Time, Calendar, and State

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newly conjured or appointed Iraqi council and the US occupiers have
lately begun organizing a new calendar. The Ba'athist holidays are
out, and new ones are in, or will be, once they are invented. This
says something about the artificiality of statist time.

like to control things. Among the many "things" that states
like to control is time, or at least the use people make of time
and, perhaps more importantly, people's whole conception of time.
Thus, states like to take over calendars, historical narrative,
and the whole idea of progress.

that speak to rulers' interest in time are not wanting. Dr. Hugh
Nibley, Professor of Religion and History at Brigham Young University
for many decades, wrote a dissertation on "The Roman Games
as the Survival of an Ancient Year-Cult" (UCLA, 1949). Leaping
forward from ancient times to those relatively recent, French revolutionists
redesigned the entire calendar around revolutionary events, heroes,
and themes of antique republicanism as they interpreted them. In
the United States, July 4th, once celebrated as the beginning
of the struggle for American independence, has become little more
than the Government's official birthday exercise.

20th-century mass-incorporating — and to that extent,
"democratic" — regimes wrote their ideological heroes
and big ideas into the calendar. National Socialism and Soviet Communism
come to mind. In the US, we now have any number of official holidays
meant to remind us of the state's bounty and its abiding concern
for our wellbeing.

anticipate a bit, he who controls men's conception of time, to that
extent shapes how they view themselves, the past, and, indeed, the
future. The rhythm of crops and seasons gives way to the rhythm
of welfare checks and the like. It was not always thus.

chief witness in the cause at hand, I call David Gross, whose reflections
on these matters are found in an essay entitled, "Temporality
and the Modern State."1 Gross
writes that we work from within three sorts of temporality: day-to-day
time, recollections of our accumulated life-experiences, and, last,
transcendental time linking us to ancestors, great deeds, and the
like. This last kind of time, or longue durée, often
broadens into a vision of historical time, with a marked beginning,
or "founding moment." This timeframe becomes "so
broad that it cannot be checked against individual experience."2

this long run, we are somewhat at the mercy of our record keepers,
the historians. John Lukacs has often noted that historical consciousness
is a specifically Western way of organizing time and our relationship
to it. When historians become Court Historians, allied to power
and justifying its actions, great ideological advantages accrue
to the state.

writes Gross, there have been three ways of framing time: "the
traditional, religious, and political" and "the last has
now become dominant."3 Traditional,
"archaic" time, centering on natural cycles, persisted
into the second millennium BC in Greece and the Middle East. At
some point the "unsettling" notion of one-directional
human time, running across natural cycles, set in, and was seen
as evidence of degeneration and decline.4

some time in the neighborhood of 3000 BC, political rulers employing
a class of scribes found new ways to use time. These bureaucrats
gave way to a class of priests, who could compete with kings for
control of the early city-states. Three millennia later, more or
less, Christianity introduced eschatological time, whose midpoint
was the Incarnation. Thereafter, in the Mediterranean world and
northwestern Europe time was seen through a combination of ecclesiastical
time, local genealogies, guild histories, and bardic tradition.5

the modern state.

the abstract bureaucratic states arising from ca. 1500 AD, all pre-existing
social bodies and institutions were rivals to be brought to heel.
States claimed to be intervening into society for the good of the

summarizes the process:

the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the state went on the
offensive against virtually every kind of intervening body existing
between the individual and the state itself…. Only the
public and private corporations, the communal guilds, the local
social groupings, and the numerous customary institutions compatible
with what the state saw as its higher raison d'état
were sanctioned. Even though many of the intermediate bodies were
historically antecedent to the state, they had to be legitimized
by various governmental agencies in order to have the right to
continue operating."6

bodies outside the state now existed on sufferance, their existence
a concession of the state. Frédéric Bastiat
and Robert Nisbet, among others, have deplored the use, by states,
of the Roman law notion of concession. Nisbet noted, as does Gross,
the growth of a certain kind of "individualism" alongside
the all-embracing state.


of the principle assumptions of the period around 1800 was that
of the state as a liberator of the individual. It was the state,
after all, that was given credit for freeing the individual from
the dead-weight of tradition, the individualist's chief bête
noire." The newly freed individuals, however, should
"not intrude into the public sphere…."7


