The Criminal State

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As well asI can judge, the general attitude of Americans who are at all interestedin foreign affairs is one of astonishment, coupled with distaste,displeasure, or horror, according to the individual observer’s capacityfor emotional excitement. Perhaps I ought to shade this statementa little in order to keep on the safe side, and say that this isthe most generally-expressed attitude.

All our institutionalvoices – the press, pulpit, forum – are pitched to thenote of amazed indignation at one or another phase of the currentgoings-on in Europe and Asia. This leads me to believe that ourpeople generally are viewing with wonder as well as repugnance certainconspicuous actions of various foreign States; for instance, thebarbarous behavior of the German State towards some of its own citizens;the merciless despotism of the Soviet Russian State; the ruthlessimperialism of the Italian State; the “betrayal of Czecho-Slovakia”by the British and French States; the savagery of the Japanese State;the brutishness of the Chinese State’s mercenaries; and so on, hereor there, all over the globe – this sort of thing is showingitself to be against our people’s grain, and they are speaking outabout it in wrathful surprise.

I am cordiallywith them on every point but one. I am with them in repugnance,horror, indignation, disgust, but not in astonishment. The historyof the State being what it is, and its testimony being as invariableand eloquent as it is, I am obliged to say that the naive tone ofsurprise wherewith our people complain of these matters strikesme as a pretty sad reflection on their intelligence. Suppose someonewere impolite enough to ask them the gruff question, “Well,what do you expect?” – what rational answer could theygive? I know of none.

Polite orimpolite, that is just the question which ought to be put everytimea story of State villainy appears in the news. It ought to be thrownat our public day after day, from every newspaper, periodical, lecture-platform,and radio station in the land; and it ought to be backed up by asimple appeal to history, a simple invitation to look at the record.The British State has sold the Czech State down the river by a despicabletrick; very well, be as disgusted and angry as you like, but don’tbe astonished; what would you expect? – just take a look atthe British State’s record! The German State is persecuting greatmasses of its people, the Russian State is holding a purge, theItalian State is grabbing territory, the Japanese State is buccaneeringalong the Asiatic Coast; horrible, yes, but for Heaven’s sake don’tlose your head over it, for what would expect? – look at therecord!

That is howevery public presentation of these facts ought to run if Americansare ever going to grow up into an adult attitude towards them. Also,in order to keep down the great American sin of self-righteousness,every public presentation ought to draw the deadly parallel withthe record of the American State. The German State is persecutinga minority, just as the American State did after 1776; the ItalianState breaks into Ethiopia, just as the American State broke intoMexico; the Japanese State kills off the Manchurian tribes in wholesalelots, just as the American State did the Indian tribes; the BritishState practices largescale carpet-baggery, like the American Stateafter 1864; the imperialist French State massacres native civilianson their own soil, as the American State did in pursuit of its imperialisticpolicies in the Pacific, and so on.

In this way,perhaps, our people might get into their heads some glimmering ofthe fact that the State’s criminality is nothing new and nothingto be wondered at. It began when the first predatory group of menclustered together and formed the State, and it will continue aslong as the State exists in the world, because the State is fundamentallyan anti-social institution, fundamentally criminal. The idea thatthe State originated to serve any kind of social purpose is completelyunhistorical. It originated in conquest and confiscation –that is to say, in crime. It originated for the purpose of maintainingthe division of society into an owning-and-exploiting class anda propertyless dependent class – that is, for a criminal purpose.

No State knownto history originated in any other manner, or for any other purpose.Like all predatory or parasitic institutions, its first instinctis that of self-preservation. All its enterprises are directed firsttowards preserving its own life, and, second, towards increasingits own power and enlarging the scope of its own activity. For thesake of this it will, and regularly does, commit any crime whichcircumstances make expedient. In the last analysis, what is theGerman, Italian, French, or British State now actually doing? Itis ruining its own people in order to preserve itself, to enhanceits own power and prestige, and extend its own authority; and theAmerican State is doing the same thing to the utmost of its opportunities.

