tasked to protect, then it has broken the “social contract”: the terms and conditions upon which it was hired. In such cases, the people may exercise their right of revolution: the right to fire (abolish or secede from) their government and hire (establish) a new one. This contractual, business-like notion of government was easy for the town-based, largely bourgeois Whigs to grasp and accept.
It was a short step from wanting a “government by the people and for the people” to wanting a “government of the people.” After all, what better way to keep the state on task and remind it who’s boss than for the people to actively oversee and guide the government? Indeed, after the Whigs overthrew King James II in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, the chief result, aside from the liberal English Bill of Rights, was the empowerment of Parliament over the new constitutional joint monarchy of King William III and Queen Mary.
From Locke onward, the cause of liberty was bound up with the cause of the people’s state. Indeed, the bond was so tight that they were considered a single cause: the people’s state (and eventually democracy in particular) was considered an essential plank of liberalism. Liberals considered the people’s state, or “political liberty,” to be an indispensable guardian of individual liberty, just as much as they considered the unaccountable princely state to be a standing threat to freedom.
The American Revolution
By the Enlightenment decades of the 1760s and 70s, the Lockean ideals of individual liberty and the people’s state had crossed the Atlantic to the American colonies, where they became the creed of the founding generation. So strong was their love of liberty and intolerance for despotism that they rose in resistance to an arbitrary tax regime that today would be considered miniscule. After Britain tried to overcome that defiance with lethal military force, resistance turned to revolution.
Throughout the Declaration of Independence that announced and justified the American Revolution in 1776, Thomas Jefferson echoed, even paraphrased, Locke’s second Treatise. King George III had not only failed in his duty to protect the rights of Americans, but had actively violated them. And these infringements were so recurrent as to demonstrate “a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.” As Locke had explained, these were precisely the conditions that called for revolution.
King George had broken the terms and conditions of the social contract. So the American people no longer had any obligation to keep him on as their security provider. He was fired, and the Declaration of Independence was his pink slip. George didn’t take his firing well, so it took the Revolutionary War to escort him off the premises.
The founders had so much faith in the people’s state as a guarantor of liberty that they then went beyond England’s example of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary government. After exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government had been created. He answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.” A republic is a people’s state by definition, derived from the Latin respublica, or “concern of the people.”
The French Revolution
The dream of a people’s state for liberty next travelled to France. The monarchy in France was so autocratic that the Estates General (France’s parliament) hadn’t convened in 175 years. But in 1789, the cash-strapped Bourbon king Louis XVI resuscitated the institution in order to raise desperately needed funds. The French Revolution started when members of the Third Estate (representing French commoners) broke away from the session, formed an independent National Assembly, and vowed to give France a constitution.
A Parisian mob gathered in support of the Assembly, stormed the Bastille, and seized the weapons cache within to give the budding people’s state a military upper hand over the demoralized monarchy. In a portent of wider brutality to come, the mob also decapitated the commander of the Bastile and paraded through the city with his head on a pike.
After a brief abortive period of constitutional monarchy, France too became a republic, even more thoroughgoing than the American one. Whereas the American republic was constituted as a federal government with a bicameral legislature and strictly limited suffrage, France’s First Republic was a national government with a unicameral legislature and, for a time, universal adult male suffrage. To secure the new republic against a return of the monarchy, the deposed king was beheaded.
At first, the theory of the people’s state as a champion of liberty seemed to work out in practice. The earliest legislative acts of Revolutionary France were predominantly liberal. Because of peasant resistance, feudalism had already been declining under the monarchy. But the National Assembly finished it off by abolishing serfdom outright. Then it passed a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which contained the Lockean pronouncement that, “The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”
But the French soon learned that a people’s state can be even more oppressive and absolutist than an autocratic monarchy, and even less likely to brook any resistance.
The Revolution had been precipitated by the monarchy’s bungling efforts to address a financial crisis caused by its own profligacy. Yet the National Assembly’s attempt to solve the problem proved even more inept. It enacted a paper money scheme that caused rampant inflation and devastated the economy, especially for the poor.
The primary cause of the monarchy’s looming bankruptcy had been its expensive wars. Yet within three years of the Revolution, the new French government preemptively declared war on Austria. This was followed by 22 years in which France was almost constantly at war, ostensibly to secure and export the Revolution: to, as Woodrow Wilson might have put it, make the continent safe for republicanism.
