Thoughts Before Kick-Off, and Albert Jay Nock

USA vs. Portugal – Wednesday, June 5, 2002, at 9 a.m. GMT

Chance, in the form of the draw for the World Cup soccer championship now taking place in Korea and Japan, brings the national soccer teams of the US and Portugal face to face in the first round of Group D matches this coming Wednesday.

It's a fair bet that, come 10 a.m. Wednesday, the streets of Lisbon and other cities in Portugal will be just that little bit quieter than usual. Those who can will slip out of their offices to have an extended coffee-break at a café or bar with a TV set. Some will call in sick. Others who cannot get to a TV set will be glued to their portable radios. For many, nothing less than national honour is at stake.

Portugal, the country of my birth and residence (though not of my nationality), is soccer mad. Where else would you find that at least two of the most popular daily tabloid newspapers carry only soccer news, cover-to-cover, one called The Ball and the other The Record (as in u2018breaking all records')? Most league soccer matches are played on Sunday afternoons. If you are unlucky enough to be caught in your car on the road near a stadium just before a game is starting, you will literally get stuck in a sea of metal as the fans dump their cars anywhere and everywhere on the side of highways and byways and pack themselves in, often together with their families. On Sunday evening national TV, the normal fare of soap operas gives way to endless punditry on the merits of the referees, the goal-scorers, the owners, the managers, and the what-might-have-been of every game played that day. The next day, the papers are full of the crimes of the referees, and dire threats from the owners of defeated clubs to do terrible things to the poor refs.

And what about the US? Over the last few years, but especially since the 1994 World Cup, soccer has had a growing following — especially, I understand, among women. But of course it is still not the national game. Soccer still has to be called "soccer" in the US because "football" designates that other game which, to one like me who is not initiated into it — and here I apologize unreservedly for my ignorance – seems to be all about men with huge padded shoulders charging into each other miles away from the ball. Whereas, in soccer, being "on the ball" is everything. The pure Zen of soccer, or as the game was historically called, "Association Football," is that magical symbiosis of foot and ball which leads from the long pass down the wing to the brilliant, perfectly-positioned cross, to the shot into goal by the perfectly-positioned striker — the ultimate man in the right place at the right time.

So, will we be witnessing a miniature "clash of civilizations" on Wednesday when the two teams meet? In the larger picture, no, but in a small way we will, and I was reminded about this the other day when I read Joe Sobran's article on entitled u2018Your Friend, the State.' It began with these words:

u2018Albert Jay Nock, an excellent but largely forgotten writer, once wrote a little book titled Our Enemy, the State. I still reread it when I'm groggy from absorption in the daily events of politics. It revives me like a slap in the face.'

For me too, there is no better antidote to the whole conventional statist wide world out there than to pick up a volume of Nock’s writings. Nock, who lived from 1870 to 1945, was a connoisseur and a libertarian with a classical education and a razor-sharp logical mind. I first discovered his writings in the 1970s. My (much annotated) copy of Our Enemy the State is the Free Life Editions edition of 1973, with a very good foreword by Walter E. Grinder and the bonus essay "On Doing the Right Thing." It is also specially dedicated to Frank Chodorov and F A Harper, which is a nice touch – the dedication led me in due course to discover their writings too.  A couple of years back I also obtained the collection of Nock’s essays, edited by Charles H. Hamilton, entitled The State of the Union (Liberty Press, Indianapolis, 1991).  This I particularly cherish because it has a final essay, which I strongly recommend, called “Thoughts from Abroad,” and describes Portugal, which Nock visited around 1932/33.  Here are the opening words, vintage Nock in their delicacy and tact:

The currents of Chance lately washed me up on the shores of a little-visited European country which I soon found to be in some respects the most interesting in the world, at the moment.  I can be more at ease in writing about it if I give it the thin disguise of a pseudonym, so let me call it Amenia. It deserves this name not only because it is a very beautiful land, but also because its inhabitants are so uncommonly amiable and gracious to strangers;…

What Nock saw in Portugal was an approach to life and civilization which all conventional theory — and political correctness – would have said was wrong. It was at the time a dictatorship (and would remain so until 1974). A large percentage of the population was illiterate. It was not very prosperous or developed, in economic terms. And there was no culture of "creating a market" for particular goods or services. Nock wrote (remember this was the early 1930s):

"By every rule of the game, Amenia ought not to get on at all, but it somehow does. Its politics are frightfully wrong, its economics are wrong, its views of the proper constitution of human society are practically all wrong; yet there the wretched country is, impenitently racking along, quite as if its fundamental theories of collective human life were as sound as ours."

Yet, as Nock observed, the country was solvent, everyone had some sort of work which "perhaps will not make his everlasting fortune, but which manages to keep him going" and the proportionately large number of bookstores was an indication that the country had a small educated and cultivated elite who read a great deal. He then noted that the theory of business in Amenia was "all wrong," being based as it was on the idea that supply should follow demand: "To the American eye, nothing is more unnatural or shocking than the stringency with which Amenia's business is kept down to the level of solid requirement… These practices seem to spring from the root-idea that things should be made to use rather than to sell… Moreover, the Amenians do not appear to believe that the u2018pursuit of happiness' ..means only the accumulation and use of purchasable things."