"encouraged remembrance of civil-historical occurrences, particularly
those political events that formed part of the triumphal procession
toward national greatness." These politicized chronologies
all stem from the 19th century.8
One need only recall how America's first post-revolutionary generation
consciously built up a cult of the US Founders. Historian Fred Somkin
has captured that moment in his book Unquiet Eagle, which
focuses on the many celebrations attending revolutionary General
Lafayette's tour of the US in 1824.9

were drawbacks to letting states, however republican or democratic,
organize time for us. Gross writes of "an individualism based
on a convergence of the private ego and the will of the state, an
individualism that expressed itself in terms of nationalistic or
patriotic sentiments. The type of individualism that took this route
lost its merely personal character and found in the nation
the most solid foundation for a stable identity. Paradoxically,
this form of individualism fulfilled its original, particularistic
goals only by transcending and, in a sense, universalizing them:
the nation-state simply became the self writ large."10

course any kind of self not grounded on self-identification with
the state probably suffered. It is not clear that the bargain was
a very good one. Expressed mathematically, it looks even worse,
e.g.: Ego = America = Empire = World. We are the world — we, and
Walt Whitman.


have succeeded in colonizing time by controlling communication and
taking over the education of the young. Gross writes: "By means
of compulsory education the state found the ideal way to disseminate
its ideological viewpoint (including, of course, its outlook on
time and history) to all who fell under its jurisdiction."
State educators reinterpreted linear time as Progress, and "the
history of progress became virtually synonymous with the growth
of the centralized state…. Here was yet another instance of the
penetration of civil society by the state." The state now became
the demiurge of history, which "drives and pushes the world
forward to actualize its potential; if it were not for the state
as a catalyzing agent, history would remain static, tradition-bound,
and incomplete."11

the unhappiness in today's Establishment "conservative"
circles should anything old and tried persist. Down with that dried-out
cake of custom!

creating self-serving forms of historical memory and imposing these
on their subjects, states take events from society which "are
then re-interpreted and given back to the same milieus from which
they were disembedded, but now in a more abstract framework alien
to the Lebenswelten [life-worlds] of these groups."12
I would merely add that this process amounts to an interesting Western
liberal-democratic variation on Chairman Mao's famous "mass

now we can see how the state gives people meaning in their
lives, "meaning," which might better be seen as the ground
of a deep alienation from authentic human life.

information gathering and surveillance ratchet things up another
notch or two.13 Gross observes that
"the modern state's control over the temporality of the longue
durée" gives it a "growing monopoly over the
storage of information. Because of its extensive inventories of
data and its enormous storage capacity (files, dossiers, census
information, police records, computer banks, and the like), the
state is becoming the official source of memory for society."
Further: "state data banks help not simply to maintain but
to generate power over those whom they are used to regulated."14

Gross's view, "capitalism," as such, is not interested
in a philosophy of time, and does not raise up any direct challenge
to the state's power to define how we see the past, present, and
future. The only hope he finds lies in the persistence of other
ways of handling time.

is perhaps another hopeful sign. Gross mentions in passing, that
historians are giving way, as state ideologists, to "systems
analysts and u2018crisis managers.'"15
But if the crisis managers and media flacks cannot even produce
convincing propaganda with a shelf life of more than a few months,
as illustrated by the Iraq "war" and the ever-shifting
grounds "justifying" it, the credibility of the state
is in for hard times. If credibility goes, can legitimacy be far


  1. David
    Gross, "Temporality and the Modern State," Theory
    and Society, 14 (1985), pp. 53–82.
  2. Ibid.,
    pp. 53–54.
  3. Ibid.,
    p. 55.
  4. Ibid.,
    pp. 56–57.
  5. Ibid.,
    pp. 57–60.
  6. Ibid.,
    pp. 62–63.
  7. Ibid.,
    p. 64.
  8. Ibid.,
    p. 67.
  9. Fred Somkin,
    Eagle: Memory and Desire in the Idea of American Freedom, 1815–1860

    (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967).
  10. Gross,
    p. 66 (my emphasis).
  11. Ibid.,
    pp. 69–71.
  12. Ibid.,
    p. 73.
  13. Cf. Anthony
    Giddens, The
    Nation-State and Violence
    (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press,
    1985), esp. pp. 309–310.
  14. Gross,
    p. 74.
  15. Ibid.,
    p. 77.

18, 2003

Joseph R. Stromberg [send him
] is holder of the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at
the Ludwig von Mises Institute
and a columnist for LewRockwell.com
and Antiwar.com.

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