Food prices had already been high due to the paper money fiasco, but the costs of war made the situation even worse. The poor working classes rioted in the streets. With the mob support of these sans-culottes, as they were called, a radical faction known as the Jacobins seized control of the Republic.
The Jacobins instituted the General Maximum, a regime of price controls that eventually covered all foodstuffs and a long list of other basic goods. Violating the Maximum was punishable by death. This of course caused widespread shortages and famines. The Republic responded by sending troops into the countryside to seize crops from farmers to feed the capital. The people’s state that had freed the peasantry from their parasitic feudal masters had itself become for them, in a few short years, an even more voracious parasite.
The new Committee of Public Safety, under Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre, then initiated the Reign of Terror: a wave of political violence, including prison massacres and thousands of beheadings, that made the political repression of the overthrown regime look tame in comparison.
Around the same time, the Republic also instituted the levée en masse, an unprecedented war mobilization of the entire French population, including a military draft of all young, unmarried men. The people’s state had abolished the corvée (a serf’s obligation to his master of unpaid labor) only to then institute universal state servitude.
The Republic’s worst single atrocity was the War in the Vendee. An anti-revolutionary rural population revolted against Paris’s attempt to conscript their sons into war. In crushing the insurrection, the Republican government killed as many as over aquarter of a million peasants. Rebel prisoners — men, women, and children — were executed in mass crowds by gunfire and drowning. A state massacring its own people at such a scale was at that time almost unprecedented.
The Republic had promised, as the revolutionary slogan said, “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Instead it delivered conscription, subordination, fratricide.
The dreamt-of French people’s state was to be the ultimate safeguard of French liberty. In reality, the Republic ended up violating “the rights of man” more rampantly and atrociously than Louis XVI would have ever been capable of.
The Revolution inflicted all of this, only to finally elevate one of its own sons as a despot. The chronic wars and crises of the Republic led to the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, who waged war throughout Europe and forged a new continental empire under a new dynastic monarchy blessed by the church. The French Revolution had lived up to its name by coming full circle.
Collective Power Versus Individual Liberty
After the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, one of France’s leading liberals addressed the question: what went so wrong? Benjamin Constant answered that many of the Revolution’s “evils” stemmed from a confusion between two kinds of liberty. In an 1819 essay, he discussed, “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns.”
According to Constant, the liberty of the modern world was individual freedom. This was the idea of liberty that emerged from the European towns with the rise of private commerce and industry. As Constant defined it, modern liberty was the right of the individual:
“…to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.”
On the other hand, Constant explained, the liberty of the ancient world, “consisted in an active and constant participation in collective power.” This was the idea of “political liberty” in a people’s state that first arose in the ancient Greek democracies and was cherished in the Roman Republic. In these classical civilizations:
“…the individual, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations. As a citizen, he decided on peace and war; as a private individual, he was constrained, watched and repressed in all his movements; as a member of the collective body, he interrogated, dismissed, condemned, beggared, exiled, or sentenced to death his magistrates and superiors; as a subject of the collective body he could himself be deprived of his status, stripped of his privileges, banished, put to death, by the discretionary will of the whole to which he belonged.”
As Constant explained, the revolutionaries betrayed modern liberty by trying to resurrect an ancient system that:
“…demands that the citizens should be entirely subjected in order for the nation to be sovereign, and that the individual should be enslaved for the people to be free.”
Among the most radical French republicans, this demand went to totalitarian extremes. For example, Constant said this about Abbé de Mably, a prominent writer of the period:
“…to him any means seemed good if it extended his area of authority over that recalcitrant part of human existence whose independence he deplored. The regret he expresses everywhere in his works is that the law can only cover actions. He would have liked it to cover the most fleeting thoughts and impressions; to pursue man relentlessly, leaving him no refuge in which he might escape from its power.”
Enthralled by classical literature, the leading revolutionaries tried to set the French people free by giving them untrammeled collective power. The liberals among them believed the objectives of collective power and individual liberty to be beautifully complementary, even identical. In practice, collective power waged war on individual liberty almost from the outset.
The revolutionaries’ devotion to collective power came, not only from their classical reading, but from their fascination with the political ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a protege of Mably. Rousseau redrafted the social contract and reconstituted the people’s state in a more radically collectivist direction. In his version of the great contractual exchange, the individual offers total submission to “popular sovereignty,” which is the collective power of the people’s “general will.” In return, the individual as part of “the people” gains total power over every other individual through his participation in government. This, to Rousseau, was true freedom. As he put it:
“If then we discard from the social compact what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms —
‘Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.’
