Thorstein Veblen

National Politics as Sanctified Gangsterism





This is an extract from Chapter II of Absentee Ownership. It is a devastating analysis of politics and of the nation-state as a "gang or clique of political hucksters whose concern it is to make use of the national establishment for the profit of some particular group of special business interests."
Clearly in order to make this acceptable by the people myths had to be invented and rites had to be performed about democracy and national sovereignty. However, when "divested of this metaphysical figment of sovereignty and divine right, any national pretensions on the part of any democratic commonwealth become footless nonsense."



The growth of national integrity has run a fairly unbroken course since the close of the Middle Ages. It has all the while gathered vigor and momentum, on the whole, and has grown gradually more definite in its aims and motives; and this course of growth and ripening appears by no means to be concluded yet. As it bears on the questions involved in the present inquiry the spirit (or habit) of national integrity may be said to have taken its rise and assumed much of its distinctive character in those princely adventures in "state-making" that fill the political history of early modern times.

State-making was a competitive enterprise of war and politics, in which the rival princely or dynastic establishments, all and several, each sought its own advantage at the cost of any whom it might concern. Being essentially a predatory enterprise, its ways and means were fraud and force. The several princely and dynastic establishments took on a corporate existence, with a corporate interest, policy, and organisation; and each of them worked consistently at cross purposes with all other similar corporations engaged in the same line of adventure.
Among them were also principalities of the Faith, including the Holy See. The aim of it all centered in princely dominion and prestige, and in unearned incomes for the civil, military, and ecclesiastical personnel by whose concerted effort the traffic in state-making was carried on. Anyone of these dynastic corporations could gain further dominion and prestige only at the expense of others of their kind, and only at the cost of their underlying population.

It is a matter of course that the loss, damage, or discomfort of anyone counted as gain for the rest; all gains being differential gains. The traffic was carried on then as now by warfare and warlike diplomacy [1]; which always resolves itself into an expenditure of life and substance on the part of the underlying population of all contending parties. It was always, as it has always continued to be, an enterprise of intimidation which counted on an eventual recourse to arms - ultima ratio principum - and the business was always, then as now, worked out in terms of mutual damage and discomfort, the outcome being decided by the balance of damage and loss; the cost in life and substance falling, then as now, on the underlying population, and the gains in dominion, prestige and goods going to the princely establishment and the kept classes.

This whole traffic in state-making is of a singularly ambiguous character and makes a sufficiently notorious chapter of history. And the States which it made were such as it might be expected to make. It was an enterprise in mutual defeat, quite unashamed. To the end that these adventures in damage, debauch and discomfort might be carried to a fitting conclusion, as they commonly have been, the several dynastic corporations claimed, and enforced, an undivided usufruct of their underlying populations and all their ways and works. So this unqualified usufruct of the underlying population became a perpetual and unalienable asset of the dynastic establishment, by Grace of God. In time, and indeed in a relatively short time, by force of strict and unremitting discipline and indoctrination the underlying population learned to believe that this princely usufruct of their persons and property by Grace of God was indispensably right and good, in the nature of things.
By law and custom the underlying population came to owe, and to own, an unbounded and unquestioning allegiance of service to the princely establishment in whose usufruct they are held. Therefore, servile allegiance has become not only a point of law but also a point of morals and honor. Such is the force of use and wont.

In the nature of things, these competitive princely corporations were always working at cross purposes and were imbued with an all-pervading spirit of enmity and distrust, suitable to that enterprise in mutual damage and discomfort for which they were organised and equipped; and in all this diligent pursuit of disaster it was recognised as a plain matter of course that there was no place for scruples of any kind. All is fair in war and politics. It is a game of force and fraud. There is said to be honor among thieves, but one does not look for such a thing among statesmen. And so this spirit of dynastic statecraft spread down and outward by diffusion, by precept and example, throughout the underlying population until presently they were, all and several, bound together in the service of their predacious masters by an inveterate and unreflecting solidarity of national conceit, fear, hate, contempt, and an enthusiastically slavish obedience to the constituted authorities. Such has been the force of use and wont, and such is its institutional residues. [2]

