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Albert Jay Nock

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Albert Jay Nock (October 13, 1870 or 1872 - August 19, 1945) was an influential American libertarian author, educational theorist, and social critic of the early and middle 20th century.

Life and Work

Throughout his life, Nock was a deeply private man who shared few of the details of his personal life with his working partners. He was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to a father who was both a steelworker and an Episcopal priest, and he was raised in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from St. Stephen's College (now known as Bard College), he had a brief career playing minor league baseball. He then attended a theological seminary and was himself ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1897. Nock married Agnes Grumbine in 1900 and had two children, but separated from his wife after only a few years of marriage. In 1909, after what some biographers believe was a crisis of faith, Nock left the clergy and became a journalist.

In 1914, Nock joined the staff of the The Nation magazine, which was, at the time, a classical liberal publication. Nock was an acquaintance of the influential politician and orator William Jennings Bryan, in 1915 even travelling to Europe on a special assignment for Bryan, who was then secretary of state. Nock also maintained friendships with many of the leading proponents of the Georgist movement, one of whom had been his bishop in the Episcopal Church. However, while Nock was a lifelong admirer of Henry George, he was frequently at odds with the left-leaning movement that claimed his legacy. Further, Nock was deeply influenced by the anti-collectivist writings of the German economist Franz Oppenheimer, whose most famous work, Der Staat, was published in English translation in 1915. In his own writings, Nock would later build on Oppenheimer's claim that the pursuit of human ends can be divided into two forms: the productive or economic means and the parasitic, political means.

Between 1920 and 1924, Nock was the co-editor of the original Freeman magazine. The Freeman was initially conceived as a vehicle for the single tax movement. It was financed by the wealthy wife of the magazine's other editor, Francis Neilson, although neither Nock nor Neilson was an orthodox single taxer. Nock and Neilson would later have a vituperative falling out. Contributors to the Freeman included Charles Beard, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Mann, Lewis Mumford, Lincoln Steffens, Thorstein Veblen, William Henry Chamberlin, Louis Untermeyer, and Suzanne La Follette, the more conservative cousin of Senator Robert La Follette.

After the Freeman, which had never turned a profit, ceased publication in 1924, Nock became a freelance journalist and a friend of essayist H. L. Mencken. He lived most of the rest of his life on-and-off in New York City and Brussels.

In the mid-1920s, a small group of wealthy American admirers began funding Nock's work, allowing him to pursue a variety of projects. These included his first full length book, a short biography of Thomas Jefferson, titled Mr. Jefferson. In his 1932 books On the Disadvantages of Being Educated and Other Essays and Theory of Education in America Nock launched a scathing critique of modern government-run education.

Between 1931 and 1933, Nock served as a visiting associate professor at Bard College and lectured at the University of Virginia. The lectures he gave at these schools would later form the basis for Our Enemy, the State (1935), perhaps the most encompassing record of Nock's political thought.

In his 1936 article "Isaiah's Job", which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Nock expressed his complete disillusionment with the idea of reforming the current system. Believing that it would be impossible to convince any large portion of the general population of the correct course and opposing any suggestion of a violent revolution, Nock instead argued that libertarians should focus on nurturing what he called "the Remnant". The Remnant, according to Nock, consisted of a small minority who understood the nature of the state and society, and who would become influential only after the current dangerous course had become thoroughly and obviously untenable, a situation which might not occur until far into the future. Nock's philosophy of the Remnant was influenced by the deep pessimism and elitism that social critic Ralph Adams Cram expressed in a 1932 essay, "Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings".

In 1941 Nock published a two part essay in the Atlantic Monthly titled "The Jewish Problem in America", which some critics argue betrayed a virulent anti-Semitism. Nock equivocated: "Someone asked me years ago if it were true that I disliked Jews, and I replied that it was certainly true, not at all because they are Jews but because they are folks, and I don't like folks."[1] (http://www.cooperativeindividualism.org/nockautobio.html)

In 1943, two years before his death, Nock published his autobiography, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, the title of which expressed the degree of Nock's disillusionment and alienation from current social trends. After the publication of this autobiography, Nock became the sometime guest of oilman William F. Buckley, Sr., whose son, William F. Buckley, Jr., would later become a celebrated conservative author.

Nock died of leukemia in 1945.

Thought

Describing himself as a "philosophical anarchist", Nock called for a basically conservative and bourgeois vision of society free from the influence of the political state. He described the state as that which "claims and exercises the monopoly of crime". He opposed centralization, regulation, the income tax, and mandatory education, along with what he saw as the degradation of society. He denounced in equal terms all forms of totalitarianism, including "Bolshevism ... Fascism, Hitlerism, Marxism, [and] Communism", but was also harshly critical of democracy. Nock argued instead that, "[t]he practical reason for freedom is that freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fibre can be developed -- we have tried law, compulsion and authoritarianism of various kinds, and the result is nothing to be proud of." ("On Doing the Right Thing", The American Mercury, 1925)

During, the 1930s, Nock was one of the most consistent critics of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs. In Our Enemy, the State, Nock argued that the New Deal was merely a pretext for the federal government to increase its control over society. He was dismayed that the president had gathered unprecedented power in his own hands and called this development a "coup d'etat". Nock criticized those who believed that the new regimentation of the economy was temporary, arguing that it constituted a permament shift. He believed that the inflationary monetary policy of the Republican administrations of the 1920s were responsible for the onset of the Great Depression, and that the New Deal was responsible for perpetuating it.

Albert Jay Nock was also a passionate opponent of war and the U.S. government's aggressive foreign policy. He believed that war could only bring out the worst in society, arguing that it led inevitably to collectivization and militarization and "fortified a universal faith in violence; it set in motion endless adventures in imperialism, endless nationalist ambitions," while, at the same time, costing countless human lives. During the First World War, Nock wrote for The Nation, which was censored by the Wilson administration for opposing the war. Despite his distaste for communism, Nock harshly criticized the U.S. invasion of Russia following the Bolshevik revolution in that country. Before the Second World War, Nock wrote a series of articles deploring what he saw as Roosevelt's gamesmanship and interventionism leading inevitably to U.S. involvement. Nock was one of the few who maintained a principled opposition to the war throughout its course.

Despite becoming considerably more obscure in death than he had been in life, Nock was an important influence on the next generation of the American right, including libertarians such as Murray Rothbard, Frank Chodorov, and Leonard Read, and conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr. Nock's conservative view of society would help inspire the paleoconservative movement in response to the development of conservatiism during the Cold War. In insisting on the state itself as the root problem, Nock's thought was one of the main precursors to anarcho-capitalism.

Sources

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