What, then,is a little matter like a treaty to the French or British State?Merely a scrap of paper – Bethmann-Hollweg described it exactly.Why be astonished when the German or Russian State murders its citizens?The American State would do the same thing under the same circumstances.In fact, eighty years ago it did murder a great many of them forno other crime in the world but that they did not wish to live underits rule any longer; and if that is a crime, then the colonistsled by G. Washington were hardened criminals and the Fourth of Julyis nothing but a cutthroat’s holiday.

The weakerthe State is, the less power it has to commit crime. Where in Europetoday does the State have the best criminal record? Where it isweakest: in Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden,Monaco, Andorra. Yet when the Dutch State, for instance, was strong,its criminality was appalling; in Java it massacred 9000 personsin one morning which is considerably ahead of Hitler’s record orStalin’s. It would not do the like today, for it could not; theDutch people do not give it that much power, and would not standfor such conduct. When the Swedish State was a great empire, itsrecord, say from 1660 to 1670, was fearful. What does all this meanbut that if you do not want the State to act like a criminal, youmust disarm it as you would a criminal; you must keep it weak. TheState will always be criminal in proportion to its strength; a weakState will always be as criminal as it can be, or dare be, but ifit is kept down to the proper limit of weakness – which, bythe way, is a vast deal lower limit than people are led to believe– its criminality may be safely got on with.

So it strikesme that instead of sweating blood over the iniquity of foreign States,my fellow-citizens would do a great deal better by themselves tomake sure that the American State is not strong enough to carryout the like iniquities here. The stronger the American State isallowed to grow, the higher its record of criminality will grow,according to its opportunities and temptations. If, then, insteadof devoting energy, time, and money to warding off wholly imaginaryand fanciful dangers from criminals thousands of miles away, ourpeople turn their patriotic fervor loose on the only source fromwhich danger can proceed, they will be doing their full duty bytheir country.

Two able andsensible American publicists – Isabel Paterson, of the NewYork Herald Tribune, and W.J. Cameron, of the Ford Motor Company– have lately called our public’s attention to the great truththat if you give the State power to do something FOR you, you giveit an exact equivalent of power to do something TO you. I wish everyeditor, publicist, teacher, preacher, and lecturer would keep hammeringthat truth into American heads until they get it nailed fast there,never to come loose. The State was organized in this country withpower to do all kinds of things FOR the people, and the people intheir short-sighted stupidity, have been adding to that power eversince. After 1789, John Adams said that, so far from being a democracyof a democratic republic, the political organization of the countrywas that of “a monarchical republic, or, if you will, a limitedmonarchy”; the powers of its President were far greater thanthose of “an avoyer, a consul, a podesta, a doge, a stadtholder;nay, than a king of Poland; nay, than a king of Sparta.” Ifall that was true in 1789 – and it was true – what isto be said of the American State at the present time, after a centuryand a half of steady centralization and continuous increments ofpower?

Power Corrupts

Power, forinstance, to “help business” by auctioning off concessions,subsidies, tariffs, land-grants, franchises; power to help businessby ever encroaching regulations, supervisions, various forms ofcontrol. All this power was freely given; it carried with it theequivalent power to do things TO business; and see what a bandittiof sharking political careerists are doing to business now! Powerto afford “relief” to proletarians; and see what the Statehas done to those proletarians now in the way of systematic debaucheryof whatever self-respect and self-reliance they may have had! Powerthis way, power that way; and all ultimately used AGAINST the interestsof the people who surrendered that power on the pretext that itwas to be used FOR those interests.

Many now believethat with the rise of the “totalitarian” State the worldhas entered upon a new era of barbarism. It has not. The totalitarianState is only the State; the kind of thing it does is only whatthe State has always done with unfailing regularity, if it had thepower to do it, wherever and whenever its own aggrandizement madethat kind of thing expedient. Give any State like power hereafter,and put it in like circumstances, and it will do precisely the samekind of thing. The State will unfailingly aggrandize itself, ifonly it has the power, first at the expense of its own citizens,and then at the expense of anyone else in sight. It has always doneso, and always will.

