About Albert Jay Nock

David A. Woodbury, host and disciple of Albert Jay Nock, 1870 - 1945

Demagogue and Demaslave

Henry Louis Mencken was a contemporary and acquaintance of Albert Jay Nock.  In The Superfluous Men, a volume of comparative essays compiled by Robert M. Crunden (ISI Books, 1999), Mencken is described as “an enormously prolific writer and editor of newspapers and magazines” who “had great impact on college students and the educated young adults of the first three decade of the twentieth century.”  For H. L. Mencken, “American life was a comedy of conformity, envy, and plutocracy.”  This passage is from Mencken’s Notes on Democracy (Knopf, 1926).

The winds of the world are bitter to Homo vulgaris.  He likes the warmth and safety of the herd, and he likes a bell-wether with a clarion bell.

The art of politics, under democracy, is simply the art of ringing it.  Two branches reveal themselves.  There is the art of the demagogue, and there is the art of what may be called, by a shot-gun marriage of Latin and Greek, the demaslave.  They are complementary, and both of them are degrading to their practitioners.  The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.  The demaslave is one who listens to what these idiots have to say and then pretends that he believes it himself.  Every man who seeks elective office under democracy has to be either the one thing or the other, and most men have to be both.  The whole process is one of false pretences and ignoble concealments.  No educated man, stating plain the elementary notions that every educated man holds about the matters that principally concern government, could be elected to office in a democratic state, save perhaps by a miracle…

The typical American law-maker… knows the taste of boot-polish…  His public life is an endless series of evasions and false pretences.  He is willing to embrace any idea, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principle, however sound, that will lose them for him.  I do not describe the democratic politician at his inordinate worst; I describe him as he is encountered in the full sunshine of normalcy.

H. L. Mencken seemed to enjoy the exposure and notice afforded him by the privilege of writing editorials, (which is not to understate the effect of his articles and books).  Albert J. Nock, also an editor and author, seemed content, on the other hand, merely to lay his thoughts on paper and take no heed whether he had made an impression or a difference.  But both men were sharp observers of the behavior of people under the influence of demagogues, and both came to approximately the same dismal prognosis for democracy in America.  -David A. Woodbury-

Village Idiot Refuses to Look for a Job

“I refuse to look for a job in this economy until the government makes the minimum wage a living wage.”  Thus spake an unidentified twenty-ish male follower of the “occupy movement” who was shown just long enough to spout this idiotic conviction on one of the network news broadcasts in the fall of 2011.  If this nincompoop is receiving any local, state, or federal aid of any sort, then he is a thief and I am one who, as a taxpayer, is being robbed.  If he refuses to work, he needs to be completely at the mercy of someone’s private charity for his support.  It is my guess that he is somewhere in between — getting poor-student discounts on public transportation and free care a the local hospital clinic while also living as a parasite on his parents who had at least some influence in making him the poster boy for the occupy fizzle.

The occupiers are furiously jealous of the “one percent,” who, in fact, can be loosely identified as the people who already contribute fifty percent of the tax revenue in this country.  The occupy hiccup is just one more manifestation of the envy phenomenon that Irving Babbitt described in Democracy and Leadership (Houghton Mifflin, 1924).  Using some quaint but effective prose, Babbitt explained how these recurring movements are fomented and how those with earned wealth could redress the inequality of human existence if they would lead exemplary lives of moderation and magnanimity — which they unfortunately don’t seem to understand.

