Albert Jay Nock: How to Throw the Fight for Freedom

The difference between pessimism and fatalism is that the first term reflects a realistic, fact-based appraisal of the outcome of a conflict between ideas, movements or men. It does not rule out the eventual triumph of the good. The second term concedes — too often based on an invalid premise — the inevitable victory of one party of a conflict and the dismal defeat of its opponent. A fatalistic premise promotes the futility of fighting for the good and ensures its defeat.

Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945), American essayist and social critic, considered a “grand old man” of libertarianism, was later in his life deemed a pessimist by both his friends and enemies, when in reality he was a fatalist. Mixed in with his many piquant and accurate observations on history and politics is a bitter surrender to a species of determinism — which I would call a secular version of original sin — one which governed his main political thesis and spared him the task of becoming an articulate and powerfully eloquent advocate of freedom. That is, while he advocated freedom, individualism and limited government that would protect life, liberty and property (through what he called “negative intervention”), he did not believe they were sustainable in man, and, in most circumstances, not even desirable by him once he saw a way of securing his existence via political or coercive means (via what he called “positive intervention”).

He received what was in the late 19th century a “classical” education, mastering Latin and Greek, history, philosophy and literature, and emerged from his schooling with an impressive and invaluable fund of knowledge. Later in his life he taught at Bard College and the University of Virginia. He became an Episcopalian priest and served in several different parishes, but left the church in 1909. It could be argued that his determinism was rooted in the religious notion of original sin. Another perspective is that his political ideas were inextricably founded on what Ayn Rand would call a malevolent universe premise.

He described himself as a philosophical anarchist, oblivious to the fact that to call one’s self such is to confess that one has eschewed philosophy altogether, although the corpus of his work does represent a philosophy, one colored by a cloying union of skepticism and determinism. He wrote over twenty books, his most famous ones being Our Enemy, the State (1935) and Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943). After his death, his works faded into obscurity, until rediscovered and promulgated by conservatives and libertarians later in the 20th century.

This was a logical adoption; both camps disdain the necessity of a comprehensive philosophy of reason, and treat such concepts as freedom and liberty as self-evident concretes not requiring metaphysical validation or a foundation. Conservatives remain clueless or hostile to a morality founded on a rational, non-religious view of the nature of man. Libertarians remain hostile to a non-subjectivist view of the nature of man as a being of volitional consciousness who must be consistently rational in his mind and actions in order to survive and flourish.

Reading especially Nock’s Our Enemy, the State, one has the disquieting sense that one is imbibing a libertarian rendition of Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism, that is, an autonomous force that pits freedom-valuing men against freedom-evading men, and that, given the timbre of Nock’s fatalistic view of man, the “original sin” of favoring the investment of the least amount of effort over genuinely productive work, the freedom-evaders are always certain to triumph. They will always find a way to seize control of a limited government and transform it into a coercive, looting “State” (in the meantime persuading a duped, dumbed-down populace that it is an expression of “popular sovereignty” or a manifestation of “democracy”). Nowhere in this work does one encounter the term volition.

Evidence of this absence can be seen in one statement at the beginning of Chapter 5, “Politics and Other Fetiches”:

“It is a commonplace that the persistence of an institution is due solely to the state of mind that prevails towards it, the set of terms in which men habitually think about it

navid: #navigation