Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Uncle Samuel

I used to be of the belief that the Bible was not about politics, but rather a philosophical guide (some would say law book) to how one should live their life. I am happy to be proven wrong in this by Frank Chodorov, who died in 1966, but an essay of his appears over at today, What Samuel Said about Solomon, which was published in 1956, but seems rather appropriate today.

Chodorov's essay is a political analysis of the Old Testament history of the development of the Kingdom of Israel, through the kings, to Israel's inevitable fall.

The analysis begins with the time before the kings (following is an edited version of the beginning of Chodorov's essay. Click here for the full essay.):
"In those days," we are told in Judges 17:6, "there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes."

To be able to do that which is right in one's own eyes is to be free, and freedom was the way of life among the Israelites before the coming of the kings. Yet, they were not without government; they were not lacking in those social controls that are the essence of government...

Tradition supplemented necessity in the orderly arrangement of life, for the tradition grew out of experience by the trial-and-error method and had proved itself beneficial. The laws of custom were sanctified because violation of them carried its own penalties, not only to the individual, but also to the group.

It was a conservative society; adherence to proven principles was the only way by which the pursuit of happiness could be furthered...

Nor was there lack of leadership before the coming of the kings. Someone had to plan strategy and improvise tactics for the wars the tribesmen engaged in during their march to the Promised Land, and someone had to adjudicate disputes so as to prevent the chaos of internecine struggles. So came the judges, men and women esteemed for their wisdom and integrity, the leaders provided by nature for the instruction of the rank and file.

The evidence leads to the conclusion that these judges ruled by natural selection and common consent, much like the chiefs of American Indian tribes. It was agreed that the authority of the judges was sanctified by God, but the proof of their anointment was the manner in which they exercised authority. They were leaders by virtue of their proven gift of leadership.

The important thing about the rule of the judges is that their office was not endowed with the power of coercion. "Every man did that which was right in his own eyes" meant that no man was compelled to do otherwise; and, since "in those days there was no king in Israel," it must be presumed that there was no constabulary to enforce rules of behavior. The sole enforcement agency upon which the authority of the judges rested was public opinion. "So said Yahweh" had the force of "so say we all."

According to one computation, this kind of government lasted about four centuries — a period, incidentally, comparable to the duration of the Roman republic. The manner of its termination is recorded in the First Book of Samuel (chapter eight), where it is told that the elders of the tribes came to the last of the judges and demanded that he set a king over them.

The immediate occasion for the revolutionary demand was what we would today call an emergency. In fact, there were two emergencies. In foreign affairs things were going badly for Israel; the Philistines had not only beaten them roundly in battle, but also made off with the sacred ark of the covenant.

On the domestic front, they had lost faith in their leadership. The two sons of Samuel, whom he had appointed as assistants, did not live up to the high standards of their office; they had "turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment."

Samuel seems to have been a political scientist of the first water, all the more remarkable in that he had no books to go by, but only his wisdom and his observation of kingship in operation. So that, when the elders said "make us a king to judge us like all the nations," he was displeased. The story says that he took the matter up with Yahweh, who assured him that nothing could be done about saving the Israelites from themselves, since they had given up on first principles.

It was because they had forsaken the rigorous tradition of their forefathers, with its insistence on self-reliance and personal integrity, that they had lost the victorious touch that carried them from Egypt to the outskirts of the Promised Land. The breakdown of the judge system could be traced to the same lack of self-discipline. Therefore, said Yahweh, give them what they ask for, but as a parting shot you might "shew them the manner of the king that shall rule over them"; and tell them also that when they realize their mistake, it will be too late to regain freedom: "The Lord will not hear you in that day."

So Samuel outlined the order of things under a king. First, there will be conscription, replacing the system of voluntarism that had served the tribesmen well throughout their peregrinations, and the conscription will not be confined to military service but will include service in the king's household. What's more, women too will be subject to involuntary servitude. Then, "he will appoint his captains over thousands and captains over fifties."

The term "captain" is ambiguous, referring sometimes to men of war, sometimes to what we would call nobles, sometimes (by the kind of work assigned to them) to bureaucrats; it was in the reigns of David and Solomon that "captain" took on many meanings.

And, continued Samuel, the king will take from you the best of your lands "and give them to his servants," thus establishing a landed aristocracy, which the laws of Moses clearly forbade. What's more, for the upkeep of his establishment "he will take a tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards"; apparently, compulsory taxation was new among the Israelites. To top it all off, "ye shall be his servants."

But the elders were obdurate in their demand for political authority. One could go behind the returns and make out a case against these revolutionists; perhaps they constituted a newly risen landowning class, and hoped to solidify their position under a kingship. More likely, fear had entered their hearts, as is usually the case when a people accustomed to success are faced with adversity, and they were quite willing to swap freedom for the promise of security under subservience.

