Institutions get a bit of a raw deal. To be sent to an “institution” generally is interpreted as either going to prison or a mental hospital. To become “institutionalized” is to lose one’s personality and become slavishly indoctrinated to the regulations of whatever authority you’re living under. We associate the term with fear, omniscient control, and zealotry. The church is the perfect example. We are seeing a surge of people willing to define themselves as spiritual, never giving an account as to what that actually means, but embracing it nonetheless because it allows them to distance themselves from the institution of organized religion. Yet institutions make up a greater portion of our society than just our prisons, churches, and hospitals. Marriage is an institution. The law courts are an institution. Democracy is an institution. An institution is not an object, but the social implementation of an idea.

Religion is a well known institution, so let’s observe how those institutions were formed. Judaism is a religion built on laws. The Torah is an inherent institution because it takes an ideology and literally spells out behaviours and regulations one ought to follow. With Islam, Sharia Law similarly dictates behaviour among Muslims. Both of these religions have survived for millennia with little change in structure. Islam’s split into Sunni and Shia was due to Muhammad not naming a successor before he died, and each sect chose to follow a different path of leadership. There is no difference in doctrinal interpretations because everything was already laid out… except of course for managerial disputes.

Let’s contrast to Christianity. Jesus Christ did not stipulate strict laws to be followed, but offered guidelines in their stead. “Love thy neighbour” is a nice platitude that offers a pleasant way of being, but it’s not so rigid as “Don’t eat pork.” The institution of Christianity was not the result of Christ’s handiwork, but of Peter’s. Peter is the one who built up the church into an institution, and as there was no solid bond between the doctrine and the church, it was slow going. The canonical relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father was not officially decided until the First Council of Nicaea, 300 years after Jesus was crucified. The development of the church was done by individual popes, often on a whim, which set about the doctrinal revolution of the Reformation. The Laws of God were deemed greater than any papal decrees, and so rebelled the Protestants.

An important thing to remember is that Jesus Christ was not the only Jewish messiah. There was what is referred to as a “Messianic Fervor” during that time period where Jewish messiahs were popping up left and right. Even in the centuries after Christ, Jewish messiahs would crop up every now and then to develop one cult or another, and then fizzle out soon after the death of their leader. Jesus is the messiah we remember because he had a Peter.

My favourite forgotten saviour is Sabbatai Zevi. Zevi was a messiah who actually got quite popular during the 17th century in the heart of the Ottoman empire. I suppose they must have learned from Roman mistakes, since rather than martyr him, the Muslim rulers of the time forced him to convert to Islam. This lead to large swathes of people converting in his wake, and others holding out that Zevi was still secretly Jewish and converted because he was super cunning and sly, rather than fearful for his life. Whatever the case, there are very few people who now care about Sabbatai Zevi (to his credit, they do still exist).

The non-Jesus Jewish messiahs failed, not because they weren’t charismatic enough or weren’t putting forward ideas that the population could rally around, but because they focused on the feeling of Jew-ness, rather than any direct social implementation of their doctrine. They had no staying power.

Machiavelli spoke of a need for institutions to provide stability in any country. An institution by definition is something bigger than any one individual because it is a representation of the ideals of the whole. Machiavelli constantly referred to the Romans, and compared the two methods of government under which Rome was ruled: the Senate and the Emperors. The senate relied on codes of conduct, votes, and the voices of the (landowning, male) people by definition. The emperors relied on the temperament of individual. Certainly Caesar and Augustus were competent enough rulers, but the institution of Emperor was built on shaky foundations, and Rome was quickly under the sway of rulers like Commodus, Nero, and Caligula.

Compare this to current Western democracy. Though everything is now glaringly relative, George W. Bush was a terrible president. His term limit came to a close, and he was not so terrible that he left without a fuss. Stephen Harper won his seat in the last Canadian federal election, but by our own parliamentary method of government, he lost all his real power. Our institutions of democracy are bigger than the individuals within them, so we can transition between rulers without any coups or arbitrary lineage.

Our court system is the institution of justice. If one person feels wronged by another, they can sue or prosecute, and regardless of the result, will generally accept justice as having been meted out. There is little risk of personal vendettas escalating out of control because justice is seen to be represented by the institution.

Institutions, regardless of their bad rap, are what keep societies stable over the long term. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, communism didn’t fail because communism is a bad method of governance, it failed because Napoleon was able to stage his coup over Snowball with no repercussions. No institutions were in place to prevent such a thing, and the individual was allowed to become greater than the ideals of the whole.

Institutions need sacredness in order to preserve the representation of being greater than an individual, but they also need adaptability in order to survive. Just as the Jews developed the Talmud to address some of the growing concerns against the Torah and the old ways, so too have Americans amended their constitution. Laws frequently are changed, as are the ways of implementing them. The court system, as well as our current method of democracy, are in definite need of reformation. Modern contexts must continuously be applied to the “holy” laws of institutions in order to keep them relevant.

Reform is a difficult process because traditionalists hold on to the divine nature of institutions, and rightly they should, just as progressives rightly need to push for continuous adaptations. It is of very serious consequence to disregard the institutionalization of ideals because the result otherwise is generation-dependent chaos as each group, for good or ill, implements the whims of whoever holds the most power. If power is in the hands of something abstract and timeless, no one person can fuck it up. It would take a whole lot of people to fuck it up, and if it gets to that point, that institution probably needed a good fucking up anyway.

Institutions can of course be corrupted, or killed by a thousand cuts. Starve The Beast politics is certainly one way to destroy public institutions without overtly stating that that is your aim. Democracy too could be said to be an illusion, as partisan politics, voter suppression, lies, lobbying, special interests, and propaganda essentially eliminate any genuine democracy taking place in so-called “democratic” nations. I think if progressive individuals wanted to make headway in solidarity with conservative peers, touching on the traditional sacredness of the institutions being condemned and mutilated by Conservative politicians might be a good place to start.

Are there modern institutions that I believe should be abolished, rather than reformed? Certainly. Do I know how to do that without succumbing to chaos? Not really. Those who denounce reform in favour of revolution must ask themselves how they plan on cementing their ideology in place, and what might their society look like in 200 years, and how might future changes to their society take place. Lenin was very clear on the need for authoritarianism in revolution, and he was right. To overthrow an institution is a huge risk, and it would need to be replaced by another in order for society to maintain stability. How that stability is implemented is the difference between a fascist state and a democratic one.

To decry institutions is fallacious. To call for revolution without something solid to replace it is to place your hopes in a dead phoenix. Each perspective, conservative and progressive, need to coexist so each can maintain their proper function. Our goals cannot be to “win” over the other, but to maintain social institutions as best we can, and help them grow alongside the rest of us. To fear and malign them is just as much a failure as it is to believe them to be impervious to change. And when we each fail, we fail as a whole.

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