By habituation through these bleak centuries of state-making this national integrity of hate, mischief and distrust has been ground into the texture of civilised life and thought, until it has become one of the sovereign facts in the established order of law and morals in all the civilised nations. So that when presently, under the pressure of altered material circumstances and consequent altered habits of life, a growth of democratic institutions set in, the ancient habitual solidarity of national conceit, fear, hate, contempt, and servility was carried over intact and unabated into the ideals of the democratic commonwealth, where it is still treasured as the essential substance of citizenship. It still remains the chief engine of dissension and distress at the hands of the national statesmen, whose chief end of endeavour continues to be mutual defeat. It is only that the right of the prince has passed over into the divine right of the Nation. The democratic corporations of national statesmen continue to carry on the traffic in war and politics on the same lines and by use of the same means and methods as the dynastic statesmen of the era of state-making in their time. And the ways and means of all is still the same dutiful usufruct of the underlying population, dedicated to this use by their corporate spirit of national vanity, fear, hate, contempt, and servility.

In the course of this era of state-making the prince became a “sovereign” by Grace of God, with tenure in perpetuity. His divine right to the usufruct of the underlying population was worked out and established by help of the interested connivance of the Church; and this appear to have been the only substantial contribution which Church has made to the modern scheme of civil and political institutions.
The prince became a sovereign; that is to say, all men became subject and abjectly inferior to him, in the nature of things; and to him, for no reasoned cause, all men thereupon owed unquestioning and unqualified obedience and service, in the divine nature of things. This notion of "sovereignty" is essentially a proposition in theological metaphysics, according to which some sort of immaterial superiority is infused in the person of the sovereign by divine fiat; which invests him with an axiomatically authentic personal dominion over the underlying population and all their ways and works. The Freudians would presumably call it an inferiority complex with benefit of clergy

When and in so far as the democratic commonwealth has displaced the monarchical State, this theologico-metaphysical attribute of sovereignty is conceived by the experts in political law and speculation to have passed over intact to the Nation; so that the Grace of God in this bearing now invests the national establishment, conceived as a corporate personality, instead of the person of the prince. The retention of this princely sovereignty in behalf of the "sovereign people" marks the Nation as a successor of the dynastic State, chartered to do business on the same lines and with the same powers; very much as a modern oil corporation will take over all the powers and liabilities of any individual promoters whom it has bought out. The democratic Nation, therefore, is a sovereign by Grace of God, whatever other blessings it may enjoy. But the democratic Nation has no personal existence except in the several persons of its citizens.
So the experts in political speculation have drawn the logical consequence, to the effect that these democratic citizens are vested with this princely sovereignty, each and several, unalienably and in perpetuity. That is to say, these democratic citizens, each and several, by grace of God hold sovereign dominion over the underlying population of which they each and several are abjectly servile components [3]. So also it should apparently follow by force of the same metaphysics that each of these sovereign citizens, being at the same time a loyal member of the underlying population, by Grace of God owes unqualified and unalienable allegiance to his own person in perpetuity.

All this seems foolish, of course. But it has the merit of consistency. And it was for a democracy of this complexion that the world once was to have been made safe. So also of course it is at least extremely doubtful if any stretch of human fantasy could have designed and embroidered such an extraordinary conception of citizen-sovereignty, if it had not been that the maggoty conceit of princely divine right was ready to hand, - an institutional heirloom handed down to the democratic commonwealth from the days of the Grace of God; the days of dynastic state-making and princely bishops; when the Lord's anointed “tore each other in the slime” of political intrigue, while they visited upon the underlying population “the high justice, the middle, and the low.”

When divested of this metaphysical figment of sovereignty and divine right, any national pretensions on the part of any democratic commonwealth become footless nonsense. The commonwealth in such a case would no longer be a political engine to be turned to account for political traffic by the politicians. It would be nothing to bluster and give off fumes about; nothing better, in fact, than an unsanctified workday arrangement for the common use of industrial ways and means. In fact the democratic commonwealths would in such event be in a fair way to become what they profess to be, - neighborly fellowships of ungraded masterless men given over to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” under the ancient and altogether human rule of Live and Let Live.

