communities of obedience and communities of will

Parthian shotThere may not be laws of history, but there are definitely patterns. Which patterns the historian sees, however, tend to depend on which patterns he or she is ready to see.

Contrast HG Wells’s dichotomy of communities of obedience and communities of will with Murray Rothbard’s (and Frank Chodorov’s and Albert Jay Nock’s and Franz Oppenheimer’s) dichotomy between state power and social power.

First HG Wells, in his Outline of History:

Our history is now approaching our own times, and our study becomes more and more a study of the existing state of affairs. The European or Europeanized system in which the reader is living, is the same system that we see developing in the crumpled-up, Mongol-threatened Europe of the early fifteenth century. Its problems then were the embryonic form of the problems of today. It is impossible to discuss that time without discussing our own time. We become political in spite of ourselves. "Politics without history has no root," said Sir J. R. Seeley; "history without politics has no fruit." …

[S]o in the limited territories of Western Europe of the Middle Ages, while the Mongolian monarchies dominated the world from the Danube to the Pacific and from the Arctic seas to Madras and Morocco and the Nile, the fundamental lines of a new and harder and more efficient type of human community were being laid down. This type of community, which is still only in the phase of formation, which is still growing and experimental, we may perhaps speak of as the "modern state." This is, we must recognize, a vague expression, but we shall endeavour to get meaning into it as we proceed. We have noted the appearance of its main root ideas in the Greek republics and especially in Athens, in the great Roman republic, in Judaism, in Islam, and in the story of Western Catholicism. Essentially this modern state, as we see it growing under our eyes today, is a tentative combination of two apparently contradictory ideas, the idea of a community of faith and obedience, such as the earliest civilizations undoubtedly were, and the idea of a community of will, such as were the primitive political groupings of the Nordic and Hunnish peoples. For thousands of years the settled civilized peoples, who were originally in most cases dark-white Caucasians, or Dravidian or Southern Mongolian peoples, seem to have developed their ideas and habits along the line of worship and personal subjection, and the nomadic peoples theirs along the line of personal self-reliance and self-assertion. Naturally enough under the circumstances the nomadic peoples were always supplying the civilizations with fresh rulers and new aristocracies. That is the rhythm of all early history. It was only after thousands of years of cyclic changes between refreshment by nomadic conquest, civilization, decadence, and fresh conquest that the present process of a mutual blending of "civilized" and "free" tendencies into a new type of community, that now demands our attention and which is the substance of contemporary history, began.

And here’s an excerpt from an edited transcript of Murray Rothbard talking about the Whig theory of history:

To conclude about the Whig theory of history, the major, deeper underlying problem is that if people have free will and have freedom to make choices, then there are no determinist laws of history. The Whig theorists ignore free choice and ignore the great moral problems, because free choice involves moral choices. They do not realize that history is a great moral drama, a drama of advance, of conflicts, of retrogression, of good versus evil.

And to wind up at my own doctrine about history, following Albert Jay Nock, history is essentially a race or a conflict between state power and social power, as Nock put it. Social power is a network of voluntary interactions: the economy, civilization, everything that is voluntarily interacting. Nock calls that social power.

And state power, of course, is the State. It’s always trying to repress social power, cripple it, tax it, loot it, etc.

So history becomes a race between these two forces.

At first glance, these two patterns may seem like different labels for the same distinction. To put the analogy in the syntax of the SAT (at least, this was the analogy syntax of the SAT back in the 1980s),

community of obedience : community of will :: state power : social power

But the first thing to note is that the Fabian socialist Wells suspects that history is moving toward a reconciliation of freedom and obedience whereas libertarian Rothbard sees cooperation and coercion as fundamentally irreconcilable.

The starker contrast for me is that Wells sees civilization as a product of coercion, with freedom and individuality as outside (and occasionally invading) values from nomadic cultures. Rothbardians (following Chodorov, Nock, and Oppenheimer) take the benefits of civilization to be the products of social power, of cooperative exchange and the division of labor. The force of state power (institutionalized coercion) is only ever a drag on progress; it is redistribution and destruction of wealth, not a source of its creation.

For Wells, civilization is based on obedience, however much he thinks the occasional injection of "freedom" is necessary. For Rothbard, civilization is cooperative; coercion is, literally, decivilizing.


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