9/9/13

Marx and the American Idea of the State

I'm read some Marx on vacation, catching up on some of the essential education I feel like I skipped in college. I decided to start from the beginning, which for me means the beginning of The Marx-Engels Reader, which compiles Marx's most important writings in roughly chronological order from age 19 until his death in 1883. 

I love reading the early writings of great economists. First, it's illuminating to understand how their thoughts developed, and what deep ideas drove them towards their final contributions.  Second, there's something maliciously satisfactory about consuming their sophomoric content: essays that wander back on themselves and are sometimes inconsistent; paragraphs with more passion than substance, and pieces that never really come to a clear point. It proves that they were human once, too, and also that there's hope yet for another great to arrive.  

Why does no one talk about how Marx was a first-class dreamboat?

The particular passage that I'm reading right now is Marx's Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction, which to be fair is a bit past sophomoric. It's best known for it's fourth paragraph: 

"Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless condition. It is the opium of the people."


But most of the short essay is actually a relatively straightforward polemic about the backwardness of Germany. He unfavorably compares Germany to France and other "modern states" (meaning France) who have accomplished revolution and so brought their historical reality in line with their philosophical ideal. In contrast, Marx says, Germany has a highly developed philosophical ideal, but her historical and political reality still expresses the "consummation of the ancien regime." In other words, German philosophers may talk all high and mighty, but they're still living in a state that is about as free as feudalism.  

The logical next step, Marx continues, is for Germans to rise against the yoke and replace the ancien regime with a better, freer state through revolution. Sound familiar?  (The Communist Manifesto came five years later.) 

WARNING: I AM NOT QUALIFIED TO TALK ABOUT THE FOLLOWING.

Anyway, the part that I found most interesting in all this was the idea that the idea of the state can differ from the state of the state itself. By the state Marx meant not only the actual structures of government, but also the spirit of the law, its conception of human rights, and the overall interpretation of the political relationship between the individual and the collective. By the idea of the state, Marx meant what intellectuals thought all these things should be. Or at least that's what I got.

What is the American "idea of the state" today? I have to conclude that our idea of the state is almost identical to the idea of the state conceived by the founding fathers in that cramped Philadelphia meetinghouse so long ago.  We still quote "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as our favorite catch phrase, we still idolize the taxation-hating, independence-taking, devil-take-my-neighbor brand of liberty espoused by the colonists, and we still base our legal system on the letter a 250 year-old document. To be sure, that document was way ahead of it's time, but it wasn't 250 years ahead. 

In practice however, the state of the state seems to have evolved beyond the ideals of our founding fathers, and not always for the better.  We have social security, a strong federal state, and steep progressive taxation.  We have an independent central banking authority that we allow exclusive money printing privileges.  We have a largely independent national security authority that we allow exclusive spying privileges. We have an increasingly standardized and centralized systems of education and healthcare. All of these things constitute the state of the state today, but it would require considerable creativity to find a philosophical justification for them in the idea of the state laid down in the documents of the founding fathers. We have the opposite problem of Germany; our practical reality has outpaced our philosophical object. 

I'm with Miley guys. Y'all are a bunch of luddites. 

For sure, the American idea of the state has been updated since the founding. Lincoln's emancipation proclamation, FDR's third and fourth freedoms (freedom from want, freedom from fear), and JFK's "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" have all entered the collective consciousness and expanded upon the philosophy of the state first expressed by James Madison. But instead of additions to philosophy for philosophy's sake, these were all added to justify changes to the state of the state that had already been made. (Consider what actions that had been taken prior).   There has been no Rousseau in American history since the signing of the Constitution, no Locke, no Hegel, and (for better or for worse) no Marx.  (I make an exception for Henry David Thoreau, and an apology to everyone listed on this page). 


James Madison, also known as "Not as hot as Marx."

Two questions: First, Why has the American idea of the state remained stagnant? Second, why should we care? 

Perhaps the founding fathers truly did design too perfect a state.  It may be too much to say we've reached the end of history, but perhaps we've reached the point where that all improvements on our conception of the state can only be marginal.  I doubt that. Perhaps we are simply blinded by patriotism, too in awe of the stars and stripes to believe that this isn't the greatest state that ever was and ever will be. I think this is a significant part of it. Rome had a similar problem; most of its great philosophers (with the notable exception of Marcus Aurelius) wrote when Rome was still a republic, and the Empire wasted itself for centuries yearning after an ideal that its success had destroyed. Perhaps we have become distracted; mental energy that would have erstwhile been spent on the state has in this century been spent on the civil rights movement, feminism (both of which have important things to say about the state but which I do not think have delivered a significantly new theory of the state as a whole) and most importantly, that modern-day opiate of the people, economics

If indeed the idea of the American state has fallen behind the state of the state, is this really a problem? It's certainly a better problem than the one Germany had, where philosophical progress (at least according to Marx) had been made, but everyday conditions were still oppressive and unfree.  The ills of an underdeveloped idea of the American state are not unbearable, but I think they are significant. For one, I think that it's primarily responsible for the low caliber of today's political debate. An unarticulated ideal means that opposing sides trot out of the same tired arguments time after time, and that arguments always seem to end always seem to come down to "I want it this way" and "you want it that way." It means that all progressive victories are tenuous, because there is no philosophical framework to defend them. (The vulnerability of Obama's healthcare and state gay marriage laws to overturn by the constitutionally-governed judiciary is a perfect example).  It means, in a sense that may not have yet become apparent but that I am sure will, that we are essentially limited, not by outdated structures or entrenched institutions, but by the closure of our own minds. 

Yea, that last bit was a little over the top. Moral of the story, let's cut back on how often we quote the Constitution like a bunch of morons.  

Yet another internet gem. Look closely. Attribution on the photo. 

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