The Herd Mind

Authored by Dan Sanchez via The Foundation for Economic Education,

The State is a state of mind; it is the herd mindset itself.

Randolph Bourne famously wrote, “War is the health of the State.” This has long been the byword for anti-war, anti-state libertarians, and rightly so. But Bourne did not mean exactly what most libertarians take this phrase to mean. To understand the maxim’s original meaning, as Bourne used it in his great unfinished essay “The State,” one must understand his distinctions among three concepts that are often conflated: Country, State, and Government.

For Bourne, a Country (or Nation) is a group of individuals bound together by cultural affinity. A State is a Country/Nation collectively mobilized for attack or protection. As he distinguished between the two:

“Country is a concept of peace, of tolerance, of living and letting live. But State is essentially a concept of power, of competition: it signifies a group in its aggressive aspects.”

The State and the Government 

And Government, according to Bourne, “is the machinery by which the Nation, organized as a State, carries out its State functions” and “a framework of the administration of laws, and the carrying out of the public force.”

What libertarians commonly refer to as “the State,” Bourne termed “the Government” instead. So, the way libertarians often interpret his famous aphorism is what Bourne would have expressed if he had written, “War is the health of the Government.” This also happens to be true, but it is not what he meant.

For Bourne, the State is not a distinct ruling body subsisting extractively on the ruled, i.e., a “gang of thieves writ large,” as the great Murray Rothbard incisively conceived it. Rather, he saw it as a certain orientation of a whole people: a spiritual phenomenon pervading an entire populace that animates and empowers such a ruling body. As Bourne expressed it:

“Government is the idea of the State put into practical operation in the hands of definite, con­crete, fallible men. It is the visible sign of the invisible grace. It is the word made flesh. And it has necessarily the limitations inherent in all practicality. Government is the only form in which we can en­vis­age the State, but it is by no means identical with it. That the State is a mystical conception is some­thing that must never be for­got­ten. Its glam­or and its significance linger be­hind the frame­work of Government and direct its activities.”

In peacetime, Bourne explained, the State is largely relegated to the background; individuals are then more concerned with their own affairs and purposes. But during the build-up to war, and especially following its breakout, the foreign enemy looms large in the public imagination. Hence, the Country is overtaken by war fever and develops what Garet Garett called a “complex of vaunting and fear.” This hybrid mania of boastful belligerence and timorous terror (“fight-or-flight”) causes the populace to regress from a civilization to a herd. The people seek safety in numbers: in a multitude unified for a single purpose (a “great end”) and directed by a single agency. The varied dance of individuals gives way to the uniform huddle and stampede of the unitary drove, with the Government as drover.

As Bourne wrote:

“The State is the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized.”

And in wartime, the “mystical conception” of the State “comes into its own” as the “herd-sense” becomes dominant in the Country and the “aggressive aspects” of the group come to the fore. This is what Bourne meant by, “War is the health of the State.” The dictum speaks to the flourishing of an ideal and the resulting transformation of a whole society, not merely the aggrandizement of a Government.

Yet, war is also the health of the Government, which is the single directing agency to whose banner the State-minded masses flock. Under the perceived exigencies of war, the people:

“…proceed to allow them­selves to be regimented, coerced, de­ranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction to­ward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come with­in the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The cit­i­zen throws off his con­tempt and indifference to Government, identifies him­self with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an au­gust presence, through the imaginations of men.”

Economically, this means that the manpower and resources of the Country undergo “mobilization”: a vast redirection away from the provision of individual consumer wants and toward the all-important war effort. In this way too, the Government swells in power and grandeur, as the consumer-directed market economy is supplanted by the Government-directed “War Economy,” or even “War Socialism” (Kriegssozialismus, as the Germans called it in World War I).

The "General Will"

In the fever of war, the individual will is sacrificed for the “General Will,” which ostensibly expresses itself through the Government. Individuals renounce their identities for the sake of uniting Voltron-like into a State, like the gestalt “Leviathan” pictured on the cover of Thomas Hobbes’s book by that name.

As Bourne put it:

“War sends the cur­rent of purpose and activity flow­ing down to the lowest lev­els of the herd, and to its re­mote branches. All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offensive or military defense, and the State be­comes what in peace­times it has vainly struggled to be­come—the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men’s businesses and attitudes and opinions.”

The herd is mobilized, not only against the foreign foe, but against any dissidents within the group who resist assimilation into the Borg-like hive- or herd-mind and who refuse to join the swarm or stampede into war: in other words, against “enemies foreign and domestic.”