At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will.”
Some deal! It’s rather like if the Borg Queen from Star Trek told Captain Picard, “Let the Hive Mind assimilate and negate your individuality, and in return “you” (which won’t actually exist anymore) will get to assimilate and negate everyone else’s individuality.”
Tellingly, France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was just as Rousseauan as it was Lockean, even down to its terminology. Article VI proclaimed that, “The law is the expression of the general will.”
The State Is Us
A Frenchman didn’t need to read Rousseau, Mably, Plato, or Livy to get caught up in the Revolution’s collectivist frenzy. All he had to do was fully buy into the notion of the participatory people’s state.
This was much easier to do, thanks to the Revolution. The state was no longer a prince who ruled by Grace of God or accident of lineage: like the “Sun King,” Louis XIV (1638–1715), a pompous dandy who said, “The State, it is me,” (L’Etat, c’est moi) and paraded around his Versailles Palace amid resplendent tax-funded finery, attended by aristocratic sycophants, while mercenary armies fought his wars of personal, dynastic ambition.
Such a parasitic, pious fraud was relatively easy to detect, especially after the Reformation and the Enlightenment made divine right such a dubious claim. It is no wonder, then, that his successors, Louis XV and XVI, faced such stiff resistance from the French people, and thus were unable to get away with nearly as much depredation as their grandiose predecessor.
But now, the state was no longer a distinct set of “others”: a king, his aristocratic courtiers, his servile church clerics, and his administrators. The post-Revolutionary devotees of the French people’s state basically believed, “The State, it is us” (L’Etat, c’est nous). (In 2013, US President Barack Obama explicitly invoked this sentiment, saying, “But government can’t stand on the sidelines in our efforts, because government is us.”) The people’s state blurred the delineation between the rulers and the ruled, leading the individual to emotionally identify with his state and to think of the state’s interests as his own.
This analysis should not be interpreted in the slightest as any kind of endorsement or celebration of the princely state. To understand why, consider the following: if an abolitionist were to say that “public” chattel slavery (i.e., slaves working in the state mines of ancient Rome) was even more brutal than “private” chattel slavery (i.e., the personal slaves of Roman patricians), that would in no way be a claim that private chattel slavery was at all good or “necessary.”
Nationalism in the French People’s State
The spiritual amalgamation of people and state is what we call a nation: a number of individuals who affiliate with one another as a political community centered around a state (or a would-be state). Devotion to one’s state-centered political community is nationalism.
The people’s state (whether actual or prospective) gives rise to nationalism, because nothing inspires more devotion to a state-centered community than a state that the individual feels is his creation (government by the people), that serves him (for the people), and that he’s a part of (of the people). Allegiance to a crown just can’t compare. This explains why the French Revolution burned so brightly with nationalism, especially as compared to the ancien regime.
Nationalism is a particularly avaricious and belligerent kind of community spirit, simply because it is centered around a state, which is (contra Locke and Rousseau) an institution predicated on the use of power for aggrandizement. We may wish and hope for a state that limits itself to protecting liberty, but the inescapable fact of the matter is that a territorial monopoly of violence is capable of so much more than that. Access to power corrupts, and popular access to power is no exception.
The Revolution transferred the military capacity of France from the crown to “the people” (or so the people felt). The intoxication of military power infected the French people with avarice for national conquest and glory. No longer was war a private affair of the king, which the masses paid for and suffered grudgingly. Now war was an affair of the people, an enterprise to be embraced wholeheartedly as one’s own.
Napoleon did little to break the romantic spell of the French people’s state, and did nothing to dampen the fighting spirit of the new French nationalism: quite the opposite. Even after he intimidated the Pope into crowning him as Emperor, Napoleon’s true source of power and legitimacy was not in divine or hereditary right, but in the glorious victories and territorial conquests he won for the French nation. Even when he was a sole dictator, Napoleon was, like the Kaiser during World War I and the Führer during World War II, a national leader of a people’s state: a state that relied on its reputation of being “for the people,” if not “of the people.”
Nationalism is also a particularly collectivist kind of community spirit, because successfully exercising collective power and violence greatly depends on group unity and strength in numbers: especially in war. In wartime, nationalist collectivism goes into overdrive. Randolph Bourne, having himself suffered greatly from rabid nationalism in America during World War I, described the phenomenon with great eloquence:
“The moment war is declared… the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. They then, with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men. Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.
