Deconstructing the State

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.