William Jefferson Clinton may some day be hailed as the second father of his country, or rather as the abusive stepfather. His seemingly deliberate efforts to disgrace his administration and disgust the people have convinced a significant number of clear-headed citizens of the truth of Acton’s maxim that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Perhaps as much as a fourth of the population has had enough, not only of this President but also of the system that spawned him. The Lewinsky scandal is this regime’s picture of Dorian Gray: the unnatural pursuit of sex, money, and power dissolved from any ties of loyalty and affection and ultimately incapable of producing any issue or results.

Many of us recoil from the ugly image, but to regress from this regime requires us to understand the nature of the beast. Libertarians are fond of invoking Albert Jay Nock’s title, Our Enemy, The State, as a battle cry against all government and authority, including medieval principalities, commercial republics, and totalitarian despotism. But no one who has been forced to join a college faculty committee or sit through a town meeting can have many illusions about spontaneous order. Any form of government can be misused, but it is not authority or government per se that picks our pockets to pay for the bayonets that are stuck in our backs. Most despotisms, in fact, have had little power over everyday life; it is only a particular kind of modern state that has gained the power to rear children and invent money, and it is precisely the modern state which, in its most advanced form, seems to have specialized in the corruption that is objected to in the current administration.

The real objection to Bill Clinton and his friends is not that they are immoral. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. But it is precisely these dynasts who have mined whole quarryfuls of moral stone to launch at the American people. The leaders of the national government who demand our obedience in paying taxes, complying with laws made by federal judges, avoiding every unclean thought about persons of a different race, religion, or perversity-choice, and observing all the minute regulations invented every day by a host of government employees that is as great in number as the population of our 13 sovereign states in 1787—those same leaders are caught in the act, day after day, soliciting bribes, evading taxes and so-called ethics rules, and violating the most basic moral rules of everyday life: they lie, cheat, and steal with impunity; they seduce the innocent and collude with the guilty.

The justification of the modern political class is usually framed in Machiavellian terms: “The guy may be a thief and an adulterer, but we’re not paying him to sing in the choir. So long as he makes the trains run on time and defends the nation, we can overlook his peccadilloes.” But the trains—what few there are—do not run on time. So many politicians have been bribed by the airline, trucking, and highway construction industries that our national railroad system is the laughing-stock of the civilized world. Our national defense, on the same hand, is in the hands of a Commander in Chief who sells arms to our enemies. We would all be better off if Mr. Clinton were singing castrato in the Vienna Boy’s Choir.

The corruption of the American regime is not an isolated instance, but the significance gets buried under the pile of individual indictments. Citizens of modern states object to much of what their governments do—the high taxes and burdensome regulations—or fail to do, when the streets are unswept or the garbage is not picked up, but only anarchists complain when the state fulfills its primary obligation to defend the nation from predators, both foreign and domestic—the general defense and domestic tranquility promised by the American Constitution.

Too often, however, the agencies of government serve the interests of criminals who prey upon the people whose protection justifies the very existence of the state. Even an official textbook version of American history can produce such examples as the close collaboration between the Capone Mob and the Chicago police. Jack Kennedy’s involvement with Mafia bosses who helped deliver the vote, the association of Senator Paul Laxalt with certain businessmen in Las Vegas, or the friendship of John Glenn and John McCain with Charles Keating—the bill for Keating’s congressional friendships nearly bankrupted the Treasury.

On a higher plane, large investors have brought off leveraged buy-outs of large parts of the American state: the bankers under Hamilton; the railroads under Lincoln and his successors; the Treasury under Grant. One could go, as they say, on and on, listing scandals like Credit Mobilier, Teapot Dome, BCCI, and Whitewater, which have disfigured the administrations of both parties.

The common way of describing these scandals is to say that they are lapses in an otherwise honest system, and that may still be the best answer, that is, an answer that allows us to sleep at night. But in other areas of our experience with government, we grow suspicious of well-worn arguments about “unintended consequences.” Is it not ironic, say the pundits, that welfare only degrades the poor it is designed to uplift, that women’s liberation forces women to work two jobs and exposes them to unprecedented risks of exploitation and rape, that public education insures the ignorance not only of the lower classes but even of the middle classes? Ironic, yes, if the word is defined (according to our former colleague Christian Kopff) as the relationship of cause and effect. Isn’t it ironic, the detective should say of the suicide, that—after he loaded the gun, put it to his head, and pulled the trigger—he blew his brains all over the Turkey carpet?

