Blogs > Liberty and Power > Freedom and Domination

Oct 17, 2005 6:10 pm

Freedom and Domination

Some of our earlier postings here and here discussed the important but largely neglected work of Stanislav Andreski. Andreski was heavily influenced by another key analyst of power – Alexander Rüstow.

Fifty-five years ago, Alexander Rüstow published the first of three volumes in his classic work with the rather nondescript title of Taking Bearings on the Present. It remains today one of the most powerful statements of historical sociology in the classical liberal tradition. Although the full original work has never been translated from the German, Princeton University Press published in 1980 a one volume edited translation of Rüstow’s work under the much more compelling title of Freedom and Domination.

This is a book with extraordinarily rich insights from a classical liberal perspective – one that could shape promising research agendas for many younger scholars - yet it remains largely neglected in the social science disciplines. As a catalyst for research, Rüstow’s book could also help to address two of the key weaknesses of the current classical liberal movement – its relative lack of depth in history or sociology.

Rüstow, a distinguished sociologist at the University of Heidelberg in Germany when he published his three volume work, had spent 16 years of his academic life in political exile from his native Germany at the University of Turkey in Istanbul. During his exile, he developed friendships with many leading Austrian economists, including Hayek, Mises and Röpke – in fact, he singles out Röpke as one of the major catalysts for writing his magnum opus.

Experiencing World War I firsthand as a lieutenant in the German army and then witnessing the rise of Hitler, Rüstow was not a detached academic. In the Foreword to his book, he makes his position clear:

. . . I affirm freedom and reject domination, I affirm humaneness and reject barbarism, I affirm peace and reject violence. These pairs of opposites are the great poles between which the drama of human history is enacted.

This in fact, is one of the powerful themes of Rüstow’s perspective: history represents a continuing struggle between these pairs of opposites. Rüstow does not advance a dialectical view of history; instead, like Proudhon, he describes antinomies. History does not unfold smoothly, but instead represents an ebb and flow between these opposites, shaped by ongoing struggle. Rüstow repeatedly resorts to words like combat, battle and conflict to characterize the historical landscape. The opposites are not just ideas, this is not just intellectual history – lives and freedom are literally at stake.

Rüstow looked to history to better understand the present and he sought this understanding to support the struggle for freedom. His goal was to understand the origins of the tyrannies that defined his era so that the forces of freedom could be more effective in resisting domination. Although his discipline was sociology, Rüstow believed passionately that understanding of today’s social formations hinged upon a deep understanding of history: “a culture can be fully understood only by tracing its historic roots.” In fact, Rüstow maintained that

. . . a “radical” critique of civilization and reassessment of our cultural self-consciousness – that is, a critique and reassessment going to the very roots - . . . must take its starting point precisely from this origin of civilization and from the circumstances surrounding it.

In Rüstow’s eyes, conquest played a fundamental role in the rise of the state. He employed the term “superstratification”, attributing the origin of the concept to the great Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldun and acknowledging the role of Augustin Thierry, Ludwig Gumplowicz and Franz Oppenheimer, among others, in developing the concept. Superstratification, in Rustow’s eyes, occurs whenever an invader occupies the same geographic space as an invaded population. This produces “human social groupings that, in their inner structure, were based on bloodshed and violence.” Whereas in earlier eras communities banded together and fought other communities, superstratification turns bloodshed and violence inward.

In the process, it permeates and reshapes all elements of society: “the division of the social body into two strata, its cleavage into rulers and ruled, is a permanent source of internal tension and unrest. . . . [it] has a distorting, destructive, and disintegrative effect on the natural communities affected by it . . .” The struggle between the twin forces of community and conquest lead to a host of pathologies including atomization and alienation on the one hand and what Rüstow describes as “pseudointegration” on the other hand – artificial efforts to bring people together, as in the efforts by rulers to artificially nourish and intensify hatred against external (and often internal) “enemies”.

One of the consequences of superstratification is economic exploitation:

It is clear that the “aristocratic” morality of the superstratifying upper class disparaged and despised work – especially manual labor – directly related to earning a living. . . . Indeed, the most important economic aim and practical effect of superstratification is to spare its bearers the drudgery of performing any remunerative work and to shift such activity on the subjugated strata.

To better understand superstratification, two important works provide a useful complement to Rüstow: John H. Kautsky’s The Politics of Aristocratic Empires discussing the persistence of exploitative relationships between aristocrats and peasants and Arno J. Mayer’s The Persistence of the Old Regime exploring the continuing domination of aristocratic classes in Western Europe well into the twentieth century. These books highlight a key dimension of superstratification: its residues persist and accumulate over time like geological sediments. The state may change forms as it evolves, but its essence does not change.

But superstratification is only one side of the story. Rüstow observes:

Man is by nature a communal being. Community is the form of coexistence consonant with human nature, and an ineradicable longing for community lives in every human being. Hence every noncommunity, every disturbed community, has a built-in inclination to return to community; only in community does it find rest. . . . Strong deviation from the essential community structure releases hidden springs of counter-forces which in their violent, explosive form we term “revolution”.

When Rüstow refers to community, he is highlighting the role of society as a countervailing force to the institutions and predation of the state. As Rüstow demonstrates, much of human history can be understood through the lens of the conflict between state and society.

Rüstow lays out his sociological analysis in Part 1 of the book. In Part 2, he takes us through Western history to show how the struggle between freedom and domination has unfolded. Finally, in Part 3, he uses these perspectives to analyze his current surroundings in the context of this historical struggle.

In his final chapter, Rüstow concludes that

To cure the social pathology of domination and unfreedom . . . there are in principle two methods. The first is to proceed consciously against all recognizable forms of the sickness . . . The other is to proceed half-consciously through a series of palliatives and attenuations, by way of checks and balances within the structure of domination. This was the course pursued by Western history . . . [but] domination and unfreedom have become ever more pronounced so that the entire structure of superstratification has reemerged with increasing sharpness.

The lessons are clear. Successful resistance to domination requires radical analysis of existing societies, in the literal meaning of going “to the roots”. This in turn requires deep understanding of the specific historical context within which current societies have evolved. Analytic concepts have limited value unless they are firmly rooted in historical understanding. But above all, successful resistance requires a commitment to fundamental change.

Rüstow indicates that he first encountered the concept of superstratification in the work of Franz Oppenheimer. In a future posting, we will discuss some of the key insights of Oppenheimer’s classic work, The State.

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Roderick T. Long - 10/3/2005

I'm re-posting this question so that it will show up in "recent comments" in case there's someone who a) knows the answer but b) missed my question the first time:

Speaking of Oppenheimer, I vaguely recall hearing that the English translation of his book The State is likewise abridged from the original. Anyone know if that's true?

john mac william - 9/29/2005

Intellectually drafted article. seems to grab attention at once.The writer has a good knowledge of the subject and makes reading interesting.

Roderick T. Long - 9/24/2005

Speaking again of Oppenheimer, that link to The State doesn't work; try this one. There's also an online version here.

Roderick T. Long - 9/24/2005

Speaking of Oppenheimer, I vaguely recall hearing that the English translation of his book The State is likewise abridged from the original. Anyone know if that's true?

Sheldon Richman - 9/24/2005

Thanks for bringing back a name I have not heard or seen in some time!

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 9/24/2005

Wonderful post, gents, about a very important work.

My only quibble is in the use of the word "dialectical" here (I'd use it in a much wider sense to encompass radical-contextual analysis). I suspect you're using it as a way to distinguish it from a kind quasi-teleological "dialectical materialist" conception of history, or at least one that points to "resolution" of conflict (though Marx's conception itself is filled to the brim with discussions of struggle and conflict).

Ironically, I think one can find certain parallels between Rustow's perspective and the Marxist conception. Rustow even objects to the "one-sided" view of "capitalism" advanced by Mises and Hayek. He sees "subsidy-ridden, monopolist, protectionist" policies as the reality of capitalism's essence and even defines capitalism as a form of "protocollectivism."

Rustow calls himself a "neoliberal"; I know that that label also has a variety of connotations.

So, while I think you're both absolutely correct that this work is crucially important for helping liberal scholars in the formation of a research-and-activist programme, I'm wondering where you see Rustow in relationship to today's libertarianism. How different is Rustow's "neoliberalism" from today's libertarianism?

Not having read the full original German work, I have always been very curious about Rustow's larger political sympathies. I've read a few essays about him here and there, but any further light you could shed on his politics would be greatly appreciated.

Common Sense - 9/23/2005

This is a great post about a great thinker. One quibble: Rustow, as the authors note, wrote that "superstratification, in Rustow’s eyes, occurs whenever an invader occupies the same geographic space as an invaded population. This produces “human social groupings that, in their inner structure, were based on bloodshed and violence.” Whereas in earlier eras communities banded together and fought other communities, superstratification turns bloodshed and violence inward." Rustow's European focus prevents him from giving due attention to the American situation. Here, whites invaded reds, but were unable to exploit them. Instead, they *imported* a class of black slaves, and through that method acted out the basic dynamic Rustow accurately addresses.

I read Rustow the summer before starting grad school and was impressed. It did not mesh well, however, with grad school culture and, by extension, the culture of the university historical profession. Rustow's style and somewhat "binary" approach is alien to modern academic sociology and history and its obsession with the "latest scholarship." I tried to bridge this gap in a paper that analyzed the "latest scholarship" in my field via classical liberal theories of class conflict, but it was rejected (A-) because "class conflict theory is Marxist, and you do not take a Marxist approach." Duh.

The paper became an article, which won a major award, which inspired a dissertation, which is now being modified into a book due out in 2006. Every time the profession reads and judges the evolving work, at every step of the way, it always tries to suppress the (classical liberal) class conflict angle and encourage my work's relations to current academic debates. This is good in the sense that my work keeps getting better and stays fresh, but the downside is that the class angle keeps diminishing in importance, and it was the class angle that long ago I wished to highlight in the tradition of Rustow (and de la Boetie through Grinder and Hagel in modern times, or parts of ancient Jewish scripture if you want to go way back.)