My God! It’s Full of Tsars!

For the better part of 200 years, American custom required its politicians to clothe themselves in democratic robes. Even the most authoritarian edicts, come they from Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arrived wrapped in the bright paper of demagoguery (“impassioned appeals to the prejudices and emotions of the populace”) rather than in raw assertions of executive power, “divine right” or other justifications. While this did not change the reality of the situation, it at least served as a spoonful of “consent sugar” to help the medicine of state power go down.

Perhaps the single virtue of American politics over the last three decades has been its honesty. These days, demagoguery as such is generally confined to the campaign trail. On the pedestals of actual power, false garments have been cast aside and the state’s functionaries stand naked before all, glorying in their assertions of unquestionable power.

The most visible symptom of this change in tone is the new-fangled institution of rule by “tsar.” Beginning under the Nixon administration, and fully incorporated into the language of government by the time of Reagan, “tsardom” has continually lengthened its reach into new areas of policy, culminating in the appointment of no fewer than 21 “tsars” by president Barack Obama in the first six months of his presidency.

We’ve got a bailout tsar, a car tsar, a climate tsar, a technology tsar, a general “regulatory” tsar, war and foreign policy tsars galore. Can’t swing a cat in Washington DC these days without knocking over a would-be Romanov heir. I half expect Obama to appoint a tsar tsar to keep track of all of them (maybe he can find someone named Binks to fill the position).

From an anarchist standpoint, the unveiling of the New Tsardom strikes me as a positive development … an honest development. The root of the word “tsar” or “czar” is the German “kaiser,” which in turn derives from the Latin “caesar.” No need to rehash the entirety of Roman history here: Suffice it to say that Julius Caesar’s rise to supreme power in Rome was anti-climax — the inevitable result of increasing vestment of power in the executive, power yielded to that executive by a putative “republic” which kept its decorative democratic trappings in place long after the transfer of real power had become fact.

Nothing new under the sun, folks. This is the nature of government. Cast all the votes you like, but once the power of one or a few to rule over others is “consented to” — or accepted as morally legitimate, at least — by the masses, that power will inevitably concentrate itself into fewer and fewer hands, and the process of choosing those hands will be a process either carefully controlled by the current ruling class or seized and monopolized by a would-be new ruling class.

While democracy does indeed arguably suffer from moral defect (majorities aren’t right just because they’re majorities), we need not reach that issue to dismiss it as a model for social organization. Even absent that moral defect, a practical defect has proven itself in multiple iterations: Democracy, even the genuine article, inevitably degenerates into authoritarian rule.

It may do so quickly (the French Revolution took only a few years to produce Napoleon; serious aspirations to democratic rule in Russia survived the overthrow of the Romanovs by mere months), or in fits and starts over the course of more than a century as was the case in America. But degenerate it will.

In America, the die of empire was cast domestically at least as early as the Civil War, and made its grand debut on the international stage (after a run-through in 1846, dress rehearsals in 1898 and 1917, and a dinner theatre tour in the “banana wars” of the early 20th century) at the end of World War II.

Obama’s appointment of “tsars” to handle various policy issues (at his behest, under his direction, and subject to his personal veto, of course — but unlikely to be contested at all, let alone successfully, at the “democratic” level) isn’t the problem. Rather it is just one of the predictable final symptoms of a degenerative disease hard-coded into the DNA of rule by the state.

Revolution in favor of another form of state may temporarily mitigate that symptom, but only revolution in favor of the stateless society has the potential to cure the disease.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory