From what I can tell, most of what people believe about politics has nothing to do with reality.
For example, remember when President Obama took office and hordes of dupes swooned in maniacal frenzy about the utopia he was going to usher in? It was astonishing that so many people imagined that one man’s hand could reshape a nation state. Scary.
What if current office holders have virtually nothing to do with the operations of the state? What if the state mostly consisted of a permanent bureaucracy that enforces law passed ages ago and also makes up its own law independent of office holders?
This reality and many others are explained in one of my favorite books ever written: The Rise & Fall of Society by Frank Chodorov (1887-1966).
I have this image of Frank Chodorov late in life as a man too wise, too experienced to be surprised or professionally disoriented by the terrible fate of his career and his ideals. The war he had opposed had ended, and he was opposed to the new Cold War too. He had lost every intellectual battle he had ever taken on. But in all those years of writing and editing, he had sharpened his skill as a thinker and stylist.
By 1959, the year that The Rise & Fall of Society was written, he figured that no one was very much interested in listening to what he had to say. He was mostly correct about this. The book was dead on arrival. It came and went with no reviews, and no real public notice that I can detect from archives. Not too many years later, having earned the status of a legend but never having actually achieved it, Chodorov died.
I’m quite certain that this release of the book by Laissez Faire Books will instantly draw many times the readership that it had when it first appeared. At that time, Chodorov was an old man with unfashionable views, a thing of the past in a time when no one wanted to think about the past.
What he had written, however, was something spectacular. It might be the greatest book you have never heard of. It is a full-scale manifesto of political economy, one that follows a systematic pattern of exposition, but never slows or sags from beginning to end. The book is not a difficult read in any sense. But there is so much wisdom in its pages that it cannot possibly be fully absorbed in one reading. It covers economic theory, ancient history, political theory, American history, social theory and political reality and has so many asides and pithily true statements that you find yourself absolutely stopping as you read: I must reflect on this; I must remember this.
Chodorov had been greatly influenced by Franz Oppenheimer’s book The State, and then its follow-up by Albert Jay Nock called Our Enemy, the State. Those were two wonderful works, rare in the world of political and economic literature. Both deal with the salient point that no one wanted to talk about then or now: The state is something that exists separate from society.
Most writers in the 20th century tried to cloak its existence. They tried to pass it off as society itself or an extension of scientific planning, a realization of the idea of justice or a mere mechanism for bringing about economic stability. In fact, the state has many guises, and they change from generation to generation. The guises can be cultural and religious. They can be about law and order or staving off foreign threats or ending piracy or rebuilding after a hurricane or improving education or physical infrastructure. The beauty of Oppenheimer and Nock is that they saw through the language and pointed straight at the enemy: the state as the monopolist of violent means in the social order.
This book from 1959 was a homage to the masters. It was designed to restate their views and extend and apply in them in new times. Yet in many ways, it is a better book than the other two combined. The language is exceptionally clear. You can almost point to any passage randomly and find amazing things to quote.
Also, Chodorov had the benefit of watching the whole of the 1930s and 1940s and the postwar period, and he could see with even greater clarity how the state operates in different times and places. He poured his heart and soul into the book, yet he knew that the book would matter only after his death. Even the dedication suggests this: He signs it to his granddaughter, whom he suggests will have “good, clean fun — trying to reconstruct a long-lost pattern of thought.”
Chodorov was born Fishel Chodorowsky as the 11th son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He graduated from Columbia University and immediately started his career in journalism. He joined the “Old Right” in opposition to the New Deal. He wrote for The American Mercury, The Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s and later edited The Freeman and Human Events. He was the founding influence on the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists.
Like Nock, Mencken and a few others, he was an anarchist in principle — not the sense that he opposed law, but rather that he opposed the monopolization of the law by the state, which he saw as being an institutionalized lawbreaker in all times and places, a thing that lived at the expense of society. He opposed war with the same vehemence that he opposed welfare, regulation and inflation. But it was never just a posture for him. His love of liberty was deep in his heart and soul. It extended from the whole of his life and experience and his reading. He believed that society worked best without the state and dedicated his whole life to showing that this was true.
