June 10, 2013
“You do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor what they are doing or will do. Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you.” — “Isaiah’s Job” by Albert Jay Nock.
The Remnant is the small minority of people who understood through the core of their being what it means to be free. They almost intuitively grasp the adversarial nature of state and society, with the bloated state feeding on the body productive until it has been sucked dry.
The individualist anarchist Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) believed that the goal of freedom fighters should be to find and nurture the Remnant rather than to convert the populace through slow, arduous argument. In modern terms (and taking liberties), he meant that preaching freedom to people who believed every word from the mainstream media and lined up dutifully to vote was a waste of time. One thing and one thing alone would convert the populace at large: a social collapse and hardships so painful that they could no longer ignore or deny its source. Only when the brutal reality of the state was laid bare would their eyes and ears do what their reason and intuition could not: inspire an appreciation of what it means to lose freedom.
I first encountered Nock’s theory of the Remnant years ago as a callow anarchist. I did not like it. For one thing, I linked it immediately with Nock’s theory of education. For education purposes, Nock divided the world into two categories: Some people were capable of learning the skill of independent, critical thinking through which they questioned and weighed the world; most people were merely capable of being trained to perform process information and perform tasks. He did not contemptuously dismiss the latter category; indeed, he included doctors, lawyers, and skilled artisans in its ranks. But he believed the doctors would be only highly trained and not highly educated until and unless they displayed the critical faculties necessary to evaluate the moral and political world they occupied. The fact that they could do brain surgery only pointed to being highly trained or skilled at procedures.
I first rebelled against Nock’s theory of the educated as opposed to the trained because it sounded elitist. My father – the most cultured man I’ve known – had a sixth-grade education and made a living with his hands. After his death, I ran away from home and never completed high school. If doctors were among the merely “trained,” then my father and I must be so poorly schooled as to be excluded from both categories.
I was incorrect.
Nock did not believe educability belonged to any one class, race, religion, or tax-bracket. It was not a matter of being formally schooled but could be mastered (or mistressed) by anyone with the innate ability to grasp it. Educability was an intangible something within human nature, akin to being born with an ear for music or a prowess in athletics. The ability to be educated visited poor Irish families, like mine, as often as it did privileged homes. Like intelligence or eye color, it was scattered across humanity with an unbiased hand.
I remain unconvinced but intrigued by Nock’s theory of educability. I remain unconvinced of his theory of the Remnant, but I am remarkably more willing to listen.
In defining the Remnant, Nock made a broad point that is essential to the strategy of freedom. His essay “Isaiah’s Job” opens,
“One evening last autumn, I sat long hours with a European acquaintance while he expounded a political-economic doctrine which seemed sound as a nut and in which I could find no defect. At the end, he said with great earnestness: ‘I have a mission to the masses. I feel that I am called to get the ear of the people. I shall devote the rest of my life to spreading my doctrine far and wide among the population. What do you think?’”
The quest is folly, he explained, because the proven popular favorite of the crowd “is generally some Barabbas” whom they will champion over the innocent man they are offered. The wrong person will be crucified. This is a profoundly cynical view that is not without historical foundation.
But a belief in populism has historical foundation as well. From the 19th century British Anti-Corn Law League of John Bright and Richard Cobden to the American Bill of Rights, there are episodes in history that dazzle you with their possibilities.
Perhaps the problem is seeing the two approaches as incompatible? Perhaps it is possible to believe in a Remnant within whom freedom resonates like music and also believe there are embers within every person that it is possible to stir through reason? Freedom may be like telling a joke. Some people laugh before the last syllable because they get it on a visceral level; they see the punch line coming. Other people laugh only after a few seconds of reflection or because you explain to them what the joke means. Many never laugh at all. Some will understand and call it offensive.
The question then becomes, “what’s the better use of your time and other scarce resources?” The Remnant, or the people who don’t get the joke? Right now, words of reason seem to be torn away in the winds of war and politics as soon as they are spoken. At the same time, people who wish to live free are naturally seeking out and finding each other.
And, so, in the spirit of Albert Jay Nock, I address the Remnant.
You don’t who or what you are but I know two things. You exist. And I will find you. Not to extract advantage or to cause harm. I will find you to extend my hand in friendship and fellowship. It is a selfish gesture because I need your companionship. I need to know there are people with enough simple goodwill to goodness in truth and to acknowledge that what I produce belongs to me. I want to talk with other people without worrying about how my words will come back to harm me. I want to live in a society where people enjoy and enrich each other without fear or danger. I long to live in a free world. I do not, I cannot live there now. And, so, the closest approximation I have is the company of the Remnant.
Without presuming to be a spokeswoman, I raise a glass in your direction to say “Join us.” If you will not, then the next glass is raised to ask “May I join you?” It comes out to the same thing in the end. Long live the Remnant in whom freedom is now entrusted.
Wendy McElroy is a frequent Dollar Vigilante contributor and renowned individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a co-founder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist in 1982, and is the author/editor of twelve books, the latest of which is The Art of Being Free. Follow her work at www.wendymcelroy.com.