One’s view of work and the rewards that it deserves will determine necessarily one’s attitude towards property.  From the point of view of civilization, it is of the highest moment that certain individuals should in every community be relieved from the necessity of working with their hands in order that they may engage in the higher forms of working and so qualify for leadership.  If the civilization is to be genuine, it must have men of leisure in the full Aristotelian sense.  Those who in any particular community are allowed to enjoy property that is not the fruit of their own outer and visible toil cannot, therefore, afford to be idlers and parasites.  An aristocratic or leading class, however the aristocratic principle is conceived, must, if it hopes in the long run to preserve its property and privileges, be in some degree exemplary.  It is only too clear that the members of the French aristocracy of the Old Régime failed, in spite of many honorable exceptions, to measure up to this test.  Some have argued from the revelations of recent writers like Colonel Repington and Mrs. Asquith that the English aristocracy is also growing degenerate.  People will not consent in the long run to look up to those who are not themselves looking up to something higher than their ordinary selves.  A leading class that has become Epicurean and self-indulgent is lost.  Above all it cannot afford to give the first place to material goods.  One may, indeed, lay down the principle that, if property as a means to an end is the necessary basis of civilization, property as an end in itself is a materialism.  In view of the natural insatiableness of the human spirit, no example is more necessary than that of the man who is setting limits to his desire for worldly possessions.  The only remedy for economic inequality, as Aristotle says, is “to train the nobler sort of natures not to desire more”; this remedy is not in the mechanical scheme for dividing up property; “for it is not the possessions but the desires of mankind which require to be equalized.”  The equalization of desire in the Aristotelian sense requires on the part of individuals a genuine ethical or humanistic working.  To proclaim equality on some basis that requires no such working will result ironically.  For example, this country committed itself in the Declaration of Independence to the doctrine of natural equality.  The type of individualism that was thus encouraged has led to monstrous inequalities and, with the decline of traditional standards, to the rise of a raw plutocracy.  A man who amasses a billion dollars is scarcely exemplary in the Aristotelian sense, even though he then proceeds to lay out half a billion upon philanthropy.  The remedy for such a failure of the man at the top to curb his desires does not lie, as the agitator would have us believe, in inflaming the desires of the man at the bottom; nor again in substituting for real justice some phantasmagoria of social justice.  As a result of such a substitution, one will presently be turning from the punishment of the individual offender to an attack on the institution of property itself; and a war on capital will speedily degenerate, as it always has in the past, into a war on thrift and industry in favor of laziness and incompetence, and finally into schemes of confiscation that profess to be idealistic and are in fact subversive of common honesty.  Above all, social justice is likely to be unsound in its partial or total suppression of competition.  Without competition it is impossible that the ends of true justice should be fulfilled — namely that every man should receive according to his works.  The principle of competition is, as Hesiod pointed out long ago, built into the very roots of the world; there is something in the nature of things that calls for a real victory and a real defeat.  Competition is necessary to rouse man from his native indolence; without it life loses its zest and savor.  Only, as Hesiod goes on to say, there are two types of competition — the one that leads to bloody war and the other that is the mother of enterprise and high achievement.  He does not perhaps make as clear as he might how one may have the sound rivalry and, at the same time, avoid the type that degenerates into pernicious strife.  But surely the reply to this question is found in such sentences of Aristotle as those I have just been quoting.  The remedy for the evils of competition is found in the moderation and magnanimity of the strong and the successful, and not in any sickly sentimentalizing over the lot of the underdog.  The mood of unrest and insurgency is so rife to-day as to suggest that our leaders, instead of thus controlling themselves, are guilty of an extreme psychic unrestraint.

George Bernard Shaw wrote that a government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul.  That’s obvious, of course, and cute.  But it’s also sinister.  A Scottish professor alive around the time of the American Revolution, Alexander Fraser Tytler, gave voice to the sinister side of Shaw’s equation:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government.  It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury.  From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the world’s great civilizations has been two hundred years.  These nations have progressed through the following sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependency, from dependency back to bondage.

Amazing that Tytler could have teased this assessment from the history of the world up to his own time.  How precisely we have followed his prediction in this country!

Eric Hoffer in The True Believer (Harper & Brothers, 1951) wrote:

There is a fundamental difference between the appeal of a mass movement and the appeal of a practical organization.  The practical organization offers opportunities for self-advancement, and its appeal is mainly to self-interest.  On the other hand, a mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self.  A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.