In any event, Samuel anointed Saul. From the very beginning of the royal establishment, the troubles of Israel multiplied. There was the usual spate of wars with the Philistines, with varying degrees of success, and internal dissension, which was rare in the experience of the tribesmen, became common. Some followed Saul, others revolted against his rule; more exactly, they resisted the establishment of those institutions that Samuel had warned them would come with a king.

But, as Samuel said, there was no way of regaining freedom once the state had made its appearance, and the judge was soon on the lookout for a new deliverer. He sought out David, but it is significant that the new king, though anointed by Samuel, had to fight his way to power; he came to the throne on the wings of what we would call a revolution. The struggle for power, embellished with moral platitudes and social-sounding whereases, had seeped into the Israelite way of life.
Sound familiar?

Chodorov continues:
...It is the way of political power to become in itself, regardless of the person who wields it, a shrine for public worship. In modern times, we are quick to "throw the rascals out," but it never occurs to us that rascality is imbedded in the office or that the power invested in it might make a rascal of an honest man.

Though the people of Israel had asked for a king, the spirit of freedom did not depart from them immediately upon the granting of their wish, and Saul never really set the kingship on a solid basis. It takes time for the myth of authority to gain general acceptance. David, the second king, did better, for he had forty years in which to get the tribesmen in line with the new institution; a second generation had come to maturity during his reign and to them the exploits of royalty were "modern," real and vibrant, while the freedom of their forefathers sank into the limbo of a fairy tale.

Even so, something of the past hung on, and David had to contend with frequent insurrections and, at the end, with a war of succession. He did succeed, as we learn from the Second Book of Samuel, in setting up the necessary framework for the functioning of a successful state, that is, in surrounding the kingship with a supporting caste of "mighty men," analogous to what we would today call a privileged class, and with a group of efficient "servants" whose functions correspond with those of latter-day bureaucrats. In that way he facilitated the consolidation of power under Solomon.

The Saul-David-Solomon story is illustrative of the gestation of the state. At first, an aspiring chieftain fights his way to ascendancy as a lone wolf, knocking off rivals, and concentrates in himself all the power he can lay his hands on. This method has merit only in so far as the area of his sovereignty is limited to personal supervision. Beyond that, it proves to be quite inefficacious, even precarious.

As his quest for power reaches beyond his purview, as it always does, he finds it necessary to delegate some of his power to, and share his prerogatives with, a supporting oligarchy — military, ecclesiastical (or intellectual) and, in time, commercial or industrial groups — that lend themselves to his purpose in return for the special privileges he grants them. They serve as a moat to his castle.

In addition to these favored blocs, he must surround his citadel with a class of well-paid "servants" skilled in taking care of the details of his sovereignty, so that it can function with the least amount of friction.

The state is not, as most political scientists would make it, an inanimate thing; it consists of people, human beings, each of whom operates under an inner compulsion to get the most out of life with the least expenditure of labor. They differ from other human beings only in the fact that they have chosen (because they believe it to be easier) the political or predatory means of satisfying their desires, rather than the economic or productive means.

The fiction that the state is an impersonal institution, something society constructs for its own benefit, serves to hide, even from its members, the nature of its composition.
The truth is, we are already there. And our government is about to turn us into slaves of the state. Just like the Israelites, it is too late for us to stop it:
Resistance to the state diminishes in the degree of its confiscations, and ultimately, when the tax load becomes a yoke, subservience to the state becomes the necessary way of life.

The designation of taxation as a yoke is a nice piece of biblical directness. A yoke is worn by an ox, a beast of burden, which by nature is incapable of claiming a property right in the products of its labor.

It follows that when a human being is deprived of that right, his status approximates that of an ox, and if taxation takes all he produces beyond that needed to sustain life (the wages of an ox), it can rightly be called a yoke. The Israelites who pleaded with Rehoboam to lower the tax load that Solomon (the state) had put on them were quite literal.

The story goes on to say that Rehoboam rejected the plea of "all Israel," that he in fact promised them an increase in taxes. Then it tells of a revolt against taxes by the people of Judah, a political subdivision that periodically rejected the suzerainty of Jerusalem: when Hadoram, Rehoboam's chief collector of tribute, made his rounds among them, they so "stoned him with stones, that he died."
Tea parties, anyone?

Suffice it to say, Samuel's prediction of the Israelites "buyer's remorse" were on the money. Eventually, and inevitably, the Kingdom of Israel fell, as will the United States inevitably fall.

I would pray for divine intervention, but as God told Samuel, "The Lord will not hear you in that day."

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