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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

For the sensibility of the contemporary Left, the State (generally capitalized) assumes the aura of a sacred object, revered as idols were once worshiped in the pagan world. That what is meant by the State is merely a conceptual abstraction, a phenomenon that has no material existence as a locatable entity — in effect, a disembodied idol — does not register. This error of understanding, of course, is not confined exclusively to the mentality of the Left, but it is there that it gains most traction.

Francis Bacon in the Novum Organum isolates the four chief causes of error in human thinking. He defines these as Idols of the Tribe (weakness of understanding in the whole human race), Idols of the Forum (faults of language in the communication of ideas), Idols of the Cave (individual prejudices and mental defects), and Idols of the Theater (faults arising from received systems of philosophy).

The notion of the State seems to partake of all four cognitive delinquencies: “tribal” weakness, miscommunication, individual frailties, and questionable political/philosophical theory, a quadra-faced idol before which multitudes continue to bow in misplaced supplication, as President Obama bowed before the Saudi monarch. For the Left and liberal progressivists in particular, the State is idealized as a beneficent and autonomous institution that increasingly intervenes in everyday life to regulate the economy and improve the lot of ordinary people. The idea of the State, however, inflected as it is by the three prior inadequacies Bacon enumerates, is best construed as an Idol of the Theater, which carries the prestige of a long and persuasive cultural tradition. Thus, it is rarely challenged and tends to command absolute fidelity, a form of secular adoration of a philosophical misconception.

True, for Marx the State is both an evolving principle and an instrumental agency rooted in class distinctions, which organizes society in such a way as to consolidate its own power and that of the socioeconomic sector it proxies for. It must therefore, according to communist doctrine, be abolished (see Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program) — or as Engels put it in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, the process of its “withering away” allowed to run its course. Nevertheless, the State is considered as a concrete institution with an independent character, a kind of organism in its own right — or in technical terms, as a quiddity rather than an epiphenomenon.

Similarly, the influential Leftist ideologue Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “the state that is not a state,” fleshed out in his Prison Notebooks as a replacement for “the integral state,” is no less palpable and self-subsistent. Again, Dutch Marxist theorist Anton Pannekoek in his major contribution to political thought, Workers’ Councils, labels the State as an “apparatus of oppression.” But the “State” remains for him an “apparatus,” a sort of monad, integral and monolithic, and not a troupe of actors invested in a performance tailored to receipts. Such thinking is typical even of those who are skeptical of the State’s hegemony.

For the State as a tangible object does not exist. It is a reified abstraction that festers in the minds of its votaries, a theoretical construct that resists disenchantment. How easily we forget that the State, whether in its theological or political guises, is nothing more than a congeries of favored or ambitious individuals who have put on the mantle of corporate authority, men and women who hide, Wizard-of-Oz fashion, behind the screen of altruism, wisdom, superior knowledge, or utilitarian power. They are for the most part commonplace and fallible individuals bristling with all the imperfections, desires, contradictions, and weaknesses of run-of-the-mill humanity. Pope, primate, president, savior, dictator, revolutionary hero, legislator, minister, they are just people.

Some of them are blessed — or cursed — with a force of personality or a strain of moral ruthlessness that enables them to exercise control over their peers and ultimately to monopolize an administration, a consistory, or even an entire nation. Others are corrupt or debauched beyond the norm — Boris Yeltsin urinating on the tarmac on a visit to Washington, D.C., is a pungent illustration — and still others suffer from a deficiency of intelligence that augurs poorly for the implementation of effective public policy. Some are predators, some epicureans, some toadies, some careerists. Most are average human beings with the pedestrian qualities of mind and spirit that all of us share. They are generally uninspired and often subject to the manipulations of the craftier exemplars among their number.

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.

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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.
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