How America Abandoned Decentralization and Embraced the State
Chaining Down Leviathan: The American Dream of Self-Government 1776—1865. By Luigi Marco Bassani. Abbeville Institute Press, 2021. Vii 356 pages.
Marco Bassani is a historian of European political thought and it is from the perspective of his discipline that he looks at the American political system that came to an end in 1865. As he sees matters, the United States from its inception as an independent country resisted the dominant trend of nineteenth-century Europe, the rise of the all-powerful state. Before the Civil War, the United States, as its plural name suggests, was federal and not central in form, and sovereignty resided ultimately in the people of the several states, taken separately, rather than in a unified entity. Bassani’s book is rich and complex, and, rather than attempt of a summary of its many valuable ideas, I’ll discuss only a few of them.
The state, he tells, us is a modern invention. “In fact, the state is modern. Indeed, the term ‘modernity’ itself makes very little sense politically except in relation to the state. . .The state is European in the sense that it originated and developed in Europe (thought it then became highly exportable). It is modern because it began its history during a period which more or less coincides with the modern age. And it is an ‘invention,’ not a discovery.” (pp. 12-13)
This puts him at odds with Franz Oppenheimer and Albert Jay Nock, and Bassani is explicit about this disagreement, but I do not think admirers of these authors need be too disturbed by this. Bassani does not deny that predatory bands that permanently settled in a territory extracted resources through the “political means” from the subject population. What he argues is new is the state taken in the Weberian sense, an entity that claims to be the sole source of legitimate authority. “In short, the first item on the agenda of the modern state was the centralization of power. At the dawn of the modern era the state beg
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