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Deconstructing the State

The state is both an idol and a piece of theater.

by
David Solway

Bio

December 28, 2011 - 12:00 am
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Such is the essence of that metaphysical oracle we call the State, a group of people who have, whether through legitimate or illegitimate means, acquired the privileges and prerogatives of instrumental preeminence. They flourish in the belly of the Leviathan. This is equally the case for the police state or the nanny state. The truth about the fictive identity of the State is almost inexpressibly simple; even so, it customarily resists recognition as we proceed to concretize, animate, or deify it into something it manifestly is not.

The State is not a god. It is not a supreme or “higher” or wiser or beatific or somehow omniscient authority. It is not a hypostatic substance. It is not a thing. Indeed, it is nothing. It is, in fact, a figment of iconolatric homage, a subtle and insinuating illusion which derives its power from a combination of its coercive function and the mystique of psychological projection on the part of those it controls. It is what the Greeks called an eidolon, a phantom or apparition, an image like Euripides’ Helen who was fashioned from cloud-stuff while the real Helen spent the Trojan War in Egypt. A moment’s reflection makes this species of necromancy glaringly obvious. Yet we are ruled by specters and chimeras, of which the State is a paramount instance.

There is, indeed, something ludicrous in the elevation of the State, as if it were not only an Idol of the Theater, but a production in the Theater of the Absurd behind which a stubborn and prosaic — and occasionally tumultuous — reality  willy-nilly persists. This is the fact, like the poet Rimbaud’s “waterfall [that] echoes behind the comic-opera huts” in Illuminations. Regrettably, its theatrical, or even farcical, nature does not prevent it from being treated with undue respect or errant veneration. Despite its figuring as idol or comedy, the apotheosis of the State is no whimsical or laughing matter, since it disables critics from articulating — without seeming like heretics bent on sacrilege — reasonable ways to reduce its size and influence. We note, for example, that the sacrosanct nature of the State is precisely what the Obama administration and its supporters appeal to whenever they counter Republican efforts to prune it back.

As Hegel pointed out in his Critique of the German Constitution, the chief purpose of the so-called State is self-preservation, which amounts in practice to a clique of self-interested individuals — with some exceptions — who labor chiefly to secure the enjoyment of their perquisites. Far too many of us are prone to give the State absolute ascendancy. We concede it a primacy it does not merit rather than perceive it as only an assembly of people in whom we have put our temporary and often disappointed trust.

In short, a great number of us do not regard the State in the proper sense of a governing body of representative officials elected to serve the people and ensure public order, and who can be dismissed or voted out should they prove venal or incompetent. Too often we regard it as a material entity, an idol, instinct with lustral properties and quasi-magical attributes. The State acts. The State disposes. The State governs. The State knows best. Or so we think. But the State, as such, neither acts nor disposes nor governs nor knows anything at all. Treated as a unitary object, when it actually conceals a multiplicity of discrete subjects, the State is a fungible hallucination to which we have accorded our political obeisance.

And it is precisely this form of laic credulity and intellectual conceit which unscrupulous or parasitical elites rely upon to work their will on those they are determined to dominate.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)

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David Solway is a Canadian poet and essayist. He is the author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity, and is currently working on a sequel, Living in the Valley of Shmoon. His new book on Jewish and Israeli themes, Hear, O Israel!, was released by Mantua Books. His latest book is The Boxthorn Tree, published in December 2012. Visit his Website at www.davidsolway.com.
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