Revisiting de Jouvenel’s 1945 classic, On Power
“the spirit of domination never slumbers”
An ambitious first 100 days is upon us.
It would be a great time revisit Bertrand de Jouvenel’s 1945 classic, On Power.
Progressive to . . . Something Else
Bertrand de Jouvenel was born in 1903 to an aristocratic family that embraced the “progressive” mores of the day. His parents divorced. His father married the famous novelist Colette in 1912. In 1920, de Jouvenel and Colette started an affair (de Jouvenel was just 16), which became a public scandal and (understandably) ended his father’s marriage.
In de Jouvenel, we aren’t dealing with a stodgy member of the bourgeois.
De Jouvenel was taught to view progress as inevitable, which was the accepted paradigm in those halcyon days of the early 1900s.
World War I shattered that paradigm. No longer was history viewed as constant progress.
De Jouvenel struggled with different political philosophies. In his twenties, he embraced a modified concept of laissez-faire political economy. In his thirties (which coincided with the 1930s and the Great Depression), he concluded that the market economy had failed miserably, but didn’t embrace the Communism or Fascism that became the fashionable theories of the day.
When the Germans occupied France, de Jouvenel pretended to support the Vichy government but secretly joined the Resistance. When he learned that the Nazis had become aware of it, he and his wife fled to Switzerland.
In Switzerland, he researched and wrote On Power, which was his attempt to explain the rise of the modern state. By understanding how the modern state arose, he hoped readers would understand why the modern state is a problem.
He would later use On Power as a launching point to explore how government could work better for the common good. He published Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good (1955) and The Pure Theory of Politics (1963), which were meant to complete a trilogy started with On Power.
De Jouvenel is difficult to characterize as “liberal,” “conservative,” or “libertarian.” His On Power is a historical masterpiece and required reading for the thoughtful libertarian. His latter two books? Not so much.
The latter two books, though, do not contradict On Power. On Power is primarily a historical account of how the modern centralized state arose, reaching back to the Middle Ages. There’s nothing in it to “contradict,” unless one rejects its history (which few do . . . it’s an honest work). The latter two books built off the historical lessons of On Power.
I think it’s safe to say the latter two books have never gained much of a following. The lessons of On Power, on the other hand, continue to be relevant because . . . Well, watch these next 100 days and figure it out yourself.
Five Short Lessons About the Modern State
1. The Minotaur lives
The Minotaur was a mythical half-bull, half-human creature in Crete that devoured everything that entered its labyrinth.
The modern democratic state, de Jouvenel said, is the Minotaur.
It is potentially the most dangerous regime that has ever existed for the reasons in the next four lessons.
2. Democratic governments are far more powerful than kings
Democracies in the modern world possess powers that the most despotic kings of the 17th-century could only dream about.
Whereas kings frequently had to go begging for money and men to support their ventures, democratic regimes possess virtually unlimited powers of taxation as well as the capacity to raise enormous armies through conscription.
“A man of our time cannot conceive the lack of real power which characterized the medieval king, from which it naturally followed that in order to secure the execution of a decision he needed to involve other leaders whose say-so reinforced his own.” The Nature of Politics
3. “Us and Them” is an innate check that doesn’t exist in democracies
In democracies, unlike monarchical or aristocratic regimes, there is no “he” or “they” commanding “us.” As a result, in democracies the skepticism, suspicion, and even resistance that often accompany the exercise of power by the one or few over the many are absent.
Even worse, since the government supposedly represents the will of the people and everyone (by a fictional notion) presumably shares in government, there is a general sense that unlimited force can be safely lodged with the state.
That general complacent sense didn’t exist in earlier ages, not at all. The average person was intuitively suspicious when the king or the local lord acted.
Under the ancient regime, society’s moving spirits, who had, as they knew, no chance of a share of Power, were quick to denounce its smallest encroachment. Now, on the other hand, when everyone is potentially a minister, no one is concerned to cut down an office to which he aspires one day himself, or to put sand in a machine which he means to use himself when his turn comes.” On Power
4. Power is a living, breathing thing
Power is a thing with a distinct identity and its own interests and pursuits: it’s a living thing that preserves itself, seeks to better itself, seeks to enlarge itself.
It’s an entity, and it doesn’t matter if it was put into existence by Dr. Frankenstein or a million voters. Once it gets put into existence, it starts to grow.
Just as power in the soul of individuals turns us all into metaphysically two-hearted persons–possessing a heart of love and a heart for power—the soul of governmental power bifurcates the state into a composite creature of altruism and power: the altruism is what makes its handlers think they’re using power to do good (all people seek to do what they think is good, even if it’s in reality evil), like Tolkien’s Boromir thinking he would bring goodness out of Sauron’s Ring of Power.
“Power in its pure state [is] command that lives for its sake and for its fruits.” On Power
5. Altruism just makes matters worse
Altruism increases the Power.
The state cannot undertake any action unless it has the Power, so when Power’s handler says it wants to do something for the good of the people, it might be sincere, but it’s also feeding itself at the same time. It literally cannot do anything without increasing the problem: its power.
“The more one considers the matter, the clearer it becomes that redistribution is in effect far less a redistribution of free income from the richer to the poorer, as we imagined, than a redistribution of power from the individual to the State.” The Ethics of Redistribution