But it is never enough just to assert a truth. One has to show it by first demonstrating the existence of the problem itself. And this is what Chodorov does. He begins with the essential framework, showing that the state is something separate from society. Then he examines its origins and the history of the idea of the state. He moves to the structure of society and its economic component. Here the reader will find the essence of the “Austrian School” of methodological individualism stated more plainly and precisely that any attempt before or after. Then he moves to trade and the division of labor, the nature of government and its war on property and the existence of corruption that he sees as unavoidable under interventionist conditions.
It’s impossible to say what is the most-valuable chapter, for every chapter makes a mighty contribution. But as we approach the end, we find material that absolutely explodes a series of myths that exist in American political life. His understanding of the nature of politics leads him to see the political election process for what it is: largely, a theatrical diversion from the reality of statism.
The politicians are not the state; they are temporary managers seeking to make a career for themselves. The real state is “aristocracy of the bureaucracy,” which is there to enforce and live on the legacy content of legislatures past. The lawmakers pass laws and forget about them; the bureaucracy lives on them with seeming immortality that pays little attention to the passing political fancies. He further discusses the incredible and relentless push for “reform” of the system, which Chodorov sees as little more than a method of redirecting the loot to new beneficiaries.
These last chapters should be eye-opening for every reader. The final chapter strives to end on a hopeful note, but he doesn’t attempt to whip up anyone in a false sense that the struggle for freedom is a guaranteed win. He suspects that there are trends afoot in 1959 that are rather hopeful, but seriously doubts that they are enough to prevent the decline and near death of society.
When we speak of the disappearance of a civilization, we do not mean that a people has been extinguished. Every Holocaust leaves survivors. What is implied by the fall of a civilization is the disappearance from memory of an accumulation of knowledge and of values that once obtained among a people. The prevailing arts and sciences, the religion and manners, the ways of living and of making a living have been forgotten. They have been obliterated not by a pile of dust, but by a general lack of interest in marginal satisfactions, in the things men strive to achieve when the struggle for existence is won. One can manage to get along without knives and forks when the getting of food is trouble enough, and the first business of raiment is to provide warmth, not adornment.
The loss of a civilization is the reverse of that process of cultural accumulation. It is the giving up, as a matter of necessity, of those satisfactions that are not essential to existence. It is a process of forgetting through force of circumstance; it is abstinence imposed by environment. Sometimes nature will for a while impose abstinence, but the record shows that man is quite capable of overcoming such obstacles to his ambitions. The obstacle he does not seem able to overcome is his inclination to predation, which gives rise to the institution of the State; it is this institution that ultimately induces a climate of uselessness, of lack of interest in striving, and thus destroys the civilization it feeds upon. Or so the record shows, every civilization that declined or was lost carried an all-powerful state on its back.
Throughout the book, Chodorov draws constant lessons from the Hebrew scriptures. These lessons concern the dangers of power, the failure of price controls, the evil of monetary depreciation and so much more. But one suspects that there is more than history here; Chodorov was a secular scholar who discovered the roots of his faith at the end of his life. He never says this outright, but I suspect that he believes that the real salvation of authentic freedom will come when we discover through spiritual reflection the true nature of ethics, goodness and human nobility in this life and the next.
He writes, “The will for freedom comes before freedom.” What brings about this will? Is it reason? Faith? Experience? Moral goodness? Chodorov sees them all pointing to one theme that was the theme of his life, the liberation of the human spirit from the despots of all times and all places.
This book is a masterpiece, and I would give up thousands of modern books on these topics just for this one. It’s the book that even now sees and discusses what the multitudes cannot and do not want to see. Its republication is a fitting tribute to a great man and his immortally great ideas.