People who see their lives as irredemiably spoiled cannot find a worthwhile purpose in self-advancement.  The prospect of an individual career cannot stir them to a mighty effort, not can it evoke in them faith and a single-minded dedication.  They look on self-interest as on something tainted and evil; something unclean and unlucky.  Anything undertaken under the auspices of the self seems to them foredoomed.  Nothing that has its roots and reasons in the self can be good and noble.  Their innermost craving is for a new life — a rebirth — or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause.  An active mass movement offers them opportunities for both.  If they join the movement as full converts they are reborn to a new life in its close-knit collective body, or if attracted as sympathizers, they find elements of pride, confidence and purpose by identifying themselves with the efforts, achievements and prospects of the movement.

To the frustrated a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources.

I cannot improve on the observations above and feel privileged to have been able to bring them together on one page. -David A. Woodbury, 9 January 2011-

Opposing Interests

The State is no proper agency for social welfare, and never will be, for exactly the same reason that an ivory paperknife is nothing to shave with.  The interests of society and of the State do not coincide; and any pretense that they can be made to coincide is sheer nonsense.  Society gets on best when people are most happy and contented, which they are when freest to do as they please and what they please; hence society’s interest is in having as little government as possible.  The State, on the other hand, is administered by jobholders; hence its interest is in having as much government as possible.  It is hard to imagine two sets of interests more directly opposed than these. -AJN, Snoring As A Fine Art and Twelve Other Essays, p. 191

…For I Am Their Leader

Not long ago I saw a sticker on a car bumper which read: “There they go.  I must hurry and catch them, for I am their leader!”  Amusing.  I’ve seen a variation of this notion in action; it happens with great regularity in politics.  I was a college student in Ohio in 1969-1970, and for a couple days after the Kent State debacle in May 1970 my friend, Royce Rumsey, and I made a point of observing the activity on the University of Cincinnati campus, which culminated in a “student” march on downtown Cincinnati.  We did not march.  We rode the bus downtown and watched the parade approach the city center.  Just as it came into our view, a pair of “students” trotted themselves into the front of the entire procession, and, on a pole they carried between them, they bore a very large Viet Cong flag, as a pair of bearers will carry a banner ahead of a marching band.  They gave the parade the appearance of being a march in support of the North Vietnamese enemy that we were fighting in Vietnam.  The peace marchers behind them had no idea; more than followers of a cause, they were a herd to be paraded.

The cute bumper sticker recently spotted seemed original enough, but I had only to go back to Nock’s 1948 A Journal of Forgotten Days to discover that he attributes the this illogical imperative to “the French revolutionist” and, furthermore, brings in the opportunism of the flag-carriers.  -DAW-

Slave-mindedness is the hateful thing, whether it follows Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, Mussolini — what matter?  Is not the mass-leader, too, the most slave-minded of all?  The French revolutionists saying: I must follow the mob, because I lead them, ought to be embroidered on every national flag, it strikes me.  How right Huxley was about what he called the coach-dog theory of political leadership, i.e., that a leaders duty is to look sharp for which way the social coach is going, and then run in front of it and bark.  -AJN, Journal, p. 231-232

The Three Laws of Organisation

In response to an urgent social demand, a revolutionary regime was set up in France in 1789.  At the outset it was backed and promoted by men of far-seeing intelligence, including a good part of the aristocracy. . . .

Then at the moment when the revolution became a going concern, Epstean’s law brought in a waiting troop of political adventurers whose interest was not social but institutional.

Their views of the social demand which brought the revolutionary organisation into being were shaped by that interest.  As Benjamin Franklin put it, they were of the sort whose sense of political duty is first, to themselves; second, to their party; and third (if anything be left over) to society. . . .

Then Gresham’s law struck in.  As the numbers of this latter group increased, their interest became the prevailing interest, and their view the prevailing view.  Social interest was rapidly driven out, and as almost always happens in the case of political revolutions, those who represented it were lucky if they escaped with their lives.

Then finally the law of diminishing returns took hold.  As the institution grew in size and strength, as its confiscations of social power increased in frequency and magnitude, as its coercions upon society multiplied, the welfare of society (which the original intention of the revolution was to promote) became correspondingly depleted and attenuated.

These three laws dog the progress of every organisation of mankind’s efforts.  Organised charity, organised labor, organised politics, education, religion — look where you will for proof of it, strike into their history at any time or place.

-AJN, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, p. 165-6 as quoted in Cogitations