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Civilization: Destroyer or Preserver

ISSUE:  Spring 1936

Land of the free. By Herbert Agar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.50. Our Enemy, the State. By Albert Jay Nock. New York: William Morrow and Company. $2.25. Government in Bitsiness. By Stuart Chase. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00.

A good proportion of present-day discussion of economic, political, or cultural problems always gets round to some Spenglerian ideas. The proportion in the books here under consideration is two out of three. In “Land of the Free,” Mr. Herbert Agar bases his plea for a revival of agrarian democracy upon Spengler’s analysis of the difference between a “Culture,” with absolutism in religion and morality, and a “Civilization,” with its diffusive relativism of thought. Our cities, products of finance-capitalism, with their non-religious, non-moral masses whose very souls are for sale, are evidence of our decadence. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us, before it is too late and while there still remains a modicum of tradition in the agrarian sections, to restore agrarianism and, with it, faith, morals, freedom, and culture.

Mr. Albert Jay Nock is not so optimistic, in “Our Enemy, the State.” His pessimism is not borrowed from Spengler, however; it is his own. He holds that the state, from the beginning of time, has been based upon confiscation, conquest, and expropriation of the people from the land; that the tyrannizing power of the feudal-state passed into the hands of the enterprising under the merchant-state; that the state in America has always been only an improved model of the British merchant-state; that the founders, beneficiaries, and administrators of the state, wherever found, are nothing more than an unsuspected and glorified professional-criminal class. And then, having pointed out the folly of our unthinking capitulation to our enemy, and the folly of our trying to cure an evil by applying more of the same evil, Mr. Nock indulges in a very melancholy passage upon the fleeting of civilizations, which have crumbled because they did not or could not resist the surrender of “social power” (spontaneous social effort or “government”) to the “state power.” In short, Mr. Nock sees nothing to keep the Western world from running its course to extinction, with much bread and many circuses, however, before the end. In “Government in Business,” Mr. Stuart Chase, seeing only good in the mechanized, state-directed ant heap of the near future, gleefully records the amazing progress made in that direction. In contrast to both Mr. Nock and Mr. Agar, he laments nothing in that tendency except the slowness of its fulfillment.

The villain in all three books is finance-capitalism. In Mr. Agar’s view, it was finance-capitalism, coupled with the land-hunger of the democratic masses, that sent America reeling away from her dream of a free and equal people, just as it is intrenched finance-capitalism today that robs the people of economic and political freedom and makes life an economic scramble with no moral aim. In Mr. Chase’s view, it is finance-capitalism that stands in the way of a progressive melioration of man’s lot by means of unobstructed state power. In Mr. Nock’s view, finance-capitalism is the state, for the simple reason that no people has ever yet been able to resist the swallowing up of “social power” by the plunderers. Indeed, one wonders when reading “Our Enemy, the State” how so urbane a gentleman as Mr. Nock has brought himself to such primi tivism as is implied in the constant suggestion that all but savages are slaves. For, if the feudalstate was the tool of medieval plunderers, and if the merchant-state is, and always has been, the tool of economic enterprise, then when has Europe ever been free? Following Mr. Nock, one comes to an impasse. The idea goes somewhat as follows: the good life is dependent upon individual freedom; but such freedom has never existed in any modern state; there is no hope that “social power” can today, or in any conceivable future, wrest from the state the power it has assumed; minor revolts against the plunderer have no effect in the long run; even if a tremendous uprising occurs and power shifts from one class to another, there is still the state serving that power and encroaching more and more upon the “social power.” Mr. Nock’s rigorous laissez faire is equally severe upon collectivism, fascism, a planned economy under political democracy, or a return to 1928. Whatever we plan, whatever we do, the state will get us and, having got us, will ruin us.

If Mr. Nock’s is a pessimistic conclusion, Mr. Agar’s is just as full of hope. We can avert the doom that the modern scene forecasts if we will banish finance-capitalism and re-embrace the agrarian and small-merchant order. Mr. Agar uses every resource of modern thought to emphasize our dilemma, including even the Marx-Hayek proof of the inability of capitalism to pay high wages or to continue indefinitely expanding production at a profit to capitalists. The alternatives, then, are (1) to drift, still under the dominance of finance-capitalism, into fascism and then, goaded by the restrictions and contractions under fascism, into mass revolt and communism, losing our freedom and plunging into the last stages of decadent “Civilization”; or (2) to assert our love of freedom and follow Mr. Agar’s Distributist plan. It is well to have choices so clearly presented, but one may venture to question some of the implications. The re-establishing of private property (which Mr. Agar carefully distinguishes from “private enterprise”) will require political action, will be the work of the state, and obviously of a state that has thrown off its finance-capitalist control and has become the organ of action for the people. Even under political democracy, with no violent usurpation, such a state would still have vast power; and it is a bit sanguine to expect to create a state to end all states, to expect to use state power for the ultimate abolishing of state power! Mr. Nock’s thesis might well give Mr. Agar pause.

Some readers will possibly object to Mr. Agar’s leaning so heavily upon the romantic Spenglerian notion that the urban-industrial way of life is evidence of “decadence.” Spengler can be made to confirm any modern anti-rational movement in the direction of absolutism or authoritarianism, and Marxists draw as heavily upon Spengler as do other advocates of authoritarianism. Mr. Agar’s plea for “the American way” envisioned by Adams and Jefferson is a plea for a rationalistic polity, an idea hatched in the period of the Enlightenment, and the plea ought to be kept free of entanglement with the whole-hog-or-nothing absolutism of Spengler.

It is, therefore, somewhat refreshing to see Mr. Chase address himself to the practical problem of achieving the economy of abundance. The average American will, I suspect, share Mr. Chase’s implied belief that freedom and “Culture” will take care of themselves when men have been decently fed and housed. Mr. Chase does not neglect the immediate political problem. He sees that his economic Utopia is in a race against fascism, and that if it does not win the consent of the governed now, it can come into existence only after years of repression, contraction, and revolution.

Mr. Chase’s wants are modest. He says, “I favor the use of collective forms now so abundantly in evidence, to secure economic democracy through a guaranteed subsistence budget to the last family in the United States. If this be a dangerous ism, make the most of it. I want delivered on the doorstep, as it were, a six-room pre-fabricated house or its equivalent, with modern conveniences, electric current, fuel, an order for such food as is found in an A and P store, Sears Roebuck clothing and equipment, a Ford, gas and oil, public and high school education, skilled medical attention, adequate insurance against old age, accident, sickness, and loss of work.” To a humanist, that is a dreary picture. No wonder Mr. Nock runs from the prospect and Mr. Agar wishes we could all go back to raising our own food instead of having it delivered on our pre-fabricated doorsteps. But as we shudder at the cultural dearth and the complexity of the state power in this paradise, let us remember, with Mr. George Santayana, that such an order might be “pregnant with a morality of its own.”

Mr. Nock’s rigorous liberalism, Mr. Agar’s hope that “the American way” can still be put into effect, and Mr. Chase’s economic blue-print, represent three important points of view, fully and brilliantly set forth.


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