The patriot loses all sense of the distinction between State, nation, and government.” (…)
“War sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest levels of the herd, and to its remote branches. All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offensive or military defense, and the State becomes what in peacetimes it has vainly struggled to become — the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men’s businesses and attitudes and opinions.”
In Revolutionary France, the collectivism and belligerence of nationalism combined to foster a rampant disregard for individual rights, leading to policies like the levee en masse, which treated the nation as a great collective hive and individuals as mere drones to be mobilized. Even more importantly, it weakened the intolerance of individuals for being abused in this way. In fact, for many it engendered fanatical enthusiasm and pride for being a mobilized drone: for following orders, marching, killing, and dying for the national hive. And finally it unleashed atrocities like the War in the Vendee, in which “loyal” drones ruthlessly liquidated stubbornly individualistic “traitors” who refused to be assimilated: again, all for the good of the national hive. Hive uber alles, as Nazi bees might say.
Again, this kind of fanatical, selfless, ruthless devotion could never have been inspired by the ancien regime, but only by a people’s state.
The Return of Tribal Collectivism and Savagery
Nationalism replaced the wars of kings with the wars of peoples. This was not an advance, but a reversion to the savagery of the original people’s wars: the wars of savage tribes.
Ludwig von Mises described the wars of kings as “soldiers’ wars”:
“In the soldiers’ war… the army does the fighting while the citizens who are not in the armed services pursue their normal lives. The citizens pay the costs of warfare; they pay for the maintenance and equipment of the army, but otherwise they remain outside of the war events themselves. It may happen that the war actions raze their houses, devastate their land, and destroy their other property; but this, too, is part of the war costs which they have to bear. It may also happen that they are looted and incidentally killed by the warriors — even by those of their “own” army. But these are events which are not inherent in warfare as such; they hinder rather than help the operations of the army leaders and are not tolerated if those in command have full control over their troops. The warring state which has formed, equipped, and maintained the army considers looting by the soldiers an offense; they were hired to fight, not to loot on their own. The state wants to keep civil life as usual because it wants to preserve the taxpaying ability of its citizens; conquered territories are regarded as its own domain.”
In stark contrast, tribal wars, like nationalist wars, were total wars. As Mises continued:
“Total war is a horde on the move to fight and to loot. The whole tribe, the whole people moves; no one — not even a woman or a child — remains at home unless he has to fulfill duties there essential for the war. The mobilization is total and the people are always ready to go to war. Everyone is a warrior or serves the warriors. Army and nation, army and state, are identical.”
Total war is, as described above, characterized by intense collectivism. It is also characterized by horrific brutality. As Mises continued, in tribal warfare:
“No difference is made between combatants and noncombatants. The war aim is to annihilate the entire enemy nation. Total war is not terminated by a peace treaty but by a total victory and a total defeat. The defeated — men, women, children — are exterminated; it means clemency if they are merely reduced to slavery. Only the victorious nation survives.”
This level of brutality was approached, and in many instances reached, in the nationalist World Wars of the twentieth century: attempted genocide, the caging of entire racial populations, the firebombing of civilian populations, the nuclear annihilation of whole cities, and the fanatic resolve to continue killing and dying until the enemy was either eradicated or totally prostrate.
The nation-state is the spiritual resurrection of the barbarian tribe, the “horde on the move,” whose savagery is only made more rigorous by bureaucracy and more efficient by the technologically advanced civilization upon which it feeds.
Socialism in the French People’s State
Besides nationalism, the people’s state stimulates yet another kind of belligerent, avaricious, and collectivist spirit: what Karl Marx called “class consciousness.” In Revolutionary France, just as nationalism drove foreign international warfare, class consciousness drove domestic class warfare.
Policies like the General Maximum and the plundering of rural peasants to feed the urban proletariat were implemented by the Jacobins in order to appease the working class sans-culottes, who flexed the strength of their numbers both through street mobs and voting.
For even more radical revolutionaries, Rousseauian equality demanded that, not only the peasants, but the bourgeois middle classes be expropriated. On behalf of the poor, a “Conspiracy of Equals” plotted to take over the Republic, abolish private property, and seize the wealth of France for equal redistribution. The conspiracy was detected and its leaders were guillotined.
And upper-class intellectuals like Henri de Saint-Simon dreamt up utopian schemes in which the welfare of the poor working classes would be guaranteed by central planning. These dreamers came to be known as socialists, referring to their concern for broad “social” concerns, as contrasted to the “narrow” individualism of the liberals.
By the 1840s, Paris was abuzz with socialist agitation. Frédéric Bastiat, the leading French liberal of the time, recognized socialism as a threat to liberty that was just as severe as autocratic royalism, if not more. In addition to skewering the sophistries of socialism, Bastiat insightfully explained the political dynamics that led to its rise.
Bastiat, like Locke, believed the true purpose of “the law” was the security of the people from having their lives, liberties, and property ravaged. But the law had become “perverted”; instead of preventing such plunder, it came to systematically perpetrate it. Bastiat called this “legal plunder.”
Under the ancien regime, legal plunder was perpetrated by the king and his cabal and inflicted upon the masses. Bastiat termed this “partial plunder.” In the Revolution, the victims of this regularized robbery rose up and overthrew their kleptocrats. But then, instead of abolishing legal plunder, the new Republican government, by creating popular access to the machinery of legal plunder, invited the masses to partake in it. In the new people’s state, “partial plunder” was replaced by what Bastiat called “universal plunder.” As Bastiat wrote:
“Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter — by peaceful or revolutionary means — into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.
Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among the mass victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize the power to make laws! Until that happens, the few practice lawful plunder upon the many, a common practice where the right to participate in the making of law is limited to a few persons. But then, participation in the making of law becomes universal. And then, men seek to balance their conflicting interests by universal plunder. Instead of rooting out the injustices found in society, they make these injustices general. As soon as the plundered classes gain political power, they establish a system of reprisals against other classes. They do not abolish legal plunder. (This objective would demand more enlightenment than they possess.) Instead, they emulate their evil predecessors by participating in this legal plunder, even though it is against their own interests.” [Emphasis added.]
Bastiat encapsulated his taxonomy of legal plunder as follows:
“It is absolutely necessary that this question of legal plunder should be determined, and there are only three solutions of it:
* When the few plunder the many.
* When everybody plunders everybody else.
* When nobody plunders anybody.
Partial plunder, universal plunder, absence of plunder, amongst these we have to make our choice. The law can only produce one of these results.
Partial plunder. This is the system that prevailed so long as the elective privilege was partial; a system that is resorted to, to avoid the invasion of socialism.
Universal plunder. We have been threatened by this system when the elective privilege has become universal; the masses having conceived the idea of making law, on the principle of legislators who had preceded them.
Absence of plunder. This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, conciliation, and of good sense, which I shall proclaim with all the force of my lungs (which is very inadequate, alas!) till the day of my death.”
The last sentence referred to the fact that Bastiat was dying of throat cancer as he wrote these brilliant words.
“The present-day delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of organizing it.”
And elsewhere, Bastiat wrote:
“Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Just as popular influence over the state’s ability to project power abroad foments among the people the international avarice and belligerence of nationalism, popular influence over the state’s ability to exercise power domestically stirs among the people the interclassavarice and belligerence of socialism.
And class warfare breeds collectivism and mindless conformity for the same basic reason that international warfare does: overwhelming and plundering enemy classes (whether in the streets or in the voting booths) requires group unity and strength in numbers. So, just as nationalists demand rigid “national allegiance” and rail against “national traitors,” socialists demand rigid “class solidarity” and inveigh against “class traitors.”
As Mises insightfully wrote:
“Nationalist ideology divides society vertically; the socialist ideology divides society horizontally.”
Mises referred to such doctrines as types of “warfare sociology.” He brilliantly identified the intellectual fallacies of warfare sociology as the philosophical basis for the 20th century quasi-religion of “etatism”: faith in and devotion to the omnipotent state.
What Mises didn’t fully realize was that it was the institutional incentives of the people’s state (which he too thought was a necessary bulwark for liberty) that made warfare sociology — nationalism and socialism — so alluring.
Revolutionary France was the birthplace of the thoroughgoing modern people’s state. Because of that, it was also the cradle of modern nationalism and socialism.
Throughout the 19th century, all four earth-shaking ideas — liberalism, the people’s state, nationalism, and socialism — spread like wildfire through the minds of Europe. And the flames chiefly emanated from Revolutionary France.
For example, starting in the 1800s, nationalism spread from France to Germany, in part by way of Napoleon’s impact on Fichte. And starting in the 1830s, socialism spread from France to Germany, in part by way of the Saint-Simonians’ impact on Marx.
And in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s invasions, over the course of a hundred years, one monarchy after another teetered or toppled, as parliaments were empowered and republics were established.