In that event loyal subjection to the national establishment of politicians would have no sacramental value, and patriotic fervor would be no more meritorious than any other display of intolerance. Treason and sedition would accordingly fall from their high estate as the chief of crimes, and would take rank as nothing better than scandalous dissension about matters of taste and opinion. However, that is not the way things have been arranged by the blind drift of habituation out of that sorry past. And as things now stand, thanks to that parlous legacy of despotism and predation by Grace of God, patriotic inflation is the chief of the civic virtues, and failure to abet the government's political intrigues is high crimes and misdemeanors.”

By grace of this ingrained bias of predacious enmity toward the outside and voluntary servitude within the Nation the constituted authorities of these democratic commonwealths have fallen neatly into the place once occupied by the dynastic statesmen, and so they have, quite as a matter of course, also fallen into the same lines of dreary traffic in competitive force and fraud, without material abatement. Therefore civilised mankind is still divided against itself in a predatory scramble to get something for nothing at the cost of any whom it may concern; which always foots up to mutual defeat at the cost of the underlying population.

This is the domain of External Politics; a domain created out of national animosities, by statecraft, for the pursuit of national prestige and unearned gain.
In internal affairs, on the other hand, it is loosely presumed that the statesmen will be actuated by principles of equity and fair dealing and will be occupied with a humane pursuit of the common good. But the more fully the commonwealth has come to realise its status as a Nation, the more does its external politics (war and diplomacy) take precedence of its domestic concerns. The exigencies of external politics are paramount, and the conduct of internal affairs therefore are, in effect, required to conform to the needs of the nation's external policies. And the administration of external politics, being in the nature of an enterprise in chicane and coercion, is necessarily furtive, runs forever on sharp practice, carefully withholds “information that might be useful to the enemy,” and habitually gives out information with intent to deceive. In effect, external politics is a blend of war and business and combines the peculiar traits of both.

So the shadow of external politics covers also the management of domestic affairs, with the result that the authorities of the democratic commonwealths habitually go about their work under a cover of reticence tempered with prevarication.

Now, this may seem a fault; but the strategy enforced by the paramount exigencies of national politics is a furtive business, in the nature of things, and will have to be accepted with the defects of its qualities, if the Republic is to fulfil its destiny as a dignified and self-respecting Nation. The needful screen of strategic reticence serves also as a useful cover for many interested transactions that would not bear the light of untempered publicity; and the reasonable officers who thrive under the shade of the screen will presumably be such as the circumstances call for. By selective elimination of artless persons the personnel of official life comes to be made up, in the main, of such persons as will feel at home in the resulting spiritual twilight of official life, by native gift or by sedulous training [4]. So it has also come about, under the stress of national strategy and political business enterprise, that any effectual distinction between honest politics and corrupt politics is an elusive difference of degree, not a difference in kind [5].

Due to the same causes it also follows that patriotic devotion to the national establishment will, in effect, come to much the same thing as partisan devotion to the fortunes of some particular gang or clique of political hucksters whose concern it is to make use of the national establishment for the profit of some particular group of special business interests; which is called "party government" by those who theorise in Political Science.




[1] The part of wise statecraft then as now was to "speak softly and carry a big stick," as the principle has been formulated by one of the greater democratic statesmen of a later time.

[2] Cf. e. g., Max Silvius Handman, "The Sentiment of Nationalism." Political Science Quarterly, March, 1921.- No people can be a bona-fide Nation so long as it falls short in respect of this overhead of futilities and turpitudes.

[3] "Men jeg er denne Kong Apis,
Det ser j eg saa soleklart;
Og dersom du ikke forstaar det
Saa skat dll forstaa det snart.

"Kong Apis var nemlig paa jagten,
Og steg af sin hest en stund," o. s. v.

“But I am that same King Apis,
I see it as clear as noon;
And if you don't understand it
You shall understand it soon.

"King Apis once rode out a-hunting,
And he went aside by himself,” etc.
(Peer Gynt, Act IV)

[4] This will ordinarily imply a degree of arrested development, particularly of the moral faculty, such as goes to create what is called a “moron.” Still, sedulous training will also do much.

[5] As seen, e. g., in the late election of a United States Senator from Michigan, where this question has been decided on a technicality.


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