 As Bourne explained:

“The State is a jealous God and will brook no rivals. Its sovereignty must pervade every­one and all feel­ing must be run into the stereo­typed forms of romantic patriotic militarism which is the traditional expression of the State herd-feeling. (…) In this great herd-machinery, dis­sent is like sand in the bearings. The State ideal is primarily a sort of blind animal push to­wards military unity. Any interference with that unity turns the whole vast impulse to­wards crush­ing it.”

The State crushes dissent through Government policies restricting civil liberties, but also through private citizens acting as “amateur agents” of the Government: who berate skeptics into silence, report critics to the authorities for “disloyalty,” or even take the security of Herd and Homeland into their own violent hands. Remember that in Bourne’s framework, the Government is by no means identical with the State. As such, the State can animate a private citizen even more than it does an officeholder. As Bourne remarked:

“In every country we have seen groups that were more loyal than the King—more patriotic than the Government—the Ulsterites in Great Britain, the Junkers in Prussia, l’Action Francaise in France, our patrioteers in America. These groups exist to keep the steer­ing wheel of the State straight, and they pre­vent the nation from ever veer­ing very far from the State ideal.”

This an extremely apt description of the Fox News types who castigate Barack Obama for his lack of “patriotism” and the insufficiency of his war-making. The spirit of the State dwells within Sean Hannity even more so than it dwells within the President of the United States. What is ironic is that a war-drumming jingo like Hannity usually imagines himself a paragon of manhood; yet his dull, stampeding herd mindset marks him out as less of a man, and more of a beast.

Bourne's Legacy 

Randolph Bourne was not a libertarian, but a dissident progressive. Still, we libertarians can learn a great deal from him. For instance, perhaps our terminology, as penetrating and illuminating as it is, has led us to focus too much on the herdsmen in office who drive, shear, milk, and butcher us, and not enough on the more fundamental problem: our society’s bovine propensity to become a manipulable herd in the first place, especially when spooked. Occasionally thinking in terms of Bourne’s typology can be a useful corrective in this regard.

Bourne’s terminology and analysis also shed light on the all-important question of how to achieve liberation. The State lives in the minds of the Government’s victims. Simply overthrowing a Government will only spook the herd even worse. The State will not only survive such an overthrow, but it will likely even feed off of it, as the panicked herd acts even more herd-like in the crisis, granting new herdsmen even more tyrannical power than the old ones had.

The State is a state of mind; it is the herd mindset itself. As such, it can only be overthrown in the battleground of the mind. Once the State is spiritually dethroned and the populace fully transfigures from herd to civilization, the “Government,” like a shepherd without a flock, will no longer even merit its designation. It will then merely be a heavily armed, but even more heavily outnumbered, gang of rustlers writ small.

Accomplishing this becomes ever more urgent as Americans are driven into ever more calamitous wars. It is increasingly apparent that breaking the spell of the State that turns men into beasts may be the only way we can avoid being driven to self-destruction by alarmist warmongers and their terrorist symbionts, like buffalo being stampeded off a cliff by herd-spooking hunters.



MGTOW_MONERO_XMR Wed, 12/27/2017 - 19:58 Permalink

The sheep are their own worst enemy. Easily controlled, easily swayed - and corrupt and selfish to the core! Most of them willing to throw each other under the bus for a few more $$. Then they have the gall to complain about the higher ups? 

LetThemEatRand MGTOW_MONERO_XMR Wed, 12/27/2017 - 20:04 Permalink

Humanity is flawed, and therefore all attempts to organize humanity (or not organize humanity) are flawed.   The founders of the US tried to put the sheep in charge of their own destiny (We the People), but of course the wolves among them took over and began herding the rest in no time.   There are no solutions.  There are only attempts at a less awful way of causing people to be able to live with each other without killing each other over $$, and keeping the wolves from having total control. 

In reply to by MGTOW_MONERO_XMR

new game LetThemEatRand Wed, 12/27/2017 - 20:16 Permalink

lter, awesome comment. we are flawed. then the evaluation becomes, "how flawed" as i peer into the mirror...i have given this much thought and it always comes back to someone ultimately fuking over another when given the opportunity whether by free will or authority granted. maybe it is as simple as self preservation out of control by a minority of humans that strive to control others for nerfarious gain beyond normal competitive realm...(sociopathic and psychopathic disorders)

In reply to by LetThemEatRand

Clock Crasher new game Wed, 12/27/2017 - 20:17 Permalink

Flaw is related to power.  The more power one has the more potential for flaws of character to manifest.  The more humble and selfless among us who are motivated by serving their family and community have little flaws and none when compared to the operatives of state organs.  culture, nurture and nature/environment complicate things further. 