Yet, in the very century that liberalism had begun emancipating humanity from servitude and poverty and filling the world with modern marvels, nationalism and socialism were laying the ideological groundwork for turning those modern marvels against humanity and inflicting upon the world unprecedented levels of oppression, mass killing, and manufactured deprivation.
At the beginning of the 20th century, nationalism eclipsed all else, culminating in the nationalist Ragnarök of World War I. The Great War was unprecedented in its brutality, rang the final death knell of liberalism, and accelerated the political rise of socialism throughout Europe, most significantly in Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, but also democratically in the interwar republics. With liberalism vanquished, nationalism vied with socialism until the two merged, most significantly in the — initially democratic — rise of Nazism (National Socialism) in Germany. Under “fathers of the people” like Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, the most inhuman atrocities were inflicted upon individuals in the name of the nation, the workers, the people. The beautiful civilization of Europe, birthplace of modern liberty, was marred with slave camps, death camps, gulags, man-made famines, and all the horrors of total war described earlier.
Liberals hoped the people’s state would secure liberty. Instead, it gave rise to nationalism and socialism, which in turn gave rise to most totalitarian, murderous regimes in human history.
What Went Wrong
Again we must ask, as Constant did two centuries ago: what went so wrong? It all goes back to the reliance of the original liberals on the people’s state. Locke’s notion of a hireling, representative government simply misunderstood the nature of the state. Legal plunder is not a “perversion” of the state, but its actual, primary function. As liberals came to discover through their pursuit of “legal plunder” theory, the state is and has always been a parasitic protection racket. It doesn’t tax in order to protect, but “protects” in order to tax. Like in the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,” the state’s “social contract” is not a service agreement, but a cookbook. “To protect and serve,” indeed, Mr. Policeman writing me a $200 ticket.
The true basis of whatever amount of liberty we manage to retain and reclaim stems, not from the state but in spite of it: from our growing realization (whether as a vague sense or a full understanding) of the state’s kleptocratic nature, and our stubborn intolerance of depredation that results from that realization.
That all-important realization is precluded by the belief in the people’s state: by the conceit that “the State is us.” But the State is not us. There is no such thing as “rule by the people,” because there is no such thing as “the people.” There are only individuals. There is no such thing as a “general will.” Only individuals have wills. “The People” is an incoherent abstraction: a fictional, willful entity that we have been inculcated into believing in, even though we cannot comprehend it. The revolutions from 1688 to 1917 replaced one superstitious basis of state legitimacy with a new one. The king and state clergy graced by an incomprehensible god have been supplanted by a commander-in-chief and technocratic bureaucracy graced by an incomprehensible entity called “the people.” The new superstition is even more powerful and dangerous than the old, because it involves the tempting delusion of self-service through participation in state power.
It is also more powerful and dangerous because it is a superstition that feeds, and feeds on, avarice, belligerence, and collectivism. It provides an easy lever for the state to use to divide and rule. Simply declare a foreign war, and nationalists will rally around the people’s state to achieve the national unity necessary to overwhelm and plunder foreign enemies. Simply declare a class war, and socialists and other class warriors (nativists, SJWs, etc) will rally around the people’s state to achieve the class unity necessary to overwhelm and plunder domestic enemies. By extending an open invitation to participate in legal plunder, the people’s state divides its subjects into warring factions that are too committed to fighting each other using the state to recognize that its true enemy is the state.
The perils and evils of nationalism and socialism did not end with collapses of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. They haunt us still. The war atrocities and geopolitical crises we are afflicted with today are driven by nationalism, as is the rise of paternalistic demagogues like Donald Trump. And the economic dysfunction and stagnation we are afflicted with today are imposed by the underlying conceits of socialism, as is the rise of demagogic paternalists like Barack Obama.
As young university-bred cultural Marxists and the new insurgent movement of young populist nationalists both continue to radicalize and face off with ever greater hostility, it becomes ever more important to discard our misplaced faith in the people’s state that fosters the conflict and collectivism driving such movements.
Of course this does not lead us to the foolish notion of returning to the princely state. It does not mean abandoning the new superstition to return to the old one. It simply means dispelling superstition altogether and pursuing liberty through a moral revolution of individuals, and not through state revolutions or the incremental revolutions of people’s-state activism.
Such moral progress, and not the structure of government, has been the true source of the triumphs of liberalism all along. As Thomas Paine wrote, “It is wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the government that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.”
A non-state-centered revolution in minds and morals is what we need to truly shake the world and to finally shake off the chains of oppression, war, and poverty that bind us.
Originally published at FEE.org.