Throughout history there have been numerous inflations, depressions, and periods of societal breakdown. Optimism, and then pessimism, have accompanied the rise and decline of civilizations. In the last decade in the United States we have witnessed just such a shift in attitudes as the abundance of the 1960s has disintegrated into shortages, inflation, and rising unemployment. From the standpoint of the historian, one of the most interesting aspects of this modern predicament is the essential rejection of history, even by many in that profession.
It has been fashionable, especially among those who advocate social planning, to stress the new and unique aspects of modern industrial society. Rejecting the idea that history has tended to develop in cycles, and that comparisons might be made between civilizations, historians have often fragmented their studies of modern society. If these assumptions are correct then there is little that we can learn from history, which becomes mere antiquarianism.
I will proceed from the opposite assumptions. While there is much that is new in our emerging crisis, the contours of the crisis can be observed in other civilizations. Further, many of the alternatives to solving the crisis have been tried before, so that a study of the past can help us to better understand both the nature of the problem, and the probable consequences of some of the alternatives open to us.
The Contours of Empire and Four Alternatives
Elsewhere I have written about this process as essentially the development of empire. Empire, in its older definition, is simply the extension of the centralized, bureaucratic State into virtually all facets of the life of the individual. Later we shall look at some specifics of this process in other civilizations and in our own.
First, however, let us consider the alternatives that every individual has in any situation, and which are, therefore, available in the crisis of empire. One solution is, of course, death, which can be approached from several perspectives. Having written a critique of the rising menace of National Socialism, Oswald Spengler, for example, in a sheer act of will, exercised the ultimate in retreatism, and died within a short time. Suicide apparently increases in most societies which develop into empire, and can at times take on a great significance. A final variant is to create a situation, as did Socrates, which forces the opposition into committing the act and thus exposes their moral bankruptcy. Few individuals, however, will give this alternative much serious consideration.
A second alternative is simply to accept the situation as inevitable and hopeless, and thus to do nothing. This is the worst response possible. It robs life of creativity and meaning. The individual no longer lives, he only exists. Any sensitive person is bound to feel guilt over such a choice, and may finally opt for suicide as a way out, as did many of the Stoics in Rome.
A third alternative is to leave the situation; to escape from it. There have been times in history when such an alternative was both the most feasible and intelligent choice. Everyone who freely came to America opted for this safety-valve chance, and by its very success that option was reinforced in the minds of most Americans.
There are two variants of this alternative which are much discussed by libertarians who are clearly unhappy with the present state of affairs. Because these have received serious consideration, they must be examined in some detail. One is to found a new community in a relatively frontier area, as, say, some libertarians hope to do on the island of Abaco, in the Bahamas. A second is to retreat in a much smaller unit-an individual, a couple, a family, or several families-into a relatively uninhabited area.
The trouble with the new community idea is that it runs into the most unique aspect of the modern crisis of empire: that for the first time in history we have empire-statism developing on a worldwide scale. Where is the area of good land and climate that has not already been preempted by the State? Assuming a group could find such an area and that the group grows and is successful, it will come increasingly to the attention of the State which claims that territory. The State will want to cut itself in on the action, and will not hesitate to bring force to bear, aided most likely by other nations-in an all-out effort to destroy this challenge to the State system.
In the ancient world such new communities on the frontiers were a major factor in opening up equality of opportunity and the trade associated with the development of a market. This acted to greatly alleviate social discontent. Thus the Greek colonists spread that culture around the Mediterranean as did the Phoenicians migrating to Carthage. The Roman provinces were an excellent area for new opportunity, as were the lands in southern China. In each case, however, the State either extended control to those areas, or they developed their own internal State apparatus. This is now happening to the West, to that area which Walter Prescott Webb called the great frontier.
The difficulty with a really small community, or a retreat made up of only a few individuals is that they are even more vulnerable to attack, even by bands of robbers, who, as in empire crises of the past, may become more prominent as the problems increase. Furthermore, by its very definition, such retreatism is a viable solution for only a small part of the population. If many people availed themselves of that alternative such areas would no longer be the sparsely populated territory that originally made them appealing.
The most fundamental reason that retreatism ought not to appeal to libertarians is that in many ways it is a movement backwards to primitivism and away from the market. The analysis of Murray N. Rothbard in Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism and the Division of Labor, is very relevant to this whole question. The visions of utopian, self-sufficient agrarianism have a long history. In Rome, Cato's advocacy of a return to that way of life was so pronounced that some social scientists have used the term - Catonism to characterize this mood.