The idea thatthe State is a social institution, and that with a fine uprightman like Mr. Chamberlain at the head of it, or a charming personlike Mr. Roosevelt, there can be no question about its being honorablyand nobly managed – all this is just so much sticky fly-paper.Men in that position usually make a good deal of their honor, andsome of them indeed may have some (though if they had any I cannotunderstand their letting themselves be put in that position) butthe machine they are running will run on rails which are laid onlyone way, which is from crime to crime. In the old days, the partitionof Czecho-Slovakia or the taking-over of Austria would have beenarranged by rigmarole among a few highly polished gentlemen in stiffshirts ornamented with fine ribbons. Hitler simply arranged it theway old Frederick arranged his share in the first partition of Poland;he arranged the annexation of Austria the way Louis XIV arrangedthat of Alsace. There is more or less of a fashion, perhaps, inthe way these things are done, but the point is that they alwayscome out exactly the same in the end.

Furthermore,the idea that the procedure of the “democratic” Stateis any less criminal than that of the State under any other fancyname, is rubbish. The country is now being surfeited with journalisticgarbage about our great sister-democracy, England, its fine democraticgovernment, its vast beneficent gift for ruling subject peoples,and so on; but does anyone ever look up the criminal record of theBritish State? The bombardment of Copenhagen; the Boer War; theSepoy Rebellion; the starvation of Germans by the post-Armisticeblockade; the massacre of natives in India, Afghanistan, Jamaica;the employment of Hessians to kill off American colonists. Whatis the difference, moral or actual, between Kichener’s democraticconcentration camps and the totalitarian concentration camps maintainedby Herr Hitler? The totalitarian general Badoglio is a pretty hard-boiledbrother, if you like, but how about the democratic general O’Dwyerand Governor Eyre? Any of the three stands up pretty well besideour own democratic virtuoso, Hell-roaring Jake Smith, in his treatmentof the Filipinos; and you can’t say fairer than that.

The BritishState

As for theBritish State’s talent for a kindly and generous colonial administration,I shall not rake up old scores by citing the bill of particularsset forth in the Declaration of Independence; I shall consider Indiaonly, not even going into matters like the Kaffir war or the Wairauincident in New Zealand. Our democratic British cousins in Indiain the Eighteenth Century must have learned their trade from Pizarroand Cortez. Edmund Burke called them “birds of prey and passage.”Even the directors of the East India Company admitted that “thevast fortunes acquired in the inland trade have been obtained bya scene of the most tyrannical and oppressive conduct that was everknown in any age or country.” Describing a journey, WarrenHastings wrote that “most of the petty towns and serais weredeserted at our approach”; the people ran off into the woodsat the mere sight of a white man. There was the iniquitous salt-monopoly;there was extortion everywhere, practiced by enterprising rascalsin league with a corrupt police; there was taxation which confiscatedalmost half the products of the soil.

If it be saidthat Britain was not a sister-democracy in those days, and has sincereformed, one might well ask how much of the reformation is dueto circumstances, and how much to a change of heart. Besides, theBlack-and-Tans were in our day; so was the post-Armistice blockade;General O’Dwyer’s massacre was not more than a dozen years ago;and there are plenty alive who remember Kitchener’s concentrationcamps.

No, “democratic”State practice is nothing more or less than State practice. It doesnot differ from Marxist State practice, Fascist State practice,or any other.

Here is theGolden Rule of sound citizenship, the first and greatest lessonin the study of politics:

You get thesame order of criminality from any State to which you give powerto exercise it; and whatever power you give the State to do thingsFOR you carries with it the equivalent power to do things TO you.

A citizenrywhich has learned that one short lesson has but little more leftto learn. Stripping the American State of the enormous power ithas acquired is a full-time job for our citizens and a stirringone; and if they attend to it properly they will have no energyto spare for fighting communism, or for hating Hitler, or for worryingabout South America or Spain, or for anything whatever, except whatgoes on right here in the United States.

The followingarticle was originally published in H.L. Mencken’s AmericanMercury, March, 1939. Albert J. Nock was a regular contributorto the publication under Mencken.

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