Perhaps, in our zeal to point the finger at the malefactors of the other party, we are missing something essential. What if politics in the modern state really is, by definition, a criminal profession? The idea sounds insane, if only for its simplicity. The whole duty of government is more than any one theory may describe. To attempt to account for the rise of the state, the purposes it serves, and the distortions it suffers by any single principle is an effort doomed to stupidity. From Hobbes to Wittfogel, philosophers have barked their shins upon historical experience, and universal historians as ignorant as Wells and as learned as Toynbee have succeeded only in trivializing history. Rather than choke, trying to swallow the whole of the state, we might gain some food for thought if we nibble away at one little corner and pose the simple question: What is the modern state if not an instrument to serve the particular interests of those who control it?

By modern state, I mean the European regimes that arose during and after the Renaissance as well as their non-European imitators. Earlier governments (and primitive societies) were, for the most part, on so small a scale or of so personal a nature that they scarcely deserve to be called states. This is obvious in the case of small-scale tribal societies such as the Sudanese Nuer described by E.E. Evans-Pritchard or the Hebrews whose account is given in the Pentateuch. But even classical Athens—a successful and coherent commonwealth—can hardly be said to foreshadow the modern state. Athens was a kin- and neighborhood-based society, funded largely by tribute and import duties and by a quasi-voluntary system of benefactions from the rich, a nation without police or standing army, whose magistrates were mostly chosen by lot, where corruption was almost always the corruption of individuals and not of government per se, because there was no government per se.

In looking backwards from the end of the second millennium, we have a certain feeling about what a state is. First and foremost, it is the sense of us and them, not merely of us the people and them the rulers, but of us the people and that entity which Hobbes described as a “mortal god.” The state is mortal only because it can be overthrown or conquered; in all else it is as far beyond our ken as the will of Zeus. Christians and pagan Greeks might believe that human beings can participate in the divine; Diomedes might wound the war-god with a spear, and Jacob might wrestle with an angel, but most subjects of a modern state know that “you can’t fight city hall,” and that there is nothing sure except “death and taxes.”

This perception of the state’s divine status is valid, whether the rulers’ power is justified on the basis of divine right, popular will, or the dictatorship of the proletariat. A political revolution is, therefore, a mere change of religions, a substitution of gods. The king is dead, long live the king—or the dynasty or the institutional revolutionary party.

Another characteristic of the modern state is the largely successful attempt to exercise the monopoly on violence which, according to Treitschke, was one of the state’s essential attributes. In many ancient and medieval societies, the responsible classes virtually defined themselves as those who owned arms and knew how to use them, and in the past few years Victor Davis Hanson has made a good case for classical Greece as a civilization of armed farmers. But, to take only the example of a state formed as the result of conquest (namely, England), the Norman kings worked hard to eliminate all the Anglo-Saxon customs that gave the people a dangerous feeling of independence: blood feuds, dueling, the right of barons to try and execute criminals. Although the English state was not perfected, perhaps, until Walpole’s time, the Tudors were able, by the 16th century, to extort taxes, impose justice, and levy troops even in the teeth of opposition from the hereditary nobility.

There is no need to review the textbook examples of state-building from Louis XIV to Bismarck and Lincoln, except to point out that progress was occasionally interrupted. Early in the reign of Louis XIV, the provincial nobility of France reasserted themselves and rebelled against the centralization of power being plotted by the French monarchy. The Polish nobility resisted every invasion of their hereditary right to chaos, and in England’s American colonies, the frontier experience taught the Virginians and New Englanders that they could do very well with governments that were small, cheap, and locally controlled.

There were many reasons for the American Revolution, but the chief of them was the colonists’ experience of living far from the center of power and having to rely on their own efforts to raise a barn, fight the Indians, and hang a horse-thief In that sense, our ancestors were rebelling not so much against the abuses of a particular king and parliament as against the increased centralization of power that had taken place during the century and a half between the settlement of Jamestown and the systematic corruption perfected by Robert Walpole and passed on to the third German George. Hardly was the ink dry at Yorktown, however, than Anglophile schemers like Alexander Hamilton began plotting measures by which the infant republics could be sold off, piecemeal, to the bankers, and from Hamilton to Clay to Lincoln, the national government made steady progress toward the English model of corruption.

It is often said that the first experiments in modern state-building were made in Italy, during the Renaissance, and it is certainly true that Machiavelli is the first Western political theorist to work out a system based not on the principle of justice but on the nature of power. Machiavelli’s discovery has as much to do with the political revolution that had taken place as it does with his own brilliance. Like Aristotle, he was an observer first and a theorist only second.