Confucius used the same arguments, and it is of interest that Marxists and radical socialists, on the one hand, and conservatives on the other, have often united in this Romantic notion of the agrarian past. How long can anyone, cut off from the specialization and efficient productivity of the market, cope with the extended time and effort that would be needed to produce even the bare essentials? Would libertarians be impervious to the envy that has usually been characteristic of such low productivity situations?
One suspects that most people who talk, or dream, or even follow such a solution, do so in terms of a kind of part-time basis that opens up some question of contradiction. They hope to have a retreat, but not one based upon their own production. Instead, it is to be stocked with the best that urban, technological civilization has to offer. But how long can such provisions last if there is a real breakdown? At the same time such efforts detract from the chance, while one still is in the bowels of the empire, to do something about the situation. In practice this alternative probably will almost unconsciously come to resemble the second one, of doing little or nothing to change things. In a final and complete breakdown, of course, such a retreat may make some sense. It has a great propensity, however, to degenerate to escapism in a psychological sense, that is quite the opposite of the spirit of freedom and adventure which prompted so many to come to the great frontier.
Which brings us to the final alternative: trying to change the situation. And we ought to be candid and admit that if this can be done we will have been the first civilization in history to have turned back toward freedom and away from the empire trap. There are in essence two ways in which a Situation can be changed: either by revolution, or through reform.
Let us look first at revolution, in terms of why that alternative at present lacks viability, and under what conditions it might have some degree of relevance. There is a feeling among many people, and much promoted by intellectuals, that revolutions are the work of minorities. A case in point is the widespread belief that the American Revolution was the work of only a third of the people, while a third was loyal and a final third remained neutral. Supposedly based on a letter of John Adams, it is a complete misreading, for Adams was writing about American opinion about the French Revolution. An analysis of his writings indicates that he had a rather sophisticated view of the revolutionary process and believed that two-thirds or more of the Americans supported the Revolution. Common sense ought to have suggested that in the polarizing atmosphere of a social revolution neither side will allow a large group the luxury of remaining neutral. It is doubtful that any of the great social revolutions in history were carried out by minorities.
Certainly advocates of the free market and opponents of statism-despite the garbled verbiage or verbal garbage of some politicians-are not in a majority in our society. The emerging crisis does offer an opportunity to increase in numbers, but it perhaps provides the extreme statist with an even more appealing argument to the effect that the real problem is that we need more government intervention.
Revolutions, or any kind of fundamental social changes, occur not just because of dissatisfaction, or a widening gap between expectations and performance, but only when there is a new basis of legitimacy capable of supplanting the allegiance to the old paradigm. In the final analysis, there are only three bases upon which to construct values and thus a system of legitimacy: supernatural law, natural law, and statist, positive law. While pockets of believers in supernatural law exist, it is unlikely they will ever form a majority capable of challenging the dominance of statist, positive law. We are, therefore, left with natural law as a possible source for a new legitimacy.
Natural law has always formed the fundamental legitimacy of the libertarian, free market philosophy. The great challenge to libertarian intellectuals is to revitalize that tradition and to infuse it with a sense of relevancy which will speak to Americans in the 20th century as effectively as that great natural rights document, the Declaration of Independence, did 200 years ago It is certainly understandable that natural law suffered an eclipse in the struggle with statist, positive law. It was often based upon a Rationalism of the dark closet, in which pure logic found no place for empiricism, and the advocates of privilege found it a useful justification of the status quo. No wonder some well-intentioned reformers came to place their hopes in the State! In the present crisis, however, the gross abuses of the State must cause the honest reformer to reexamine natural law.
Science, especially ethology, biology, psychology, and anthropology, offers an empirical basis for the development of natural law undreamed of by the intellectuals of the 18th century. In the contemporary debates over homosexuality, the relationship of male and female, or the structure of society it is understandable that egalitarians should shy away from an examination of nature. It is less explicable that libertarians have not fully engaged such questions. As Trevor-Roper once pointed out, a view of human nature lies at the heart of every social, economic, or political philosophy. One of the great strengths of natural law has been that it openly bases itself upon a concept of human nature, while positive law has pretended that such an idea did not exist.