In reply to by new game

Clock Crasher LetThemEatRand Wed, 12/27/2017 - 20:12 Permalink

Humanity is flawed but computers can execute directives without flaw.  Perhaps future governments will have laws executed by artificial intelligence or strict programs.  As an example we have a justice department run by man.  As he is flawed we have what we see today.  Completely verifiable evidence of crimes against humanity and treason.  As such they are free to benefit from this behavior as well as profit from it financially.  If we had a non human in charge of prosecution of offenses against The People perhaps things will be different. Trans-humanity, cyborg off shoot from moder man, will not have government systems or states that we recognize today or could possibly fathom.  

In reply to by LetThemEatRand

LetThemEatRand Clock Crasher Wed, 12/27/2017 - 20:21 Permalink

I hear you about Comey, but for all of humanity's weaknesses we also have many positive attributes that machines could never have.  For the ease of simplicity, I'd call it a soul.  The true sociopaths who I would call the wolves have no soul, and they are the primary problem.  Almost any system would work okay if there were no sociopaths, but the rest of us have yet to develop a good way to keep them from fucking things up.   Non-sociopathic human beings can also do evil things, but I think most people tend to good most of the time.  This is why my philosophy is one of balance, where liberty of the individual is the norm, but there must be checks and balances against those who would take advantage of the good in people and the herd mindset of many.The US system, for all its flaws, at least has us all being able to talk here, and at least some possibility that Comey will get what he deserves.  In most systems throughout history, we would not even be talking about it.

In reply to by Clock Crasher

Clock Crasher LetThemEatRand Wed, 12/27/2017 - 20:35 Permalink

Agreed.  As much as I get down about the (seeming) lack of justice we still enjoy strong 1st and 2nd amendment rights.  As long as we have these two the others can be revived.  I say seeming because I am not ruling out the rumors of the likes of Q-Patriot and other rumors of sealed indictments.  Time will tell.  I think its psyop and larper lvl 11.   My point about the computers is that a computer could not let a war crime slide because of personal bias or personal gain and promises of unlimited drugs, cash and sex.  And in my fictional idea of the above would still have grand jury, discovery, jurisdiction etc.  It just seems that the role of AG is completely useless as it is maned by man.  Was there a crime? Yes.  Do we prosecute?  No.  Why?  that one link is corrupted by the wants and desires of man.   ok 2018.. show me what you got.  

In reply to by LetThemEatRand

new game Wed, 12/27/2017 - 20:06 Permalink

why i continue to come to zh. and sometimes the whole truth revealed by smarter people than myself.maybe i can learn, something which i "sorta knew" but couldn't articulate as well as this article to go get my wool sheered off (by my wife).  at least the wool stays in the family, lol.

G-R-U-N-T Wed, 12/27/2017 - 20:13 Permalink

I see the herd as more an energy surge, positive or negative. Once there's a 'spark', (usually fear driven) no matter from what source, often ignites the herd to stampede.

New_Meat Wed, 12/27/2017 - 20:18 Permalink

The States that do not follow this creed are on the ash-heap of history.That's not nice, nor is it the way things ought to be, but it is well proven.VDH does a remarkable job of describing how the polis does, or fails to do.Now, children, junk-away.- Ned{btw, Walden Pond is frozen over now, but Thoreau's farm implements remain in Emerson's barn where they were well-kept when David was off mooching on others}

Cassandra.Hermes Wed, 12/27/2017 - 20:28 Permalink

In the words of Wolfgang Streeck – Marxism was right about the “final crisis” of capitalism. We are clearly entering it today, but this crisis is just that – a prolonged process of decay and disintegration, with no easy Hegelian Aufhebung in sight, no agent to give this decay a positive twist and transform it into the passage to some higher level of social organisation.

In view of apocalyptic prospects of our near future, from ecological catastrophes to mass migrations, one should nonetheless follow Beckett’s line: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Pernicious Gol… Wed, 12/27/2017 - 23:11 Permalink

A substantial fraction of the population is terrified of making decisions, and will do anything to avoid this. Almost all women are like this, of course, and very many men, especially those trained to work in teams from an early age.

MuffDiver69 Thu, 12/28/2017 - 01:17 Permalink


This an extremely apt description of the Fox News types who castigate Barack Obama for his lack of “patriotism” and the insufficiency of his war-making. The spirit of the State dwells within Sean Hannity even more so than it dwells within the President of the United States. What is ironic is that a war-drumming jingo like Hannity usually imagines himself a paragon of manhood; yet his dull, stampeding herd mindset marks him out as less of a man, and more of a beast.


FOX is a joke like the rest, but Obama gave us Syria,Ukraine,Arab Spring and especially Libya among other crap. BLM is a domestic terrorist operation with their ANTIFA buddies...Hannity is a tool with three million viewers for Christ Sake

Femaletrouble Wed, 03/28/2018 - 22:07 Permalink

From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party: