Kill Your Idols VII: States Can Be Idols Too, Research Time, 16/08/2017

When I wrote Monday’s post, I was still planning to follow it up with what I’m writing tonight. But I was going to start a new little series. Then I realized that I was still circling around the same problem. I’m jumping into it from different angles. Some work better than others for getting to the point.

That point is pretty simple. It's what I had in mind when I started. Political thinking tends to make an idol of the state, which is dangerous, destructive, and incomplete. What are some ways this idol-casting happens? How can we play Moses to this process and smash that idol before people get too attached to it?

Parliament Hill, one of the institutions that one brand of too-patriotic
Canadians worship. I'm glad we live in a democracy, but we shouldn't
make idols of our institutions and gods of our governments. That
worshipful attitude erodes democracy with scowling, preening
desires to supplicate and submit.
I mean, people are already attached to this idea. It’s the obsessive centre of almost every problem and concept in two separate millennia-old traditions of political philosophy – Western and Chinese. Imagine what would have happened to Jewish culture if God had kept Moses on Sinai for 3000 years.

It would have been a lot harder to break that idol worship than just knocking over a cow statue and yelling.

Antonio Gramsci’s work expresses a powerful tension of this attempt to break up those idols. He was part of a revolutionary political movement that tried to overthrow the Italian state in the turmoil after the First World War.

In prison, he examined how aspects of society that weren’t agents or products of direct state action played a role in their defeat. His major concern was to understand these forces so his successors could take some kind of action on them. Social and cultural aspects of society were the blind spots in marxist thinking until Gramsci realized that his revolution failed because of them.

But it was difficult to grow political philosophy beyond its myopic focus on the state. Here’s an example in Perry Anderson’s essay. One of Gramsci’s focusses in the Prison Notebooks was to examine the ideas of Italy’s leading philosopher, Benedetto Croce.

Benedetto Croce looks like the most
stereotypical early 20th century European
intellectual you've ever seen. Until you look
up photos of Henri Bergson. Oh, fuck.
Croce carried into Italy the mainstream tradition of Germany’s philosophy. His central influences were Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, and Friedrich Schelling. His politics followed Kant’s, his thinking on society, culture, and psychology followed Hegel, and his ontology followed (at least one of the several) Schelling.

He was the leading liberal intellectual of the newly-united Italy until his death in the mid-1950s. He'd been a resister of fascism since its early days arresting (like Gramsci) and assassinating left-wing opponents. The murder of socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti in 1924 was Croce’s turning point against Mussolini.

This historical info is all just one level of sourcing away from Wikipedia. I started with Britannica, actually. I’m not all that familiar with Croce’s philosophy – I found Nietzsche much more productive for the directions that I wanted to pursue in my own research. And when I was a student, the courses I took on that tradition concentrated on Kant and Hegel themselves.

Gramsci’s essays in prison engaged with Croce’s philosophy as a political theorist. Croce articulated a tradition of thought that saw the state at the centre of politics, of society, of human existence itself as an ontological principle. In this, he was following a conservative perspective on the ideas in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

In Croce’s philosophy, the state – metaphysically speaking – pre-exists humanity itself. The state is an ontological principle universally necessary to harmonious and unified human life. A given society and culture is the expression of the state.

This is a bit much for Gramsci, as it is for us. But I am not surprised that totalitarian politics and philosophy grew in the Western tradition where those right-wing Hegelian ideas were so influential.

Gramsci was concerned to critique this idea that culture was an expression of the state. That presumption that a change in the nature of the state would change the culture was part of what led his own movement, philosophically speaking, to its failure.

So what would this more complex relationship of society, culture, and state be?

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