As a new paradigm of legitimacy is developed, and given the continued inability of the State to solve problems, but only to exacerbate them, it may become possible to build a majority. As long as we have a vote, revolution would be justified only if, in the face of such a majority, the minority of interests and politicians in control of the State refused to allow the role of the State to be curtailed.
We are left, therefore, with reform as the only viable policy within the alternative of change. I have indicated above, that the first priority is to develop and articulate a new paradigm in opposition to the legitimacy claimed by the State. This will have to be coupled to political activism in opposing those now in control of the State.
It must be acknowledged, however, that in this fight the libertarian reformer faces some psychological problems not encountered by either the liberal or socialist reformer who opposes the corporate-syndicalist State. They would like the power of the State to achieve what they see as positive reforms. Secondly, they have been, or are, in power in various parts of the world-empire. That the economic interests, politicians, and bureaucracy emerge still in control after such efforts tends to drive those reformers toward more extreme forms of statism.
The libertarian, if he is honest and consistent in his views, desires power in order to dismantle much of the State apparatus. Certainly, he wishes to destroy it as the basis of value and legitimacy. His minority status and his desire to negate the State cause him extreme discomfort as he becomes aware of the necessity to engage in political action into the foreseeable future, and with few, if any, victories in sight. If he is not careful, what can result is a growing nihilism, often concealed in a preoccupation with utopian escapism. This is precisely what happened to the libertarian anarchism of Taoists like Pao Ching-yen, who centuries ago fought the statism of both the Legalists and the Confucians in the Chinese empire. The Cynics in Rome did much the same thing, and, of course, that word has come down to us as virtually synonymous with nihilism.
In short, the failure to achieve a meaningful activism may result in an identity crisis. And, at the same time it is objectively obvious that inflation, depression, and social disintegration do exist. Perhaps one way of surviving and living with these problems lies in what I have termed intersticism. Historically, it may be the only means of survival, psychologically as well as materially, open to an individual concerned with freedom, and caught in an age of world-empire.
Intersticism means finding ways to frustrate the power of the State, and to operate despite its existence. In some ways it is not unlike the Taoist philosophy. It recognizes that the confrontations that were possible against Leviathan in an earlier time become increasingly difficult as the power of the State increases. For purposes of illustration let me give an example familiar to many libertarians. In Ayn Rand's novel, The Fountainhead, Howard Roark blows up the housing project, for which he had been denied recognition as the originator, because others had changed his basic plan. He is able to convince the jury that this course of action was justified.
Suppose, however, that statism and collectivism had so permeated the society that it was evident that such an effort was an exercise in futility? This seems to be the direction in which we are heading, and it certainly was true in Rome where Caesar's power was supreme. The intersticism solution to such a problem is told by Lucian of Samosata. The great builder, Sostratus of Cnidus, built the magnificent lighthouse at Alexandria. He carved his own name deep into the cornerstone and then plastered over it and wrote into the plaster the usual words of praise for the State and the ruler. Some years later, when both the ruler and the builder were dead, the plaster fell off.
It is clear that other civilizations have gone through this growing bureaucratic statism that characterizes empire. We have a considerable amount of data on this process, especially in the cases of Rome and China. The social histories of these empires thus become for us a rich vein for the study of how to survive in the midst of inflation, depression, and societal breakdown.
In Civilization and the Caesars, Chester G. Starr has brilliantly recounted the rise of autocracy, complete with book burnings, secret police, and all the forms of intimidation that the State can always be relied upon to employ. The parallels with our own era can hardly escape the reader. That anyone with a love of freedom could have yearned for the Pax Romana is sheer nonsense.
Intersticism in the face of existing State power has a similarity to belief in the market, which no one would argue has ever had the chance to operate completely free of restraints. As T. F. Carney has noted in The Economies of Antiquity:
Market exchange is peripheral, but vitalizing. It occurs when the other modes of exchange have developed a sophisticated production and distribution system. As it needs to be self-regulating to work best, it works in the interstices [italics added] between the other two systems [reciprocity and redistribution], where it can find freedom.
Elsewhere I have discussed the inflation, depression, and depreciation which fell on the middle class in the late Roman empire. Many of the best people, in a fit of depression, found suicide the only way out. Most stayed to endure the agony of empire. Some retreated to caves along the Rhone river and in other places which had not been inhabited since prehistoric times. Others tried to establish new communities among the barbarians where they found greater freedom than in Rome.
