German Sociological Libertarianism

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By Sinisa Malesevic:

"Franz Oppenheimer and Alexander Rustow were significantly influenced by the Austrian group conflict school in their interpretations of the violent origins of the state. However, while starting from similar premises concerning the intrinsically coercive history and character of the state, their conclusions were very different to those of Gumplowicz and Ratzenhofer, as they both shared an anti-statist libertarian normative universe.

Following the Austrian conflict tradition, Oppenheimer ([1926] 2007) develops a conquest theory of the state arguing that: ‘The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stage of its existence, is a social institution, forced by victorious group of men on defeated group.’ In his view, the state is essentially an organization of violence that emerges as a result of violent conflict through which the dominant group subjugates the defeated group. As such, it is a hierarchical and class-based organization that requires the continuous dominance of one group over others. However, unlike Gumplowicz, Oppenheimer distinguishes between the political means of social action which he sees as fundamentally violent (i.e. robbery), and the economic means which are for the most part peaceful (i.e. labour). In this account, world history is conceived of as an incessant contest between the two spheres as political means such as war – defined as organized mass robbery – has historically proven to be the more efficient mechanism of appropriating the labour of others. Oppenheimer argues that the state arises only with the appearance of nomadic tribes as settled peasants do not make efficient warriors: ‘the cause of the genesis of all states is the contrast between peasants and herdsmen, between labourers and robbers...the war-like character of the nomads is great factor in the creation of states’ (Oppenheimer, 2007: 28). Whereas initially nomadic warriors act as ‘bears’ bent on destruction of their weaker enemy gradually, as the institutions of the state develop, they transform into ‘bee-keepers’ who spare their enemies in order to live by their exploitation through tribute. In this process, the state rulers also develop laws and install religious authorities, both of which justify the status quo. However, according to Oppenheimer, the central feature of the state remains the same through time: ‘States are maintained in accordance with the same principles that called them into being. The primitive state is the creation of warlike robbery; and by warlike robbery it can be preserved’ (p. 57).

And the same principle applies to their more advanced counterparts:

- Conquest of land and populations is the ratio essendi of a territorial state; and by repeated conquest of land and populations it must grow, until...its sociological bounds are determined by contact with other states of its kind, which it cannot subjugate. (p. 85)

Nonetheless, in contrast to Austro-American conflict theory, Oppenheimer was optimistic about the possibility of ‘economic means’ overtaking ‘political means’ as intensified global commerce and trade lead to ‘preponderating importance over the diminishing warlike and political relations’ (p.153).Alexander Rustow starts from a similar proposition: the origins of the modern state system can be traced back to the conquest by dominant groups. He introduces three key concepts to explain the patterns of development in world history: ‘superstratification’,‘high culture’ and ‘culture pyramid’. Superstratification refers to a historically universal process of military conquest whereby one group invades the territory of another and establishes its control, thus creating ‘human social groupings that, in their inner structure, were based on bloodshed and violence’ (Rustow, 1980). While, on the one hand, this process produces hierarchical relations within society by firmly differentiating dominators and dominated, on the other, it paradoxically fosters the development of ‘high cultures’. Although high cultures emerge as a consequence of coercive specialization once they are fully developed, according to Rustow (1980: 131), they are likely to open possibilities where ‘bondage could be overcome, and independence and freedom consonant with human nature once again achieved’. This paradoxical state of historical development is conceptualized through the ‘law of the culture pyramid’ by which Rustow means any substantial civilization advancement requires large-scale organization which can only be, and historically has been, created through the coercive means of integrating many sedentary tribes under the domination of one conquering group. Once such a com-plex polity with an advanced division of labour is established, it allows the appearance of the specialized professional creative producers of culture recruited from the ruling strata now liberated from manual labour. In other words, there would be no advanced civilizations without the ‘original sin’ of the violent process that is superstratification. For Rustow, the rise of Western ‘high culture’ in the Ancient Greek world was the first substantial break of the cycle of conquest and superstratification as the Greek polis provided a balance between communal life and individual freedom through the existence of a relatively weak polity. In his analysis, any attempt to strengthen the state and empower the rulers beyond the necessary minimum leads to what he terms ‘feudal’ order, which reintroduces superstratification at the expense of human liberty and communal solidarity. Hence, he identifies various moments in European history where ‘feudal’ social relations were reinitiated, resulting in the loss of individual freedom, including the Reformation’s attack on the Church hierarchy, which led to the sacralization of politics as the Counter-reformation brought about theological absolutism, paving the way for authoritarian and eventually totalitarian politics. Similarly, colonial and imperial expansion on the part of European states opened the door to new periods of superstratificationas slavery and territorial conquest triggered the return of feudal tendencies in the West.



* Article: How Pacifist Were the Founding Fathers?: War and Violence in Classical Sociology. By Sinisa Malesevic. European Journal of Social Theory, 13 (2), pp. 193-212


"the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were characterized by the primacy of militarist ideas in social thought. Not only was it that war and violence constituted the esprit de corps of German academia (Mann,1988, 2004), but similar ideas were widespread and highly popular within leading academic circles throughout Europe and North America."