As Nock himself predicted in this essay, many of the pleasant things he found in the land of Amenia are long gone, in the name of “development” and “progress” (most recently, the currency has gone, with membership of the Euro monetary union).  A lot of this "beautiful land" has been ruined by real estate speculation, done by architects and apartment-block builders who are definitely not artists.   And of course, the cult of material possessions and having the latest gadgetry runs rampant. But the stubborn, almost quixotic "illogicality" of the mentality which Nock found here, remains.  It was only in 1991 that McDonalds arrived in Portugal, and even today, a visit to McDonalds is as likely to be a modest family outing on a Sunday afternoon to try out this "curious invention of people who do not take the time to stop for lunch" rather than a genuine attachment to what many Portuguese still see as the strange, almost exotic fare on offer. In 1985 you would not have found a single shopping mall in Portugal worthy of the name, and although now there are several, there is still an attachment to the corner grocery or hardware store which is in walking distance, and has fresher produce or a friendlier face, tinged with just an apologetic regret that their prices are not as competitive as those of the hypermarket's, to which one has to drive.

I always say that, when in Portugal, any conventional rule of economic theory that you ever learned has to be turned on its head, if you want to understand the motivation of Portugal’s economic players. And so it is with the notion of “civilization.” Here’s Nock again:

Probably Amenia will not long remain as I found it, for there are the beginnings of a lively onset towards “development” and “progress.” I heard these words often; they seemed to mean a closer approach to the condition of other nations. Well, improvement is always possible, and the study of other people’s ways is always useful. … One energetic young Amenian assured me that “we shall be a civilized country in ten years.” A visiting friend may not presume to observe in a general way that when one is examining other countries one is likely to find that the most valuable testimony they bear to the nature of true civilization is often of a negative kind; and that this is particularly true of civilization’s higher and finer concerns.  A friend, too, may without impropriety, I think, venture in all gratitude to express the hope that the “civilized” Amenia of ten years’ hence will be in all respects as charming and captivating to the cultivated spirit, as interesting and thought-provoking, as the Amenia which I have had the good fortune to visit.

If Nock came back to Earth, and to his "Amenia" today, he would no doubt be sorely distressed, but not at all surprised, at what the worst excesses of "development" and "progress" have done in Portugal. He might even be amazed at the tearing apart of the old soccer stadiums which is going on as the country prepares to host the 2004 European Championship, with a characteristic race against time to get them ready. But, in many respects, Nock's Amenia of the early 1930s has retained much of the type of “civilization” which he so appreciated, namely a gentler pace to life and a belief that the best things in life are to be savored by people together, without haste, rather than devoured speedily in isolation, as by the alienated individuals in a fast-food house who have no more than 5 minutes for lunch.  Of course the "progressives" and "democrats" have tried hard to modernize the country, but the free individualist spirit of the "Amenians" fights back heartily.  And we must be thankful for that, because when there is a rushing consensus that “civilization” means more wars, more conflicts, more economic conglomerates and cartels, and total statism, then surely it is a virtue not to be “civilized,” and to cultivate the true, Rothbardian-Nockian, cultured version of civilization.  Some would say that version is "old-world" and condemned, but I disagree.  I think that if Rothbard and Nock were born into our generation they would have relished technology and other "new-world" things – they would have had the critical sense to see the benefits and uses of technology, while clearly throwing out fads and trends which did not meet their demanding critical and civilizational standards.  And Portugal has some surprising contradictions to the erroneous belief that it is just old and quaint and charming — for example, its highway toll payment system, based on Norwegian technology, using a sensor stuck to the inside of the windscreen which automatically clocks the toll into your bank account as you drive (at up to 70mph) through the toll-gate, is still one of the most advanced in the world.

So I reflected with some sadness on Joe Sobran's (correct) qualification of Nock, a man of true intelligence, discernment and sensibility, as an “excellent but largely forgotten writer.”   If Nock truly is largely forgotten in America, there really must just be only a mere handful of people outside the US who have even heard of him.  But I prefer to think of Nock as being ignored by the many in the US and remembered by the few, his favoured "remnant." I explain his general relegation to oblivion in the US as being the product of his much-discussed fall into pessimism towards the end of his life (and perhaps also a dose of political correctness brought to bear against his allegedly elitist vision of things), but, I feel, who can blame him for his despondency when, in the 1930s, he plainly saw and predicted the devastation of the second world war right ahead?  And we can derive much better value from Nock if we look at the life-affirming quality of both what he wrote and how he wrote it.  The same thing is true of John dos Passos – albeit in a very different context (one might say coming from "left field" as opposed to Nock’s "right field"), an excellent writer whose really good books, like The Grand Design, are out of print in the US now and hard to find, and who is said to be appreciated more outside the US than within.

And as for that soccer game, well, let us hope that it is a dazzling display of skill, with lots of long elegant passes leading to goals, for that is the beauty of watching a good game of association football. It would be fun to win, and my children, who are British by nationality but whose home and emotional stake is in Portugal, will no doubt be rooting strongly for Portugal (and incidentally Portugal, as soccer veterans, are favourites over the relative newcomers of the USA). But that is not the be-all and end-all. In the end what matters is that the game should be a good one, that it should be fair, that it should be a noble spectacle and not a circus. Fortunately football, or soccer as you have it, has generally managed to avoid being affected by the worst aspects of nationalism and xenophobia, and at its best moments, it still manages to avoid being a circus. Let's hope it stays that way. And let's remember Albert Jay Nock, whose unsung skills apparently extended to being a professional-quality baseball player, and who would surely have enjoyed the serendipity of this chance encounter of his pleasant land of "Amenia" with the country of his birth.

June 3, 2002

Richard Wall (send him mail) is a freelance translator, specializing in the social sciences, who lives in Estoril, Portugal.