I would like to focus, however, on the group that chose to practice intersticism, and in so doing did not end up defeated and alone in a cave, in ignominious self-inflicted death, or trying to live among an alien society. Instead, they founded a new civilization-our own. I refer, of course, to the Christians.
The student of the empire crises in China and Rome is struck by two interrelated phenomena: the increasing inability of the system to cope with the crisis, not only economically, but in terms of law and order; and the growth of secret societies as voluntary interstices for bypassing the inept State. Thus the secret police could not keep people in exile in the late Roman empire as they had earlier, and the dissidents kept returning. The Roman condominium (it reached seven stories) with its one guarded gate on the first floor was a mini-fortress right in the middle of the city. Anyone who has talked to salespersons at one of our modern condominiums (as on the Florida Gold Coast) will immediately become aware that what is really being sold, in our present crisis of law and order, is not an apartment, but protection with a guard and television cameras stationed by the only door on a 24-hour basis.
The breakdown in the power and efficiency of the empire-keepers opens even wider the opportunities for intersticism. Into the breach thus opened up one finds the developing voluntary organizations which are driven toward secrecy by the omnipresent snooping of the State.
There were many such societies in Rome, for example. The significant question is why did Christianity emerge triumphant from that group? Given the view expressed here of the early autocratic tendencies of the Roman empire I, unlike Edward Gibbon, find Christianity a response to the decline of Rome and not a cause of its fall. Neither do I find the notion that Christianity triumphed because of its other-worldly emphasis very satisfying. Other sects also took that orientation, too.
No, Christianity came to dominate, before its own unfortunate co-optation by the State, because it developed a superior ethic based upon natural law and a superior voluntary social organization which, in true interstices fashion, simply bypassed the inefficient State. The viability of that institutional structure was a reflection of the legitimacy with which its value system came to be regarded.
It rejected suicide as unnatural, and refused to accept the status quo. One did not try to escape, but to build an interstices community. As Peter Brown observes:
By 200 the Christian communities were not recruited from among the humble and oppressed: they were groupings of the lower middle classes and of the respectable artisans of the cities. Far from being deprived, these people had found fresh opportunities and prosperity in the Roman empire: but they also had to devise ways of dealing with the anxieties and uncertainties of their new position.
Christian intersticism dealt with the affairs of this world. In a period of inflation it invested capital in people. In plagues and rioting it was the only group capable of providing burial for the dead and organizing food supplies for the living. Christian philanthropy was supporting 1500 poor and widows in Rome by the year 250 and large sums were contributed to ransom captives from the barbarians. Several generations earlier the State had already confessed its inability to cope with such problems. Plainly, to be a Christian in 250 brought more protection from one's fellows than to be a civis romanus.
No wonder Constantine later legitimatized Christianity. The State needed it to survive, and certainly not the reverse. That co-optation, coupled with the egalitarian, monastic urge, were the flaws which would in future centuries sap the vitality of this early, individual, interstices Christianity, but its contribution to survival in an age of empire should not be overlooked.
Where Are We Going, and What Can We Do?
There is not space here to discuss the many examples of intersticism which could be cited in the various empires in history. To examine these is to reaffirm the deep wellsprings of human freedom and creativity present even in an age of empire. Nor is there space to suggest the many possibilities and opportunities for intersticism in our own epoch.
That is the challenge before us. In developing such methods we not only survive materially, but gain a sense of personal worth and identity from even the smallest triumph over Leviathan. Constructing a new legitimacy based on natural law is a first step. The specifics of that society can be worked out and modified in the intersticist communities of free individuals that will emerge on a voluntary basis. These will not be in some cave or distant island, but in the belly of Leviathan.
Clearly, the movement toward mature empire will continue. The economic failures that accompany that process are already evident. The failure of law and order is also obvious. The counter culture, which is not a new legitimacy, is able to hide its Patty Hearsts and indicates the loss of control and efficiency by the State. Libertarians can survive depression, inflation, and societal breakdown by building a community on the interstices of the empire. As the failures of the State become evident, and as there may be a chance to truly dismantle the State apparatus, we must beware not to be co-opted as happened to the majority of the Christians in Rome.
For further articles and studies, please see OnPower.org.
William Marina was a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.