The evolution of Italian city-states, even in Tuscany, is too complex and varied to be reduced to a simple formula. Each city had its peculiarities—class conflicts in Florence, the freedom at sea enjoyed by the maritime republics, the relative strength or weakness of the opposite poles of church and empire; however, a few common features can be traced, such as the decline of the traditional authority of bishops and imperial counts, the cities’ gradual conquest of the countryside once dominated by feudal nobles, and the rising power of merchant corporations and craft guilds that created and used the commune not so much as a government but as a super-corporation or holding-company to serve the interests of the commercial oligarchy.

In early days, says Villari in his history of Florence, “the Florentine Commune resembled a confederation of Trade Guilds and Societies of Towers,” that is, mutual protection societies established by prominent families. The nobility were put in their place by the 13th century, by which time a union of CEOs met twice a year to choose the electors who picked the magistrates. In other words, the major guilds acted as a de facto parliament. Ferdinand Schevill, in his history of Siena, contrasts the weakness of Sienese craft guilds with the situation in Florence where “the arti simply and without ceremony took possession of the government and admitted to citizenship only through the door of their organizations.”

In Florence, the bitter conflict between the nobility and the richer merchants—in part an ethnic conflict between German stock and the old Italian—partly accounts for the strengthening of the central government, which becomes the pawn of commercial interests. The first “popular” government (that is, a government that included the more middling sort of merchants) has been criticized for the war it waged against the nobility, but Machiavelli observed that it was “impossible to conceive how much authority and strength Florence acquired in a brief period. It became not only the chief city in all Tuscany but was even reckoned among the top Italian cities.” Unfortunately, a system created by class conflict must feed on conflict, and Florence’s self-devouring stasis was only halted by the coup d’etat staged by the Medici mob.

The super-corporation which morphs into the state was only an extension of other commercial and industrial corporations whose interest it served. Like a virus created in the laboratory, the invention of the state becomes self-perpetuating (despite changes in regime) and spreads to other countries, some of which were already evolving in a similar direction or where disordered conditions provided the proper nutriment for growth, as in France where Catherine de Medici, daughter of the Duke of Urbino, arrived in time to improve French cooking and to help the house of Valois in their attempt to build up a centralized monarchy. From the perspective of a Borgia or a Medici, the massacre of the troublesome Huguenots was a natural step.

Power is a zero-sum game, and the state-virus can only feed and expand by absorbing or poisoning rival sources of authority, such as the church, a feudal aristocracy, or local jurisdictions—in America, the states. But if “follow the money” is good advice to a reporter researching a corruption scandal, it applies even better to an investigation of the state. It was, after all. Renaissance merchants whose bills of exchange were the inspiration for paper money, and the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve System, and the World Bank were the vehicles for the powerful commercial interests who controlled, respectively, England, the old United States, and the new world-system that is replacing and absorbing both.

From this perspective, the dispute over trade policy might be seen as a struggle between what is left of the old American oligarchy and an emerging (or rather, emerged) class of world controllers. There are, to be sure, patriotic businessmen and politicians who are mainly concerned with the sovereignty and well-being of the American people, and there are even a few globaloney idealists who dream of a world without frontiers and the wars they cause. But the real action, we can assume, does not concern the likes of us old-fashioned Americans who have been demonized like the Florentine nobility, stripped of our traditions and rights, and reduced to the level of serfs on our own property.

This is, as I threatened from the beginning, a one-eyed perspective on the crimes of government, but there is enough truth in it to justify a little skepticism, when this or that party or movement promises reform. Exchanging Bugsy Siegel for Meyer Lansky will not get the Mob out of town, any more than our degenerate republic will be reenergized by the importation of new “Mafias”—Asian, Dominican, Russian—which is the most profound effect of permissive immigration.

Individual resistance is a gesture even more futile than a new pledge of allegiance to a rival gang. Most mom-and-pop grocers know what happens if they refuse to pay protection. Only a community that is coherent and unified can oppose the Mob, whether the capo is John Gotti or Bill Clinton, and we are a long way, in this country, from the time when such communities existed. That is why the first task is not to get rid of Clinton, defeat Gore, or even lower taxes. Our first task is to begin building the communities of resistance that will some day say “No” when the Mob comes into your neighborhood asking for the votes that keep them in power.