Time, Calendar, and State


The 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.

States 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.

Instances 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.

Many 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.

To 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.

As 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

In 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.

Historically, 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

By 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

Enter the modern state.

For 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 people.

Gross summarizes the process:

"In 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

Social 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.

Gross comments:

"One 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


States "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

There 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

Of 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.


States 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

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

In 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 line"!

And 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.

State 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

In 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.

There 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 behind?


  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, Unquiet 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.

July 18, 2003