Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

The Liberal State Versus the Total State

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This year is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. If you grew up in Europe, Canada or a former British possession, you probably know a lot about World War I. If you went to high school here in the United States, you probably spent about a week on it.

Although the powers backed into the war, it was inevitable. It was part of a larger battle between the Liberal State and the Total State that went on until 1991. I call it the Great 20th Century War.

The Liberal State

The Liberal State (remembering that the root of liberal is liberty) operates under the basic principle that people should be able to live, within limits, how they want to. People are not means to someone else’s ends. This is a relatively new idea in history.

Britain, France and the United States are examples of liberal states. Even though all of these nations have flirted with collectivist political ideas over the period, the basic tendency of the people is toward self-determination.

The Total State

The Total State, by contrast, operates under the principle that people exist for the furtherance of the ends of the state and can be sacrificed to the greater good of the state if the people in charge see fit to do so. While many kings and despots have ruled in this manner throughout human history, the idea of the state, as opposed to the person of the ruler, doing so goes back to the French Revolution. The Levée en Masse decree of 1793 can be thought as the founding document of the Total State.

From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.
Levée en Masse, 1793

The concept of a citizen as in permanent requisition for the services of the armies is not a liberal idea. Contemporary liberals in Britain and America fought against large standing armies. There is a significant difference between mere conscription and being considered “in permanent requisition for the services” of the state.

The French experience led to Napoleon and a reaction, but that did not mean the idea was dead. It inspired plenty of 19th century thinkers and writers. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a large body of political thought waiting for someone to put it into action. The intellectual Smart Money thought that the Total State had all the advantages because it could compel cohesive action by its citizens. Even those who would rather not have lived in a Total State believed that the Liberal State was fighting with one hand tied behind its back.

The total states with which we fought were:

  • Imperial Germany;
  • Nazi Germany;
  • Soviet Russia;
  • Fascist Italy;
  • Militarily Nationalist Japan;
  • Economically Nationalist Japan.

The war did not require actual shooting all the time. The Cold War was an example of a conflict where the two principals did not engage in actual combat against one another. They engaged proxies to do some fighting, and there were military conflicts within the Cold War. Ultimately, however, the war was won with dollars.

Imperial Germany

One has to group Imperial Germany with the total states. Its principles were those of totalitariansm; the government just lacked the political will to get really nasty towards its own people. Lenin noticed this, watching from Switzerland, and resolved to do better when he got the chance.

Marshall von Hindenburg was the effective co-ruler of Germany between 1915 and 1918. In 1920, he wrote in his memoirs:

The conviction that the subordination of the individual to the good of the community was not only a necessity but a positive blessing had gripped the mind of the German army, and through it that of the nation.

The idea that the “subordination of the individual to the good of the community” is a societal good is basically totalitarian in nature. In the Liberal State, this is not the case. Compared to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Imperial Germany was a relatively soft Total State, but a Total State all the same.

An editor for a British newspaper recognized the fundamental difference in 1916:

The question is the mastery between two wholly incompatible views of right or wrong, of humanity, of civilization and of law. It does not admit of accommodation. It can be settled only by the defeat of one principle or of the other.

We spent most of the 20th Century attempting to settle that very question. Over 150 million lives were prematurely ended in the process. Most of these people died in non-combat operations carried out by their own governments, such as concentration camps and actions against minority groups conducted by authorized state officials.

Cohesion Is Overrated

People did not know about concepts such as chaos theory a hundred years ago. They looked at the world with an understanding informed by mass and machinery. They believed that the nation that would get everyone going in the same direction would prevail.

But what if the direction was wrong? The earlier statement that the state can sacrifice its citizens to achieve its purposes begs the question: who determines the purposes of the state? Despotism was at least clear: the person of the despot made the determination. But the nation state is like a corporation: it is not a moral agent and has no will of its own.

Totalitarianism always requires a priestly class to interpret what the greater good of the state actually is.

  • In Imperial Germany, this was primarily the Prussian nobility;
  • In Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, this was provided by political parties;
  • In Militaristic Japan, this was the army;
  • In Economically Nationalist Japan, this was the various keiretsu.

This priestly class uses its hold on power to demand cohesion, but there is no feedback loop and no control group pursuing the null hypothesis. It is easy to take the entire society completely off the cliff.

The advantage of the Liberal State turned out to be precisely what even its partisan defenders believed a century ago to be a weakness: its lack of cohesion. This provides a political risk management function that is not available to the Total State.


Written by srojak

November 21, 2014 at 2:25 am

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